I was never one of those people who wanted to be a doctor since they were 4 years old. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, I just came to the decision a lot later. As late as my final year of Sixth Form I was considering applying for a History degree.
I’m very glad that I ended up studying Medicine, and to delve into every reason why I made that choice would take up more space than the website servers allow… but here are 5 things I wish I knew before coming to medical school, that would have either made my decision easier or would have better prepared me for my first year.
1. Give yourself time to find your feet
Most people will start their university experience with freshers’ week, or in my case at Imperial College, freshers’ fortnight. This is a period of time where you’re moving into a new accommodation, meeting a host of new people and trying to balance your introductory lectures with your exponentially busy social life as the days progress. I’ve always enjoyed socialising, but I was never the most sociable person at school. I’m not sure what changed at university but I ended up going to countless events in those first 2 weeks and beyond, often getting home at 3:00am and then turning up to 9:00am lectures the next day to learn about cellular biology. I had friends who didn’t go to these late-night events and were well rested for the day ahead. I also had friends who stayed out until 6:00am and didn’t bother turning up to lectures, spending the next day in bed with Netflix.
The point here is that there’s no right or wrong way to approach your first term at university. There are people who I work with on the wards who spent that cold September morning in 2017 in bed with a bag of Doritos, and there are others who had an early night and got to lectures early with a fully charged laptop and a black coffee. Both of these people are now in the same boat. Obviously, if you spend your entire university experience sat in bed with a bag of Doritos you’re not going to be that successful… but the first few weeks of university are designed for you to settle in, get to know your new environment and make new friends. The best way to utilise these weeks is to do just that. Turn up to teaching and make an effort to stay on top of the work, but your initial priorities should be accommodating yourself to the sudden change in lifestyle that you’ve suddenly experienced.
2. Learning is very independent
Following on from the above, no-one (most of the time!) is going to check in that you’ve attended a lecture or gained an understanding of renal physiology. This may feel great at the time if you’re not particularly interested in the kidneys, but the next thing you know you’re on the wards and a consultant is quizzing you on hydronephrosis.
Learning at medical school is very independent. This wasn’t too much of a change for me, as I was used to independent learning. I self-taught most of my History A-level after joining the course late and handled my university application mostly by myself. However, I was expecting university work to be more rigid and prescriptive, so the independence came as a bit of a shock.
The positives of this are that you can set your own priorities. No-one knows how you work best better than yourself. Even if you haven’t yet figured this out, the best way to do so is trial and error. You can decide to take a Tuesday off if you’re burnt out or not feeling great, making a note to watch those lecture recordings on Saturday instead when you’ll be more refreshed. Most of the time no-one is going to notice.
The main negative is that this can be dangerous. If you don’t have the right work ethic, this lack of structure can translate into a fun experience doing sport, watching TV, reading books and going out with friends, until exam season hits and you realise you know nothing. So be prepared for the independent learning, as it’s a good thing, but also be prepared to exercise some self-discipline and not to fall too far behind.
3. You’ll develop a host of new non-medical skills
Okay, maybe for some people this doesn’t apply, but I never did the cooking or washing at home. I didn’t sit around either, I worked a lot and had a part-time job outside of school, but I had no experience whatsoever with housework. All of a sudden I’m learning how to cook for the first time and doing my own laundry and ironing. Not that it’s difficult to boil some pasta or put some clothes in a steel drum and press “go”, but these things were still new and took some time to integrate into my daily routine.
If you’re like me and had no experience in this type of thing, spend a bit of time before you move into your accommodation learning some quick and healthy meals that you can throw together. Whether that’s a simple chicken pasta or a veggie stir fry, having a few recipes up your sleeve is going to make that first term a lot easier. Ask your parents to let you do the laundry and ironing too so you can get used to doing this yourself.
4. Join a society! (or two)
This is so important for your academics, mental health, general physical health and fitness and pretty much everything. I was not sporty at all at school and had never taken to music or drama or anything similar. I decided to try something new at university and that ended up being rowing, which I’d never even encountered before. This allowed me to meet older students, which gives you vital insights on how to approach the course, gets you access to resources and gives you a great insider perspective on your upcoming year. I also made some great friends, improved my physical fitness, and it gave my week some much-needed structure, providing a great release from medicine.
If rowing isn’t your thing, then maybe drama will be, or football, or rugby, or music, or hockey, or chess, or krav maga. Most universities have a wide range of societies, some doing things I’ve never even heard of. Take the time to try something new and you won’t regret it.
5. Exams are harder than school
This is something I initially found quite stressful. I was used to completing a 90-minute A-level Mathematics paper in 25 minutes, and there I was scoring 37% on my first year mock exam. At the time, I thought maybe I was just a bit dim, but on reflection the change of content and exam structure, coupled with the steep learning curve were most likely to blame. It’s normal at medical school to fail and have to resit an exam. I’ve thankfully never had to, but there have been many exams I’ve left and convinced myself I’ve failed and will have to resit. I have many friends who have failed multiple exams, yet are still here after resits and will be stepping onto the same stage as me at graduation.
It’s important to mentally prepare yourself so you don’t beat yourself up if you fail the first exam, or even the second or third. Medicine is hard, there’s a reason the entry requirements are so high and it’s such a competitive degree. Give yourself time to get used to the new lifestyle and you’ll find your feet.
But Medical School is great overall!
Some of the above points have a negative feel to them, but that’s not to say medicine is all stress and intensity. I’ve had a great 5 years at medical school. Sure, there have been tremendous ups and downs, but overall it’s a great experience and one I’d thoroughly recommend to anyone considering it.
Check in with us in a few weeks when we’ll be discussing different learning styles following on from Point 2 above!
Rhodes Willoughby is Co-Founder and Director of STEMaccess, currently in his fifth year of his MBBS/BSC degree at Imperial College School of Medicine.
Check out our website at stemaccess.co.uk for more insights, online courses, private tutoring and more to get you into your first-choice university.