What to Expect as a Medical Student

Whether you have just been accepted to medical school or are contemplating applying, it is important to understand what life as a medical school student may entail. Medical school will be a lengthy and challenging experience, but not an impossible task if you are willing to work hard. A large majority of students who undertake the challenge successfully complete this stage of their education.


Once you have completed the first two years of more-basic course work in medical school, you will move on to your clinical rotations. A student’s clinical experience will become a valuable part of his or her education, as it will help dictate the type of residency program he or she is able to enter. Your clinical rotations are a time to observe other doctors in their element, put your class work to use, learn some essential elements about providing patient care, and begin exploring the wide variety of specialties available in medicine.

Understanding Clinicals

Clinical rotations are performed at hospitals and clinics affiliated with the student’s medical school. Starting in the third year of medical school training, the student will assist residents in an array of specialties, such as psychiatry, pediatrics, or surgery. Interaction with patients will be emphasized, and you will complete any job the resident asks you to do.

Some tasks assigned to you this year may feel mundane, but, as Professor Robert M. Centor, MD, wrote in an article for Medscape, some of the excitement you will experience this year will come from the fact that you are now a component of the medical team. Your role is very much that of an apprentice, but you will start feeling more like a physician when you see patients, and you will likely be treated as such by a patient.

While much of your time will be spent in a hospital or clinic setting, you will still be expected to attend some lectures, Centor explains. A rigorous schedule like the one you will be keeping can make it difficult to do extra reading, but Centor still advocates trying to spend 30-to-60 minutes a day reading something about the medical field, particularly about issues that relate to patients you have seen. Adhering to this routine will not only help you learn about the immediate issues in your clinical rotation, but will also expand your knowledge of medicine in general.

As your clinical rotations continue, you may start discovering what specialties interest you. All academic programs require an Internal Medicine rotation, and other rotations, such as Obstetrics and Gynecology and Psychiatry, are also common. However, the specifics of your clinical experience will depend on your school’s educational requirements and the hospital’s emphasis. A rotation can vary from three weeks to a few months in duration. The type of people you see will depend on where you complete your clinical studies, and your overall experience will largely depend on the atmosphere of the hospital that teaches you. For example, urban hospitals are likely to treat a more diverse population or handle more trauma cases.

Student rotations will continue into the fourth year of medical school, at which time students also choose the subspecialty of medicine they ultimately want to practice as physicians and start their residency program. During residency, students learn all aspects of patient care and obtain the knowledge that will allow them to specialize in a particular area of medicine. Occasionally, students do not know what specialty they will pursue by the time their fourth year of medical school begins, and they require three or four more months to solidify their choice. “[Y]our first responsibility is to take rotations that will help you make that decision,” Centor writes. Take rotations directly related to your specialty, but take complementary rotations, as well. For example, someone interested in becoming a surgeon might take a rotation in anesthesiology.

Finally, Centor says that students must take time in the fourth year of medicalschool to apply for residencies. When deciding where you might like to become a resident, consider such factors as location, how well you would fit in with other residents in that program, and the program’s reputation. While reputation can be important, Centor warns that it will usually just “feed your own ego” and adds that your learning “will be determined mostly by how hard you work.” Find a residency that will expose you to a sufficient number of patients with a variety of casesto help you best learn your specialty.

Ultimately, your fourth year is a time to continue learning and preparing for your internship. Once this final year of medical school is complete, you will be even further along the road toward becoming a physician.

Class Work

Your first two years of medical school will be a time of rapid learning and intense study. This is when you will acquire much of the fundamental knowledge you will need to become a doctor. You will spend the next two years devoted to class work, extensive test taking, and learning the information that will help you survive in a clinical or hospital setting.

According to the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), the curriculum at many medical schools has changed in recent years. However, there are similarities across programs. Expect to spend considerable time studying basic sciences such as anatomy, physiology, pathology, pharmacology, microbiology, and biochemistry. Your course work will also include a look at behavioral sciences, as well as some beginning information on examining patients and taking patient history. How you learn this information may differ though.

Teaching environments and styles vary from one educational institution to another. Some schools teach one subject at a time for a set period. They may focus on discussing case studies during lectures and on keeping class sizes small. Others have an interdisciplinary take on the learning process, and each class addresses a single organ and the pathology, pharmacology, and other details relevant to that system. More traditionally, students must take four or five different classes at a time, attending lectures, labs, and other daily activities.

Medical School Classwork Can Be Overwhelming

Whatever approach your medical school takes, there is no denying that you will be undertaking a difficult endeavor. The hours you put in attending school and studying will be long. The task ahead of you may feel daunting at times, but those who have been through this challenge have some advice for students starting out. Professor Robert M. Centor, MD, of the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Medicine tells students to remember why they are there: “I suspect that you decided to go to medical school with the end in mind of being an outstanding physician,” Centor writes in an article for Medscape.

By the end of your first year, the sometimes overwhelming amount of work you have completed will have significantly increased your understanding of the human body and how it works and added greatly to the knowledge you will need to have to be a successful doctor. Occasionally, the things you are learning will seem — and sometimes may actually be — trivial, but Centor says you will find that these early lessons will become an important part of your daily thought process as a physician several years down the road. Persistence through the more frustrating portions of your learning process is important.

While the first year of medical school is full of its own unique challenges, the second year is no less so. Some may even argue that the second year in medical school is most challenging because you will be required to pass the first of your big tests on the way toward becoming a doctor, the first portion of the United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE). Also remember that mastering these challenges leads you to your clinical rotations and a period of your education that will bring you even closer to becoming a doctor. As with any part of your medical education, your passion for this career can serve as a great motivator for sticking through the difficult moments. Maintain good study habits and take advantage of the resources put in place at your school to help you succeed.

Generally speaking, medical school lasts four years. Students will spend the first two years in the classroom studying fundamental sciences like physiology, anatomy, pathology, and microbiology. Behavioral sciences will be introduced as well, with courses such as Introductory Patient Interviewing and Examination Techniques, and Introduction to Healthcare. By the third year, students will interact with patients in hospital and office settings. The final year will include required and other elective courses that help students learn more about caring for patients. The ultimate course of study you follow will depend on your individual medical school and the program it has established.

Medical School is Very Difficult

Coursework in medical school is rigorous, and students will be expected to internalize a great deal of information quickly. Good study habits will be a tremendous asset. Also, use the faculty and professors at your school for the additional help and support you need to be a success. Make use of other resources, as well. Many medical school libraries have various handbooks or survival guides to help students effectively plan their years in medical school and learn what pitfalls to avoid.

The Princeton Review has advised students to remember that feeling stress at some point (or at many points) in medical school is quite normal. Individuals should remember, however, that they were accepted to their program because the admissions committee felt they would be successful. The ultimate challenge is learning how to deal with stress, and performing under challenging conditions is part of the life of a doctor.

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