Subjects Taught In Medical School

I'm going to outline all the subjects taught in medical school. However, I'm taking a very organized approach and starting from the first year of medical school and working my way through to your fourth year medical school curriculum. 

This is going to be a very thorough overview of what you can expect concerning the subjects taught in medical school along with the structure of your medical school courses. 

But before jumping into the details I think it is best to open up with discussing the two formats of a medical school curriculum:

  • Traditional
  • Problem Based Learning (PBL)

The first two years of medical school courses are generally taught, using either the traditional lecture format, the problem-based learning (PBL) style and/or a hybrid of these.

The traditional format is comparable to how you were taught in undergraduate courses. You went to lecture and the professor told you the important concepts and facts. As a student you would then have to go home and assimilate all of this information to pass the upcoming exam.

The problem-based learning (PBL) model is more of a tutorial, where you meet in a small group with your professor. A clinical problem or scenario is presented to the group and they will then decide what are the relevant learning objectives. The group will disperse and at their next meeting (as a group) you will review the case with a firm understanding of the issues. You will learn by doing independent research; speaking with knowledgeable sources; and fact finding at the library.

I would say there is one main difference to the two approaches. The lecture format is for students who want a clear objective of what they need to know while, PBL is for students who like interaction and finding answers on their own.

First Year Medical School Courses

The first year of medical school is mainly classroom-based with limited patient contact. The main goal of first year medical students is to learn human anatomy and normal body function. Expect to learn the following subjects taught in medical school during year one:
  • 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.

Grading in Medical School Coursework

Medical school grades matter.

As a premed student who was aiming for top grades this personality trait usually doesn't taper off once you arrive to medical school as you will continue to take the subjects taught in medical school extremely seriously.

However, you may be happy to know some medical schools want you to have a collaborative experience and less emphasis on competition and more emphasis on learning medicine so that you can be a great doctor.

These are the Pass/Fail medical school curriculums.

Basically you just need to be performing at a certain level and you will earn your Passing grade so there's no incentive to be a "gunner" trying to get every single point possible. 

Unfortunately, I attended a medical school where we received letter grades based on a "Z score" that the administration used which included the mean of the exam taken along with where you fell positively or negatively with your standard deviation from the mean. 

Despite my medical school having letter grades there was little to no competition between my classmates. I actually spent lots of time studying together with them and we would all teach each other because the big goal was for everyone to do well.

Obviously not every medical school curriculum is structured to be Pass/Fail or use letter grades. There are actually a number of grading schemes out there. 

I want to share with you a listing of medical school grading intervals from least competitive to most competitive:

  • 2 Intervals = Pass/Fail
  • 3 Intervals = Honors/Pass/Fail
  • 4 Intervals = Honors/High Pass/Pass/Fail (or A,B,C,F)
  • 5 Intervals = Honors/High Pass/Pass/Low Pass/Fail (or A,B,C,D,F)

This is what you can expect to see when it concerns how you will be evaluated on the subjects taught in medical school.

Subjects Taught In Medical School During Your Second Year 

While first year focused on learning the basics of the human body, second year subjects taught in medical school is all about learning what can go wrong with the body.

Be prepared to learn about diseases and their treatment.

You'll find that the second year subjects taught in medical school will be mainly classroom based too. But the light at the end of the tunnel is coming.

Third year will definitely put you in clinic and the hospital so you'll need exposure to taking a patient history and conducting a physical examination which all takes place during your second year of medical school.

What is cool is that now medical schools have clinical simulators where you can practice these skills either on human-robot dummies or on professional patients.

As for exactly what will be required of you in the second year medical school curriculum be ready for:

  • Pathology - the science of disease, especially changes in structure and function, causing or caused by disease.
  • Pharmacology - the science of medications.
  • Microbiology - the science of microorganisms such as bacteria, fungi and viruses.
  • Immunology - the science of how humans combat disease.

Medical School Class Rank

Regardless of the grading system found in your medical school curriculum you will be ranked.

So although you may not have a grade for each exam there is still a score given for each of the subjects taught in medical school and that is used to show how you compare to everyone in your medical school class.

Your class rank is actually apart of your medical school file and when it comes time to apply to residency programs in your Dean's Evaluation it will also include your medical school class rank so program directors have an idea of how you performed compared to your peers. 

USMLE Step 1

The United States Medical Licensing Exam (USMLE) Step 1 has always been a huge undertaking for medical students. This test covers everything you're supposed to learn during your two years in the basic sciences of subjects taught in medical school.

Many medical schools will even say you need a passing score to complete your clinical rotations of medical school.

But the biggest concern students had with the USMLE was the score you earned mattered a lot for getting into a particular specialty and specific residency program.

Residency directors state that Step 1 scores are the number one factor that they use to screen applicants for their programs.

However, the USMLE Step 1 is undergoing significant changes.

No earlier than January 1, 2022 the USMLE Step 1 will no longer report a 3-digit numerical score instead the test will now be Pass/Fail. 

This decision was made after consultation with numerous stakeholders and also to reform how the residency selection process is conducted with a goal of lessening the burden/stress on medical students. 

I think this is a step in the right direction because I know when I was a second year medical student and it was spring semester many of my classmates were torn between attending class for our subjects taught in medical school or skipping to prepare for boards. Now that it will only be Pass/Fail there's less pressure and students can focus on learning all the subjects taught in medical school instead of preparing for one standardized exam. 

3rd Year Medical School Courses 

The third year of medical school is exciting and can be nerve-wrecking at the same time.

Once you make it to third year all of your medical school courses are in the hospital or outpatient center, finally no more sitting in a lecture hall.

Plus, when you are seeing patients all the time you really start feeling like an actual doctor too. Even if you're still a medical student.

Here's a list of some of the medical school courses you will spend time on during your third year:

  • Emergency Medicine
  • Family Medicine
  • Internal Medicine
  • Neurology
  • Obstetrics/Gynecology
  • Pediatrics
  • Psychiatry
  • Surgery

These rotations are actually required in-order for you fulfill your medical school graduation requirements. Obviously, each medical school will have slight differences in which medical school courses are required but the specialties I have mentioned are considered the "bread and butter" of your medical school curriculum during your clinical years.

It's not all fun and games where you're "playing" doctor while doing your clinical rotations.

You need to learn and progress in your ability to take a proper history and perform a physical exam along with coming up with differential diagnosis (what's potentially wrong with the patient) and of course a treatment plan.

At the end of each rotation you have to take a "shelf exam" which covers everything you should have learned while on the rotation. These shelf exams are a multiple-choice test which are proctored. At my school we took them at the hospital on our individual laptops with the Graduate Medical Education department overseeing the exams. However, some of my friends at different medical schools they actually had to take their shelf exams at Prometric testing centers. 

These shelf exams required studying so once you were finished seeing patients and the resident or attending said you could go home for the day you'd have to study not only for your shelf exam at the end of the rotation but also for USMLE Step 2.

Step 2 is a clinical exam that is administered in a multiple choice format and assesses your ability to diagnose and treat patients. A lot of medical students like this exam because it is more of the application of your medical knowledge while the Step 1 is the basic sciences such as genetics, biochemistry and histology so it is not as intuitive or easy to prepare for. 

4th Year Medical School Curriculum

Your fourth year medical school curriculum is probably one of the greatest experiences you will have in medical school.

The main goal of 4th year is to actually match into a residency to begin the next phase of your training as a doctor.

During fourth year there is not a set medical school curriculum. You only need to complete elective rotations in any specialties that you choose.

Most students know what specialty they want to pursue so they will schedule elective rotations at potential residency programs in that specialty.

So let's say I'm interested in Obstetrics and Gynecology. I will ensure my 4th year medical school curriculum has all electives in OBGYN at programs I'm interested in applying to for residency. This may mean doing an electives in:

  • Pennsylvania
  • New York City
  • Washington, DC
  • Chicago.

Most electives are typically 2 or 4 weeks in length.

You go on these "away rotations" during your 4th year so that the residency programs can learn more about you and your work ethic and you can also see if you are a good fit for their program too.

You certainly will work very hard on your away rotations because you want to impress people. 

Once you submit your Match list or get your match results in March it is all downhill in a very good way.

Medical students are basically now just waiting to graduate and preparing to start residency in July. 

This means vacations, fun, freedom. My Instagram and Facebook was full of so many of my classmates all over the world at this time because the goal is to have as much fun before residency training begins and also to celebrate your accomplishment of actually graduating from medical school.

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