I remember the weeks leading up to medical school as filled with both excitement and dread. Either way my stomach was in knots. I was so excited to finally begin what I had been working towards my whole life, but at the same time I was absolutely terrified with all the horror stories I had been privy to. Would I ever sleep again? Would I completely lose my social life and my sanity? Would I fail out and embarrass myself, my family, my dog, and be forever known as the one who flunked out of medical school? While there is a lot of truth to the horror stories you hear about medical school, there are also a lot of things that I was really surprised about. Here is my guide to the reality of medical school — the good, the bad, and the ugly.
The bad: It will probably be one of the hardest things you endure
The good: You will look back in awe of what you’re capable of
Medical school is the pinnacle of mental stamina. Regardless of your background, your dedication, your capacity, there will be times that you doubt yourself, and times that you don’t get the results you expect or hope for.
I didn’t know what I was truly capable of until I entered medical school. Now I look back on some modules and exams and am in awe that I was able to do that! Don’t get me wrong, there are times you will fail, but you have to be willing to accept the failures, move past them, and most importantly to work on them. If you made it this far, you are clearly capable, and it’s going to be a lot of work. But if you’re in medical school, you’re definitely not one to shy away from hard work! You have to push yourself mentally and physically, but the good news is that we’re able to push ourselves farther than we can even imagine. First getting into a good college feels impossible, but then you do it. Conquering the MCAT seems impossible, but hard work and discipline leads you to it. The knowledge you learn in medical school seems impossible to permeate into your brain for STEP… but then you do it. It definitely isn’t easy, but nobody said being a doctor was going to be easy. The beauty of it is that you will come out of this saying “yes, I did that!”
The bad: You will very likely burn out and have bad days
The good: You will learn new skills to cope
No matter what you do in life you will have bad days. Now couple that with the pressures of medical school, and you are guaranteed to have bad days. I can’t even begin to recount the amount of breakdowns I’ve already had (and keep reminding myself of the countless more I will inevitably have). I’ve had times where I felt like I was so burnt out that I couldn’t continue. But the thing about pushing yourself so hard mentally is that with the burnout and bad days comes new coping mechanisms. I’ve learned a lot about my mental health in the past year and a half, and I’ve learned new tools to manage stress, the rigors of medical school and the attempts to create balance in such a demanding field. These are tools that you get to keep for life and that you can never gain until you go through it. A lot of med-school survival is your mindset, and if you go through it accepting that there will be tough times but knowing that you will overcome them, you will get far in life.
The bad: It’s a big adjustment
The good: You will meet new people and make new friends
Med school is so different from anything you’ve likely experienced before. It’s a lot more fast-paced and taught much differently than undergrad. The first week you will probably feel like you have no idea what you are doing and that’s because you probably don’t. You have to change a lot in medical school. The way you study, the people you surround yourself with, the amount you do in a day, and that can be really scary at first. If you move to a new state or school it can be an even bigger adjustment as you’re now in a whole new environment and away from your typical support system. You’re required to be adaptable a lot, from all the studying required during the basic sciences to doing clinical rotations, and stability will likely only be transient.
However, due to the nature of med school you will also experience meeting people who you will bond with for life. The friends you make in med school are like no other; after all, who else can understand the daily rigors of med school than the other people actually going through it? I’ve had friendships etched in forever due to simultaneous breakdowns and laughter over the stresses of med school.
The bad: It requires you to constantly change studying methods
The good: You will become an adaptable person
If there’s one thing you’ll likely lack in med school, it will be stability. It’s a lot of change, especially in the way you study. Every single module for me felt like I was starting med school all over again because it required me to change it up and use different resources. This could be challenging sometimes because, as we’re all too familiar, med school doesn’t stop for anybody or anything.
Although this can be challenging, you’ll come out of it a much more adaptable person. Having to change the way you work lets you have a better idea of your strengths and weaknesses and come up with different ways to approach material. Being adaptable is a great skill to have in general, and is absolutely a necessary skill to being a good physician. It’s one of those life skills that med school doesn’t teach you out of a textbook but that you rather take from experience.
The bad: You’ll miss out on a lot of life
The good: You will become the physician you’ve always dreamed of
It’s no secret that being in medical school is a huge sacrifice. You will likely lose things and people along the way. It’s rarely something you can be half-in and half-out about. There will be birthdays, weddings, family dinners, funerals you have to miss and that can take a toll. It can be so mentally draining to have to say no to things because you have to spend the time studying. It can be so hard to dedicate your whole energy to something, especially when the end can feel so far.
However, keeping the light at the end of the tunnel in mind is key to staying sane. Yes, you do have to sacrifice a lot of years where you will see your friends and family go through things and do things while you sit at a desk and study for hours on end. But remember that you chose to go on this journey, and that nothing good ever comes easy. Keep the motivation and the reason you went to medical school alive so that on the hardest days you have the ability to get going. The years will fly by and you will make it. When you do, all the sacrifices will be forgotten because YOU DID IT.
Medical school is a journey that no textbook or post can really truly prepare you for. Remember to keep yourself balanced, and that there will be both good and bad days. You will come across so many challenges, mentally, academically, and socially. There will be challenges that you won’t ever anticipate, but remember you will come out stronger and more capable than ever. There are also a lot of good things that will come out of medical school. The relationships you make, the mental and emotional capacity you gain, will be something that may surprise you. Not everyone can do medical school and that’s why they don’t make it easy. You will experience a lot of growth during these years, and you will come out of it living your dream life.