First year of medical school

I had great expectations of what my first year of medical school was going to be like. Looking back, I realize how lost and helpless I had felt, having no clue as to what was about to happen or whether it would be everything I had ever dreamt of. I am writing this article in hopes that some of you might find some relief and encouragement for what is to come and to share with you what I have discovered during my journey.

I would constantly hear horror stories of how overwhelming the study material could get, but I never expected them to be true. During your first year, you have a tendency to compare everything to the way it used to be in high school, a time when the most stressful thing on your mind is passing the university entrance exam. (Romanian students are required to obtain a high mark in order to be accepted into medical school). For almost 2 years, one had to study biology and chemistry in great detail and solve dozens of exam sample tests. And then, the first year happens. Hundreds of pages of anatomy are thrown at you, loads of information that have to be assimilated in a very short amount of time.

In my case, the biggest issue was that I didn’t know how to study and I would find myself sometimes questioning whether there was any point in learning so much information at all. I didn’t see any application for it and, to be honest, I almost started hating anatomy (which is so wrong and I can’t stress enough how important it is). One of my mistakes was trying to study in the same way that I used to in high school – trying to remember every single detail. I found that anatomy must be taken as it is and that, sometimes, there are some things that don’t require understanding. There’s a certain structure, in a certain place, it looks a certain way and performs a certain function. Simple as that.

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Another issue I found with myself was that I couldn’t develop a spatial understanding of the object I was studying. I couldn’t project it in my mind so that I could look at it in 3D. This could be in part due to my attitude towards studying, believing that it was impossible for me to learn anatomy, giving up after spending a very brief amount of time reading the material. However, as soon as I had failed my exam, my whole perspective on the issue changed entirely.

From my personal experience, here are some things to keep in mind when studying anatomy:
  1. You can’t and don’t have to memorize every single detail.
  2. Always use visual aids when studying the material.
  3. I used to think that everything was important, failing to keep some details in mind, thus bypassing important information. However, there are certain things not as essential as you might have thought them to be (e.g. the placement of the nutrient foramina, the details of every single line on a certain bone etc.) and on the other end we have the things you are not allowed to treat lightly. (e.g. Artery and nerve disposition, their relation to surrounding structures, the vascularization and innervation of internal organs etc.)
  4. The first time you go through a material, make sure you maintain a slow and steady pace. The 2nd and 3rd time try to focus on the important ideas or concepts. Write down key-words.
  5. Rather than trying to perfectly reproduce 80% of the information, one should focus on providing at least 2-3 words on everything it refers to.
  6. Never shy away from asking questions. No matter how lame the question or how much of a hard time your colleagues are going to provide, it is always better than not having asked a question that could have saved you from failing your exam.

Concerning the other subjects, I personally loved cell biology. Everyone had to study for each and every lab course and no one knew who the next person evaluated by the teacher was going to be. In cell biology there are lots of processes that have to be understood. On YouTube I had found Khan Academy videos which were a great help, but there are many others you can try.

Biostatistics and biophysics were not even remotely close to my area of interest. I found it challenging to study for these subjects and I would highly recommend studying the material over the course of the semester and not letting it pile up before the exam. I feel a sense of shame for not being familiar, even one week prior to the final examination, with some of the instruments in the biophysics lab. Also, I had never conducted an experiment from start to finish and I deeply regret not doing so. Get some hands-on experience and try to watch attentively whenever someone else is doing it.

Mainly, if you manage to get through the first semester successfully, the one that follows will be way nicer. Even if you experience failure during your first semester (and if you spend more time complaining than actually studying, chances are, you are fighting a losing battle), try to make the most of your second as it is a lot closer to real medical practice than the first one.

I have presented some general information about my personal experience and these are just a few thing I wish I had known during my first year of medical school.

Some conclusions:

  • Patience is a virtue indeed. It takes some time for the confusion to disappear entirely so try not to be too hard on yourself when you stumble every once in a while.
  • We’re only human. Do not hesitate to ask for help and advice from those that have made it through because they understand how you feel and most would be happy to help.
  • Get organized. Make sure you complete each of your tasks every week and take advantage of your free time to the fullest. I find that proper management of your activities is a sign of maturity – finding the balance between work and leisure, renouncing the unessential and focusing on what matters most.
  • Know your limits, your strengths and weaknesses. Discover how, when and where you study most efficiently.
  • There are many more things to discuss, but I don’t want to take away the pleasure of experiencing first-hand what it means to be a freshman. It feels incredible after you understand what it is all about. You might not agree with what I had to say and feel free to share your opinions, questions and suggestions with us. We will do our best to help anyone that needs it.

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