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This summer, approximately 25,000 students will begin their first year of medical school in the United States. While the path to medical school was challenging, medical school itself holds a number of additional challenges, as well as significant opportunities. “Concerns about succeeding academically, choosing a specialty, maintaining a social life, and making time for family can certainly cause anxiety among new medical students,” writes Dr. Meg Keeley, Assistant Dean for Student Affairs at the University of Virginia School of Medicine.1 Below, we offer some key advice for the new medical student.
Evaluate your study habits
In one study, researchers found that “in general, study skills are stronger predictors of first-semester total grades than aptitude as measured by the MCAT and undergraduate GPA.”2 There are many reasons for this, but one of the main reasons relates to the immense volume of information to be mastered. April Apperson, Assistant Director of Student Services at the University of San Diego California School of Medicine, explains “The material presented in medical school is not conceptually more difficult than many rigorous undergraduate courses, but the volume flow rate of information per hour and per day is much greater – it has frequently been described as ‘drinking from a firehose.'”3
Utilize active, rather than passive, learning strategies
The USMLE Step 1 exam is a critical factor in the residency selection process. With a strong focus on clinical applications, rather than rote memorization, the USMLE is a distinctive and challenging exam for most students. How should you study for an exam of this importance that’s so distinct from other exams? Drs. Helen Loeser and Maxine Papadakis, Deans at the UCSF School of Medicine, advise: “Use active learning methods as you integrate your knowledge and apply basic science information to clinical vignettes.”4 Research has shown that active learning leads to better long-term retention of information and easier retrieval of information when needed.
Impact your community
Medical students have been able to impact their communities in wide-ranging and meaningful ways, through student organizations, national groups, or through their own initiatives. Student-run health clinics offer one example, in which students often serve an underserved population, including the uninsured, homeless, and the poor.
Maintain your emotional well-being
Studies have shown that students experience significant stress during the preclinical years. This can have real consequences, including depression, anxiety, and effects on patient care. It becomes vital that students develop strategies now to cope with stress and promote their own well-being, in order to maintain resilience and the highest standards of professionalism throughout their career.
Explore different specialties in medicine
In one study of medical students, 26.2% were unsure of their specialty choice at matriculation.5 A similar proportion remained undecided at graduation. Exploring different fields during the preclinical years may help. Students have done so by participating in specialty-interest groups, shadowing physicians, performing research, and identifying mentors.
1Keeley M. Ask the advisor: How to successfully navigate the first year. AAMC Choices Newsletter August 2011. Accessed June 18, 2012.
2West C, Sadoski M. Do study strategies predict academic performance in medical school? Med Educ 2011; 45(7): 696-703.
3University of California San Diego School of Medicine. Successful Study Strategies in Medical School. Accessed February 20, 2012.
4University of California San Francisco School of Medicine. Rx for Success on STEP 1 of The Boards. Accessed October 19, 2011.
5Kassebaum D, Szenas P. Medical students’ career indecision and specialty rejection: roads not taken. Acad Med 1995; 70(10): 937-43.