How to Survive Med School
During my final rotation, I had an awesome attending who would introduce me to his patients and proudly inform them that I was about to “walk the line.” On Friday June 8th, I walked it, and even though my diploma is dated April 30th, I don’t think I really felt like I’d made it through med school until that ceremony. It was often fun and fascinating but med school was never easy. If anyone were to ask me what my advice would be to the students just donning their waist-length white coats, I’d tell them these three things:
1. Questions are your best friends.
My best advice for how to get ahead in med school is to ask a lot of questions and to do a lot of questions. Never be afraid of asking a question, no matter how silly you think it’s going to sound. Chances are, you’re not the only person who doesn’t know the answer. It might seem mercenary, but think of the people around you (your lecturers and attendings, your residents, your allied health professionals, your classmates) as repositories of free knowledge. If you don’t know a dosage or a muscle attachment, someone else might. Of course, it doesn’t hurt to look up answers yourself but you get the idea. Engage the people around you and learn from them. Just don’t be one of those people who asks questions only to make themselves look good (you will get called out on it). Questions are also your best weapons against exam anxiety and your best tools for board prep. Q-bank subscriptions may seem expensive but the aid they will give you (not to mention the confidence) is invaluable. I’ve mentioned my preferred Q-bank many times but you don’t have to take my word for it. Choose whichever one works best for you (and your budget), use it often and use it thoroughly.
2. Always go the extra mile (but don’t be obnoxious about it).
During my internal medicine rotation, there was a snowstorm the likes of which the city hadn’t seen in years. New York was at a standstill and I knew I wasn’t going to be able to get out of Queens by the time I needed to be at the hospital for rounds (or actually, at all that day), so I made two calls, one to the medical education office and one to my attending. The next day, the attending singled me out and told the group how impressed he was that I’d called to notify him of my absence. No one else in the group had done so, and even though one gunner had offered to help him shovel his car out of the snow, it was my simple phone call that he highlighted as the thing he’d wished everyone had emulated. Over the course of clinicals, I learned that it wasn’t always the students who could butter up the higher-ups that gained favor and respect. It was the ones who showed that they were capable, accountable, dependable and responsible. If that meant taking on extra patients or staying extra hours, that’s what I did. I was there when I needed to be, doing what I needed to do for as long as I needed to do it, and if I couldn’t be there, I’d let the team know, and pick up the slack when I got back. I wasn’t vying for brownie points but I did want to display that I was the sort of person who understood my role as a medical apprentice and took it seriously. If you’re the type of student who is willing to go the extra mile, you don’t have to play the game or brown-nose to get good recommendations. If you consistently show your dedication, your peers, your professors and your patients will take notice (and appreciate you for it).
3. Have an emergency motivation system.
Maybe you are a genius. Maybe prior to med school you worked for 10 years as a paramedic, or a PA, or a biochemist, or you’re married to the pre-eminent specialist in rheumatology. Maybe you scored 45 on the MCAT. You might know a lot more about medicine than I did when I started med school but chances are, you are going to get something wrong. You might miss a diagnosis or you might fail a test. You might forget to do something that puts a patient in danger. Someone might berate you or make you cry. Someone you’re trying to help might curse you out. There may be someone you try to help who you can’t help. At some point, something is going to bring you down and when it happens, you need to have a system in place to bring yourself back up. It could be seeking out a person whose advice you cherish, watching a clip from a movie that always makes you laugh, humming a song that calms your nerves, repeating a saying that makes you think of peace in the midst of chaos. Whatever it is, identify this thing and be ready to utilize it at a moment’s notice. You will need it.
General though it may seem, I hope that this advice is helpful to someone out there who’s embarking on the journey though medical school. You may not be able to see the line yet but you are closer to your goal than you’ve ever been. Just work hard, be dedicated and keep moving forward. Perhaps I’ll see you on the other side.