7 Practices for MS1s to Start a Strong First Year in Medical School

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7 Practices for MS1s to Start a Strong First Year in Medical School

Jane Chang, MD

August 2022

Are you looking to take advantage of lessons learned from those who’ve traveled the road before you in medical school? You’ve landed in the right place.


I already know you’re incredibly smart, educated, driven, and practiced at learning - that’s how you got to med school. So, no... I'm not repeating to you what you’ve already heard.


I'm advocating – strongly – for action in behavior and mindset. Because when you get these in alignment with who you are, how you learn, and your new learning environment, there will be nothing you can’t accomplish.


Trust me. I've been where you are and asked the same questions of myself and others.


Embracing the following seven "practices", will serve you well and prepare you for a smooth and successful MS1 year.

Ready? Let's go!

1) Treat MS1 like a job.

By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail. - Benjamin Franklin

Medical school is not college.


Unlike college, your performance and reputation in the classroom gets evaluated as a future doctor. Every interaction with faculty, upperclassmen, and colleagues count.

And the study practices you had in college? Those all night cramming sessions the day before?

That won't work here.

You may breeze through first year, depending on your school curriculum, but that will come back to bite you when MS2 year comes around if you don't prepare ahead. And trust me, you do not want to fall behind in MS2, because that’s when you have to start studying for Step 1.


When upperclassmen tell you to look at medical school like a marathon, with the drinking-from-firehose analogy and all, they don’t mean to bore you with what you already know.


They're telling you that you’ve gotta look ahead at Years 2, 3, and 4 and plan ahead. Really.

Now is the time to set up really good study habits and routines that will carry you through all 4 years.


So here's a good exercise to help you focus on the long term.

Look up question formats for Step 1. They’re not like the MCAT, and they’re not like any other test you’ve ever taken. Internalize the volume of material that is presented in those exams. Internalize the complexity of those questions. Most importantly, try a sample question or two and mildly panic about how you’ll have to study for those.


Pro tip: this is the perfect time to be looking for study aids because you’ll be presented with a volume of material to memorize, and internalize, unlike anything you’ve likely experienced. When my job is 60-80 hours per week, I better have all the tools that I'll need.

2) Make study pleasurable. Well, at least enjoyable. 😏

What we learn with pleasure we never forget. - Alfred Mercier

I know what you’re thinking...

You think the advice to have a daily routine is kind of laughable. Well, we’ll see about that when you’re falling behind in class. Let me tell you, there’s nothing more embarrassing than to not perform well in med school.


Without routine and discipline, assignments and content will pile up REALLY quickly. As quickly as each class moves, playing catch-up is an experience that you won’t want to experience again, and it’ll make developing a routine and sticking to it worth every minute.

And guess what? Not all study has to be boring. There are ways you can gamify your studies.

One technique is to reward yourself with 10-minutes of Youtube, Social Media, or video game time for every hour you diligently study. .

A better technique to use–since it is pretty challenging to be studying all the time– is to find study aid videos that can be entertaining and will help you retain information without having to put in that extra studying effort. Memorization tools, like Anatomy Land (www.anatomyland.com), are designed specifically for medical students to harness the power of the brain’s natural skill at recalling information.


This is a fun and easy tool that your future MS1 and MS2 soul will thank you for.


Speaking of which, let’s give you an example with one of the first, most daunting challenges of med school: getting through anatomy class.

There are over 10,000 anatomical terms, and their spatial relations and functions that you’ll have to lock into your memory for quick retrieval.


You can turn this memorization challenge on its head with Anatomy Land, a highly-visual, punny, storytelling memorization tool that entertains you with themed videos that supercharge your recall through multi-sensory memorization techniques; activating multiple areas of your brain.


We humans process visuals 60,000 times faster than text. Just watching Anatomy Land's mnemonic-rich, engaging videos even once -- with the clinical, anatomical references to body parts shown on the same screen as the story animation -- will speed up your memory connection and retention.


With Anatomy Land, memorization is 3x faster than the traditional approach of using flash cards. And it’s enjoyable. Truth.

Anatomy Land is a great way to bridge the gap between the cadaver lab and your tests.

(Without bringing prosections home with you!)

Anatomy Land is a great way to bridge the gap between the cadaver lab and your tests.

(Without bringing prosections home with you!)

3) Be happy with a "pass".

Our goals should serve as markers, measurements of the progress we make in pursuit of something greater than ourselves. - Simon Sinek

It’s a given that you’re a high achiever.


If anything less than getting top marks makes you unhappy, we’ve got a message for you: "Be happy with a pass."

Med school material is difficult and voluminous, and the clock is always ticking. A passing grade in med school is the equivalent of the fact that you understand the material. Especially if it’s in a subject that you’re not thinking of specializing in later. So be okay with focusing on your understanding of the material, because everything you’re learning will be reinforced and retested throughout med school and your medical career.


This also means: don’t get caught up in doing everything perfectly. Perfection in med school just doesn’t happen. You have to keep exposing yourself to the concepts and the materials over and over again, so no need to beat yourself up over that one test you didn’t do so well on.

And that friend sitting next to you in class that looks so cool, calm, and collected? Yeah, he’s freaking out too that he isn’t getting a perfect grade on everything either.


So, for each assessment, aim to get to a place where you can perform comfortably. If you get top grades, great!


But, overall, remember that a passing grade in med school is not bad performance.

4) Study economically.

Procrastination is like a credit card: it’s a lot of fun until you get the bill. - Christopher Parker

It can be easy to get caught up in the details when studying; like single-mindedly plowing through a single subject for days because it makes you feel accomplished.


However, covering several subjects with varying degrees of review each day will be critical for staying up-to-speed across your classes.


And the best way to retain memory is to revisit concepts you’ve learned in intervals. For instance, study pulmonology on day 1, then review it with less and less intensity on day 2, day 4, day 7, day 12, etc.


As you mix in other subjects, increase the time you spend on unfamiliar subjects while decreasing the amount of time you spend on subjects you are now acquainted with.

This will be a judgment call that you’ll improve upon as the weeks pass. I just want you to consciously be aware, and look at your calendar over the longer term. Look at the weeks and months, not just the days, and do your best to balance the time you spend on each subject relative to its importance.


Really nail those chunky, crucial topics before spending more time on the minor topics which will likely contribute less to your classroom grade or the USMLE. Invest your study time on the subjects that will generate more returns - achieve a higher yield.


5) Listen to your body.

Get some rest. If you haven't got your health, then you haven't got anything. Count Rugen, The Princess Bride

It’s a cliche, but doctors are often the least likely to pay attention to their bodies - and medical students are no different.


You’re studying for long hours in a high-pressure environment, and possibly burning the candle at both ends to juggle a social life. It can be easy to push self-care to the bottom of the list. But (as you should know) stress, anxiety, and exhaustion can manifest themselves physically.

Take care of yourself physically and emotionally, and understand when your body is telling you to take a break.

Nothing is more important than your health, even medical school. If you don’t take care of it now, you’ll be paying for it in residency or some other time, when you don’t want to, or can’t afford to.

6) You must find your support group.

Med school can be an extremely isolating experience without proper support. It is hard enough to do it with support, but doing it alone is unimaginably difficult.


Your first port of call for advice should be your med school peers. There is nothing more helpful in med school than your tight-knit group of friends who study together and endure the trials and tribulations of med school with you. If they aren’t able to help, they’ll point you in the direction of people or resources that can.

Next are your student advisor and academic advisor. They’ll be the ones to hold your hand through all of medical school and to help you with your grades and evaluations, Step 1 and Step 2, and residency preparation.

And remember, admitting you don’t understand something or that you're struggling is not a signal of failure. Asking questions is a necessary step to gaining deeper insight and understanding, and when problem-solving – to finding better solutions. The support is available - remember to look for it and ask for it.

7) Don't forget, you're not alone.

In the thick of things, this feeling of aloneness, or separateness, can sneak its way into your thoughts and persuade you to pull back instead of lean in. It’ll be like nothing you’ve ever felt in your life. Because med school is that hard.


Don’t pull back.

When–not if–these thoughts creep into your mind, remember you’re one among many first-year medical students going through the same program. Everyone will experience highs and lows.

You won’t be the only one with a fear that you’re not keeping up or working hard enough.


There will always be others seemingly breezing through things that you find challenging, moments when you are convinced you're the only one who is confused about something, or struggling in the cadaver lab to quickly identify the relevant structures. I cannot stress enough that this is 100% never the case.

You’ll never be alone in your fears. Period. In fact, your fears come from a drive to succeed. Wanting to be perfect. That drive is something all excellent medical doctors share.


So, embrace this fear as ‘normal’ and let it motivate you.

A final thought for you.


You’ve earned your place in medical school. You have what it takes to make it a success. Believe in yourself, and remember - you’re never alone.


Good luck!

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