Medical school is intense.

No matter how well prepared you might feel, it will be tougher than you expected. The first few weeks are a rapid adjustment: where you’ll need to keep pace with the coursework, learn to manage your time productively, and ingrain the right habits so that you get everything done, without neglecting health and self-care. And since med school first year is such a steep learning curve, it seems like everyone has an opinion on what you should be doing and how you should be doing it!

Luckily, there are a few ways you can make your life easier and we’ve got the right first-year medical school tips in this guide!

Brainscape's team of medical educators has over 50 combined years in medical school and MCAT tutoring, combined with our general learning sciences and software development team. In other words, we know our stuff when it comes to figuring out how to survive medical school.

[Be sure to check out Brainscape's MCAT flashcards, USMLE flashcards, and other medical flashcards to help you study efficiently throughout your journey.]

With that said, here are 5 first-year medical school tips that will help you survive! (You're welcome.)

Tip 1: Manage your time well

This is probably the most important skill for surviving medical school. Staying organized—having a firm eye on what you’ve covered, what you’re currently learning, and what’s coming up next—is crucial for handling the huge increase in academic workload med school dumps on you. This often means avoiding outside work during med school first year.

Sure, it's tempting to maintain your pre-med lifestyle, but spreading yourself too thin can lead to epic failure. You need to prioritize among your personal, familial, and outside obligations. It may take a few weeks for you to figure out what balance of social and extracurricular activities you can handle, but coursework must be a priority.

Once you’ve evolved the right study habits and time management skills, you can dedicate more time to external activities.

Read: ‘How to study for the MCAT more efficiently’ (even if you’re already on the other side of the MCAT, the advice in this essential guide will help you study twice as efficiently for all your medical school exams!)

Tip 2: Figure out how you learn best

Many students get through undergrad using just one or two study techniques, like reading and making notes, only to end up cramming at the last minute anyway.

By contrast, in medical school the sheer volume of information you need to learn means that it is essential to identify the most efficient study methods if you’re to effectively learn all the science content you need in order to become a doctor. It's difficult to catch up in med school once you fall behind, so here are some first year medical school tips for you to consider:

  • Use a combination of learning modes to reinforce everything you learn, without getting bored (Lectures, study notes, flashcards, videos, concept maps, etc.)
  • Make time daily for constant review so that you memorize the important content as you progress through medical school and not right at the end when you need to write exams.
  • Practice as many exam questions / full-length tests as you can get your hands on right from the beginning of med school and throughout. This builds your critical analysis and reasoning skills, as well as your exam-taking prowess!
  • Review the relevant chapters before attending lectures. Pay special attention to the ‘chapter summaries’ and ‘practice questions’ (if any) as this will point you towards what’s most important. Also: use the content to create a list of questions you’d like answers to.

All of these first-year medical school tips will help you cope with the onslaught of content, without falling behind.

Remember: spending a little time every day reviewing content is the best and most efficient possible way to learn it permanently!

Graph showing cramming not effective to survive medical school
The most important thing you need to survive medical school is the habit to study a little every day. This will absolutely save you.

Read: ‘The #1 habit to succeed in medical and nursing school

Tip 3: Seek out upperclassmen

The third important tip for surviving med school is to seek out students who have gone through exactly what you are about to experience. They can provide valuable information:

  • What to expect from med school first year
  • How the exams are structured and what they like to test
  • The best ways to study and prepare for assessments
  • What your professors are looking for
  • What books and learning resources are particularly useful, and
  • What learning hacks they used to memorize the content (as well as what’s important versus what’s not, and what areas you should be concentrating on).

Remember, you’re looking for people who recently graduated medical school or who are now in their second, third, or fourth year. Each school does things a little differently so these students are your best resource for knowing what will work during your first year.

Tip 4: Participate in social activities

Med school first year is a huge adjustment and it’s hard. But then so is the rest of medical school, which is why having a strong social network is so helpful for keeping you motivated and inspired. Just because you’re training to be a doctor doesn’t mean you can set aside your need for human connection and compassion until you’ve graduated, so connecting with people who know what you’re going through is a huge. (See how MCAT study groups could improve your learning).

Being able to effectively communicate is also an important skill for a physician, so spending time with other students and working through the material and practice questions provides invaluable training really.

Tip 5: Don't worry about your specialty ... yet

This is an important first year medical school tip because many students freak out about the fact that they don’t yet know what specialty they want to focus on.

Very few med school first year students enter medical school know exactly where they want to specialize. And even those who do seldom end up where they expected! Rather, treat your first year as a part of the decision-making process.

Seek out extracurricular activities, groups, and research opportunities as low commitment ways to gain exposure to the specialties you may be interested in. Just make sure that your primary focus in on your studies. A great first year will provide the foundation for a solid STEP 1/COMLEX 1 score which will open many doors, regardless of what you eventually decide to specialize in.

Pssst. Check out Brainscape’s Medical YouTube channel for insightful videos and interviews with medical healthcare experts like doctors and surgeons on how to do well in medical school and beyond!

A final word on how to survive medical school

There is no single best way to get through your first year but the medical school tips we’ve provided in this guide will definitely serve as a massive leg up, particularly if you take time BEFORE you even start your first class to sort out your strategies for success.

Do your best, roll with the punches, remain organized, make time for health and self-care, and with the right daily study habits, you’ll rise to your challenge!

Don’t forget to lean on Brainscape’s essential toolkit, which may be specified for the MCAT but really teaches skills that will benefit you throughout medical school and beyond!