HealthEd: Everything You Ever Needed to Know About Year 1 of Medical School

Everything You Ever Needed to Know About Year 1 of Medical School

Osmosis Team
Published on Nov 28, 2022. Updated on Feb 16, 2023.

Going to medical school is a huge transition for every new student. We’re here to help make it a bit smoother for you with a selection of tips on developing good habits from the start, how to choose the best extracurricular activities for your goals, and what you need to know to prepare for Year 2. 

The first year of medical school is a huge adjustment period for new students. Aside from the breadth of knowledge they need to master during Year 1 of medical school, the pace at which medical students must absorb that information is very rapid. Most students liken the experience to trying to drink out of a firehose. 

And while there’s no doubt that studying for classes like anatomy, histology, physiology, and biochemistry should be a top priority, it shouldn’t be the only priority. It’s also important to strive to find a healthy balance between school life and personal life, to start preparing for the USMLE Step 1 exam, and to look into identifying and reaching out to a mentor who’s a good match for you and your goals.

The Basics: How to develop good habits in medical school

Curating an optimal study environment is a major factor in having productive study sessions. First, figure out where you prefer to study, whether at home, the library, or a coffee shop. Next, consider whether you focus best alone or if having a study buddy helps you stay on track. Lastly, remember that while you will need to study a lot, studying for hours on end with no breaks won’t help and could lead to burnout. It is important to balance focus time and break time to maintain energy levels, concentration, and motivation. Consider techniques such as the Pomodoro Method to help with time management, which uses timed intervals to designate clear times to study and take a break.

Understanding the way you learn best is critical for developing effective study habits. Regardless of your preferred learning style, active recall is a study technique that you should incorporate into your study sessions. It’s essentially asking yourself questions to retrieve information that you have previously studied. It replaces passively re-reading notes with continuous testing of the material through the use of practice questions and flashcards. Many medical students also use flashcards that use a spaced repetition algorithm to increase their retention of material and mastery of various facts and concepts. Aside from these methods, having a clear plan on what topics you will study and when you will study them will help keep you organized as you make your way through school.

The best way to ensure that you can balance the demands of school and life is to work on time management. Time management includes being familiar with your class schedule, identifying when you have pockets of time between classes, and using them properly to rest, study, volunteer, or spend time with loved ones. Balancing everything takes organization, flexibility, and staying engaged with the activity at hand. 

You should strive to be a well-rounded student who excels academically and is involved in extracurricular activities when feasible. Remember, you don’t have to do everything at once, but once you find your groove, you can slowly start adding a few more activities back into your schedule. Most importantly, maintaining a schedule helps you organize your time and prevent becoming overwhelmed. Having an accountability partner to check in with to ensure you’re both excelling in school and taking breaks is a great way to stay motivated. Just make sure that when you’re taking a break and enjoying your personal life to stay in the moment and have fun.

Thinking Ahead: There’s more to medical school than studying

Medical school is more than endless studying. It’s also about networking, volunteering, getting involved with research, and considering residency specialties. A great way to explore different specialties during your first year is by joining specialty interest groups at your university or in the community. They often host doctors from a specialty of interest who can give you a personal account of what it’s currently like to work in that specialty and what’s on the horizon. You can also network with these doctors, setting the stage for connecting with peers once you begin your medical career.

Another way to discover more about different specialties is by shadowing doctors. Whether it’s through your school, or cold calling physician practices, observing the daily life of a doctor in your specialty of interest can help provide you with clarity on your future path. Many students enter medical school with a fixed idea of what specialty they’d like to pursue and completely change their minds. During your third and fourth years of medical school, you’ll have the opportunity to attend lectures and clinical rotations on different specialties. This is another wonderful way to get experience in the field and can help shape your choice.

Medical school is challenging, but finding a great mentor can make the process more manageable. Consider reaching out to upperclassmen or other healthcare professionals for mentorship. Often upperclassmen can provide insight into how to prepare for board exams such as the USMLE®, as well as demonstrate that the challenges you face are surmountable.

Mentorship can also help shift your perspective, provide encouragement, and help you find worthwhile opportunities. However, each of us values different qualities in a mentor. Strive to find someone who has similar professional interests and values. Take some time to consider what you seek in a mentor and begin your search. 

The match process may seem very far away when you’re in the first year of medical school, but we encourage you to begin to prepare for what lies ahead. When applying for the match, you will need to describe different work, volunteer, and research projects that you were involved in throughout medical school, so keep good records of those experiences. Getting involved in various extracurricular activities, such as research opportunities or volunteering, provides an excellent opportunity to add valuable experience to your CV. In addition, involvement in extracurricular activities early on will help you be a more well-rounded applicant and person.  

Heading into Year 2: What you need to know

Each year of medical school builds upon the knowledge and skills acquired the year before. Think of Year One as the foundation of a house; the better your study habits, school-life balance, and network are, the stronger it will be. It’s not the best idea to build on a shaky foundation, so make sure to put in the effort into understanding concepts and not just memorizing facts in your first year, as Year Two will build upon that knowledge. For example, if you don’t understand physiology, it’ll make it much more difficult to do well in clinical pathology the following year.

Another reason to build a strong foundation of knowledge in Year One is so that you can refer to it when preparing for the USMLE® Step 1 exam in Year Two. Osmosis has a wealth of resources for your preparation, such as videos, flashcards, study schedules, and much more! Be sure to check out tips from successful test takers, and don’t be afraid to ask for help along the way.

Check out this Year One checklist to help you survive and thrive during year one of medical school:

  •  Figure out your learning style and ideal study environment

  •  Be organized and find ways to maintain a school-life balance

  •  Find a supportive and helpful mentor

  • Connect with upperclassmen, and don’t be afraid to ask questions

  •  Get involved with extracurricular activities

  •  Enjoy the journey and avoid comparing yourself to others

There’s a lot to do during that first year at medical school, but as long as you stay organized, speak up when you need help, and put in your best effort, you can succeed. So many people before you have embarked on this journey and made it through. Now it’s your turn.

Best of luck to all the first-year medical students!