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Five Keys to Succeeding in Medical School

Renato Guerrieri
McGovern Medical School at UT Health
MD-PhD Program, Graduating Class of 2024
ACP Council of Student Members, Vice Chair

Getting accepted into and starting medical school is no easy feat for any future physician. When it comes to taking on medical school studies, here are five keys to guide you to success early on in your medical training:

1. Admit early on that you aren't going to become an expert in everything.

I remember being absolutely bewildered by renal physiology when we were given an overview lecture of the nephron system in the second week of medical school. In hindsight, I didn’t need to stress about the intricacies of concentration gradients and convoluted tubules as much as I did, because our first exam barely touched on this subject among everything else we were covering in our biomedical sciences overview course. We ended up covering the details of renal physiology later that year and had more opportunities to really learn this subject in preparation for USMLE Step 1. Yes, it is important to learn class material as best you can; however, remember that you won’t become an expert in everything or learn everything at once. The breadth of medical knowledge takes time to absorb.

2. Avoid comparing yourself to your classmates.

I always felt behind in anatomy lab: Locating nerves and vessels was a challenge for me, and I’d get nervous about other anatomy tanks completing their dissections and leaving before I did. One of the privileges of medical school is that you’re surrounded by intelligent, motivated future doctors. However, always remind yourself that you are a part of this group for a reason—it wasn’t a mistake that you ended up here! You are here because your medical school is invested in having you succeed in training to be a physician, so there’s no need to worry about being behind another classmate. You’re right where you need to be. I came to realize that even if anatomy wasn’t a strength of mine, there were other areas I was strong in that got me into medical school and would help me succeed.

3. Choose your academic resources … and stick to them.

We live in an age where there is no short supply of educational tools and resources for medical school studies and exam preparation. In addition to traditional lectures and readings, there are numerous textbooks, question banks, flashcards, and lecture videos that are designed specifically for medical students. I remember that the temptation is high to fill up your days studying from all of these resources and buying all of the subscriptions. Simply put, don't do it! Doing so is not only costly but also incredibly redundant, stressful, and counterproductive.

The best thing you can do is start with a manageable list of resources to test out in your first semester of medical school, determine which ones work best for your learning style, and stick to them! Others will have opinions on which learning tools are the best, but don’t change your study tools no matter how well they claim to have scored on Step 1! What works for others may not be best for you. For example, I’m not a big flashcard person, so Netter’s, Anki, and Firecracker weren’t for me; however, others swore by those resources. We all scored well on Step 1 and were well prepared for our clerkships, regardless of our learning resources. You will be, too!

4. Cultivate your support system—inside and outside medical school.

Whether you’re attending medical school in your hometown or across the country, you’re going to want to form a core group of friends at medical school, as well as in the broader community. Participate in group activities and keep an open mind when meeting new classmates. Not everyone is going to be “best friend material,” but you’ll find your core group eventually. These will become lifelong friends and will also make helpful study buddies when sharing notes and study guides, quizzing each other on anatomy structures, and practicing physical exam maneuvers.

It’s also important to build a support system with others outside of medical school to keep you connected to life outside of medicine, which can be a breath of fresh air at times. This can sometimes be harder, since making friends as an adult in the “real world” isn’t as automatic as meeting classmates in the academic setting. A good starting point is by meeting people at places you visit a lot already—for me, it was my apartment complex’s dog park and the indoor cycling studio I attend. Community service activities, happy hours at local bars and breweries, running clubs, and recreational sports leagues are other great environments where you can meet people in your new community. It can take some courage, but just do it! These activities and your new friends will help you develop an adult life that isn’t completely defined by medical school but that improves your overall emotional well-being on your path to becoming a physician. It’s a win-win!

5. Check in with yourself, and ask for help when needed.

It’s important for every medical student to block off time to check in with themselves. Reflect on what you’ve accomplished at the end of each month. What brought you joy? What drained you emotionally? Life is too short and medical school too busy for you to waste time on extracurriculars or activities that don’t inspire and excite you. If there are subjects that you’re studying or activities during clerkships that energize you, pay attention to them and use that information to identify what your passions are in medicine. You may just learn what specialty you’re meant to go into.

If you check in and find that the negatives are starting to outweigh the positives, don’t be afraid to ask for help. Getting another person’s perspective—whether they are a classmate, friend, mentor, family member, student affair office staff, or therapist—can all make a difference in identifying what’s making you unhappy and ways to recharge your emotional batteries. There are lots of pressures in medical school, and it’s easy to feel like there’s only one path to success. Don’t let any perceived missteps get in the way of your passion, and trust that you’ll end up where you are meant to be. Mental health issues among medical students are more common than it appears; asking for help is not only nothing to be ashamed of, it is celebrated!

In addition, my (slightly biased) opinion is that every medical student should strongly consider specializing in internal medicine. Internists are doctors who are equipped to care for adults with a broad and comprehensive spectrum of illnesses, making them experts in diagnosis, treatment of chronic illnesses, health promotion, and disease prevention. This makes internal medicine a great specialty for medical students to look into while early in their career.

Your medical school’s Internal Medicine Interest Group is a great way to get a deeper understanding of internal medicine. As the largest internal medicine specialty organization, ACP is also a great resource for medical students—and student membership is free! Medical students particularly passionate about internal medicine and getting involved in ACP are encouraged to apply to Internal Medicine Interest Group officer positions, ACP state chapter student councils (if applicable), and the national. It’s never too early to get involved in medical organizations if it is something you’re passionate about!