Advice for New Medical Students


Whether you’re starting medical school or beginning your second year, this post is for you. Will probably work just as well for PAs, NPs and any other health professional student who hasn’t started clinical rotations.

Our former babysitter just graduated from medical school and the WhiteCoats are just as proud as her parents are. Then I started thinking … what advice would I give to students starting medical school?

Our first day of class, one of the professors got up in front of the class, spent a minute or so giving every student a  stare with the “eyeball” for which he was famous, then gave us this brief warning before launching into a discussion about the Krebs Cycle (which has absolutely no practical application to clinical medicine whatsoever) …

“If you want to graduate from this medical school, there are two rules: Don’t fall behind and don’t fall in love.”

Most of us sat there pondering his statement while comments about fumarate and oxaloacetate went in one ear and out the other. By the way, I still remember the mnemonic for the Krebs Cycle after all these years: “Attention Oll Comanche Indians — Killing Season Starts Friday Morning Officially.”

In the end, everyone fell behind, and a lot of us fell in love. Medical school is where I met Mrs. WhiteCoat. We all still managed to graduate.

Here are some of the things that will help you in your studies:

1. Cramming is bad. Everyone does it, but it doesn’t help you learn. To me, learning was understanding the concepts, not memorizing the words. Even anatomy and pharmacology were about memorizing relationships. They still are. I learn directions by seeing where things are on a map and by relating those things to the place I am going. I learned medicine in the same way.
I also used to try to read ahead in the books so that when a professor addressed a subject and I didn’t understand it, I could ask questions in class about it. Didn’t always work out that I could read ahead, but when I did, it seemed to help my understanding and retention.

2. Avoid study groups. There were always people in our class who studied together. They always used to interrupt each other’s studying with unrelated questions or with discussions about the latest TV show. When crunch time came for tests, they knew what was happening on “Friends” but didn’t always have a grasp of the concepts for the tests. That wasn’t for me. I would just bring my book to a secluded spot in a little known building on campus, plug my headphones into my CD player, and listen to instrumental music (George Winston – you’re the man) while I studied. Scary that MP3s weren’t even around when I was in medical school.

3. Focus, dammit. Turn off your internet connection. Shut down your computer. Don’t even take it with you. Stop checking your e-mail messages on your phone. Don’t take it with you, either. Or take it and pull the battery out of it. Take your book, some ear plugs, an MP3 player, some paper, a pen, and take notes on what you’re trying to learn. Writing things out helps you remember concepts. All the other distractions make it harder for you to concentrate on learning.
We didn’t have “smart phones” when I was in medical school, so I didn’t have to worry about that distraction. Think about it now, though. Does it really matter whether you get your BFF’s text message immediately or a few hours from now? Do you really need to check your e-mail that often? Does it matter that you won’t get to read my latest post for a few hours after I hit the “PUBLISH” button? If there’s something that important pending, then deal with it before you go to study. When you study, focus on studying.

4. Get copies of old tests. This is VERY IMPORTANT! Most professors are not industrious enough to create new questions for each exam. And there are only so many questions you can ask about the same topic. Therefore, many questions are repeated. Some may have wording changes, but most questions have the same concepts. By learning and understanding what concepts appeared on previous tests and are therefore important to the professor, you’re well on your way to learning the concepts — and passing the tests. Back before we had all these fancy computers and scanners, the students used to have a copy service where we paid extra so that we could get paper copies of previous test questions.

5. Don’t get down on yourself. You’re going to do poorly on tests. I did. Almost everyone did. Don’t you just feel like bopping the guy in the head who aces every test and then sits there with his smug grin bragging about it in the study lounge? You may be smart, but you’re a tool, pal.
You know what they call the person who graduates lowest in his medical school class? …. Doctor.
You don’t need great grades in every subject to be a decent doctor. Trust me. I’m living proof.
Study hard, do your best, keep plugging along, and don’t get discouraged. If you put in the effort, you will graduate.

6. Learn what medicine is all about. Don’t just stick to the textbooks. Read journal articles or medical blogs about topics that interest you. Yeah, it’s more reading, but those articles are only a few pages, will hopefully be more enjoyable, and will help bring together all of the facts that you are learning to show you how to apply them. There’s a big difference between “book sense” and “common sense.” You need both to succeed.

7. You’re not a doctor. Don’t act like one. We had one guy in medical school that used to wear scrubs and a white coat while he was in the grocery store. He drove a nice car and used to pick up on a few women that way. Total fool. Most of the people in school rolled their eyes when he walked by – even when he was dressed normally.
Even I wasn’t immune to the allure of being called “doctor.” Funny thing is that now I detest being called “doctor.” When I was a student, I used to carry a medical bag in the back of my car wherever I went. Still do now, but at least now I have the proper equipment and I know how to use it. Then — well, I’m not sure how many accident victims would benefit from me testing their reflexes or doing a funduscopic exam on them. I also had a large bore needle that one of our more senior professors said we could use as a “makeshift cricothyrotomy to establish a temporary airway.” Then we thought how cool we would be saving someone’s life by sticking an IV needle in their neck. Now, I still laugh at some of the stuff I used to carry in that bag. Thank goodness I never actually pulled the bag out of my trunk.
People will ask you for medical advice. Tell them you aren’t a doctor and you don’t know. Or tell them you haven’t studied that topic yet. Don’t act like you know what you’re talking about. More often than not, you’ll give them the wrong advice and you could get yourself into trouble in the process.

8. Set aside a day to relax. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. We usually had our exams on Monday mornings. Most of us studied all weekend. Sometimes during weeks with less difficult tests, we’d take a Saturday night off and go to the bars. However, Monday afternoon and evenings after school, everyone relaxed, partied, went to the beach, played cards, and acted like normal people. Some of the fondest memories (and the most incriminating pictures) I have from medical school were from events that took place on Monday nights. Make friends and have fun. It’s a school, not a prison.

9. Don’t forget your family. Your family is proud as heck of you for making it into medical school. Call them once in a while. Better yet, write them an e-mail and send pictures. Chances are that they sacrificed a lot so that you could go to medical school and they probably brag about you to all their friends. Give them some material to brag with. Without your family, you probably wouldn’t be where you are right now. Trust me … you’ll miss them when they’re gone.

I’m sure that there’s more stuff buried in the back of my mind. Maybe I’ll add it in an update to this post. Start with these bits of advice and you’ll be way ahead of the curve.

And if some day you see a contracted old curmudgeon in diapers mumbling about how he used to write a medical blog, take pity on your old pal WhiteCoat.


  1. Here, here, Mr. WC. Well done summary.

    I did study with small groups and we managed to focus enough to keep on the task at hand.

    The first message the Dean of our school told us was the following: When you were in high school, you were in the top 5-10% of everyone in high school. When you applied to Med School, you had to be in the top 5-10% of all the people in college. So when you are here and graded on a curve (again), being on the bottom of that Bell Curve is NOT being a failure. Being in the middle of that Bell Curve is NOT a failure.

    You are still in the top 1-2% of all the most educated people on the planet! Stop being competetive. The competition is over now. You made it.

  2. I’m a recent medical school graduate, and I agree with almost everything you posted, with the following exceptions:

    1. I had to study in groups. If I’d had to study by myself, I don’t think I would have made it through my first year of medical school. Med school was a shock to me, and without the support of my classmates/friends who were there to commiserate, I would have done very poorly. I succeeded with this method, and I think if you find people who have a similar studying style to yourself, this can work well.

    2. It’s not always possible in today’s medical education system to study without a computer or the internet. There are many online lectures or modules as part of the required curriculum. That being said, I fully agree that study time is not the time to check email, facebook, your phone, etc.

    The rest I more or less agree with, especially #5 and #8. I made my house my safe zone. I studied at the library, and when I got home I was done. It’s impossible to know EVERYTHING, and trying will only lead to unnecessary stress. I also tried to make time for “normal” activities. I’m a big college football fan, and I did my best to watch my team’s game every Saturday. Even if I had an exam on Monday, taking 3-4 hours out of my day to enjoy that experience allowed me to stay sane.

    Remember, you are not alone. Your entire class is going through this with you, so find a few friends you can count on, and everything will work out.

  3. I would add that in the didactic years, if you study at home, you should pay decent money for an incredibly comfortable desk chair even though you’re poor because that’s where you’re going to spend most of your waking hours. And in the clinical years, pay decent money and get yourself incredibly comfortable dress shoes, for the same reason.

  4. Loved this post. I studied with the same two friends all the way through 4 years of nursing school. One of them was also my carpool partner, since our school was an hour away from home. We made the car a safe zone, and had some great conversations. Study group was sacred though. The night after the test, we’d allow ourselves a couple of margaritas at my house. Good times. One of my study partners went on to get her PhD,

    • Hmmmm, weird, I didn’t get to finish. Anyhow, the one went on to get her PhD, and the other washed out after two years in the NICU….she was busted for diversion and gave her license to use. Sad. I’m working on my masters. Fun, fun.

  5. I hated study groups in undergrad/MCAT classes. Now I feel validated. Yes!!!!

    I do think it’s difficult to study without a computer now, whether it’s for med school or undergrad. Soooo very many things are online whether you like it or not. The next best thing is to have a trusted person change your Facebook password so you can’t check it every 10 seconds…Ideally, someone who won’t mess with your account and say embarrassing things. 😐

  6. Pretty great advice for any university student. Seriously, study is just about never more important than family and friends. When I think about the Friday nights I spent “studying” and daydreaming about going out with my friends at uni, and I told myself when I finish I’ll have plenty of time for that. Now, I work every Friday night and every Saturday morning and I’m kicking myself.

    I would also suggest never, ever writing off a subject that you hate studying. I hated the renal system when I was at uni, and actually scored 0 marks on a quiz once about it. Now I’m a haemodialysis nurse!

  7. Thanks so much for this! I’m starting med school next month and as much as I’m trying to relax and not think about medicine now, your words of advice were much needed. Thanks!

  8. Thank you for this. I’m starting med school again in a few weeks (was on medical leave) and I’m a bit nervous. But these were really great tips.

  9. During med school I always stayed up too late to study, and drowsed my way through class the next day. Then came home, took a nap, and stayed up too late to study. If I could do it over again I’d have gotten more sleep and paid more attention in class. This also would’ve helped me save up more sleep for residency 🙂

  10. This is advice I will take to heart starting next fall. To be honest, study groups depend on who you are studying with. I’ve had completely unproductive study groups, and very focused ones as well..

    Thank you Mr. White Coat!

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