You’ve worked incredibly hard for years for this achievement – you’ve finished your pre-med undergraduate work and you’re about to start medical school.
Less than 40% of applicants are accepted – some schools are so competitive they only accept 3% – and it’s getting harder to get in, so you’re already a success story. More good news; graduation rates for med students are very high!
You’ve already proven your dedication and work ethic, and it won’t stop there. More than 96% graduate, but that number drops to 70% if you have to take a leave of absence for any reason (Association of American Medical Colleges, May 2014). But this doesn’t mean that medical school isn’t going to be the greatest challenge of your life so far, and it’s a daunting task as you start your journey! How can you make sure you stay out of the four percent who don’t graduate, and avoid taking any leaves of absences? It’s one of the last but most significant hurdles on your journey to becoming a physician and arguably, it’s the hardest.
Here are seven tips for thriving – not just surviving – in medical school:
1. Be organized.
Find an organization system that works for you and stick to it religiously. Always keep an agenda and take thorough notes. We recommend investigating the bullet journal method for your agenda. You may have to experiment to find what works best for you, so don’t worry if you feel like you’re in over your head at first as you keep trying. Always keep notebooks, pens, and folders handy, and keep your cell charged with plenty of back-up battery packs in case you’re on the run. Try out a few organization apps too. We personally like the most simple tools, like Google Docs, Google Calendar, and the notes and recording devices in our phone, but there are plenty of others to try out if those aren’t enough for you. Keep your desk and your bags organized, and keep your living space as clean and functional as possible too.
2. Plan well.
You need a routine. Try to get up at a certain time every day and go to bed by a certain time as well. Your main focus for the next four to five years should be school, but if you’re operating like a well-oiled machine, you can make plenty of time for family and a social life as well. If there are any things that you do regularly, plan them like clockwork as well. Be at the gym by a certain hour and eat at the same time every day. Just like being organized, different methods will work better for some people than others, but routine is a must. So how exactly does one plan their university work? Your undergraduate work wasn’t easy either and surely you have some idea, but some students will assign specific days to do work in certain courses. Seek balance and flexibility around times when large projects are due or exams are scheduled. You can occasionally take some of your “me” time for your classwork, but don’t take away too much of it.
3. Develop and maintain relationships.
Medical school is the right time to start building contacts for your professional future. You’ll make lasting friendships too, so don’t devalue your time with your classmates. Picking and choosing who you develop close relationships with is extremely important, as they can bring you trouble or help you out of trouble. Make time for your peers and get to know your professors and the other contacts you meet along the way. Know your professors! A relationship with those who decide your fate means you can depend on them for greater insight and help when it’s needed, and you’ll appreciate the relationship even more years down the road. Reach out to the other professionals you meet too, as they can provide you with mentorship and guidance throughout your time in med school and residency.
4. Manage your finances.
The broke college student stereotype is real! University isn’t just tuition, it’s books, random fees, supplies, and surprise events that the university (and life!) throws at you. That doesn’t even touch your basic living expenses, and you’ll still want a social life. Get started with a finance tracking plan to manage your spending. Having to borrow money usually becomes a disaster, so learn to live frugally and track what you do use. If you have to crawl into the debt hole, it will be a lot easier to crawl out of if you are managing your debt and expenses as much as possible. We recommend cutting corners where necessary – you can live with roommates and you can analyze whether you have the right cell phone plan and cable package in addition to other expenses based on your lifestyle and wallet. Minimize credit and lending, and be responsible with that which you can’t avoid.
5. Practice self-care.
Self-care can mean a lot of things – some of it we’ve covered. Avoid stress by doing all the things we’ve already talked about! Make sure you get the healthcare you need, eat well, sleep enough, and stop to do the things you enjoy sometimes! When you need a haircut, get it. If you need to toss the books aside for a couple of hours and get a pedicure or a massage because it’s been too long since you put you first, do it. Occasionally you can throw off your whole schedule by wasting a day if your brain needs a vacation. Self-care can help you wash off the stress from the day, and get ready for the next. A student who can practice self-care will find it easier to focus on their work, solve problems, and truly relax when the time is right. Many people consider the act to be selfish or pointless, but it’s been proven time and time again that it will improve your studies, social life, and energy.
6. Be professional.
Undergraduate university careers are often used as time to party and experiment, which is healthy within reason. Let’s hope that’s mostly out of your system in time for med school. Experimentation and exploration is human nature, but maintaining a professional persona is extremely important to your career. Not only will this help you maintain studies and relationships with your professors, but you’re more likely to find unique opportunities provided to those who represent their university, professors, and field better than others. You’re making contacts that can further your path. Always remember your goals!
7. Take responsibility for your education.
Responsibility is tough and it doesn’t just mean studying and getting to class on time. If you don’t understand something, ask. If you need to stay in from a social event to study or work, don’t forsake social time completely – but with moderation, cancel to put your education first. Don’t be afraid to speak with professors, set up study groups, admit to failure and confusion, or seek help. It’s your degree and no one else’s! You’re going to work hard for it no matter what, but not taking ownership of it is going to make the work much harder and even impossible.
It’s a cliche, but it’s true: keep your eye on the prize. In four or five years, you’ll be a graduate! Put your career goals first to the best of your abilities during that time. We all have undergraduate buddies who made it through – often barely – while their studies came after professional or family obligations (or partying!). Life happens, and that’s just a reality. What’s within your control is how you respond to life challenges, so do everything in your power to put med school first. If something does come up, brace yourself – it’s going to get bumpy – but hang on and make it your priority to get through the rough patch.
Remember that only the best make it this far, and you’ve got the skills to go the rest of the way. Four more years is nothing compared to all your hard work so far and all the great things to come. Follow these seven tips to make sure you’re not only the best student you can be, but also the best and healthiest you! After graduation you want to make sure you’re still sane, fit, and clear-headed to continue into your residency. You don’t want to just survive medical school, you’ll conquer it!
Association of American Medical Colleges, May 2014. Analysis in brief: Graduation rates and
attrition factors for U.S. medical school students. Retrieved from https://www.aamc.org/ download/379220/data/may2014aib-graduationratesandattritionfactorsforusmedschools.pdf.