A New Reality: Notable Challenges and Surprises in My First Year of Medical School

How does it feel to complete the first year of medical school? I feel like I have already learned so much in such a short period of time. The year went by so fast!

While it feels like just yesterday they presented us our white coats, we are now already a quarter of the way done! With a year of medical school at the College of Human Medicine under my belt, I feel a lot more comfortable knowing what is expected of me as a medical student.

Beyond the training's challenges, there was also something interesting (and unexpected) that I learned in the Early Clinical Experience (ECE).

One of the biggest challenges students struggled with from my perspective during first year was simply figuring out how to study. Classes weren’t too bad in undergrad—you put in the work and things went in your favor. At least, it seems that way in hindsight.

For me, MCAT prep was challenging relative to undergraduate course work. It was the first time I really had to stay disciplined since everything was riding on this one long exam. The MCAT tests for competency and critical thinking whereas most of the plug-and-chug tests in undergrad were more about memorization.

Medical school is a different type of beast. Throughout most of the year, some students were still trying to figure out what study methods worked for them. It became apparent that undergraduate tactics weren’t always going to work anymore.

There is an analogy people use to describe the consuming of knowledge in medical school: “It’s like trying get a drink of water from a fire hydrant.”

This is a great analogy.

Up to this point, we were accustomed to drinking water out of a water fountain. Now, however, we were supposed to take in as much as we could while the rest of it went right by us. It was the first time in most of our lives that it simply was not going to be possible to know everything about what we were learning.

“Don’t worry, we will come back to it later,” faculty said.

This mode in the Shared Discovery Curriculum is to keep us moving along and keep our focus on the bigger picture. The human body is so infinitely complex, it is easy to wander and get lost down a rabbit hole. Truthfully, it's a good thing we weren't allowed to explore too much too soon.

In a traditional education, there are lots of lectures and tests, conducive to a "binge and forget" style of learning. The Shared Discovery tries to alleviate that approach by integrating clinical experience with fewer tests, no lectures, and much more feedback.

Many of us had to change our mentality. We weren’t used to being okay with just letting things fly by, so to speak. We wanted to know everything…now. So changing your way of thinking about absorbing information was a new concept for most of our medical students.

Once we got a good grasp of the main ideas, the curriculum would eventually circle back around to hone in on the details.

The early clinical exposure at CHM worked to reinforce what we learned, accompanied by small-group debriefings. It allowed us to apply the readings and discussions to real-life cases. My classmates and I thought this to be particularly helpful. We found it much more memorable seeing patients in the hospital with particular illnesses than simply reading about those illnesses.

Another challenge most of my classmates had as ECE students was trying to figure out which study resources to use. There are so many different resources available to medical students that it can get overwhelming.

My advice: try a few—there are free trials for most of them—and see what works for you. Then, stick with them! A lot of people will use some, then quit and jump to another resource one of their friends is using because it seems better.

However, this leads to having tried various different resources without having thoroughly used any one in particular—it may not get you far from where you started.

Something interesting and unexpected that I learned over this past year deals with what separates a good doctor versus a great doctor. A great doctor treats the patient, not just the disease. A patient is much more than their illness.

I know what you're probably thinking: “Of course they are! We KNOW that. Tell me something new!”

The thing that caught me by surprise was how much we, as doctors, will have to focus on the non-illness aspect of each patient’s life. To provide the best care possible, we must incorporate things like a person’s social and economic status as well as their cultural beliefs, however complex.

Heading into medical school, I think most expect to learn about the human body, different diseases, and methods of treatment. I think what some of us hadn't expected was to what extent that as doctors it’s not just about what we’re treating, but who we’re treating—a human being. 

This makes medicine much more complex than upon initial thought. In order to provide the best and most complete health care possible for a patient, we cannot only rely on medical history nor what we find upon physical examination. We need to know what the patient’s home environment is like, what type of support the patient has at home, whether they have any socioeconomic issues. We also must address their emotions. 

And, in some cases, we must do this all in 15 minutes.

Electronic medical records actually makes the task a bit more challenging because we must check all the boxes on the screen and type everything in the chart while trying to maintain a personable human interaction to let the patient know we really do care. 

The ECE has taught us how to navigate these complexities as well as how to treat the patient like a human being rather than a case study. The work can certainly be tough, but totally worth it.

Harminder Sandhu is a second-year College of Human Medicine student from California. As an Office of Admissions blog contributor, Harminder offers an inside look at the college from the student perspective. Read more of Harminder's posts


  1. Hey Harminder! I'm applying to MSU this cycle and would love to connect sometime. Got to meet Brian Ulrich from admissions this year and loved the impression I got of your school.


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