Medical Student Misperceptions

No matter what we say to warn students of how medical school will be different and that it can knock them on their can, whether or not they have been a stellar student as an undergraduate - students don’t believe us until they have experienced it.

These are the most common misperceptions about studying for the first two years of Medical School that we hear:

  • I didn’t expect medical school would be that different from undergrad
  • I can keep using the same study method in medical school as I used as an undergraduate and I will still make all A’s
  • This study approach works for my friend last year, so if I do the same thing I should Honor the course too
  • I don’t have time to make outlines, flash cards or charts

We have already talked about the increased volume of material and density of material in medical school. What you might not have been expecting is the level at which you need to know it to take the examinations. Memorization is important, yes – and hurrahs for you if you are really good at memorizing. However, medical school asks you to think at a much deeper level. Another way medical school is different from undergraduate is the investment your teachers have in your education. Your professors know the biochemistry, physiology, and pathology of the human body extremely well, especially after teaching, performing research, and seeing patients for 20 – 30 years. In the front of their brain is that they are responsible for training the next generation of caregivers, of diagnosticians, of surgeons, of researchers. They fully understand and are committed to the responsibility of their mission to teach you what you need to know to safely provide care to their community and perhaps even their own family members. Therefore, your professors will want you to understand the material, apply the material, integrate concepts, and be able to see the basic science applications in a clinical case or scenario. Always at the front of their mind is that they are helping train future doctors and that responsibility is immense. Their investment in teaching is great and they will challenge you like you have never been challenged before. The level of responsibility for learning is much greater than as an undergraduate where you could get a degree but not use your knowledge to save a life or cure a disease.

Medical school will be different than undergrad in that everyone in your class is also very bright and very hard working. The vast majority will be Type A personalities or they would not be the high achieving students getting into medical school that they are (Yeah, Type A’s!). Now what you did to get an “A” or “Honors” in a course may not be enough because the curve will be determined by the brightest from all your undergraduate classes. Don’t faint… You can do it. You just need to work hard and work smart – be invested and committed.

You also need to be flexible. Your study method for undergraduate may not work in medical school. If you spent every waking hour studying as an undergraduate, do you think your study strategies will work in an environment where the reading load and knowledge acquisition is 2-3 times greater? Adaptation is one of the hallmarks of a great doctor. When something comes up to challenge you, take on that challenge instead of freezing up. Rethink how you are learning and studying… Really think about it. It may be that you are studying for recognition rather than understanding. Perhaps all you need to change is reading your assignments before you go to lecture so you connect with them at a higher level and your learning is greater as a result. It could be that you need to form a study group to handle the larger amount of information. What is most important is that you are thinking about how you learn and how you can adapt what you are doing to make learning more meaningful and enjoyable.

Many medical students also hear something that worked for one student in a course and will follow or think they are following their advice and fall flat on their face. What the heck happened??

  1. They did the work of making all those charts, graphs, and notes and then you used them. It was making those study aids that was the learning experience, not trying to memorize what someone else had done. Those two levels of learning are completely different.
  2. Someone told you that they read the class scribes three times, two weeks before finals and Honored the class. Their advice was “over-studying is not good because if you learn too much you can’t focus on the overall picture.” Well sometimes that is good advice, but not generally. Reading a book or scribes rarely gets you the grade you want or need in medical school because the material is too dense and complicated.
  3. You did everything another student did to the letter, and they scored at the top of the curve and you scored in the average range. It could be that they have a different learning style than you, so while you are seeing the forest, they are seeing the trees. Self-testing is very important to figuring out if you are really learning. Get with a friend and grill each other. Get together and do a practice test and compare results. If your partner is doing much better, go through the explanations and figure out where you are going wrong. If they are doing better, then the study method is working for him/her but not for you. So now this is the time to drop that study method and try something that better fits your learning style.

Student advice is definitely great. Everyone would benefit from having a friend that has already been through the training program and is a few year ahead to guide them through. It is wonderful support and can save many hours and avoid tactical errors with administrative responsibilities. Just be wise and go in with eyes wide open to see if this study method makes sense and will work for you.

Just know that with many years of experience with students that there is definitely time to make outlines, charts and graphs in medical school. If this is how you learn, then you can make it happen. You might have to change how you do your outlines so they are more efficient and you may want to develop your own short hand or you might have to learn to par down your verbiage to the most essential information, but outlines can be used.  Flashcards are also doable, but know that they are not useful for every course and every topic within a course. They can be hard to keep up with when you get to very large piles. However, there are now electronic flashcards, which can be fun to use.

Email us at [email protected] if you have noticed other misperceptions that students have to which they have to adapt upon entering medical school. 1st Year med students are awesome. The energy, creativity, enthusiasm and fresh ideas you bring each year are so very interesting and inspiring. Faculty always look forward to meeting and teaching the new hands, hearts, and minds of our future healers.

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