5 Ways Medical School Is Different From College

Xinxin "Stephanie" Zhang

Entering medical school can be a challenging transition from undergrad life. While many aspects -- classes, studying, trying to keep on an even keel -- are similar, there are some real differences as well.

Instead of working toward a good GPA with getting into medical school as your goal, you will have to figure out how to become a person fit to be trusted with enormous responsibilities in a few short years, without cracking in the process. It is a daunting thought.

When I first started medical school, I thought that the key was perfection. Having survived the first year, I now know that the key is actually adaptation.

Here are the biggest areas in which I experienced a transition when I started med school.

1. Material: Whoever coined the phrase "drinking from a fire hydrant" was spot on when it comes to medical school. While medical school is not conceptually difficult, the sheer amount of information a student needs to take in can be overwhelming.

Materials that constitute an entire undergrad course may be covered in med school in the space of a few weeks. Moreover, not all of the material is important. The undergrad approach of "I don't want to think about what's important so I'm just going to remember everything" doesn't work in med school because there's simply too much stuff.

One of the most important skills I learned in my first year is how to let less important pieces go in favor of making sure I remember the important -- that is, clinically relevant -- information.

[Decide between pursuing an M.D. or a D.O.]

2. Time: Medical school is not the end of who you are as a person and all the activities that you enjoy. If you work efficiently and manage time wisely, you can in fact still do intramural sports, yoga, dance, tai chi or work a part-time job.

However, the majority of your time will be devoted to cramming facts into your head. The overall amount of time invested will probably not be all that different from undergrad, but you will find yourself becoming more efficient at synthesizing information throughout the year.

Presumably you are going into medicine because you would like to help people, and to do that you just need to know enough. Patients like doctors who have lives and can interact with people, not doctors who know all sorts of esoteric facts but can't relate to others. When you start feeling the pressure or are unable to cram an additional fact into your head for fear that another will fall out, it's time to take a breather.

[Find out how medical schools are battling student burnout.]

3. Grading: Work-life balance is very important to the happiness of physicians and med students alike. The ability to take courses pass-fail is a great boon to a med student's life, right up there with catered lunch talks.

Once you pass a test, no one will know what percent you made on it beside yourself, and a 100 percent will receive the same "P" as a 75. Make no mistake -- just passing requires lots of studying. The extra cushion is for family and friends and significant others, for picnicking when it's a nice day outside and for preserving your sanity. It is a precious gift to be used wisely.

4. Environment: Med school is an odd mix of people of all ages and from all walks of life. In undergrad, whatever differences exist between you and your classmates, you are typically all adolescents trying to figure out roughly the same stage of life. Your classmates in med school will have had all sorts of experiences -- some amazing, some tragic, some inspirational -- and they will have gained perspectives and skills that you can learn from.

[Peek into a day in the life of a first-year medical student.]

5. Self-assessment: Most premeds who make it into med school are used to thinking of themselves as reasonably intelligent people. Except for the few geniuses among us, that impression may not last long.

Everyone fails a test at least once. Everyone has that moment when the attending physician asks you a question and you don't have the answer. Because I didn't see other people having that moment I thought it was just me who was failing and not meant to be there. But when I started talking to my classmates, it turned out that it happens to everyone. You are truly not alone.

You will have classmates who are smarter than you, who work harder than you, who are more experienced than you and more talented than you. This may initially come as a blow to your ego, but pretty soon you will come to realize that being surrounded by such gifted and wonderful individuals is a blessing. Being around them and learning from them will help you grow personally.

Realize that you too have talents, skills and experiences to contribute, and that admissions picked you because they thought you were on par with these gifted and wonderful individuals. Learn to be comfortable with yourself, but never satisfied.

Xinxin "Stephanie" Zhang is a first-year medical student at the University of North Carolina--Chapel Hill and an MCAT tutor for Next Step Test Preparation. She earned a Bachelor of Science in chemistry from Wake Forest University.