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Doctors and students share their tips on starting the first year of medical school right


The start of the school year is just around the corner. If you’re an incoming first-year medical student, you are likely feeling a combination of nerves and excitement.

Yes, you probably have some long days in the lab and nights in the library ahead, but as the assignments begin to roll in and the deadlines pile up, it’s important to take care of your physical, mental and emotional well-being. That will help you to navigate your first year successfully and to build a productive and fulfilling career as a physician in the years to come.

Dive into Frosh Week

Orientation or “Frosh” activities provide you with a great opportunity to get to know your classmates. The friendships you make early on will serve you in the months and years to come, so be sure to participate in those events.

“Medical school is an amazing, but also challenging, experience that will undoubtedly be life-changing. Therefore, doing it alone would be very difficult,” says Corinne Cécyre-Chartrand, class president of McGill University’s second-year medical students. “Having a support system at school and outside of school is essential.”

Find what works for you in the classroom

Once classes get under way, you are going to be taking a lot of notes, so figure out which method suits you best. Try using a tablet computer and organizing your notes with an app like Notability. You will also want to find the learning materials that work best for you. Medical students recommend supplementing lecture materials with external resources like Osmosis, Sketchy, Toronto Notes and USMLE.

As for what you will be studying, keep an open mind. You may think you know which specialty interests you most, but don’t limit yourself too early.

“Spend some time trying everything out,” says Debbie Brace, a third-year medical student at McMaster University and chair of the Ontario Medical Students Association. “Observerships and clinical experience are key to finding out what you like and where you fit.”

Hit the books early and often

Ezra Schwartz, a second-year medical student at McGill, says that navigating medical school “is like treading water.” If you stop treading, you swallow water and risk sinking. Conversely, if you push too hard, you tire quickly.

Think of medical school as an endurance event: you’ll need to study every day! Working in groups is a good idea because that can keep you accountable and motivated.

But if it all seems a little overwhelming, don’t despair. “You don’t have to (and definitely won’t) remember everything after learning it once in a class or tutorial,” says Victoria McKinnon, a McMaster medical student. “The key to learning will be repetition, and it’s totally normal to forget along the way!”

Don’t neglect your life outside of school

The most common piece of advice you are likely to receive is to carve out time for your personal life. Make a commitment to yourself now that you will not let that fall by the wayside.

“Make it a point once a week to socialize with your new classmates and friends,” says Dr. Gurjit Bajwa, an emergency physician in Toronto. “These ties could last a lifetime.”

Exercise and physical activity can be a healthy way to release stress. Getting involved in student life and doing extracurriculars are also recommended. You can join a medical students’ association at your school or in your region, or perhaps do something completely outside the scope of medicine.

“Explore your passions, hang out with friends outside of medical school, go on the weekend trip and take care of yourself,” counsels Danny Jomaa, president of Queen’s University’s medical student association, the Aesculapian Society. “You have your entire life to learn and work.”

Focus on your studies, but make self-care a priority, too

Above all else, you must take care of yourself. That means knowing your own limits and paying attention to the early signs that all is not right.

“Learn when it is important to say yes and when to say no,” says Schwartz. “This is highly individual; try not to imitate someone else’s balance.” Remember, we all learn in different ways, and we are all working toward individual goals.

“You are accomplished in your own right and have already proven that,” says Safia Ladha, a fourth-year Queen’s medical student. “Comparing yourself to your classmates is tempting but ultimately not productive.”

Dr. Dee Hoyano, a public health physician with Island Health in Victoria, recommends finding a stress management practice that fits your lifestyle: “Exercise, meditation, counselling, social clubs/groups outside of medicine, music, art — whatever recharges you and grounds you in living.”

The important thing is to be consistent with your stress management practices. Start to think about those now, so that when life gets too hectic, you know how to cope. “Mental health is a crucial part of medicine,” says Cécyre-Chartrand. Know that “it’s okay not to be okay.”

And when things do get tough, be sure to turn to your friends, family and teachers for support. Remember the principle of synergy: two or more people or other elements working together can produce results that exceed the sum of their individual efforts.