Surviving My First Year of Medical School – What I Wish I Knew

Nov 9, 2021

Written by MedicGuild

We all know how the exhilaration of a med school offer can dramatically fall to panic when the harsh reality of your first lecture hits. Two med students just about to complete their first year, give you gems of advice so you can not just survive, but some days thrive!

Co-written by Maree Freeman and Annabelle Chan.

I still remember the first day of med school vividly. A hall full of fresh faced, eager students just so excited to be starting their journey into medicine. We were asked to create a group photo with our PBL (problem based learning) group for semester one and write something interesting about ourselves. I still go back and look at those photos sometimes. A hall full of strangers to me on that day are now people I can’t imagine walking this path without. As we’re about to sit our final first year exams Annabelle and I have been looking back over our first year of med school, reflecting on the things we’ve learnt that have helped us to survive (and even on good days thrive!).

Imposter Syndrome: the sooner it’s gone the better

For those of you who are just beginning your med school journey, now is the time to educate and familiarise yourself with the term imposter syndrome, and begin practicing the art of ignoring that little voice deep within your brain that causes it. 

Imposter syndrome is, in my words, the feeling of inadequacy mixed with the self-belief that I am incapable of what I am doing, nor am I worthy. There’s also the niggling sensation that I am simply not smart enough for medicine. It is a complex emotion that almost every (and by every I could confidently estimate 99%) medical student goes through.

Read More here:  How to Tackle Imposter Syndrome as a Junior Doctor

I’m not telling you this to frighten you or give you any unnecessary pre-med anxiety, don't worry you will learn how to tackle imposter syndrome just like we all eventually do. I am telling you because it's important for all first year medical students to know that imposter syndrome exists and be equipped with how to tackle it head on, rather than spending the first 6 months (like I did) thinking you are the only one who could possibly feel this way. 

I have a lot to say on this topic, but I feel that the advice my second year mentor at uni gave me is by far the best I have received to date. “The university picked you because they believe in you. You were hand picked out of thousands of applicants, hundreds of interviewees and YOU were chosen”. I find reminding myself of this, no matter how conceited it might feel, it does truly help combat my inner desire to run away or curl up into a ball and lose myself in the spiral of my own self doubt and thoughts. 

Another helpful tip is learning to recognise imposter syndrome in those around you, and being active in reminding them that they too are worthy of being here and have what it takes. When the going gets tough in medicine you want to have a community of people who are there to support each other. Setting the ‘vibe’ in your cohort of an open door policy when it comes to mental health discussion is definitely the best investment you will make all year. You certainly won’t be the last medical student to feel this way, but you can be the first to speak up about how you are feeling and invite others into the conversation.

Baptism By Fire is Actually... Cyclical Learning

The med degree is one with very clear expectations on what you have to learn and what you can be assessed on. Your university might call them learning points or something similar and you can see exactly what you are expected to learn from the lectures, tutorials, PBL groups and clinical skills classes each week. Sounds simple enough right? The only problem is, there are A LOT of these points and you are hit with an absolute onslaught of content. Deep breath! Try your best to cover the accessible content each week but know that most concepts are revisited from different perspectives as you move through the course and the more you learn, the easier it is to understand new content as it is presented to you. 

Bottom line here: keep calm and stick with it.

No Med Student is an Island, Find Your People

I asked my study group what has been the biggest help to them in getting through this year and they all said it was having each other during difficult times. I know, bless, tissues please. Seriously though, having a small group of people to share resources, double check facts, nurture and encourage each other has been an absolute game changer for me. We use a social media platform for daily communication and also have set up a shared resources drive where we can upload study materials that might be of wider use. We’re a group with diverse backgrounds and lived experiences, but a common interest in positivity, humour and trying our best. It took us a while to organically find each other, but the connection has been so helpful, especially through online learning during lockdowns.

Coming in Hot- Academic Preparation

If you are coming to Medicine right out of highschool chances are you have been in a pretty solid study routine for a while and you’ve recently been looking at biology or chemistry - thumbs up! 

If you are coming back to study after an alternative career, it might be a bit of a shock to the system. I deferred my start date for 12 months (because I have a mortgage) and during that time I worked full time, purchased some introductory text books and spent an hour a day trying to coerce my brain back into academia and science. While most people won’t want to wait twelve months to start, any prior learning you can do is not wasted.

Your university probably has bridging courses and there is further advice to be found in this Medic Guild article: How to Start Preparing for Medical School if You Don’t Have a Biomed Background.

Put Your Mental Health First

For me my mental health has been the hardest journey of all in medicine, harder than any anatomy class, memorisation of cell transporters or drug side effects. 

When I started med school, my uni completely inundated me with statistics on mental health in medicine, the rates of depression and anxiety amongst medical students and doctors alike, and I felt that I was essentially doomed when looking to the future of what my mental health would hold. Whilst I know they meant well, there was no denying that this bombardment of information was quite, well, depressing, and I found it really difficult to take it on board in a proactive way. Instead I ended up anxious about becoming depressed, and depressed about being anxious. It was not a good combination to say the least. 

I spent the first three to four months of medicine in a vicious cycle of anxiety that ended up with me in tears on my bedroom floor on average 4-5 times a week, and this only ended when I reached out for professional help through my GP and then the psychologist who I still see today.

Now whilst this was my personal experience it's important to know that it doesn't have to be yours. The biggest barrier to my mental health was my own inability to do anything about it. So take it from me, get a GP in your first week of medicine (check out https://www.drs4drs.com.au), be proactive about seeking out professional help before you hit crisis mode, not during, and that way you can avoid the 5 month waiting list most psychologists currently have. 

There is a lot to say about mental health in first year medicine, so more on that another day. But for now just know that medicine is a marathon not a sprint and your mental health is the only thing that will carry you through it. 

More resources are available in the MedicGuild Atlas: 

How to Take Care of Yourself During Preclinical Years

Vax Happy - Check Out the Clinical Placement Requirements

A little known and essential task once you are a medical student is making sure you are fully vaccinated (and being able to prove it). Your university should have advice on what is required in your state and instructions on how to get the ball rolling with verification. For more info, check out the MedicGuild article You Have Your Offer, Now What?

Stockholm Syndrome - Love Your Study Space

You might have a whole room, you might have a shared desk with a flatmate— whatever your set up, you’re going to need a nest. By NEST, I mean a Never Ending Study Tower. Somewhere you can lock yourself away to spend the time needed to get on top of all the content. I recommend carefully designing your nest so that it has minimal distractions, few interruptions, a big computer monitor, some natural light and, if it’s your style, even a fern or two. 

For more evidence based study tips, check out the MedicGuild article: Work Like a Greyhound, Not an Elephant: How to optimise your study

Keeping the Home Fires Burning - What’s Going to Give?

We all know that study/life balance is important but one of the things that has really hit home to me this year is that something’s got to give. I can’t work full time, study full time and parent full time - it’s physically impossible. I’ve had to take a good look at my priorities and shift things around as I’ve learnt where my time is needed. For me this means I study late at night so that I can spend as much time with my kids as possible. No more Netflix binges here. If you are a parent starting a medicine degree you might like to check out some advice from Amy Coopes who's been there and done it, in our MedicGuild article I’m a (almost) Middle Aged Mum, Is it Too Late to Start Med School? 

It’s important to get outdoors, be physically active, have a job if you want / need to and these things can be done while studying medicine, it just takes good planning and time management (which you probably have since you got into Medicine to begin with!). 

For more resources to get a head start on your pre-clinical years check out MedicGuild’s Atlas. From articles on how to start a study group, to how to study based on the kind of learner you are, or how to take notes, we have you covered!

Sign Up for Our Free Webinar:

It's A Marathon, Not A Sprint: Surviving The First Year Of Medical School

Join us for a free webinar with current medical students who are going to share all their secrets to help you ace your first-year of med school without breaking a sweat.
When: 25th November, 7.30pm AEDT/6.30pm AEST
Where: Facebook Live, Twitter and Youtube


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