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Getting a place at medical school is one of the best academic achievements. It will also be one of the toughest entry processes many of us encounter: the endless personal statement drafts, the interview practice, the UKCAT/GAMSAT/BMAT revision, all while studying for your A-levels/final exams. And, if you’re like me, the knockbacks and reapplications. So, before we go any further let me remind you to be proud of this recent accomplishment – you’ve earned it.
After this rigorous application process, some of us are met with a strange and unfamiliar feeling when we reach our first year (and beyond). Surrounded by other high-achievers, many medical students suddenly feel like they’ve gone from being the largest fish in the pond to a much smaller fish, in a much bigger pond. Work gets tougher, the environment is unfamiliar, and life is more exciting (and complex) than it was a few weeks ago.
The truth is, we will all go through issues to varying degrees at medical school. They can happen at any time, in any year. Dealing with the academic pressure of medical school is a subject worth taking some time to discuss.
Having a work-life balance is a matter of trial and error. It is a skill we will strive to acquire throughout our working lives. What many forget is that it’s a dynamic concept. Sometimes work is in the lead while at other times life takes over. Which one is where often depends on a multitude of different things – where you are in the academic year, your social life and your financial situation to name the obvious. Try, fail, adjust and try again are words to live by and you’ll eventually find what works for you.
So, what about the actual work itself? Take my word for it when I say you’ll find your niche, we all do eventually. If your course is like the majority and split into the pre-clinical and clinical years, then you’ll soon realise the basic sciences are not so ‘basic’ after all. They are rigorous and may not be suited to your strengths. Give it time and you will find your strengths, as is the case for most of us, later in the clinical years.
Don’t compare yourself to others
One of the first lessons I learnt was to never compare myself to my fellow students. This is especially important during exam-time. Too many of us compare our rate of revision or the topics we’ve covered to those around us. You have to remain focused on yourself – everyone will have different methods of revising, and some may be faster or slower than you. There is no right way to revise so don’t be thrown off course by somebody else.
Keep on top of your work
We all learn and stay on top of our work differently. However, in my experience, the most effective method is to work little, often and start early in the year. Some people are crammers, but cramming at medical school is dangerous and can bite you badly during exams.
My advice, for your first year at least: do a couple of hours in your own time every week. Half an hour’s weekend reading and ten minutes every night in the week is a good starting point. By the end of the year you’ll not only have a good foundation to work from but also a good habit that will follow you through your career.
It’s not abnormal to see the occasional medical student breakdown in the library. It happens and comes with the territory – we’re often very driven people with high expectations of ourselves. Occasionally, it gets a bit much when the wolf of exams is at the door. However, it’s these small steps which will support you during those tricky times.
What about that ‘life’ bit? That will be for another (and probably much longer) blog. It’s easy to get swept up in the heady rush of being away from home, having independence and some semblance of financial freedom. It’s absolutely essential to embrace this part of medical school with both hands as it’s the counterweight for all that I’ve just mentioned. Just don’t forget the all-important word: balance.
So, ask yourself again: are you a small fish, or are you one of many large fish? At the end of the day we’re all fish, and there’s more than enough room in the pond for us all to succeed.
Leo Mansell is chair of the Northern Ireland medical students committee
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