First Year of Medical School And What You Should Expect

Are you excited or nervous to be starting your first year of medical school? Regardless of how you are feeling I will guide you through everything you need to know about preparing for medical school.

Should You Study Before Starting Medical School?

Do not start studying before beginning medical school.

You will have four years to do intense studying during medical school and then for the rest of your life you will be doing self-directed learning along with Continuing Medical Education (CME) and maintaining your board certifications.

There is no advantage to hitting the books before medical school classes begin.

Plus, you have no clue what to actually study or how your professors will grade you. I can tell you that their exams will closely mirror what they teach in:

  • Lecture
  • PowerPoints
  • Labs
  • Assigned Reading Materials

Medical school professors are not out to trick you and the exams will mirror what can be found in the above resources. The only problem you'll face as an incoming first year medical student is adjusting to the volume and pace of medical school.

There's a lot to learn in a very short period of time.

Another reason why you shouldn't study before medical school begins...

Any studying you do will not be at the level required to actually excel and make a huge difference in your overall academic performance. More often then not you will just be going through the motions with your studying. You're studying just to say you did and to feel good about yourself.

However, if you're like most students you procrastinate and may believe you work better under pressure.

Do you see the mistake?

If you procrastinate it makes absolutely no sense that you will hit the books so hard as to actually make a significant dent in your knowledge before medical school classes actually begin.

Medical School Prematriculation Programs

If your medical school offers a prematriculation program and you are invited to attend I think you need to go.

Usually, the admissions office has a good idea of a student's academics and can inform the professors who teach the first year medical school curriculum that certain students should come to the summer medical school preparatory program.

This may be for students who have less then stellar MCAT scores or it has been a significant time since they were "in the classroom."

My medical school actually offered prematriculation programs for incoming first year medical students although I did not participate. I do know one course was Anatomy and I can't recall the other course maybe histology as that seems to give students trouble.

If invited to attend any prematriculation programs before medical school go ahead and go.

As my anesthesiology mentor says, "It never hurts to see material more than once." 

Plus, these are the courses that require the most work so getting a head start is highly recommended.

I was lucky enough that my study group included classmates who were in the master program the previous year so they could essentially tutor me and get me up to speed on how to prepare for the exam especially anatomy lab.

Patients During the First Year of Medical School

Jason During His First Year of Medical School

I didn't see any patients during the basic sciences of medical school.

It was all classroom and laboratory with no patient contact.

If we wanted to see patients we would have to set that up on our own which most students did not do because that would takeaway from our study time.

Nowadays, the idea of not seeing patients can be foreign to a lot of incoming medical students.

Medical schools are realizing the importance of patient exposure early on in a medical student's education. Plus, they like to do longitudinal care where you may follow a group of patients for your first two years of medical school to have some continuity of care.

I think this is good because often times you learn something in a textbook but if you can compare it to a real patient it sticks and has more significance. With the push for more patient interaction be prepared to be assigned to a primary care doctor for shadowing opportunities during your first year medical school curriculum.

But at the end of the day the goal of the medical school curriculum is to advance medical students who are knowledgeable with normal body function and anatomy.

Since you'll be introduced to patients early in your medical school career you'll also gain inexperience in taking a patient history and the basic steps to a patient examination. 

Your first year medical school courses will include: 

  • Biochemistry - chemistry of cells, tissues and organs of the body.
  • Anatomy - structure of the body and the relations of its parts. This course will use a cadaver for dissection purposes.
  • Histology - cells and tissues on the microscopic level.
  • Embryology - human development from conception onward.
  • Physiology - function of the human body and its parts (including chemical and physical steps involved).
  • Neuroanatomy - anatomy of the nervous system.

Medical School Exams

Get used to multiple choice exams.

This is the reality of a medical education where practically every test you will take going forward will be multiple-choice for the most part. 

Although, I do know of a few medical schools that use essay exams but this is on a limited basis. Generally, a test in an essay format is used to test your knowledge of biochemistry pathways and how much you've memorized. You can also use an essay test with molecular biology. 

Just know that multiple-choice is the gold standard testing methodology used in medical school.

I have friends at a lot of different medical schools and one piece of advice I have for prospective students is to understand the medical school exam schedule. For instance, one friend had six exams in one week. Personally, I think that's a lot to study for but medical school is not for the faint of heart.

While some first year medical students have told me they may have two exams in one day and then one exam the following day. It all depends on the particular medical school and the specific class.

First Year of Medical School Grading

Regardless, of what you've been told grades do matter including the first year of medical school.

The grades you get during your first year of medical school determine your class rank which becomes very important for securing a residency position after your medical school graduation. 

If you attend a medical school that uses a letter grading system:

  1. A
  2. B
  3. C
  4. F

be prepared for a very competitive academic environment where there might be some gunners in the first year of medical school class who will set the curve on all your exams.   

Employing letter grades is actually falling to the wayside as medical schools want to promote more collaborative learning environments. Meaning you'll more likely to see grading based on:

  • Honors
  • Pass
  • Fail

or some variation of this scale. Using a first year medical school system like this promotes a sense of camaraderie among students and I think any medical student will benefit from this type of environment. It's less stressful.

Understanding baseball is a great way to think about some medical schools.

There are some programs that will throw you soft pitches so that you can get used to the rigors of a medical school curriculum. The idea behind this is to make the first set of exams easy so that you can have a confidence boost in yourself. But as the school year progresses the exams get tougher.

The first year of medical school exams won't get super hard but will be at a level to prepare you to become a doctor. 

Which leads to another point.

The volume of information you're expected to know during your first year of medical school is equivalent to opening a fire hydrant and being asked to drink all the water. Nearly impossible but it can be done and you'll adjust your study style accordingly.

Here's key advice from one first year medical school professor, "Everything that I am teaching you is important, otherwise I would not be saying it."

On the other-hand, you can get some professors who love their topic so much they teach everything including all the subtle points as though everyone in the class wants to go into the specialty.

What is disappointing is that you have a huge amount information to learn and your professor will test you on minute details that would never show up on your future board exams.

Will You Attend Class or Not?

Technology is beautiful.

A lot of medical students do not show up to campus for their first year of medical school lectures.

Medical schools will live stream lectures or provide recordings for students.

You can save a lot of time and effort if you can "do" medical school from the comfort of your home only showing up to campus for labs and exams. 

My medical school was actually a hybrid of going to class or staying home.

We watched our lectures online and only came to campus to discuss the lectures as the administration felt this would be more beneficial for our knowledge. Basically we would have mandatory sessions where the professors would go over the teaching points from each lecture or the topics which commonly tripped students up. 

Staying home during the first year of medical school was beneficial because you could actually speed up lectures and watch at 1.5x or even 2.0x speed. And of course if you missed something important it was so easy to rewind the lecture too.

You might think first year medical students are rarely on campus but they are. Although lectures are recorded we still had to show up for mandatory sessions, labs, and primary skills course too.