Barbara Burton, Class of 2017
When I first learned I had been accepted to medical school, I was so relieved that I felt like a different person. Stress was gone for the first time in a long time. Once I moved to Dallas and started planning for our first day of classes, I will openly admit that I was completely unintimidated by medical school. I was pretty cocky, looking back on it. Then, gross anatomy destroyed me. By the third week of medical school, I’d been knocked down to earth and I was genuinely afraid that I had set out on a life-altering commitment which I was not meant to fulfill. One afternoon, in a parking lot, I cried and looked at someone I love and said “I can’t do it.”
He told me, “Yes, you can. It will get better.”
I passed anatomy (I have never been happier to get a 78 on a test). Then, I passed biochemistry. Then I passed physiology. My grades slowly crept up over the course of the year. Now, I’m a month away from finishing fourth year, so the rest couldn’t have gone all that badly.
Medical school is shocking. When you start, although it won’t feel like it, you too will probably be a little bit cocky. The work it takes to be accepted is in itself life-consuming for most of us, so it’s completely normal to feel confident that you can handle the work. And you can. But it will not feel like that the first semester. You’ll probably be sucker-punched by what it seems to take to get good grades, let alone to pass. It will feel like you are the only one who doesn’t get it. You might look around the lecture hall at dozens of your classmates and think, “Why can’t I get a handle on this the way that they do?” Trust me; nobody has a handle on it. Everyone gets thrown on their back by this training.
After years of a science-based college course load, MCAT preparation, applying, and interviewing, it will feel like nothing can bring you down. And you should feel that way! You should be proud of what you have sacrificed for the privilege of attending medical school. However, you also need to know that you’re entering an experience that nobody who has not done it themselves fully understands. It’s going to take the breath out of you sometimes, but it would not be medical school if it didn’t. So, never let anybody make you feel like you’re the only one underwater, because we all were once.
Most importantly, when it seems like you can’t reach the surface and all you want to do is walk away, take a look at the people in your life. Let them help you. Then, make sure that the people with which you choose to spend precious little time are the ones who can hold your hand and say, “Yes, you can.”
What makes medical school (and really all graduate school) challenging when you first start is not just the work load itself, but the fact that you have to change the way that you study. I tried to study the way that I did in college at first, and I passed my tests, but my grades weren’t very good. It’s extremely frustrating when the habits that came to be trustworthy to you for the past several years suddenly do not work. Almost everyone ends up having to overhaul their approach to the material, so don’t feel that you’re the only one hitting road blocks.
With that in mind, you’ll end up gradually shifting and tweaking your study strategy until you get to a point where you have a reliable method, and all of your classmates will be doing the same thing. By the end of the first semester, everyone will have their own unique way of doing things. Believe it or not, it starts to get pretty interesting to talk to other students about the different approaches they use (wow, we’re nerds). I’ll tell you how I did things during the classroom years vs the clinical years, and I hope it’s helpful, but ultimately you will figure out what’s best for your brain.
Obviously, I tried tons of stuff before I got to a point where I was comfortable. What I ended up doing for most courses was centered on the syllabus. I’d ultimately make about 5 passes through it before an exam. Prior to that day’s lecture, I would do a first read on the corresponding portion of the syllabus and highlight as I went. Inevitably, there would be things I didn’t understand on the first read. Then, I would either go to lecture or stream it and pay close attention to sections that were less clear to me. I would also underline in black ink the concepts the lecturer emphasized. Before moving on, I made sure that I understood all the material, and made short notes in black ink in the syllabus to help me remember. I considered this my second pass. The following day, I would do a third pass where I began genuinely attempting to memorize everything I had both highlighted and underlined. I think that this helped cut down on the sheer number of words I was looking at, and made my memorization more efficient. If something seemed difficult to memorize, I made a note of it next to the text, usually just rewording the concept in my own way. The fourth and fifth passes I would do the same thing. I didn’t always make it to a fifth pass. During the clinical years, I made no attempt to memorize any text. I relied on UWorld and other practice questions for the most part, sometimes passively reading a textbook on the side. I was too tired to do other stuff.
No matter what you end up doing, you’ll probably end up having to sit and work for multiple (sometimes several) hours at a time. The best thing you can do is find a way to zone out and immerse yourself in the task at hand. It sounds weird, but you have to sort of get lost in what you’re doing. This was the only way that I could be productive, because I always had too much on my mind otherwise. I had to turn the rest of my brain off. That’s why anytime somebody touched my shoulder in the library, I startled like I’d been hit with a paintball gun. Music also helps, even for me. If you can find something that helps you get on a certain wavelength and stay there, it’ll be way easier to concentrate and you’ll feel like you got a lot done at the end of the day.
Also, whatever you do, use pretty colors. It’s a pick-up.