Starting medical school is an exciting time and a pivotal moment in your life. After the years of hard work and dedication it took to get accepted, you can finally begin your journey to becoming a physician.
Use the forward momentum you have right now to set yourself up for success. Here are six tips for starting medical school off on the right foot.
1. Discover your interests
The flexible schedule of the first year of medical school gives you the opportunity to discover your clinical interests, so your first year is a good time to look into multiple specialties. If it’s academically feasible, take time to explore preclinical electives, student interest groups and shadowing opportunities. Consider selecting experiences in specialties that you may not get exposure to in your core rotations as a third-year medical student. While your specialty choice will likely change several times leading up to your fourth year of medical school, you will be able to draw from these experiences when you make your final decision.
Electives, interest groups and shadowing will also help connect you to research opportunities with attendings and residents if you’re interested. However, your schoolwork should take priority over extracurricular activities.
2. Practice self-care
Learning how to sustain your energy is a crucial skill for the rest of your career. Everyone’s requirements for downtime are different, but start by dedicating at least one half-day per week to not studying or working on extracurricular activities. This will help rejuvenate you and prepare you for the week ahead. As one third-year student argued in a letter to Academic Medicine, a single-minded focus on grades can come at the expense not only of personal well-being but also of the development of skills that matter in patient care.
Unless your physician recommends otherwise, try to exercise regularly. Even brief workouts have potential mental and physical health benefits. If you can incorporate exercise into a busy schedule early on in your training, it will help you establish a healthy routine that will stay with you as your schedule gets busier going forward.
The cumulative responsibilities, experiences and financial burdens of medical school can contribute to mental illness. As JAMA reports, the risk of depression is prevalent among medical students, so it’s critical to be cognizant of your mental health. Consider beginning work now with a mental health professional, whether preventively to establish healthy coping skills or to address an existing condition. Be aware of the resources that your school provides, and don’t hesitate to seek help if you need it.
3. Establish good study habits
There are many study strategies that can lead to success, so find the one that works for you early on in your first semester. One person might do best rereading the lecture material three times, while others gravitate toward studying in groups. Although every student is different, do your best to keep up with your classes no matter what and avoid cramming.
If your curriculum permits, you may also want to try watching lectures from home or the library. If you take this virtual route, consider experimenting with the playback speed of your lectures. Watching lectures at the time of your choice and at an increased speed can create flexibility in your schedule that will allow you to pursue clinical, research and volunteer opportunities.
4. Manage your finances
Working during medical school is often not possible, and the burden of loans can be overwhelming. Try to strike a balance between convenience, self-care and spending. The wellness benefit of a morning latte, for example, may be well worth the cost. At the same time, avoid overspending. While you may need to buy a car, now might not be the best time to spring for all of the upgrades.
Establish a solid foundation of financial skills early on in your training. Efficiency and convenience will become more important as your schedule gets busier, which means you may find it more difficult to restrict your spending as you progress through medical school. Mastering your budget now will help you limit your loan burden later.
5. Invest in your social life
Your classmates are among the best resources you will encounter in medical school. Try to get to know them outside of classes. Consider joining an intramural sports team or hosting a potluck on a night off from studying. You will gain strength from solidarity with your cohort as you go through your training together and will likely form bonds with some of your classmates for life.
One Academic Medicine commentary quoted a student as saying: “Specific activities and people within medical school that remind me why I decided to go into medicine not only motivate me to study the long hours necessary, but are also important clues to figuring out how I will practice medicine.”
6. Find joy in medicine
Try to enjoy yourself. There is no finish line after this point. Whether it’s matching into residency or becoming an attending, there will always be another goal to reach that’s just a few years away. So appreciate the journey and stay in touch with the reasons you decided to pursue medicine in the first place. Practice hobbies that interest you, even if it’s at the expense of perfect grades. Try to do things that make you happy, without letting your curriculum vitae come first. Be kind to yourself and take a moment to celebrate small achievements, whether it’s completing another block or passing an OSCE.
While the path to success looks different for every medical student, starting medical school with a balanced approach to all aspects of your life can set you up to achieve your personal and professional goals. It can also help you maintain your sense of self as well as your passion for medicine.