Medicine From The Trenches

Experiences from medical school, residency and beyond.

First Year of Medical School

A short while back, some of my pre-med students asked me about memories of medical school. I thought it might be fun to write about some of those here as well as residency experience so here goes from the beginning…

My medical school had a classical curriculum with problem-based-learning intergrated. We had the typical first-year, second-year types of classes. Lectures went from 0800h to 1600h daily. We had some Tuesdays or Thursdays when we would be able to get out earlier but we spent loads of time in class (way more than students currently attending). Some of my classes had computer-based-learning exercises and some had laboratory projects that had to be completed. In short, school was the equivalent of a full-time job with much time spent on weekends reviewing and keeping up with the pace. The best thing was that all of my classes were very interesting.

My first lecture of medical school was in Biochemistry. The professor essentially covered an entire Organic Chemistry course in a 50-minute lecture. The material was extremely detailed and presented in volumes. This particular professor had a reputation for “rocket” lecture delivery and he got the job done. The great thing was that I understood everything well and could see that this was the basis of the next 50-minute lecture which started off with lipid biochemistry.

My next class was the first part of Gross Anatomy. Our lecture was on surface anatomy and types of neurons. Each lecture was 50 minutes followed by a 10-minute break. I think those 50-minute lectures were the beginning of my 50-minute attention span. After lunch, Gross Anatomy lab started with a brief introduction and then a long laboratory on the vertebral column. We were all given bone boxes (containing human bones) to take home for further study. Every bone was present except the skull bones. Needless to say, we were required to learn every bone and every part of every bone.

By the time the day was done, I had received the equivalent of about 3 weeks worth of undergraduate lectures on one day. Since I had my syllabi, I knew what would be covered in lecture and I knew what readings and material would have to be previewed for the next days lecture. After each lecture was completed, I would quickly fill in any gaps in my notes and briefly scan through my notes for completeness. Over lunch, I would start to memorize as much of my morning lecture as possible too. We had an hour for lunch so I would grab something quick and then spend the rest of the time pouring over my notes.

On the way home, I would study some more or just watch people. I took public transportation because I didn’t want to worry about driving. My commute time was my time to relax and think about the day or plan my evening. When I got home, I would grab my gym bag so that I could get a quick swim in before dinner. I would dine with my fiance and then hit the books for a couple of hours. By that time, it would be around 8pm so I would go to bed. I would wake up at 2am and study until 6 am. I would then take a shower and get off to school.

When I was studying, I would finish studying the material that had been presented that day. I would then review the lectures for the day before and preview the materials for the next day’s lecture. On the weekend, I would review the entire week’s lectures in addition to reviewing an entire week’s dissection in the Gross Anatomy lab.

I made study tapes to drill structures and notes so that I could listen to them while I was walking or running. I would also make concept maps and fill them in on large sheets of paper as I went through biochemistry. I always wanted to keep the “big” picture in mind as I studied.

We had an exam week about every five weeks during the semester. There would be two “reading” days (read catch up) and then exams would begin. For Gross Anatomy, we would have the lecture exam in the morning and the laboratory practical exam in the afternoon. Between the exams, I would go to the art museum and get completely away from campus. I couldn’t stand to be around people who were so stressed about the exams.

In addition to Anatomy and Biochemistry, we had lectures in Psychiatry and Introduction to the Practice of Medicine. The Psychiatry lectures were always interesting and covered topics like development, personality disorders, sexuality, psychiatric drugs and the roles of various types of psychiatrists. Lectures in the practice of medicine covered topics like law and medicine, types of practices, alternative and complimentary medicine, history of medicine and medical education models. Psychiatry and Introduction to Medicine provided a bit of relief from the rigor of Biochemistry and Gross Anatomy but we were tested on these subjects so they required our attention too.

Our first semester ran from the middle of August to the second week of December. I can promise that the time goes by very quickly and soon Christmas vacation upon us. At the end of the first semester, we were done with Gross Anatomy and Biochemistry but still had more lectures in Psychiatry and Practice of Medicine. In addition, we had Histology, Microbiology/Immunology and Neuroscience lectures too. Second semester had a bit more material and more lectures. In addition, we had to dissect brains and spinal cords in Neuroanatomy. We were also given slide boxes with every type of tissue for histology. We would learn to recognize tissues and electron micrographs of every type of cell.

By the time second semester is over, we had learned a huge amount of material. Most people were happy to get exams done and get home for the summer. I was selected to become an instructor for the students who would be coming into our pre-matriculation program. I would be teaching Biochemistry primarily in addition to Gross Anatomy and Immunology. It was an honor to be asked to instruct in this program and I knew that I would enjoy working with these students.

The students who participated in the prematriculation program were medical and dental students with a conditional acceptance into medical or dental school. By successfully completing this program, these students are offered a seat in the school that they were conditionally admitted to. During this rigorous summer, we gave study tips, extensive reviews and got to know some very determined folks. In addition, these students have a huge head start when the actual courses start because they have been exposed to the material. It is a great program and I enjoyed the summer. In addition, we, the instructors are paid very nicely and can get some research done at the same time.

I finished my first year strong with honors and a much stronger interest in medicine than before I started school. When I looked back on all that I had learned, I was amazed. Little did I know that second year had even more to learn and would build upon my foundation of first year.

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7 January, 2007 - Posted by | biochemistry, first-year, Gross anatomy, medical school

15 Comments »

  1. I’m still in high school and I’m freaking out about med school. I’m afraid that I’ll over study during high school and become cocky during university. Do you suggest to only prepare the summer before? Additional to that why exactly do you learn before you get your bachelor in science?

    Comment by Clemence | 14 July, 2014 | Reply

    • To Clemence,
      In the USA, students study in high school to get into a good university. The better one’s grades in high school, the more competitive they are for university/college. In the USA, one can study any subject in college/university of interest as long as the pre-medical subjects are taken (good grades in college to be competitive for medical school). College/university is a chance for one to learn and be challenged by a variety of subjects, language, math and humanities in addition to science. The pre-medical sciences (tested on the Medical College Admissions Test [MCAT]) are general chemistry, organic chemistry, general biology and general physics. Some medical schools in the USA will require subjects such as genetics or statistics thus one needs to look at medical schools of interest and prepare to be admitted to them.

      The truth about worrying about anything is that no matter how much one worries or doesn’t worry, the future will happen. The best that one can do is develop good solid study habits and a strong work ethic. If you work is done, then you should do some volunteering at places where you can meet and interact with a variety of people from all walks of life. This is the best way to hone your communication skills and learn something about the world too. Work at a construction camp or build houses for needy people. Some people help the elderly in their neighborhoods and some volunteer to coach baseball or soccer. In short, don’t waste your high school years worrying about the future but go out and put yourself in the best position to be successful for the future in both academics and in life.

      Comment by drnjbmd | 14 July, 2014 | Reply

  2. thanks a lot for this post
    i wanted to knw are studies really hard in med school or is it that u have to memorise the notes u get from lectures
    do u really have a lot to study i mean in just one lecture u get so much of notes??
    are exams really tough in medical school?
    please do reply because i so wanted to knw
    i’ve great determination and passion for this field

    Comment by ga3 | 9 June, 2012 | Reply

    • To ga3:
      There is a huge volume of material to mastered (not memorized). This task takes consistent and disciplined study coupled with the ability to build upon your background in the pre-med sciences. Lecture notes are a guide and not something that has to be memorized and regurgitated verbatim. Passion will not get one though medical school but good study habits (honed as an undergraduate), interest in the materials being mastered and through mastery of said materials will get one through the process. If you are not interested in life-long learning, study and mastery, medicine is going to be a miserable chore for the rest of your career. In short, desire, passion and an ability to memorize are meaningless and practically not very useful. Medical school is only a short period of time in the process of becoming a good physician which is unrelenting and life-long.

      Comment by drnjbmd | 9 June, 2012 | Reply

    • i just wanted to knw and of course i also knw its not about memorizing
      its just tht i wanted to knw before going to med school thanks anyway
      of course i’m intrested in life long learning please dnt say its going to be miserable coz i still havent entered med school ad its sort discouraging
      thanks

      Comment by ga3 | 13 June, 2012 | Reply

      • To ga3:
        There is a huge volume of material to mastered (not memorized). This task takes consistent and disciplined study coupled with the ability to build upon your background in the pre-med sciences. Lecture notes are a guide and not something that has to be memorized and regurgitated verbatim. Passion will not get one though medical school but good study habits (honed as an undergraduate), interest in the materials being mastered and through mastery of said materials will get one through the process. If you are not interested in life-long learning, study and mastery, medicine is going to be a miserable chore for the rest of your career. In short, desire, passion and an ability to memorize are meaningless and practically, not very useful. Medical school is only a short period of time in the process of becoming a good physician which is unrelenting and life-long.

        Comment by drnjbmd | 13 June, 2012

  3. wow!! i can’t wait to go to Med school. Me encanta.

    Comment by Ken Robles | 28 January, 2012 | Reply

  4. Hr. Drnjbmd,

    Thanks so much for taking the time to write this blog. It has been very helpful for me. The question I was wondering is, how much sleep per night should you be getting in medical school? Should you be staying up awake late every night to study or going to bed early and then waking up really early (before lecture) to study?

    Thanks!

    Comment by Tom | 6 December, 2011 | Reply

    • To Tom:
      You have to figure out what works best and most efficient for you. I always divided my study time into 50-minute chunks. I would come home, eat dinner and go to bed. I would then get up at 12 AM and study until I had to leave the house (around 6AM) for school. This meant that I was sleeping about four to five hours per night. It’s not a schedule for everyone as most people are not alert in the early hours of the morning (I seemed to be). I kept this schedule (on weekends too) as it allowed me to get the most important work done when there were few distractions (my family was asleep, no phone calls etc). I also studied on the subway and while waiting in traffic (always had a note card or two with me).

      If you are most alert in the early evening, then study in the early evening and on breaks during the day. If you are an owl (as I am), then you may be better studing in the early morning hours. You have to know when your brain works best and when you are most alert. Most of my classmates studied in the early evening and went to bed around midnight with a 30-minute break for dinner. Try moving things around and see how it works. The one thing for sure is that you will have to learn how to study when you are tired and when you are stressed. This is where doing at least 30 minutes of aerobic exercise (walk up flight of stairs if you can’t get to the gym) is helpful.

      Comment by drnjbmd | 6 December, 2011 | Reply

  5. i wish i had come across this blogg of yours earlier but its never too late , just makes me realize its best to be realistic and do something matching your ability rather than going for for it because of its glamour. thx

    Comment by paul | 2 November, 2011 | Reply

  6. After reading this… wow.

    I’ve read so many things online saying medical school isn’t what most people think – that’s it’s harder, boring, everything. It’s practically been drilled into my head that, “YOU THINK YOU WANT TO GO TO MEDICAL SCHOOL, BUT YOU’RE WRONG.”

    After so much of that, I was beginning to think that my dream of going to medical school to become a doctor was based on some silly, glamorized idea I had of it, and that, if I were to try, it would end in wasted time and money.

    Reading this has really made me realize that everything I’ve heard and read is wrong. Maybe I’m just strange, or an academic masochist, but somehow, all of that sounded so amazing. I’m the sort of person who likes being busy, being productive, and just learning constantly, so the experiences you described above… wow.

    Anyway, thank you so much for writing this, as well as the rest of this blog.

    …and I’ll leave it at that so I don’t ramble on any more.

    Comment by ryuukari | 5 December, 2009 | Reply

  7. Am a first year clinical medicine and surgery student in kenya.i have personally been more motivated and charged up after reading your article

    Comment by Ochoggia osiya | 17 October, 2008 | Reply

  8. Thank you so much! It helps to have an older brother or sister to tell us what to expect going forward in … This blog was very helpful; I definitely feel a lot less apprehensive!

    Comment by Maltie | 11 September, 2007 | Reply

  9. Great post Drnjbmd. I’m an Assistant Professor teaching Biochemistry at Xavier University in New Orleans and I like to help my students understand what will be expected of them in med school. My wife is in family practice and we were married when she went through her training. I share my experiences with her going through med school and residency with my students and many find it revealing. What you’re are doing here in your blog may become pretty popular among pre-meds. Keep it up.

    Comment by Dr. Marion Carroll | 27 January, 2007 | Reply

  10. Your description is just what i’ve always imagined it to be, awesome! My time will come 🙂

    Comment by Jacqueline | 9 January, 2007 | Reply


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