What Is Medical School Like?

Here’s a story I like to tell when asked, “What is medical school like?”

I had entered the first set of doors and then there was one more door to go through. However, before I got to the second door I was asked, “Are you okay, you’re not going to pass out?” It was one of the anatomy professors and I had a deer caught in the headlight expression on my face. 


I was about to enter the anatomy lab where the human cadavers were and I was scared, nervous and not sure what to expect.

That was my introduction to medical school and knowing things are real. 

If you’re going to be a doctor, one of the foundational courses is Anatomy as any doctor worth their salt must know about the human body. 

There’s plenty more to discuss and share when it comes to medical school and I’m going to break it all down for you.

High School and Not College Describes What Is Medical School Like

I went to a high school that had 150 students in my graduating class. My undergrad had about 7,800 students in my graduating class. Finally when I got to medical school there were about 135 students in my class.

Did you know medical schools usually have one of the smallest student bodies out of any graduate program. For instance most medical schools typically have anywhere from 70 to 200 students in each class. 

This makes for a very intimate and close experience.

Plus when you’re in the trenches aka the books, studying nonstop with so much to cover in a short amount of time you develop a close bond with your classmates.

You know everyone and everyone knows you. Something which definitely cannot be said about college where there are thousands of students enrolled on campus, many of whom you will never even meet during your four years of college.

Did you have high school clicks?

Be ready to see similar clicks crop up in medical school too. Although we’re all adults now, what is medical school like has many comparisons to high school.

You have people who form their own study groups, those students who participate in similar extracurricular activities well in medical school more like to serve on various student group organizations and just like high school has a student government so does medical school along with class president and leadership.

Remember to vote for one who will give the class speech at graduation in high school the same applies in medical school where one of the more sociable classmates who is also respected will be given the task of speaking.

Dating and Relationships In Medical School

The odds are in your favor for you to meet your future spouse while in medical school. I have friends who married their high school sweetheart. Then you have people who meet the love of their life while in medical school. Again, close bonds are formed, you are spending every waking minute together coordinating when you will study, taking study breaks together to grab food and most importantly you’re on the same career path.

Plus most medical students are going to be in their mid twenties and the natural order of things is to start thinking about a family.

I actually dated one of my classmates in medical school and while together everything was great and wonderful. Obviously for various reasons we did not stay together and have now gone on to live our separate lives.

On the other hand you’d be surprised by the number of my classmates who not only stayed together but have actually gone on to get married and now are having kids together. 

Remember my medical school class had about 135 students and I think there’s about 4 couples who met in medical school and are now married with kids. That actually says a lot considering some people came to medical school already married, in long term relationships etc to think that many got hitched all because of medical school.

I think this makes a lot of sense when you consider what is medical school like and then marrying someone who knows the exact answer and has been there with you every step of the way. There are a lot of dual physician households for this very reason. Your spouse understands the demands of being a doctor and there’s nothing to explain.

The Basic Sciences of Medical School

I attended a medical school which had a very traditional curriculum that was lecture based and not Problem Based Learning (PBL)

However we did things a bit differently at our medical school.

We actually had our lectures pre-recorded so we could watch them from the convenience of home or anywhere we choose. (Note: this was in 2013 so way before the Covid-19 Pandemic, I guess my school was ahead of the curve). However we still had to come to campus nearly daily for our “clicker sessions”. 

Let me break that down so you have a better understanding of what I mean when trying to describe what is medical school like.

You watch your lectures online. Then you come to lecture and the professor knows the key points they want to address or go over so they do this during our live in person lectures. However, it is usually question based where there are mini quizzes given each day where we use our clicker (an electronic device) to answer the questions and are graded based on getting the answers right or wrong, plus it serves as a means of attendance too.

Anatomy lab was one of the most time consuming courses during the first year of medical school because you were actually doing dissections on your cadaver. 

Other courses included:

  • Biochemistry
  • Physical Diagnosis
  • Physiology
  • Medical Ethics

These are some of your bread and butter courses in medical school. 

However you have to learn how to be a doctor and we had something called OSCE where we would have to perform a physician related task on a standardized patient and we would be graded by a physician who observed everything we did as they filled out their grading chart. These sessions were also video recorded to be monitored and also were timed too because once the alarm went off the session was over and you could lose points if you didn't finish your entire exam in the allotted time. 

Overall I would say the first two years of medical school which cover the basic sciences are like college except it moves at a much faster pace when you are wondering what is medical school like.

There’s a reason they say medical school is like trying to drink from a fire hose. The amount of material you’re expected to learn and master is alarming.

Plus with science and all the discoveries being made there’s more and more information coming out each year where if I had to go back to the basic sciences nearly ten years later I would be shocked at the vast volume students must master and also what has changed since my days as a basic science medical school student. 

Those two years of the basic sciences were spent watching lectures online and then doing a ton of reading either via the associated powerpoint slides, textbooks or electronic resources made available. As a medical student you went to class and then studied, studied and did more studying into the wee hours of the night/morning. 

All to wake up and do it all over the next day.

Exams and Tests In Medical School

Mondays were exam days while in medical school.

In hindsight this was actually beneficial because my classmates and I had the entire weekend to prepare for our medical school tests.

We didn’t have tests every Monday but I do know we had over 60 exams during the first year of medical school. 

This needs to be put into context that there are 52 weeks in a year. Medical school the first year went from July to the end of May. Meaning we had what I referred to as “doubleheaders” we’d have an exam at 9am and then another at 2pm on the same day.

You may think that’s insane but it wasn’t anything special or something we got worked up over because it’s just what is medical school like. You are going to study and work very hard and that may mean multiple exams on the same day.

Studying For Your Boards

This is one of the most dreaded times of medical school, the time between the end of second year and starting your third year of medical school.


You have to take your medical school licensing exam which is like a comprehensive exam from all of medical school up to that point… you need to know all of the basic sciences.

When I took this exam you actually received a numerical score which determined what medical specialties you would be competitive for applying to. We took our boards extremely seriously because if you thought the MCAT had major implications on your life then look at your boards as being exponentially more important. 

Luckily we had from May to July without any responsibilities to focus solely on our board prep. We lived and breathed boards all day and all night and many would say what is medical school like during this time was the hardest and worst experience. 

Not only did you need to earn a top score for your preferred medical specialty there was a policy that at the start of the third year of medical school known as the clinical portion of your medical education you needed to have a passing score on your board exam which tested all of the basic sciences.

What is medical school like for students after 2021 and beyond is entirely different. Your United States Medical Licensing Exam (USMLE) Step 1 is now a pass/fail exam. Where you do not have the pressure of achieving a numerical score all you have to do is pass.

Clinical Rotations In Medical School

Talk about being thrown to the wolves when it comes to my introduction to the clinical sciences.

I found out very fast about what is medical school like as a clinical third year medical school student being assigned to Emergency Medicine as my very first rotation. Just a few weeks ago I was in a lecture hall and now I was a clinical medical student taking on the role of actually seeing patients in the hospital. No more standardized patients; these were real patients with very real and urgent needs.

Friday night, two nights before the 4th of July and I’m arriving at the Emergency Department at 7pm and will not be leaving until 7am in the morning. A good solid 12 hours to gain first hand experience in a community hospital.

Let me tell you it was a wild night that I will never forget.

I remember doing chest compressions (CPR) on an unresponsive male patient, a woman coming into the ED in active labor and giving birth before OBGYN could arrive and so much more. 

Now there are two types of people when it comes to the ED. You either live for the adrenaline rush of all the chaos or you absolutely hate it and think it's just too wild and uncontrolled. I’m the former and enjoy the ED a lot.

Emergency Medicine was a 4 week rotation and then it was time to move on.

During the third year of medical school I completed rotations in the following areas:

  • Emergency Medicine
  • Psychiatry
  • Obstetrics and Gynecology
  • Cardiology
  • Family Medicine
  • Internal Medicine
  • Surgery

Each rotation had their unique flavor, expectations and experiences. But overall I really enjoyed third year.

The biggest thing is that you are doing things very comparable to what you expect to do as a doctor. You are seeing patients, taking histories, doing physicals and contributing to patient care by coming up with your assessment and plan for patients. 

However there was one aspect of clinical rotations I was not a fan of.

Can you guess what that was?

It was writing notes and doing discharge summaries. This was especially apparent in Internal Medicine. Where you’d have a patient who has been hospitalized for over seven days or so and then you would have to write up their hospital course during their entire visit. Writing out any significant or relevant event that occurred with the patient.

I’m a man who likes to get to the point, move fast and efficiently so I knew how Internal Medicine worked would never be for me.

You see, what is medical school like on this service involves rounding on patients in the morning, having lunch whenever possible, then rounding again with the attending physical, followed up by writing notes, checking labs all afternoon and then responding to any new issues that would crop up along with admitting patients to the hospital. 

That is the life of a hospitalist and just is not my cup of tea. 

The Shelf Exams of Medical School

Did you think the exams would end once you left the basic sciences and are now on your clinical rotations?


In medicine there’s always going to be something you have to study or learn whether you’re a medical student or even finished residency.

Third year you have to take something called a shelf exam at the end of your clinical rotations. This is like a standardized exam covering the basics of what a medical student should know after completing that particular rotation.

So as a medical student you participate in your rotation but then when you aren’t at the hospital, clinic, or whatever you are expected to study for your shelf exam. However I never felt the studying needed to be super intense because I always asked myself, “What did Dr. __ and Dr. ___ do in similar situations,” which allowed me to answer correctly some of the shelf questions I was unsure on because at that point commonsense came into play. 

Of course you get a score on your shelf exam and it also tells how you compare to all other examinees taking the same shelf… I believe you have your numerical score along with a percentile ranking too.

Fourth and Final Year of What is Medical School Like

Fourth year in medical school is probably one of the best years actually.

You have learned and experienced so much over the past three years and the light at the end of the tunnel is in sight.

The highlight is you have a lot of control over this year and what you are going to do. The reason being you are now positioning yourself to get a medical residency. Meaning most of fourth year is dedicated to doing elective rotations at hospitals that have the specialty you are interested in matching to. Basically you are auditioning to be selected for their program. 

However you don’t have complete free reign during your fourth year of medical school.

You also need to complete a few weeks to months of core rotations to satisfy your medical school graduation requirements. These requirements are pretty much a cakewalk though. As your attendings know you are a fourth year and will give you a lot of slack.

Plus you’re very excited about two things coming up as a medical student.

The Match and Medical School Graduation

The most wonderful time of year for what is medical school like is March of your fourth year.

Everything you’ve been working for over the years comes down to this week. 

On Monday fourth year medical students find out whether they matched into a medical residency or not. Then on Friday they find out their exact medical residency placement. For instance, students may know they have matched into general surgery but will not know what specific program until Match Day

There’s a big reveal ceremony at medical school on Match Day where all the fourth years gather in an auditorium and then they open up their envelopes at noon that have their medical residency placement along with the name of the institution they will be attending. 

After Match Day medical students need to get everything together to start their official day as physicians on July 1st when they start their respective residencies as interns. This means figuring out housing, moving, and attending orientation at their new program.

In the interim there’s this exciting thing called graduation.

Graduation is in the late spring to early summer, where my graduation I believe was first two weeks of June and my classmates were upset because they felt it should be held sooner because some of us had residency orientation the same week as graduation and couldn’t be in two places at once.

But those issues aside, nothing beats walking across the stage in your cap and gown, being hooded and then being announced for the first time as Doctor.

It never gets old and is something you will have for a lifetime.

Concluding Thoughts On What Is Medical School Like

Okay, I covered a lot of ground with the intent of answering your question on what is medical school like. 

You’ve gained a glimpse at the transformation of a medical student into becoming a doctor in four years that will actually fly by. You are definitely going to work very hard and be pushed to the limit. When you’re tired you will be pushed to keep going by your classmates.

Some medical students will meet their spouses and there will be significant life events that occur during medical school.

Others will not but will have tremendous personal growth and find their calling in what medical specialty they want to practice for the rest of their lives.

However, you will be united and form bonds with your medical school classmates because there are only about 199 others of you who have gone through the same experience and know what it took to reach the pinnacle of success to become an actual Doctor. 

This is what is medical school like to go from medical student one summer and four years later you graduate as a physician.