"What the First Year of Medical School is Actually Like" by Nic Lalanne (Cal Poly Alumni)

“Medicine is only for those who cannot imagine doing anything else.” - Dr. Luanda Grazette, MD

To state the obvious, medical school admission committees look for students who know what they’re getting into. In my 5 years as a pre-med, I conducted online research, shadowed providers, worked as an EMT, scribed, and stayed connected with friends in medical school. I knew what I was getting into.

But, did I really?

Is anyone able to truly know what they’ve gotten themselves into, before they’re actually in it?

In so many ways, medical school is everything I expected. A lot of studying, limited free time, and some FoMO from time to time. But, there’s a lot that I didn’t expect. Or at least, I didn’t fully appreciate before I started medical school. If I could go back in time, here are some tips and insights I’d give my pre-med self:

It doesn’t matter where you go. I wasted way too much time thinking about where I hoped to go and when I was choosing where to apply, I put too much weight on location (i.e. urban, suburban, or rural). I liked the advice one physician passed on to me, “You’re not going to have the luxury of choosing which med school, rather med schools will choose you.” There were schools I thought I was perfect for that didn’t invite me for an interview, and others I considered “reach schools” that accepted me. Additionally, attending a school listed high on U.S. News Rankings won’t make you a great physician in the same way that attending a lesser known school will not make you a weak physician; it all depends on personal fit, attending a school that provides the resources and opportunities you deem important, and taking the initiative to make the most of your education once you start.

MD and DO students really do learn the same material. Independent from the differences in philosophical approach, the biggest difference among medical schools is how the curriculum is structured – some schools commit to problem-based learning accompanied with large amounts of independent reading, some use a spiral technique where complexity increases with each pass of the material, and many schools implement a systems-based curriculum where each block is a different organ system. Also, know that many DO students take both allopathic (USMLE) and osteopathic (COMLEX) board exams to provide a definitive comparison to their allopathic counterparts. Taking both exams is currently an extra hoop for osteopathic students to jump through, but the professional distinction between philosophies continues to evolve. By 2020, all residency programs will be open to both DO and MD graduates and selection will be done through a single match process.

Accept that your “To-Do List” will never be finished. Drinking water from a fire hose is a medical school analogy you’ll hear 1000x too many. There will always be more studying to do before an upcoming exam. I remember going into my first big exam thinking, “I don’t know how much I know.” I didn’t have a reference point, and I felt like that for the first couple months. School in general felt like a whirlwind, but the doubt fades and one day you notice you’re still standing - you’re halfway through the first semester, still passing, and no administrators have mentioned anything about kicking you out. Trust yourself. Admission committees don’t accept students without full confidence in their abilities.

A physician really MUST be a life-long learner. I claimed to be a life-long learner in my application, but this claim didn’t really sink in until I started learning medicine. In a way, I think of medical school as a gauntlet that student-doctors must endure and survive in order to become a physician. But with that notion, I think I gave myself a false impression that by the time I finish training I will have learned all that I need to learn. This couldn’t be further from the truth. New research and technologies are constantly changing the way we practice. It doesn’t matter if you’ve been a doctor for 1 year or 50 years, physicians must always remain up to date on the latest publications in order to provide the best recommendations for their patients.

Take advantage of your current lack of responsibilities. Enjoy your free time and travel as much as possible. Once medical school starts you’ll be preparing for boards, then planning for residency, then figuring out how to relieve your debt, and by that point you’ve probably already started a family or you’re planning to start one soon. Really think about, and grasp, that once medical school starts the race is on - you’re going to be pushed like you’ve never been pushed before, and your responsibilities will only grow as time goes on.

Being a non-traditional student has its benefits. I like being an older student and I’m glad I pursued opportunities outside of the classroom after I graduated from Cal Poly. The three years I spent between undergrad and medical school facilitated personal growth and really shaped me as a person. I rid myself of a lot of FoMO by pursuing personal interests in business and research, and by seizing opportunities to see new parts of the world.

Read, read, read. Read anything and everything. The ability to quickly and efficiently read while retaining material is an underappreciated skill nowadays, and one that is vital in med school.

“Embrace the suck.” Medical school can really suck at times. But hey, nobody said it was easy and you’re in a very special, collaborative learning environment of highly-motivated and talented people. Med school is very different from undergrad because everyone is going through the same curriculum. I couldn’t survive med school without my classmates, and really amazing relationships are cultivated when a cohort of med students are all trudging through the same gauntlet.

Hopefully some of you found this useful and best of luck!
Nic Lalanne, OMS I
Pacific Northwest University of Health Sciences
College of Osteopathic Medicine