Transitioning to Medical School: Advice from the M2 Class

Danny Sack (M2)
September 28, 2017

The uniqueness of the Foundations of Medical Knowledge (FMK) phase makes it a challenge to offer advice without falling into clichés: “it’ll all be okay in the end,” “you’re doing fine,” and “just keep swimming.” Most of you have arrived in a new environment, have new responsibilities, and have left another life behind you, all before school starts.

The dizzying pace that accompanies your next ten months will be frustrating, infuriating, and, at times, draining. It will simultaneously, however, fuel your curiosity, provide opportunities for discovery, and offer moments of inspiration. Instead of telling you what to do to thrive instead of just survive, especially since that may change from week to week, I can only offer reflections from the M2 class. These include some of the little things we did to make first year more bearable and, looking back on it, downright fun.

From the first days of HBA, you are bombarded with seemingly nonsensical acronyms — CBC, CMP, MCAD, BRCA (and BCRA if you were following politics). You discuss the many theories of pathogenesis of previously unheard of diseases, some of which you will never see again. You are suddenly thrust into the ever-challenging world of the H&P, learning how to talk to patients about their medical concerns and experiencing the confusion of trying to hear through a stethoscope when you’ve inserted the earbuds incorrectly (and perhaps being corrected by a patient…). This is before you get a chance to spend quality time in the anatomy lab, where you grapple with the humanity of the silent teaching partner who lies on your table, introducing you to the nuances of the human form.

We found it helpful to take time at the end of each block to look back and pat ourselves on the back for what we had learned. Though looking at the 826 pages of information in M&I can be overwhelming, it’s impressive that you now know why beta-lactam antibiotics won’t work on (most) gram negative bacteria, how HIV infects T cells, and that the complement system exists.

We also used the pass/fail curriculum as a source of academic comfort during a hectic first year. While it may not calm your friends and family to say that as a future doctor you’re “only” learning 70% of the material, you can reassure them that you will learn the information again during clerkships, while you’re studying for Step 1, while you’re studying for Step 2, during your M4 year, during your internship, while you’re studying for step 3, etc.…so that by the time you are actually responsible for taking care of patients without a backup, you will be more than competent.

You’ve already gotten a taste of the breakneck pace of medical school. While it will not slow down, over the course of the year you will get better at managing it. Coincidentally, this newfound efficiency coincides with more rigorous coursework, so you probably won’t spend that much less time studying.

Knowing this allows you to prioritize the things that are important to maintaining your sanity. For some, that included making time to visit restaurants with classmates or having friends over for dinner, which also facilitates class bonding. For me, that meant going for a run in lieu of spending another hour studying the branches of the external carotid artery. We all agree that it is important to plan time over the weekend in which you will not be studying.

In addition to the academic challenges, the first year of medical school presents new responsibilities that can change relationships with loved ones. We found that setting expectations up front and acknowledging significant others’ sacrifices along the way made this more manageable.

Though the first year of medical school will not be the hardest thing you ever do, the combination of moving to a new place and trying to learn all new information certainly puts it high on the list. While there is no one best way to navigate its choppy waters, we are confident in your ability to succeed, are looking forward to watching you thrive, and are always available to help when needed. If all else fails, just remember that the second year is better!