Thursday, July 29, 2010

To the New First Years

A friend of mine once said, "Cockroaches are tender-hearted. One dies and a million comes to its funeral." Advice for first-time medical students tends to be as prolific. Once you announce your admission, semi-serious and tongue-in-cheek comments range from "Is it too late to back out?" to "'C' is the correct answer for every test question you'll ever get." A lot of it is general, all of it is well-intentioned, but only some of it is really useful. What is most useful seems to come by experience and what follows has been mine.

To begin with, medical school, like the real world of medicine, is a communal endeavor. The person standing next to you in anatomy lab may turn out to be a valued colleague, even though at the moment they're struggling to keep their head above water. Competition was fine as a premed but now you have more important concerns than who's on first. Students committed to helping one another make lasting friends as well as a lasting impression, so be sure yours is a good one.

Second, despite the fact that you're about to be inundated with information, more than anyone could possibly absorb, digest, and retain, you will learn some things and you'll be surprised at how much. Not all of it is testable, however, and your mission, since you've chosen to accept it, involves ferreting out what is from what isn't. Make no mistake, this is a critical skill and the first week is not too soon to get coaching from upper classpersons about how to do it well.

Third, not everyone learns in the same way. There are students I've admired who can memorize in their sleep. Others are process-learners who need to explain and talk through the material. If you're one of these, don't tell yourself you have to know something before you describe it to a friend. Use your notes -- your instructors do. The point is to get the concepts into your head by whatever means, so they are available when you need them.

Fourth, I was about to say, don't wait until you're in trouble to ask for help, but I've changed my mind. It's difficult for medical students to admit to themselves, much less someone else, that things aren't going like expected. We have high expectations for our performance and assume others do as well. Getting past denial and facing the truth is tough. Just don't wait until you're in deep trouble to become honest with yourself. Trust me, as much as it hurts, you'll feel better once your problems are out in the open and you've got the people you need on your side.

Finally, even though I said medical school is a communal endeavor, it's also an individual one. For each of us, this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience that truly does go by, way too fast. It's incredibly precious -- gobble it up, enjoy it, revel in it. After four or five or however many years it takes, you'll be in residency because of what you've accomplished. Don't ever take it for granted and don't ever let it get old.

(Creative Commons image of the University of New England by Harmoney via Flickr)
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