How to Start Preparing for Medical School if You Don’t Have a Biomed Background

Aug 11, 2020

Written by Harry Copeland

Harry is a final year medical student at the University of Queensland

The transition to medical school is difficult for the most prepared student and the many changes and new expectations are compounded if you’re a student who hasn’t recently completed biomedical science or a similar degree. You may have a relative, friend or colleague in a health profession who has told you something about medical school, but sometimes the choice for a non-traditional entrant is a leap of faith.

Rest assured you’re not the first student to start medical school, with a different career or degree behind you or someone that is coming back to study after a several years break.

A few of the medical schools have pre-requisite subjects such as The University of Melbourne and The University of Queensland, while others suggest having prior knowledge is a plus. This usually consists of some aspects of biochemistry, anatomy, physiology, microbiology or pharmacology. Pathology tends to be left to the medical schools to teach.

The advice I received was not to worry, everything you are supposed to know by graduation is taught to you during medical school and having a different set of experiences to the typical science student is not a disadvantage. This, at the outset is reassuring, but in the end, not hugely helpful advice. 

Here are some practical tips I wish I had received starting out, so that you can not only catch up on your medical knowledge, but also harness the benefits of a non-traditional pre-medical career.

 1. Prep and Prep Early

Most people will say you don’t need to study before medical school, as most people have been in the ‘School to Undergraduate +/- honours to Medical School Pipeline’. However, if you’ve been out of the study game for a while, it certainly won’t do you any harm to have a few practice study sessions to prime yourself with some medical knowledge before you start lectures and tutorials.

Biochemistry, anatomy, physiology, microbiology or pharmacology are taught at an introductory level over a few months with several lectures per week. You could budget approximately 3-6 hours a week of study during the 6 months between your application and beginning medical school.


If you have any contacts in the medical school you will be attending, you can ask them what topics are broadly covered in the first year or semester. If you have no contacts, the medical school course list may be a good place to start and if you still can’t find anything, then anatomy and physiology are crucial topics that are very important to get a handle on from the start. 

Reading an accessible introductory textbook on each topic (and often these two topics are taught together in one book) is a much better introduction than only getting through two chapters of a much denser textbook.

Recommended textbooks:

  • The Big Picture: Gross Anatomy by David A. Morton, K. Bo Foreman, Kurt H. Albertine
  • BRS Physiology by  Linda S. Costanzo 

Don’t forget you can combine your learning modalities, and YouTube is a massive time saver.

Here’s an engaging, easy to understand crash course on anatomy and physiology 

Introduction to Anatomy & Physiology: Crash Course A&P #1 

It’s very simple, but if you have no experience in a field, it’s a fantastic beginning to build off, the whole series takes only a few hours.

There are many other YouTube series, I recommend completing a whole series that doesn’t go into too much detail and then finding videos from other presenters to go over the difficult or confusing topics from a different angle. This ensures you haven’t left a large blind spot in your knowledge.

The Medic Guild bootcamp has some excellent videos, which cover the topics you will need to be on top of for the first month of medical school.

 2. Study Techniques to Help you Learn Most Effectively in Medical School

There’s no one size fits all method for learning the large volume of information required, but here’s a generic approach that you can tailor as you learn, and see what works best for you.

A very effective strategy for learning is a ‘flipped classroom method’ whereby you look up the topic of the next day’s lecture or tutorial and read about it beforehand (it’s best if you have a lecture topic list or learning guide). Medical school lectures tend to be old fashioned with an expert in a particular topic presenting, often without acknowledging the basics, before jumping into detailso if you can read the basics and come in prepared, the detailed lecture makes a lot more sense and is easier to recall in the future.

Handwriting notes during the lecture improves your attention and forces you to only write down the key pieces of information. Many people are capable of typing every word on a powerpoint slide, but rarely can they do this whilst also absorbing or analysing the information presented, therefore, requiring you to re-read your own notes and parse out the important facts (wasting precious time). This is why pre-reading is important, if you already know the basics then you’re familiar with the topic, and better able to select the salient facts from the expert presentation.

After the lecture you may type up your notes, so you can easily search them later and add in diagrams from the internet. Now you have reviewed the topic three times and made very effective study notes for revision in the future. Medical school builds on the topics you are taught early on, so good notes made in first year will still be helpful in the later years. This is the most effective use of time. 

Study groups can also be very effective, especially to motivate yourself to understand a topic deeply enough to teach another student. Working on a weekly basis and agreeing on topics beforehand, gives you a manageable chunk of the week’s content to focus on and a safe space to discuss things you aren’t clear on, or feel like you can improve your understanding of. Selecting members for your study group is hard, but including people with similar goals and different professional backgrounds can be helpful. For example, there are often medical students with a pharmacy or physiotherapy background and they will know a lot about drugs, physiology and anatomy.

For revising dense and complicated topics, paper flashcards are quite effective as are computer-based flashcard programs which have the added bonus of being able to be carried around everywhere, even when you have thousands to review.

Anki is the best known computer program for this and has many premade flashcard decks available for learning medical facts, but there are other programs available like Quizlet.

3. How You Can Make the Most of Your More Diverse Professional Background

This will become more noticeable in the clinical years of your degree, but your maturity will play an important part in your drive to becoming a good doctor. Coming into medicine with experience of the workplace puts you in a different frame of mind to the students who have simply been studying since primary school. You are a driven, adult learner, so use your internal motivation to narrow in on clinically relevant points and learn even when it wont score you points on a test.

Make sure you orientate your study towards the content you think is important and helpful to your end goals, rather than just studying with the external motivation of passing exams. This knowledge will stay with you longer and be more applicable than memorised facts forgotten once the exam is over.

Additionally, many doctors will find it fascinating that you didn’t follow the biomedical/health sciences path to medicine and will want to hear more about your previous experience. This by itself can lead to interesting opportunities and you may be able to use your connections in  research, teaching or clinical opportunities.

4. What Else You Should Know Before You Come into a Health Profession

If you have time on your hands before medical school begins or if you haven’t been accepted yet, but are considering the field, consider what you can do now that may help your career in the long term. Medicine is a profession that favours qualifications, research, presenting and teaching. To improve your application or improve your knowledge before you begin, you could consider a masters degree (especially if you have an idea of what kind of doctor you want to be). Masters are more favoured over honours degree, PhDs are more favoured again, but with a substantially greater investment of time and effort required. Even a diploma or graduate certificate in a health field will improve your knowledge, skills and employability.

The other important thing to know about medical knowledge and teaching is that during the course of your degree you will go over the same content multiple times in different contexts. For example, you will learn about the heart in a cardiology module in preclinical years, see cardiology patients on the medical wards, and you will interpret cardiac function tests for surgery, anaesthesia, cardiology and every other department. If you don’t understand a concept fully the first time you encounter it, there will be many, many more times to be taught it before you graduate. Make sure you take advantage of these, as clinicians with years of experience often have a neat trick to remember something or a different approach to an old problem.

At the end of the day it’s medical school and the work you put into it there is what qualifies you to be a doctor, so if you work hard, by the end of your first year of medical school you will be most likely indistinguishable from someone with a biomedical backgroundand with this dedicated approach, even more prepared than many of them.

Finally, some wise words I was told. Don’t feel ashamed for working hard and knowing a lot. But also don’t let that deceive you into thinking you are a better student than someone else, you don’t know what they know. Medicine is a collaborative profession and acting with humility and working together kindly, will no doubt make you a better doctor and deliver better care to your patients than if you work by yourself. Good Impressions last. One day you may depend on that person to help you in an important situation and they will remember how you interacted with them in medical school.


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