What to Expect in Medical School

An overview of what you can expect medical school to be like.

What will I learn in medical school?

Most medical schools organize their training into two parts. Basic science training usually occurs during the first two years of medical school, when you learn about basic medical concepts, the structure and functions of the body, diseases, diagnoses, and treatment concepts. You’ll also learn the basics of doctoring, such as taking medical histories and other essential competencies. The last two years of medical school will involve clinical clerkships, during which time you will receive basic instruction and hands-on experience with patients in the major medical specialties.

Will I be graded?

How students are graded varies from school to school. Some medical schools use a pass/fail system or an honors/pass/fail system, and others use a letter-grading system. There are even some that use a combination of a pass/ fail system for the first year or two then switch to another system for the final two years. To see individual medical school policies on grading, see the Education section of the Medical School Admission Requirements. Regardless of which approach your school uses, it’s important to keep grades in perspective. Grades do matter in certain instances, but they are only one criteria by which you are evaluated during medical school.

How will I interact with patients?

Traditionally, medical students haven’t had many experiences with patients until their third year, but this is changing. Some schools introduce patient interactions early on or may have incoming students receive EMS or EMT certification before the beginning of classes.

Typically, you do clinical rotations, also called clerkships, during the third and fourth year of medical school. Rotations give you firsthand experience working with patients in various specialties under direct supervision of a faculty member or resident. The types, number, and length of rotations vary from school to school, but training usually includes clerkships in internal medicine, family medicine, obstetrics and gynecology, pediatrics, psychiatry, and surgery. Your school may have different requirements. However, in your fourth year of medical school, you will be given the opportunity to take electives in different specialties and at different institutions according to your interests. The Medical School Admission Requirements website features information in the Education section about when students begin patient interaction and how clinical rotations work at each medical school.

When do I choose a specialty and apply for residency training?

Choosing a specialty begins early with an ongoing examination of your interests and career goals in the practice of medicine, along with an exploration of the many specialty options available. Your third-year rotations will give you an opportunity to experience a number of specialties and determine how your interests, values, and skills fit with those specialties. By the end of the third year, most students have chosen their specialty and begin preparing to apply for residency training in their desired specialty.

At the beginning of your final year of med school, you will submit residency applications and then interview for positions. Depending on the residency matching program you use, you’ll find out where you’ll do your residency training in late winter or early spring of your final year. See the Careers in Medicine website for more information and a detailed timeline.

How do I get licensed to practice medicine?

During medical school you’ll start the licensure process, which begins in the second year with the United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE) Step 1 exam. Step 1 covers the sciences fundamental to the practice of medicine. The Step 2 exam, which measures clinical knowledge and skills, is usually completed during the third or fourth year of medical school. The final Step 3 exam for initial licensure occurs during the first or second year of residency training, after you’ve completed medical school and have received your MD.

Will my experience be the same at any medical school?

All medical schools accredited by the Liaison Committee on Medical Education (LCME) have the same goal of preparing their students for residency training and practicing medicine by providing a thorough foundation in the medical sciences and training in clinical skills. However, each school has its own specific mission, curriculum, course format, and academic schedule. Before you apply to a school, research that school’s mission statement and graduation requirements, such as community service, research experience, and specific coursework. You can find this information on each school’s website or on the Medical School Admission Requirements website.

Who can I ask for help if I get overwhelmed?

It’s okay to admit you need help managing the stress that comes with being a med student. In fact, it’s completely normal to reach out to a faculty member, dean, mentor, or spiritual advisor when you’re feeling overwhelmed. Many current and past medical students often cite the famous analogy that learning in medical school is like trying to drink from a fire hose. It sounds intense, but these same students also speak about learning new study techniques along the way that help them manage time better, integrate new knowledge, and excel as med students.Admitting that something is difficult, but doable, can really improve your outlook.

Rest assured that, yes, as a medical school student you are entering a demanding process, but every successful doctor was in your place at some point. Those anxious feelings are normal, temporary, and manageable.

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