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What is medical school like?

As a prospective medical student, you must be wondering what medical school is really like. Sure, your mom and her friends all say your days will be filled with work and nothing else, and that you will have to work harder than ever before, but is that actually the case?

Layout of the full medical course

The undergraduate medical course is divided into preclinical and clinical years - they can be 2+3, 3+3 or 3+2 years respectively.

In the preclinical phase, your teaching will largely be made up of these lesson formats. Lectures are classes that your entire year group attends at the same time, and they cover compulsory, or “core,” material from basic sciences such as anatomy and pharmacology to organ systems such as the cardiovascular and respiratory systems. They usually take place in large lecture halls like the one in the picture above. Tutorials, consists of small-group teachings that often involves more nuanced topics such as abortion and contraception. You will be expected to participate in discussions during these sessions. Tutorials are great chances for you to consolidate your learning and clear any doubts on the subject with your tutors.

Laboratory work is largely similar to the ones in secondary school and college, but instead of conducting experiments and tinkering with Bunsen burners, labs in medical school often involve microscopes. For example, histology, or the study of how our own cells look microscopically, is a core component of the medical course. If your university offers optional modules, they give you the choice of selecting a few modules from a set list outside of the core teaching for you to study in more detail. The options are varied, with options to further your learning in medical ethics, infection prevention in surgery, research in neurosurgery and many, many more. These are exciting opportunities to spend time learning out of the set curriculum in areas of particular interests.

During your research into which medical schools to apply to, you may have come across universities that pride themselves on conducting problem-based learning. This kind of learning is less structured than traditional lectures. Content is taught based on “problems” heavily on your drive to learn and discover as much as you can. Clinical skills teaching involves instruction about how to conduct patient interactions and specific examinations, for example, assessing a person’s respiratory function. You will get opportunities to practice these skills during guided hospital and GP visits. Communication skills is also an important part of clinical skills. You will be taught to think about how you interact with patients in difficult situations, including breaking bad news, discussing private matters, etc.

Before the clinical phase, some universities offer the option of intercalation. This involves taking a year out of the medical course and completing a research project. You will then graduate once with a Bachelor of Science or Masters degree of your choice. The options available are, again, incredibly varied from public health to translational medicine, or neuroscience. We will discuss the pros and cons in another article!

Things then become a little different when you enter the clinical phase. You will be placed in hospitals and GP practices where you will complete various attachments. Most of your time will be spent on wards, clinics and other placements such as outreach teams and community work, talking to and examining real patients. Tutorials may still be available, but a lot of learning will be self-directed. Your day will involve a variety of clinical activities, and is invited to be part of the team involved in patient care. This includes ward rounds, where patients who stay in hospitals are reviewed and given individualised plans. As medical students, your role is to learn, and to observe. Foundation doctors are great help at guiding you on interesting cases or patients you can practice your clinical skills with when the day is less busy. You will also sit in on clinics, observing and learning from outpatient consultations. During your surgical rotations, you will also spend time in surgical theatres observing and assisting in surgical procedures.

Your clinical years will help you consolidate the knowledge accumulated from your pre-clinical years and teach you how to think clinically, including making decisions on investigations and creating management plans.

What an average “school” day looks like

The average school week is usually very flexible and allows for a lot of time outside of medicine.

For most of the course, you will only have academic commitments from Monday to Friday. During your preclinical years, lectures are usually from 9 am to 5 pm, but you won’t necessarily have them back-to-back depending on how your lessons are timetabled. For example, you can have a class from 9 - 11am and then a 2-hour break before your next lecture. Wednesday afternoons are generally kept free for you to be involved in sports and other extracurricular activities. Lectures are usually non-compulsory so you can tailor your timetable to suit your learning style.

In the clinical phase, your week will depend on the schedule of the particular placement you are on. For example, if you are on your obstetrics and gynaecology rotation, you may be expected to attend several on-call and night shifts, which you likely will not need to do on your psychiatry placement. However, your attendance is usually not strictly monitored, and enthusiasm and personal drive will play a big role in how much you learn on these placements.

The average school week is usually very flexible and allows for a lot of time outside of medicine. As such, most medical students are actively involved in extracurricular activities.

What about exams?

Keeping on top of your revision and being proactive with self-studying is exceptionally important for medical students.

Exam formats differ from university to university. In general, there will be 2 types of exams. Firstly, theory exams assess your knowledge of the teaching you’ve had through the year, both the core learning as well as any optional modules you have taken. They may be multiple-choice questions, short answer questions or essay questions. Secondly, your clinical competence and clinical skills are tested through the OSCEs (Objective Structured Clinical Examination). You may also have additional examinations for your anatomy knowledge and prescribing skills.

Many universities hold two exams a year, once in December-January and another in May-June, but others choose to only have an end-of-year exam in May-June. Your exam results may be fully dependent on the paper you sit at that time, or you may have additional assignments that can contribute to your total marks. Friends from other courses will often have several weeks before their exams when they can fully devote themselves to revising, but that may not be the case for you. That is why keeping on top of your revision and being proactive with self-studying is exceptionally important for medical students.

Retake policies depend on the university you are in, but they generally allow for a period of study before you have to resit the exam. The pass mark varies between 40% to 65% for most universities, which sounds deceptively easy, but with the amount and complexity of the content you have to cover, just passing is good enough!

What is there to do outside of my studies?

Your university years are some of your last as a student, so enjoy your invaluable experiences here.

There is plenty on offer outside of academics! University societies boast a great variety of activities - for suggestions on what to do during your time at university, click HERE.

Spend time making friends and building connections with those around you. You’re in a new country, so if finances aren’t an issue, take the opportunity to travel and discover more of the cultures surrounding you. Leave your comfort zone and explore - who knows, you may find something you really love! Your university years are some of your last as a student, so enjoy your invaluable experiences here.

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