7 Tips for Starting Med School

…#7 changed my LIFE!! Lol

Starting med school has been simultaneously the most exciting and the most overwhelming time of my life. It’s only been a month, and I already feel a lot of the responsibilities of “being a doctor”. Like Shakespeare wrote in Twelfth Night, it’s kind of been thrust upon me, all of a sudden. Starting the Problem Based Learning (PBL) model here at Mac was a little analogous to being thrown into the deep end, where at least before there were familiar creatures like marked exams and projects—have now been replaced by a void of vague tutorial objectives, optional anatomy labs, and “professional competency”. It was very different from everything I was used to in terms of education, and combined with the friction of moving to a new city with new roommates, was and still is difficult. That being said, I decided to get a little reflective and to come up with a few tips I would have given myself a month ago, or to any new medical student:

  1. ENJOY YOURSELF. You made it, man! You survived the toxic wasteland that was pre-med and made it into medical school, one of the most competitive professional programs in the country. That’s a huge accomplishment and you need to allow yourself to celebrate properly. It will be easy to devalue your achievements, just like you’ve always done, behind a curtain of humility and a desire not to get complacent, but for once just live life! Medicine is a long journey and there are many many years ahead of you, so stop to smell the roses! And the first rose is really big and really sweet, trust me. So throw yourself into orientation week, meet all the people (one of our regional directors ended up marrying the guy she sat beside on the first day), and let yourself have some fun!

  2. DO NOT BE OVERWHELMED. There is going to be a lot of information overload, social pressure, and the looming shadow of figuring out what to apply to for CaRMS. We’ve already had student council elections, about a half dozen specialty interest group meetings, a couple conferences, and a Wellness Retreat weekend at Blue Mountain. Plus, all the second years are starting clerkship soon so they are trying to find execs to take over the clubs. I decided to focus on things that I was really passionate about, like technology in medicine or fixing the healthcare gap, so that I can spend more time on fewer commitments. Even for things like medical textbooks and resources, there is a lot of material out there and you are never going to get through them all! Study smart and find resources that work for you, and stick to it! For me I really like Khan-academy style videos, at least as a springboard for a higher-level overview on a subject before I dive in. In regards to CaRMS: I think it’s always good to start thinking about it early. I know, you just started medical school and it’s already time to start worrying about residency matching. But my advice would be to just be extra mindful of what you enjoy and what’s important to you in terms of lifestyle, start with a default state of curiosity, and try to get exposed to as many specialities as you can, whether through interest groups or conferences or talking to your preceptors about their programs, to get a feel for their jobs on a holistic level. Ask yourself if you can see yourself working in that job for 40, 50 years. Don’t rule things out just because they are competitive—if it’s not hard is it worth doing?

  3. MAKE TIME for hobbies! A theme that’s been brought up during our professional competencies tutorials is to remember your identity before it became “med student”. Medicine is just an another part of your life, and you shouldn’t let it consume you. Make a list of things that you liked doing before this whole med school thing and remember why they made you happy. Seriously, go make a list right now. If possible, try to keep them up, and commit to it over the year! Make an effort to keep “you-time” sacred and not to brush it off for whatever comes up that week. These hobbies will be the supports that keep you sane, in addition to your family and friends. Don’t neglect them, either! Make time to call them or even just chat with them on messenger. Friendship is a two-way street, so take a solid first step!

  4. On a similar vein, REMEMBER YOUR EXPERIENCES and learning style from undergrad/grad studies. You did something right to get into med school, so don’t just throw it out the window because “it’s PBL now”. Yes, bad habits like cramming the night before exams should eventually get fixed, but have some confidence in yourself and your background! We are a product of our experiences, so remember what has helped you in the past and what works for you. You are not a blank slate to be filled, which is what I once thought med school was all about. You are you, a unique collection of experiences and reflections about those experiences, and you are going to play a unique role in healthcare because of that.

  5. Take a deep breath and SMELL THE ROSES. Echoing point #1 a little bit, but it’s because it’s really important—you only get to do med school once! Constantly remind yourself to be fully present, grateful, and humble. A recent JAMA study on burnout symptoms in US medical residents showed that reported levels of empathy during medical school was associated with a lower risk of burnout symptoms—and career choice regret!—during residency (Dyrbye et al., 2018). If that means taking walks or mediation or reflective writing, schedule some time for it once in a while. Your soul (and future non-burned out self) will thank you.

  6. KEEP AN OPEN MIND, and buy into the curriculum! At least for me, I think it’s easy to fall into a state of “just getting by”, skipping lectures, devaluing anatomy lab, or neglecting tutorial objectives, especially because there aren’t any formalized evaluations anymore. I like idea of PBL, because it’s “learning medicine as they practice medicine”. Invented by the founders of Mac Med, PBL was inspired by Harvard Business School cases and leverages the effectiveness good study groups can have on learning and knowledge retention. Furthermore, Harvard Medical School was one of the first schools to adopt PBL outside of Canada, and has been around for 49 years (we are the 50th class)! So there must be some benefit to this alternative style of learning. Dig into it and find out what it is, before deciding that it isn’t for you. And a point that my classmate brought up too was that not everything is going to work for you, and that’s okay. The beauty of PBL is that it is flexible enough to give you the space and find your optimal learning strategy, regardless of what background you come from. But try it before you knock it!

  7. BE KIND. Medicine is all about empathy and love for our patients—constantly serving their needs above everything else. I find that way of thinking to be so honourable and it’s actually one of the reasons I decided to go into medicine…if that makes me a Hufflepuff then so be it. Being kind to people is cool, so get used to that way of living and challenge yourself to fully love everyone you encounter, from your classmates to your tutors to the drivers on the road who are driving a little too slowly, to the woman on the bus talking a little too loudly on her phone. These are all fellow human beings with feelings and context and stories, so be gentle and slow to judge. I’m reminded of a Facebook post where the author reflects upon how she was driving behind a slow-driving car, but because it had a “New Driver - Please Be Patient” sign on the rear windshield, she didn’t get angry even though she was in a rush. But, she admits, she probably would have if they didn’t put up that sign, if the context wasn’t communicated. Similarly, we all walk through life with our own unique struggles and circumstances, but no “New Driver - Please Be Patient” signs on the backs of our heads. It’s so easy for us to lay judgement without all the facts, while we get frustrated when others judge us too quickly (fundamental attribution error xD). So don’t assume, and allow for the possibility of context. I’m still working on this last point in my own life, but I think it’s the most important one even though it’s hard, because it will make us better people. And kindness only begets more kindness. :)

And that’s it! I’ll probably be coming back to some of these points in future posts. If you read this far, here’s a bonus tip for you for free:

  1. ZOOM OUT. During tutorials, it’s easy to get caught up in the details of the cases, such as inflammation pathways or complex flow equations. We are often encouraged to “remember the big picture” of the clinical picture, because truthfully that’s probably the part we will retain after med school and beyond. As long as we can achieve a high-level understanding, the details will always be available a quick database search away. Similarly it’s important to zoom out in your personal life. Yes, med school may seem all consuming and an upcoming test might seem like it will make or break your medical career and you’ll think you’ll never be a good doctor. A point: we are the 50th class, which means there have been 49 classes before us, and there will be many many more classes after us. We are a point on the timeline, a class photo in the hallway of class photos, a blue dot in the universe. We will make terrible mistakes, and we will celebrate amazing successes. As one of the regional campus directors said during orientation, we get to be the first person in the world to look into the eyes of a baby, and the last person to look into the eyes of a patient leaving this Earth. This life is ephemeral so try to ground yourself. Ride, don’t fight, the waves of life and relish in the ocean mist. You are exactly where you need to be right now, so make the most of it.
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