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8 tips on pre-clinical medicine from someone who's "been there done that"
Medical school can be tough, no less at the start when you’re going into your pre-clinical years. It can feel like quite a different kettle of fish to how you are taught at school - on top of all of the changes you are making adjusting to life away from home and having a brand new city to explore (or more likely navigate). Having said that, the pre-clinical years were hands-down some of the most fun of our university lives and having been through it, I hope these little tips help you prepare for yours!
Your summers are long - enjoy them! They tend to get shorter and shorter as you progress through medical school so now’s the time to make the most of them. I remember being told to buy a Gray’s Anatomy before starting anatomy in second semester and hauling it open to try and learn something…anything before starting. Fifteen minutes later I’d given up and gone to get an ice-cream and it really didn’t make a difference. When starting a brand new subject during pre-clinicals sometimes it’s just easier to have a kick start from actually starting the module from which you can then plan your revision, rather than feeling too disappointed about not getting your head around things beforehand. You might feel like you don’t understand anything for a little while – and that’s okay – we’ve all been there and it really will click eventually.
Your medic parents are an invaluable fountain of knowledge! A mistake I made was taking the textbooks on the reading list as gospel. We soon learnt that students in the years above were amazing at guiding you as to which books are actually helpful, after which you can sample them in the library before buying them online. My personal recommendations for pre-clinical would be one good anatomy book (Gray’s for Students) and one good physiology book (I used Sherwood). The rest; you can more than get by using library books, e-books and lecture slides.
Lectures can be trying. They are probably not the best way of active learning during pre-clinicals but so many medical schools do use them to dish out the curriculum. Your lecturers will likely be pretty renowned in their field and lectures are also the place where they may subtly emphasise material more likely to come up in the exam or tips for you.
Someone gave me some pretty good advice; you are in the lecture anyway - you can’t be anywhere else once you’re there - they are literally spooning out the information - so you might as well try your best to focus and listen! I know it’s easier said than done. Find a method to maintain your focus e.g. sitting at front or keeping a water bottle with you to sip from and bring your concentration back when your mind wanders.
Think about how to make the lecture as active a learning experience as possible. Notability is an amazing tablet app for pre-clinical lectures. You can download the lecture slides beforehand and then annotate, type and record during the lecture to your heart’s content. Even just 6-7 minutes before the lecture getting familiar with the lecture slides layout, highlighting the headings, introduction and summary and expanding on some definitions will really help you out when you’re in the lecture theatre. If you’ve had permission to record the lecture on a dictaphone to help you later, write the rolling recording times on the lecture slides so that if it’s just one slide you’re stuck on later, you don’t have to trawl through the entire recording to find the explanation.
I used to be someone who had to have everything written out in “my revision note” format for exams, especially at school. Now that the volume of work has increased so much (and so disproportionately to the time we have) that has started to become more difficult. I’ve started to simply pick a textbook on the module we are studying and annotate, highlight and add sticky note “summaries” to each chapter. It is something that has saved me lots of time as I used to find writing notes out from a textbook into a notebook didn’t always help me as much as I thought it was doing anyway.
Instead, once you have read a topic, try to summarise it on one A4 sheet of paper for instance as a spider diagram – all in black pen. Once you have got everything you can down, go back to the book and add in the bits you have forgotten in a red pen. This way your next revision will be ultra-efficient as you know you only really need to focus on the red parts. It becomes a nice summary diagram for future revision too so you don’t miss out on not having actual “revision notes” but save a lot of time!
If you are someone who likes to take notes in lectures, try the Cornell method. It uses “cue words” in the left margin and summaries on the bottom fifth of the page to record lectures as
manfully as possible. It might even mean you don’t have to write your lecture notes up again in neat when you go back home after the lecture. This way, throughout the year you are slowly preparing for the pre-exam revision over weeks rather than having to start from scratch.
The later pre-clinical years are likely to be the time that your medical school will start practical anatomy teaching and for some of you that will mean dissection. We had a great group who made it really fun and something we looked forward to. However, that doesn’t mean it’s not normal to feel anxious on your first day of it (and the smell definitely doesn’t help) - although you really do get used to it - and somewhat get to know your cadaver. It is amazing to think of the completely altruistic donation that this person and their family has made to help us learn and the privilege of getting to see the anatomy this way really does hit you. We used to get tested weekly on the anatomy which we hated at the time but this did actually make us learn the material beforehand so when you see it ‘live’ it really does click. When dissecting, cut in wide smooth arcs rather than sawing motions and use your fingers rather than the scalpel to bluntly break through the fat/connective tissue while you can - they will separate well. Don’t forget to keep your cadaver well moisturised at the end of each session.
It’s so important to keep up the routine of doing all the clubs and societies you enjoy. Once you get to your clinical years it may be harder to get to them if you are based away on placement - so now is definitely the time to keep them going. It’s so important to take time off during evenings and weekends to recharge and having hobbies and your non-medic friends around you from time to time can really help. Your Students Union will likely also have loads of opportunities for volunteering with charities or volunteer teaching opportunities in local primary schools and now is the time to get involved!
We’ve definitely all been there, not least during exam time especially as medic exams tend to go on longer than lots of other courses. It’s important to remember that pre-clinical medicine is just one part of it and it won’t be long until you are immersed into life on the wards, getting to experience the entire spectrum of human life. Try to join societies like Open Art Surgery or Teddy Bear Hospital where you get to volunteer and interact with people and patients in the hospital weekly which can help you see the light at the end of the tunnel! Hang in there, because this is the start of a truly unique and privileged career.
Good luck for your pre-clinical years!
For study advice: check out my top ten tips out here [https://www.bma.org.uk/connecting-doctors/community_focus/f/51/t/1713]
Deputy Chair BMA Medical Students Committee (welfare lead)
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