Overcoming Failure in Medical School

May 3, 2019 by Jennifer Woodard

I failed my first year of medical school.

I survived, don’t worry! As someone who had pretty much never failed anything else in my life (except for maybe a 3rd grade math test), this was a really foreign and terrifying experience.

During my first year of medical school, I developed crippling test anxiety that I had never had before. I’m talking cold sweats, palpitations, nausea level test anxiety. You might be familiar yourself. It's not a good feeling. I’m not sure why I had never experienced test anxiety until medical school, but I can guess a few contributing factors:

1. Imposter syndrome: I went to a not-highly-ranked state university for my undergrad (which I loved), but being around classmates who went to UPenn and Harvard made me seriously doubt myself. I would avoid mentioning my undergrad school out of fear of judgement.

2. Volume of material: This is really the biggest adjustment in medical school. Instead of a few different courses with moderate volume like in undergrad, we went through one course at a time with tons of content. I didn’t know how to study for the tests I was taking in medical school because they were so different from my undergraduate coursework.

3. Study habits: At some point during undergrad, I became super lazy with my studying habits. I mostly studied with Netflix on in the background, no set schedule, reading and rereading the textbook, making flashcards by hand, etc. This was 100% not sustainable in medical school. I tried writing all of my notes during the first few weeks, but it was exhausting. I wasn’t familiar with the other resources used to study this high volume of information.

4. Test-taking environment: Have you ever sat in a room with 160 other high-achieving, anxiety-prone peers getting ready to take an exam that gives you your score the second you press submit? The tension is palpable, and it’s not what anyone would consider a peaceful test taking environment.

After several discussions (and lots of tears) with our Office of Student Affairs and Academic Support Coordinator, I made the difficult decision to repeat my first year. Looking back now, I’m so glad I did. I was able to go into my clinical year with so much more confidence because I had the time to dedicate to relearning how to study in medical school. The changes I made to how I approached the material made me much more successful, especially going into my second year. I did better on exams and I had learned to better balance medical school and my free time.

1. I started seeing our school counselor. I recommend that everyone do this at least once while in medical school. They have some really great tips for stress reduction and breathing techniques when you’re in high stress situations. Per their suggestion, I also started taking a beta blocker before exams which made such a big difference in how I felt.

2. I took a class on how to learn. It really helped me figure out how to approach the material in a new way. This lesson was huge for my confidence going back and knowing that I had new tools to better approach the material. Also meeting other students in a similar situation was really helpful. It’s so easy to feel like you’re alone when you don’t do well, and speaking to other people who are in a similar situation really helps.

3. I developed a systematic approach to studying. I blended what I learned from the STAT program with what was working for me. I made skeleton outlines of each lecture the night before that I could use to quiz myself on the material and so that I knew the general content of the lecture. The next day, during lecture, I used Osmosis to make flashcards instead of taking notes. The collaborative aspect of Osmosis was so helpful! If I made a mistake, I loved that my classmates would jump in and help me correct it. Also, I liked being able to use premade Osmosis cards that matched the lecture or using some that my classmates made if I didn’t have a chance to make my own.

4. Repetition, repetition, repetition. The main theme here is that my new study habits were focused, active, and gave me multiple “passes” of the material. I was able to use Osmosis videos as an extra “layer” if I didn’t understand a topic how our lecturer explained it. I was absorbing material in a variety of ways and retaining it.

Medical school isn’t easy, and neither is repeating a year, but I can definitely say that seeing patients now in my third year made it incredibly worth the added time and challenges I faced. I’m confident in my future as a doctor and believe my journey will contribute to my quality as a caregiver.

About Jennifer

Jennifer is a third year medical student at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore, MD. She is planning to go into internal medicine, and she has a particular interest in geriatrics and quality improvement. In her free time, she enjoys cooking and volunteering for the local animal shelter, as well as spending time with her two mischievous rescue cats, Mia and Georgie.