Adjusting to medical school: a letter to my first-year self

by Clara Reeves

As thousands of undergraduates begin their own journey at medical school this autumn, I found myself reflecting on my first year, and all the things I wish I’d known.

Location: Scotland
Published: Tuesday 24 August 2021
Clare reeves

Your exam mindset might need to change

Unlike A levels, you can’t hurtle from exam to exam – there are too many. Try to accept they’re a part of life and incorporate them (and your studies in general) into your life. In first year, I was so focussed on exams I burnt out every semester and used my holidays trying to recover. This wasn’t sustainable and affected my wellbeing!

Make time for other interests

It’s OK if medicine is just one of the things you’re interested in. Not everyone lives and breathes medicine, even though it might feel like it. At medical school I have found it’s more about making time for your other interests, rather than having time. There’s always more studying you could do – learning when to stop is a skill. I found that having regular times in the week blocked off for other activities (or no activities!) is helpful to ensure you’re taking regular breaks from medicine.

Embrace your strengths and weaknesses

Everyone has different strengths and weaknesses – don’t worry if you’re struggling with something more than other people seem to be. People come to medical school with all kinds of backgrounds, skills; recognise and be proud of yours, whether it’s people skills and multi-tasking from your part-time jobs or something completely different!

Learning from each other and teaching others is a key part of medical school – and in my opinion one of the most enjoyable aspects – and this relies on everyone having different strengths within medicine!

Step outside your comfort zone

Try to put yourself out there, answering questions in tutorials, asking questions in anatomy sessions – it gets less scary the more you do it, and before you realise it your confidence will have grown. But don’t feel you have to change your personality or become extroverted to be successful; everyone's personality brings something unique to medicine and that should be celebrated.

Be gentle with yourself

Finally, accept that all these changes will take time to adjust to, and be gentle with yourself. No one feels at home at medical school or university overnight – everyone takes their own time to find their group of friends and adjust to the academics, and that’s normal. It’s also an ongoing process. As a third year I still haven’t figured out how to perfectly balance life as a medical student, but with lots of trial and error I do feel like I’m a little bit closer to it.

Clara Reeves is a third-year medical student at St Andrews University and the BMA medical students committee representative for The University of St Andrews School of Medicine