Every pre-med student knows it’s essential to work hard to get into medical school. The applicant pool is incredibly competitive. It takes excellent grades, outstanding letters of recommendation, a stellar personal statement, and more to stand out to admissions committees.
Because you’ve been so focused on applying to programs and securing a seat, you haven’t spent much time thinking about what medical school will be like until recently. You might be a little nervous knowing you’ll be covering a substantial amount of material in the coming years. It can’t be easy learning about the intricacies of the human body and how diseases present.
So, just how hard is medical school? We got in touch with a handful of current students to hear their perspective firsthand. They shared not only what they found most difficult, but also how they are overcoming those challenges.
How hard is medical school? Students reveal 6 common difficulties
Medical school can be trying at times, even for the strongest students. “It’s a stress you’ve never had before, so everyone’s going to struggle in their own way,” explains Lindsey Jones, a third-year medical student at St. George’s University (SGU).
“It’s a stress you’ve never had before, so everyone’s going to struggle in their own way.”
It can be helpful to keep this in mind when you do face any of the following obstacles.
1. Some classes won’t come as easily to you
Everyone has their own strengths and weaknesses when it comes to academics. For Jones, memorization has always come easily. She quickly recognized she needed a different approach for conceptual topics, though. Jones found she did well when collaborating with a single study partner and also by utilizing student-led sessions through SGU’s Department of Educational Services (DES).
“They were helpful, because they were run by students who had done really well in the class,” Jones says. “I found they were able to explain it on a level that sometimes professors didn’t.”
Fourth-year SGU students Whitney Morgan and Lauren Sussman found they needed to put forth extra effort for certain classes as well. Morgan was also a fan of student-led review sessions. For Sussman, group study was particularly beneficial. She appreciated that working with other people held her accountable.
“I feel like sometimes you need to prepare for group study, so it gave me a goal to work toward in order to make sure I had something ready,” Sussman says. She adds she also found it motivating to see her roommate studying.
2. There’s a lot to learn
Nearly every physician and medical student will tell you that the volume of material is one of the biggest hurdles you’ll face in pursuit of your MD. This is definitely true from Morgan’s perspective.
“There’s so much information coming at you at one time from so many different people.”
“There’s so much information coming at you at one time from so many different people,” she offers.
Sussman feels the same way, especially considering there are so many things you simply must know to become a physician. As an English major in college, she was used to having a substantial say in what material she focused on. That’s not an option in medical school. Sussman explains that you need to know the ins and outs of every body part. Just focusing on the head, you need to know about the anatomy, physiology, biochemistry, disease processes, and much more.
“And that’s just the head,” she says. “There are things you can have going on head-to-toe externally and internally.”
The good news is it’s completely doable to learn all this material. You just need to make sure you utilize the study methods you already know work for your learning style. It’s also important to know that you’re going to have to devote more time to your studies than you have in the past.
3. You’ll need to spend more time studying than you did during college
Perhaps you were able to do well in college simply by going to class and putting in a few extra hours before a test. That method won’t get you very far in your medical education.
“You have to put in hours,” Morgan says. “You can’t just read a textbook and memorize stuff. You have to understand the actual mechanisms, pathways, and what’s happening.”
Jones followed a strategy recommended by some academic advisors at SGU when she started school. She would pre-read lectures before attending, take notes during the lecture, and then review the material once more in the evening. On weekends, she would review what was covered during the entire week and any previous weeks in that term. This means the bulk of her studying actually took place over the weekend.
“On Saturday and Sunday, I would get to the library around 8 am and leave at 4 or 5 pm,” she recalls.
4. It’s likely you’ll feel overwhelmed at times
It’s natural to feel stressed during medical school. Jones says it’s sometimes hard to feel energized to hit the books if you’re feeling wiped out. She found building a good support network was incredibly helpful for her in those situations.
“You have to find a group of friends that you can talk to and relate to.”
“You have to find a group of friends that you can talk to and relate to,” she ways. “It makes it so much better.”
Sussman says the rigors of medical school can make you want to keep to yourself. But she encourages students to go out and get involved. She participated in the Jewish Student Association at SGU and is glad she did.
“Go find your niche and get involved,” she offers. “Not only can it help you find a networking opportunity, but it’s also a way to get out and socialize.”
Sussman also recommends giving yourself something to look forward to, something that helps you relax. Maybe that’s taking some time to enjoy a cup of coffee or devoting 30 minutes to working out at the gym. Allow yourself those small indulgences to keep you motivated and give yourself a break.
5. You’ll go through some adjustment phases
Anytime you start a new phase in life, you should expect to make some modifications. It’s no different with medical school. Jones mentions she had never been to Grenada before heading to SGU for orientation, so she didn’t really know her way around.
“I had the same experience when I went to undergrad,” she says. “You don’t know where anything is and you’re kind of uncomfortable.” She also notes things started to look up pretty quickly once she started meeting other classmates.
“I had the same experience when I went to undergrad.”
For Morgan, it took some time to get used to clinical rotations. It’s a little different recalling information in a patient setting than in a classroom.
“It’s more that I’m just anxious about my performance,” she clarifies.
6. Your personal life may present some challenges
Not every challenge you face as a medical student is specific to the classroom. Your personal life can affect your experience as well. Jones mentions it was sometimes hard to connect with her fiancé. She actually encourages pre-meds to ask about considerations like this when speaking to graduates or current students to learn more about a particular school.
“People don’t often ask about personal stuff, because they think it’s unprofessional or something,” Jones says. “But it’s really important.”
Sussman found herself dealing with the loss of a loved one partway through her education. She managed, but it was a difficult time.
“I had to learn something else that was totally different,” she says. “I needed to overcome other challenges that had nothing to do with academics.” Fortunately, Sussman was able to work with SGU to accommodate her needs.
“I needed to overcome other challenges that had nothing to do with academics.”
Find your path to medical school success
So how hard is medical school? It’s a little difficult to say with any sort of concrete scale. Everyone’s experience is a bit different. You might struggle with some classes and naturally excel in others.
That said, you should expect to be challenged during medical school. You’ll cover everything from organ systems to navigating the doctor-patient relationship. The education is rigorous for a reason—it prepares you to become a physician.
Just because medical school is difficult doesn’t mean you’re doomed, though. Every practicing physician was able to find a way to make their dream career a reality.