What Medical School is Really Like
Kaitlyn Rizzo is a second year medical student at the Ohio University Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine. She is originally from Northeast Ohio and attended the University of Dayton for a B.S. in Exercise Physiology. Kaitlyn attended a summer 2017 Fellowship in Lisbon, Portugal and hopes to return there one day.
Choosing to pursue medical school
During my pre-med years, I knew that the pursuit of medicine would entail a life of continuous learning. Beyond that, I truly did not know what to expect from medical school. Without actually experiencing it firsthand, I could only rely on the stories of mentors, friends and physicians to guide me. So here, I transmit to you what I have learned from them, supplemented from the experience of my first year. Although your own experience will be uniquely shaped by factors like your personality, school choice and study habits, I hope my advice and tips will shed a bit of light on what you can expect from the future.
Let’s start with this reality: medical school is not going to be a continuation of your undergraduate years. Once you reach medical school, you can kiss the idea of cramming goodbye — it just will not work. Your weekends with seemingly endless hours of free time quickly disappear, especially during exam season.
Mental health is put to the test, day in and day out. However, as prospective doctors, we struggle for a worthy goal — the career at the end of the tunnel, a career dedicated to caring for others. Ziyue Wang, a second-year osteopathic medical student at OU-HCOM, voiced this perfectly: “Med school is the highest risk/reward time and experience I’ve ever had. The lows are the lowest, and the difficult is the most difficult, but the day to day fulfillment and validation still makes it the best time I’ve ever had.”
Let’s talk about the workload.
With one year of medical school now under my belt, I can confirm that trying to take in and digest all the content presented to you will be like drinking water from a firehose. The amount of information presented is overwhelming, and to be honest, you will not master it all. There will always be questions you cannot answer, at which time you may consult other physicians or the internet.
As medical students, we do our best to learn how to learn. We attempt to teach ourselves the skills and tools necessary to obtain and analyze as much information as possible. We strive to master copious quantities of content in a brief period of time, but we cannot learn every aspect of every disease in the world in a matter of two years. That being said, medical school will provide you with a base of knowledge to carry you to the start of the real world, when you actually begin to practice. From there, you will continue to learn throughout the duration of your career.
In all honesty, the workload in medical school feels like two full time jobs. When it gets overwhelming, it is important to remind yourself that you are learning a subject that you enjoy which will get you to a goal you desire. You are no longer forced to take that unwanted geography class to meet your degree requirements or the mandatory ecology class for your biology minor. In medical school, you’ll have the opportunity to move beyond the classroom and experience patient encounters, shadowing with preceptors, and even osteopathic manipulation (for students pursuing a DO degree).
Gone are the days of learning seemingly useless material. You may not enjoy every single aspect of medical school, but this is the time when the bigger picture of your future begins to fall into place. It may not be particularly fun to learn about renal disease if you wish to be an orthopedic surgeon.
However, you may have a future patient with renal disease, and you will need to manage his healthcare appropriately, even as his surgeon. Now is the time for learning how every single part of the human body is interconnected. Whether or not you can see it in the moment, everything you learn will better shape and equip you as you interact with your future patients.
What you’ll actually be learning in medical school
Depending on the medical school you attend, the specific content you learn in your first year ranges, but the basic content is the same. At my medical school (Ohio University Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine), we run on a flipped classroom curriculum. We have four semesters: Wellness, Acute, Chronic, and Return to Wellness.
In this curriculum plan, we consistently learn anatomy, histology, physiology, and the other basic sciences. However, we also get to learn about each body system every single semester we are in didactics. For example, instead of learning about the endocrine system once in the first semester of medical school and not seeing it again until we study for boards, we see each body system every semester. This is similar to using spaced repetition, but on a much larger scale.
No matter which university you attend, you will learn the ins and outs of each body system. You will learn anatomy – from cells in histology to gross structures in cadaver lab. You will learn the steps of making a differential diagnosis based on symptoms. You will learn the course of diseases and first line treatments. You will learn about all of the diseases that captivated you during your shadowing hours (and those medical shows you watched on TV.)
If you are at an osteopathic school, you will learn osteopathic manipulative manipulation (OMM). This is the only difference in practice between an MD and a DO degree. From week one, my fellow DO students and I were taught how to use our hands to diagnose and treat dysfunction in the body.
We are taught how to recognize issues with joints, muscles, and bones that could have otherwise been overlooked without this unique training. OMM serves as an extra tool in our tool belt. If you choose to pursue DO school, you will also focus some time on osteopathic principles which guide the way you learn to practice medicine. From the DO perspective, the body is seen as a unit where structure and function are interconnected. Under the right conditions, the body can self-maintain.
Most importantly, you will learn how to communicate with, interact with, and treat patients. Inarguably, this is an essential aspect of the content you will learn. You can be the best test taker with the highest MCAT score and GPA, but if you cannot learn to functionally communicate with a patient, your future as a physician is questionable. As future doctors, our sole purpose is to help our patients, and if we cannot communicate effectively, how can we possibly lead them to recovery?
At my medical school, my peers and I were introduced to simulated patients within our first week. Naturally, it was nerve-wracking, but it allowed us to become accustomed to patients from the moment we arrived. Looking back, I am so glad we had that experience so early in our education. The experiences we have practicing on real people are priceless. At first, while professors are watching and listening via video, it is stressful and intimidating to speak with strangers acting as patients. However, once I got the hang of it, it became rewarding and enjoyable.
One of my biggest pieces of advice to incoming medical students is to utilize your resources. I wish I had followed this mantra earlier in my medical school career. For obvious reasons, older students, residents, faculty, and physicians are great resources; they have been in your shoes, and they have been successful. In addition, take advantage of the help of tutors and learning specialists if they are available at your school. They can help you home in on the learning styles that work for you and help you to set up schedules and point you in the right direction.
Your peers are some of the most valuable resources during your time at medical school. Whether by comparing notes, making study groups, or sharing flashcard sets, working with your classmates can be mutually beneficial. Activities can be as simple as performing weekly review sessions to spend some extra time on complicated topics. There are always going to be the students in your class that are extremely competitive and have no interest in studying with others.
However, the majority of your peers will likely be more than happy to work toward the common goal of mastering content together. Don’t be afraid to ask your classmates for help, and don’t be reticent to give help if you can.
Board preparation materials are another resource that have been helpful for me. Although I am not yet devoting time specifically to board studying, these resources are wonderful complements to in-class materials. Depending on the type of learner you are, there are different resources for all students. I find that I learn well with videos, so I subscribed to a service that provides videos on all sorts of topics in addition to flashcards, board style questions, and more. There are many options available, so after evaluating how you learn best, find what works for you.
On the flip side, since there are so many, be careful not to become overwhelmed by buying every preparatory resource that guarantees success. The success of a program will depend on you and you only. In addition, resources can become extremely costly if you purchase many. It is important to investigate a few that you think will be beneficial, utilize trials if possible, and decide which to focus on from there.
You cannot be half devoted to medical school; you must be 100 percent invested. This does not mean you must become a shell of a human or lose sight of your non-academic interests. It simply means you should seek balance. Whether you find that by volunteering, joining clubs, exercising, or spending time outdoors does not matter. What matters is that you find something that serves as a stress-relieving activity for you.
For me, fitting time into my schedule to speak with family or friends at least once a day helps me balance school and life. Consider using those fifteen minutes you might spend scrolling through Instagram to talk to a friend. This will be more constructive and a healthier use of your time.
Taking time to unwind after exams is also important. It is easy to get so caught up in studying that you feel as though you must return to the grindstone after finishing a test. Without taking breaks and balancing your life, burnout is almost inevitable.
All of us who have successfully made it to medical school spent four years honing ourselves into the best applicants we could be in the hopes of achieving this goal. Competitiveness is ingrained in most of our spirits. Remember: once you are in medical school, you are no longer competing for a spot in the class. As soon as you realize this, take a deep breath, and focus on learning and staying human, the balance will fall into place.
You have made it this far. The medical school that you attend wants you to be there. They accepted you for a reason, and they want you to succeed. Keep that in mind and allow your persistence, determination, and hard work to carry you through.
Yes, residencies are competitive, and you may need to be worried about matching depending on your board scores… but not in this very moment! Take in all the amazing experiences and information, and enjoy the ride. It will go faster than you think, and you will be amazed at the vast amount of knowledge you can learn in just four years.
Medical school will most likely be the hardest four years of your life. However, these years will be incredibly rewarding. You will likely meet people who will become your strongest friends. You will learn how capable and resilient you truly are. You will realize the strength of your support system. You will learn to be a physician.