Medicine From The Trenches

Experiences from medical school, residency and beyond.

It’s On to Medical School!

You have managed to go through the medical school admissions process and you have selected the school that you will attend. At this point, approximately two months out from actually starting classes at medical school, what are some of the things that you might want to place in order? Graduation from undergraduate is behind you and those wonderful celebrations are over. It is now a good time to look at some of the basic necessities that you are going to need in order to start your freshman year of medical school off on a solid foundation.

Have you found a place to live? The ideal “home” for a freshman medical student should include, a bed (mattress on the floor doesn’t work well), a desk with good lighting (preferably in front of a window), a bathroom with both tub and shower, and some manner of kitchen facilities. If you are doing the “dorm” situation, a small-refrigerator and coffee/tea pot are bare essentials if you don’t have access to a kitchen or kitchenette. Other “niceties” are a sturdy bookshelf for organizing your textbooks, a filing cabinet for papers and notes (2-drawer is fine) and a comfy chair with reading lamp for change of position. A large-sized dry erase white board (60-incher) is good for concept mapping and writing down upcoming test dates etc. You can fall asleep while looking at one of your concept maps. Leave the telly at home but an MP-3 player and radio are good to keep on hand.

You won’t be spending loads of time in your “crib” so you don’t need to load up on creature comforts. You home should be something of a sanctuary but you don’t need to spend thousands of dollars on furniture for your apartment and an interior decorator. You will be basically doing the three “Ss” in your apartment(shower, study and s–t) and rushing out of the door on most days. Even on weekends, you life is going to center around your studies for the most part. If you have a family (or significant other person in your life), then you may need to make more sophisticated provisions but in essence, medical school is going to make your life pretty simple and fairly routine.

Your home should be an easy commute to your medical school. Hours of sitting in traffic or hours of driving to and from school are a very bad idea. There will be days when you are just exhausted and traffic/commuting will be the very last things that you will want to contend with; not to mention having enough energy to hit the books and notes after you have battled traffic. When I was a freshman medical student, I had a 45-minute subway ride into the city each day. I used that time to preview lecture material or just relax and listen to the sounds of my environment. I definitely would not have put that much time into driving. Before starting third year, I moved much closer to school and my clinical rotation sites.

Most of your time will be spent in and around school. You will attend classes and you will study your notes and books in the evening on a daily basis. The more information that you have to remember, the more organized you want to be in every aspect of your life. I planned as much of my day as possible around my classes and study schedule as I became the ultimate multitasker. It was always my goal to get ahead of my professors and stay ahead of them as much as possible. This task became the goal of my organization skills.

If you have an automobile, you need to scout out parking as soon as you hit town. It may work out that you end up parking your car further away from your school and getting a short but brisk walk to school and a secure parking spot that you can count on. At my school, parking was such a premium that taking the subway daily was a better option for me until third year. It just wasn’t worth the money to park or the worry that my car might be broken into as several of my classmates discovered. If you school has safe and secure parking, again, park far and walk more. Your nerves and stress level will appreciate the extra exercise.

On weekends, I would drive into school for sessions in the Gross Anatomy lab or study groups. Since I didn’t have to deal with traffic on the weekends, driving made more sense those days. Having the car also gave me an option of finding a great restaurant for a good meal as a reward for getting my studies done.

I also made sure that I had at least three months of expense money in my savings account for any emergency. Things that might come up would be your financial aid being delayed or an extra expense that you didn’t budget for. I kept a very strict budget and could account for every penny of my expense money. Again, not having to pay for parking saved loads of change for me. I also had the option of working on holidays which added to my stash of emergency cash. I would work any holiday as keeping up with my studies gave me holiday time as extra days. In addition, holiday pay was very very lucrative for me. (I was a registered respiratory therapist with a specialty in pediatric critical care). I did not work during the regular school session no matter how thin the budget was stretched. It was difficult but my studies came first.

During the summers between my first and second year and between my second and third year, I had either a paid position (in addition to my contract work) or a paid fellowship. I would leave a couple of days to do absolutely nothing but I could not afford to do too much vacation during these summers. The summer between my first and second year, I was a peer tutor for our pre-matriculation program. The other summer, I had a pathology fellowship. In both cases, I furthered my career and honed my knowledge which proved great for boards.

Food turns out to be a fair expense for most medical students. The worst thing that you can do is rely on fast food. It has too much fat and you end up paying with your health and energy level. I would limit my eating out to once per week and explored the ethnic restaurants of my city. I would eat Vietnamese, Ethiopian, Jamaican, Thai, Japanese and Cambodian food every Saturday evening. My study group loved to go for breakfast (or Sunday dinner) at a nearby church. We would get a good home style meal and support the community which, loved having a table of hungry medical students. We learned to be very careful because “food coma” could be a major problem after one of these great meals.

If we were studying at one of our houses, we would “pot luck”. Sometimes it would be a mixture of supermarket “take out” but we tried to keep our “study meals” nutritious and non-fattening. The worst thing would be those late night sessions before an exam when the Nacho Cheese Doritos would be out on the table. There is something about crunch snacks that fits well with study time.

Collect your favorite study supplies and stock your desk as soon as you can. I had colored pencils, different colored highlighters and my favorite four-color pen. I also had a large cork board above my desk for pinning notices and sticky notes. My other favorite technique was to cut the bindings off the back of my text books, punch three holes and carry only the pages that I needed to read instead of the entire book. To this day, my pathology text (Big Robbins) is divided into two notebooks. I did the same with my Gross Anatomy text, Pharmacology text and all of my syllabi too. Kinko’s can do this little task for you.

Another essential piece for my desk was a kitchen timer. I kept one in my backpack and one on my desk. I would set the timer for 50 minutes and study for those 50 minutes. I would then take a 10-minute break and back to another 50 minutes. This kept my mind refreshed and kept me more efficient. I would also check off each subject as I studied them. This check-off was more psychological so that my mind would see that I was making some progress. During my study breaks, I would walk around, get some water or just look out the window and let my mind rest. (See the purpose of having your desk in front of a window).

Purchase a good medical dictionary such as Stedman’s Medical Dictionary so that you can look up words and terms as you come across them. I made it a point to look up any words that I did not recognize and keep a running vocabulary list. I also obtained a subscription to the New England Journal of Medicine on-line. I would print out the Case Reports and read them on the subway. The medical dictionary came in handy for these articles. I also learned how to present patients and increased my general medical knowledge. I also read the review articles and any original research that was of interest to me. I would scan JAMA in the library but NEJM was my daily reading in some manner.

Other supplies for me were ringed binders, large coated paper clips, erasers, No. 2 pencils, an electric pencil sharpener (I love sharp pencils) and narrow ruled notebook paper for written notes. I usually took class notes on my laptop computer. I used a mini cassete recorder (I have now replaced this with a digital recorder) for those days when I found myself dozing in class. I would make study drill tapes and listen to them when I walked or exercised.

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15 May, 2007 - Posted by | first-year, medical school, organization, stress reduction, study skills

2 Comments »

  1. interesting, thanks for sharing…

    Comment by stanley cham | 20 June, 2007 | Reply

  2. THANK YOU!
    I’m sharing this blog with all of my friends that are starting med school in a few months. I found a link to your blog on SDN because I read your signature. Thank you so much for this.

    Comment by Femi | 27 May, 2007 | Reply


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