Coming into medical school, I didn’t know much of anything aside from hearing that the journey would be incredibly hard and I’d spend a lot of time crooned over my Macbook studying. I had no mentor. No older friend in med school to pester with questions. Before arriving, I drank a lot of beer with my friends, bartended, and went in with no advice or guidance, forcing myself to learn many lessons along the way. While I can’t go back in time to last year and tell myself what I know now, I can write an article that hopefully some incoming first year students will read and learn from.
Not all of this advice comes from my personal experience – some comes from witnessing my classmates make mistakes as well. Also, I ain’t gonna give study tips, but rather I’ll give advice on general life and how to conduct yourself, a seemingly overlooked aspect of your years in med school.
Because I’ve just completed my first year, my advice will be tailored to preclinical education and life. Give me a couple years and I’ll tell you all about the dumb shit I will inevitably do on clinical rotations.
The Do’s and Don’ts of Medical School
DO love what you learn: If there was one, and only one, singular piece of advice I could give to incoming medical students, it is this. Your happiness is determined by your mindset. If you’re a miserable human being who complains about everything from a professor’s accent to a ten minute line at the coffee shop, you will inevitably have a hard time in med school. Because there’s A LOT to complain about. You will experience long hours of studying and countless mandatory activities that are a bigger waste of time than any Adam Sandler comedy from the past decade (his serious roles are great TBH). You are here to learn the science of medicine. You chose this path. Now choose to love it. It IS a choice. The human body, it’s pathologies, and the treatments modern science has gifted our species are endlessly fascinating. Be appreciative.
DON’T incessantly complain: Don’t be that guy, or girl. No one likes them. Everyone is busy, tired and stressed out on occasion. No one feels bad for you. In continuation with the above point, you need to grow thicker skin and learn to roll with the punches. You are training to do one of the most important jobs in society. It’s not supposed to be easy. If you complain nonstop, not only will your classmates find you annoying, but friends from home and family will get sick of your shit as well.
DO have fun: Go out, get drunk when you can. The antisocial bookworm who stayed in to study for the next block after an exam will have a hard time impressing interviewers, while the hard-working student who gets the grades AND knows how to shotgun a beer and converse with everyone in the room will charm the pants off of Program Directors and get the coveted residency spot. Plus, you need to have fun. Life is short. Your career will be long. It’s scientifically proven that there is no better remedy for med school stress than cracking a cold one with the boys on a sunny day after an exam. It even says this in First Aid*.
DON’T black out: Few too many shooters at the bar after the exam. You wake up on your couch fully clothed, with shoes on, any empty pizza box next to you, and mud covering your jeans wondering WTF happened last night. Happens to the best of us. Well, that happened to me at least. And I can promise you, the post-blackout anxiety of wondering what the hell you did or said is amplified when you spent the night with future colleagues, many of whom are uptight. Aside from ordering delivery at 3 a.m. and passing out before it arrives, or drunkenly falling into a patch of poison ivy, I’ve never done anything too dumb. However, I’ve seen a few of my classmates black out and act like a complete fool – crying, starting fights, trying to make out with everyone within a ten foot radius, peeing on the floor during, etc. It’s funny when you’re 19 and just got your greek bid, but at this age, it’s just embarrassing to watch. And people are talking about you. Don’t do it. Or, try not to.
DO make friends early: This is a big one – there is a small window of time where everyone is social, before cliques and groups are formed. Even though you won’t remember many names, talk to everyone, socialize, find your group and stick with em. Having good friends in medical school is one of the best assets you can have.
DON’T blow off your new friends: I’m going to be honest and transparent here – I screwed up. I made friends and socialized early on, but in that critical period where bonds were being formed, I disappeared from social activities for weeks in a row to go home and hang with college friends. I’m a social nomad. I like to pop around to different groups of people, so I’ll text different groups and hang with whoever has the best plan. As I result, I am not in a group. Now, I have many superficial friends, but don’t really have many close friends. And it sucks because I know that many of my classmates have formed bonds that will last for life, while I likely won’t talk to many of them after graduating. Don’t be like me.
DO have confidence: If you made it to medical school, you can succeed. Anyone can. Success is predicated by hard work and efficient study strategies, not innate intelligence. And if a doctor ever decides to chew you out or chastises you in front of a patient for not knowing that a slapped cheek rash on a child is caused by Parvovirus B19 in your first semester of medical school and proceeds to tell you that you’re dumb and going to be a bad doctor for no reason other than the fact that he is miserable, just roll with it and forget about it after you’re sent home. Don’t let a bad test or a rude attending get under your skin.
DON’T get arrogant: In our second block, I scored in the top 10% of the class and felt like I had it all figured out. I was wrong. In the third block, I probably scored in the bottom 30% on the final exam. I have never made the mistake since, but it’s a valuable lesson learned – if you get arrogant and let your guard down in med school for a couple weeks, you will end up in over your head when exam time comes.
DO pay attention to your image: Dress well. Don’t talk politics unless prompted. Have manners like mama taught you. And don’t talk shit on others openly. Everyone does it, but don’t feed into the cycle, unless you’re venting about that try-hard who everyone hates because he/she asks 10 questions right before class is dismissed. Try not to black out. You’re a budding professional, and people are judging you. There’s a time and a place for everything, but going out with you med school buddies might not be the best time to pull out an 8 ball. Not a good look.
DON’T reveal everything about yourself: Until you are sure that you’ve made close friends who you can trust, don’t start telling people about your personal problems. They don’t care and will tell others. Don’t show up to the first class cookout wearing a USA bro tank, a red bandana, with a case of Natty in hand expecting your classmates to have the same mindset, because there’s a chance they’re all drinking waters and Coca Cola and have no plans to get wasted all day, and you’ll feel like an idiot. I was that guy. Also, get a feel for people before you start telling them about all the Molly you did at a Bassnectar show two weeks ago. Some people have no sense, and start rattling off details of their affection for drugs in the presence of people who’ve probably never hit a joint in their life. Don’t be that guy.
DO have a significant other: This may seem controversial, but hear me out. If you have THE RIGHT (cannot be stressed enough) girlfriend or boyfriend going into medical school, don’t drop them because some idiot said you should. Distance can be a blessing. With the right person, they can be an outlet to vent, they can be someone to talk to about things other than med school, and regular sex will keep you sane and happy. You don’t have to go looking for a relationship, but don’t dismiss someone who can make your life better. Shit, you don’t even have to put a title on it. Simply having someone you can spend some down time with to watch a movie and release built up tension can be a perfect escape from your studies. Just remember to avoid the crazies, of course. For my complete breakdown of relationships in medical school, check this out: Relationships in Med School: Pros, Cons, and How to Make it Work
DON’T hook up with classmates: Of course, treat all your classmates with respect and kindness, because if you don’t, things will get weird. Getting into a relationship with a classmate is already a risky move, but if you get drunk and go home with someone, and you don’t ever text them again, I assume things would get pretty awkward when they’re in your lab group. Plus, everyone talks. It’s high school. Avoid unnecessary drama. A friend of mine has a different cute undergrad girl with him every time I see him out, all from Bumble (the white coat apparently adds 2 points to your attractiveness).
DO take pride in your work: Take your first exam, see how you do, and set a new goal. Whether that goal is simply passing a failed exam, or scoring a 90 after getting at 85, set goals, change up your strategies, and constantly improve yourself. Nothing compares to the satisfaction of working your ass off and accomplishing a goal.
DON’T compare yourself: You will end up with weekly meetings with the school counselor and a prescription of Prozac. Comparing yourself to others is a fast track towards burnout and depression. Everyone is doing something that you are not. Someone got a higher score than you. Someone has cooler research. Someone studies less than you and does better than you. Be competitive, but remember that you are competing against yourself.
DON’T SAY “IT LOOKS GOOD” WHEN DOING A FEMALE PELVIC EXAM: A seemingly harmless comment on a patient’s normal female anatomy could be taken the wrong way. Avoid this mistake. Everything looks NORMAL. “Good” is COMPLIMENT. You don’t want to mistakenly compliment a female’s sexual organs as a male doctor. It’ll be awkward and your superiors will be mad and lecture you. I learned this the hard way.
DON’T be that guy/girl in class activities: There is no medical student who is more hated than this person. They’re the type that asks a question right as the instructor is about to dismiss the class, prompting everyone to stay another ten minutes. They’re the type to ask a stupid, obvious question every five minutes in small group just to hear themselves speak and kiss ass. Don’t be this person. If a question can be answered through Google, don’t ask. If the class is ending, go up to the professor AFTER everyone else has been dismissed. Shoot them an email. Go to their office hours. Because if you become this intolerable smug suck-up, you will be a running joke throughout the class. To read about more of the myriad of personalities in medical school, read this: 18 Types of People You Meet in Medical School
DO keep an open mind: Since starting medical school, I’ve discovered cool specialties I never even knew existed. But at this point in the process, unless you’re set on being a family doc or pediatrician, you have no idea what specialties you even have a chance at until taking your boards, and you don’t even know what you like until you shadow and rotate at those specialties. The number one most annoying question I hate answering is, “so what kind of doctor do you want to be?” Dude, lady, whoever – I change my mind every other week. I do not know. I’m pretty sure I’m going to start saying “My dream is to be a gastroenterologist, I realized my calling towards fecal matter early on in life when my mom read me the book Everyone Poops before bed”.
DON’T decide on a specialty before school: Similar to the above. If you took a poll during the first week of school on what specialty everyone wants to go into, 25% of the class would become orthopedic surgeons and another 25% would be dermatologists. Doesn’t shake out like that when you see match lists. If you want a competitive specialty, refrain from telling everyone and their mother, keep your head down, and work hard. It makes you look like an annoying gunner and you’ll also look like an idiot if you’ve said “I’m going to be an ENT surgeon” with certainty for two years until your board scores say otherwise or you change your mind.
DO be accepting: Grow up. You will meet many people from many walks of life, with different colors, religions, and sexual orientations. You don’t have to agree with them, but keep it to yourself. You’re not enemies, you just disagree. Remember, when you’re a doctor someday you can’t just say “I won’t treat no damn queers!” or “I refuse to treat cis-straight-white-male-conservative-priveledged-devils and will only treat those who agree with my views on immigration”. So, you should probably learn to accept and tolerate others sooner rather than later.
DON’T be too political: A lot of shit went down this year. “Trump is LITERALLY Hitler”! “Hillary is THE DEVIL”. When election time came, it created a huge division in my class between people who wear their differing political views on their sleeves. People talked shit on others. People made enemies with classmates because they checked different boxes on their election ballot. Idiots. And the school’s faculty has the nerve to warn us about putting pictures on social media holding a beer, while there are budding professionals who write the phrase “straight white male scum” on Facebook. Yeah, a classmate of mine wrote that. Imagine someone had written “gay black male scum”. Both are reprehensible, but the latter would be kicked out of school. There is nothing more juvenile than posting political beliefs on Facebook. And these people will get a cold bucket of ice wake up call when they realize that if their superiors caught wind of that attitude, they could sabotage their career with one nasty evaluation. Words of wisdom – keep your beliefs to yourself, adopt the same political views as the attending doctor you’re working with on a given day, learn to smile, nod, and make friends, not enemies.
DO make time for your hobbies: Sure, times will come when I have to study from the time I wake up until I sleep, but it’s imperative that you continue to do what you love in order to stay sane. I write these stupid posts from time to time, drink beers with friends, play my guitar, watch movies, workout, spend an inordinate amount of time playing minesweeper for god knows what reason, and it all keeps me pretty balanced when I’m sick of memorizing anticholinergic pharmacology.
DON’T forget family and friends: You will definitely have less time to talk to people as a medical student, but be warned – if you don’t talk to friends, and you ignore texts, they won’t be your friends forever. Call mom and dad once a week. Text your buddies to check up on them. Send them a damn meme on Instagram. Don’t become a slave to medicine and forget the people who matter.
*It says this in my copy of First Aid because I wrote it in the margin.
Also, if you’re an incoming med student unsure of what to expect, read my previous post, Med School: Expectations vs. Reality