What Is Medical School Really Like?

Just How Hard Is It? Here's What to Expect

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If you've been thinking about going to medical school, you might be wondering just how you would spend your time as a med student, how hard it really is and what's required in a typical program. The short answer: You can expect a mixture of coursework, labs and clinical work that varies by year. 

Year 1

The first year of medical school is focused only on classes and labs.  Expect to learn lots of basic science, anatomy and physiology.

Expect labs and dissection. Anatomy will likely be the most difficult course you take, with about an hour’s worth of lecture to five hours of lab each week. You will be expected to memorize vast quantities of information.  Lecture notes are usually made available to help you take in the vast quantity of information. You’ll also be able to find supplemental notes online.  Expect to spend long days and nights studying. It is very difficult to catch up if you fall behind.

Year 2

The  United States Medical Licensing Examination, or USMLE-1, is taken by all medical school students. This exam determines whether you continue as a med student.

Year 3

During the third year students complete clinical rotations. They become part of a medical team, but as the bottom of the totem pole, below interns (first-year residents), residents (doctors-in-training), and an attending physician (senior doctor). Third-year students rotate through the clinical specialties of medicine, learning a little bit of what each specialty entails.

At the end of rotations you will take national exams that determine whether you receive credit for your clinical rotation and even whether you continue in the program.

Year 4

In your fourth year of medical school you will continue clinical work. In this sense it is much like year three, but you specialize.



After graduation you will continue training for at least another three years of residency and possibly more, depending on your speciality.

Personal Life as a Medical Student

As a medical student you can expect to spend a lot of time on your work.  On many days you will find that your entire waking experience is focused on your education, on classes, reading, memorizing and clinical work. Medical school is a time-suck that will leave you emotionally drained and exhausted most nights. Many med students find that their relationships suffer, especially those with  “civilian” non-medical student friends. As you might guess, romantic relations are just as difficult. Expect to be drained for cash and to eat a lot of ramen noodles.

In other words, getting through medical school is hard – not just academically but personally. Many students find that it is worth the pain. Others come to see it as years wasted. As you consider medical school try to take off the rose-colored glasses and see what you’re getting into. Think about your motivation to be a doctor before making this significant financial and personal commitment. Make a reasoned choice that you will not regret.