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What I Learned During My First Semester of Medical School

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Victoria Lu First Year Medical Student

Yesterday I received my final anatomy practical grade, and I have to admit… I’m pretty damn proud of myself. There are few things that feel better than receiving a well-deserved 98% on an exam you studied your ass off for. Conversely, there are few things that feel worse than receiving a 79% on an exam you know you could have studied harder for. During my first semester of medical school, I experienced both of these scenarios, and although the 79% sucked, it taught me a thing or two.

Over the past 5 months, I learned an incredibly vast amount of information. Anatomy, physiology, biochemistry, pathology, pharmacology, radiology, microbiology, neuroscience… the list goes on and on. I learned how to take a detailed patient history (OPQRST!), perform various physical exams, and document my findings. I dissected a human cadaver literally from head to toe. (Ok well, technically we started on superficial back and worked our way down to the feet before jumping back up to the brain. But I digress.) I held a freaking heart in my hands. And lungs, and kidneys, and intestines. AND A BRAIN! I was amazed over and over again at how complex and incredible the human body is. And while my learning objectives included topics such as the rate-limiting steps of metabolic pathways or manifestations of cranial nerve lesions, the major lessons I took away from this first semester relate to my character and growth as a student and individual.  Here are a few things I learned during my first semester of medical school.

The only person you should be competing with is yourself.

If you’ve made it to med school, chances are you’re a great student. You have a high undergrad GPA, a decent MCAT score, tons of interesting extra-curricular activities, and a passion for medicine. You’re a hard-working, determined overachiever and proud of it. (You should be!) You’re probably used to being at the top of your class and if you’re lucky, you may not even have had to try that hard to get there. All of that changes when you get to medical school. You’re now part of a class that checked off all the pre-requisites and is just as Type A as you are (if not more).

Finding myself in this position was definitely a bit shocking. It may seem egotistical, but for most of my life I have prided myself on being on top. Until I started medical school, much of my self-worth had been defined by my superb academic performance. Being surrounded by people with much greater knowledge and experience than I had (which is bound to happen in medical school) was often intimidating. I felt discouraged getting 80’s when I was so used to getting 90’s. I found myself doubting or second-guessing my study methods because Students X, Y, and Z did things differently and were getting better grades. The question “Do I deserve to be here?” crossed my mind a time or two. But as I ended the semester on a high note, I realized something. I DO deserve to be here. It doesn’t matter whether I’m performing above or below the class average. What does matter is that I’m doing better and trying harder today than I was yesterday. I’m not here to compete with my classmates. We are all here for the same reason: to learn, grow, and absorb as much as we possibly can before we’re thrown into the real world with real people and real patients. Before we’re responsible for caring for other lives. If anything, the only person I should be competing with is myself. Looking back, I’m so proud of how far I’ve come. I’m proud of each of my little milestones and even prouder of my setbacks, because without them I wouldn’t have learned from them or been able to launch forward.

You have to make time for self-care.

I can’t tell you how many times people have stressed to me the importance of balance in medical school. Throughout the semester, I was constantly searching for the “work-life balance” that everyone talks about. How does he have time to go to the gym so often? How does she have time to hang out with her family? How do medical students have time to do anything other than study?! I kept telling myself throughout the semester “If I finish all my studying, I’ll reward myself by doing something fun.” Needless to say the studying never ended and I hardly ever got to do anything fun in this way. It finally dawned on me that there will never be enough time to do all the things you want to do in medical school. There will always be something to study, and there will always be work to do. In order to achieve the ever so sought-after “work-life balance,” you have to make time for the activities and people you enjoy. For anyone like myself, this is definitely hard to do. When I leave unfinished work or studying behind to go to the gym or spend time with my loved ones, I feel guilty. A part of me feels like by doing anything other than studying, I’m sacrificing my potential to succeed in school. In reality, quite the opposite is true. I’ve noticed that taking the time to rest and re-charge by watching an episode of Game of Thrones or by going to the gym has the ability to motivate me and keep me going longer than if I hadn’t taken the time to refuel. One of my favorite bloggers, Dr. Vania from Freud and Fashion, has always stressed the importance of self-care for medical students, physicians, and healthcare professionals. I’m just now starting to understand the role that self-care plays in preventing burnout and disillusionment and will be sure to remind myself of this in the years to come.

There is no place for procrastination in medical school.

If any of you know me personally, you know that I was once the Queen of Procrastination. I pulled all-nighters in high school to write AP Euro papers and continued to pull them in college to write lab reports and my honors thesis. I even bought my coffee from the Procrastination Station in college (Seriously, the library coffee shop was named the Procrastination Station!) If you have those tendencies, listen closely. It’s got to stop. There’s too much information to learn and studying to do for procrastination to exist in medical school. In order to do well, you must work proactively whether by previewing the week’s lecture material or reviewing each day’s lectures in preparation for the upcoming block exam. Because of the sheer volume of material that will be thrown at you, your studying techniques may need to be tweaked. For me, this included kicking my procrastination habits.

Learn what works for you and stick with it.

During my first semester of medical school, I had a lot of adjusting to do. In particular, I had to adjust my study style and strategies. For my first block exam, I used a variety of strategies – some of which worked and some of which did not.

One strategy I quickly discovered does not work for me is group studying. Group studying seemed like a great idea since everyone in my class was taking the same exact classes and 2+ heads are better than 1, right? Nope, not for me. Unless I have a great study group with a set agenda and explicit goals (e.g. studying a particular lab in preparation for an anatomy practical), I find that the logistics of study groups tends to lend itself to unproductivity. The few times I tried to study in groups, not much was accomplished. We usually ended up chatting about current events or cracking jokes with each other. There was also that one time before the comprehensive exam that everyone was just yelling facts out loud and I felt overwhelmed… I stopped studying in groups after that.

When experimenting with study strategies, make sure you continually assess each of their viabilities. If one technique does not seem to be working as well, ditch it and move on. Don’t waste your time trying to make something work for you. For example, at the beginning of the semester, I tried to study by rewriting my notes at the end of each day. This soon became a daunting task as the length of my notes increased. I quickly moved on to summarizing my notes on a sheet or two of copy paper which helped me to identify the key points of each lecture and better retain the information. Everyone is unique and learns differently, so what may work for me may not work for you. I’m still experimenting with what techniques, tools, and resources work and don’t work for me. Keep your eyes out for an upcoming blog post on that at the end of next semester 🙂

Take everything you hear with a grain of salt.

Medical school is full of neurotic and anxiety-ridden students. We need to know everything and need to know it now. Often in the quest for information, we take things to heart a little too seriously. Just because you know some-one who knows someone who had the sustentaculum tali pinned on his anatomy practical, doesn’t mean it’s going to be pinned on yours. And just because a second-year said Professor X’s lectures are lame and aren’t worth attending, doesn’t mean you should automatically write them off. Do your own research and don’t come to conclusions based solely on others’ anecdotes.

Don’t be afraid to ask.

(I actually learned this lesson before medical school, but I think it’s too important a lesson not to include.) Too many times in my life I’ve hesitated to ask. For help, for advice, for directions, for clarification. One time in college, I was sick for a few days and had to miss my classes. By the time I recovered, I had missed some fundamental lectures in my organic chemistry course. I tried to catch up, but for the next couple weeks I felt lost, unable to fully understand the reactions without a firm grasp on the fundamentals. I went to SI sessions and asked my classmates for explanations, but still wasn’t fully getting it. I didn’t want to bother my professor, so I never sought his help. It sounds stupid now, but I didn’t want to bother him. I didn’t want to be annoying or seem unintelligent, and in the end, it hurt me. Trust me when I say that medical school is not the place to make this mistake. If you don’t understand something, DO NOT PASS GO. DO NOT COLLECT $200. Ask for help. Ask your classmates. Ask a second-year. Ask your professor. Ask the internet (Google and YouTube have been my best friends this semester). Whatever you do, do not brush it off thinking it will somehow make sense later on. The only stupid question is the one that isn’t asked.


I hope you guys enjoyed these few grains of wisdom that I learned during my first semester of medical school. This list is by no means complete, and there is still more to be learned. I’m so grateful for the opportunity to learn about medicine and for everyone who’s accompanied me on this journey. Congratulations to all of you who have also survived your first semester of medical school!

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2 Comments

  • Reply
    Hamdi Keynan
    January 7, 2017 at 6:11 pm

    Love it! I can’t believe I just discovered your blog (I have a lot of catching up to do). 🙂

    http://www.hamdikeynan.com

    & Congrats on finishing your first semester of Med School x

    • Reply
      lifeontheglow
      January 9, 2017 at 2:57 pm

      Hi Hamdi! Thank you so much! I can’t wait to check your page out (I have a secret sewing hobby when I’m not swamped with studying).

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