How To Succeed In Medical School

Yesterday was the first day of orientation for the new medical students at Baylor.  One of our traditions is to announce the winner of the DeBakey Scholar Award at the beginning of orientation.  The DeBakey Scholar award is one of the most prestigious awards given at Baylor; it is awarded to the rising senior whose academic success and character best emulates Michael E. DeBakey.  This year’s award winner, J. Mason Depasse, was asked to give some advice to the new class of medical students.  His remarks were so exceptional I asked his permission to post them here.

Welcome and congratulations on your admission to Baylor College of Medicine. My name is Mason, and I spoke to many of you during your interview day and second look weekend, when I told you why I loved Baylor. I hope that, after your retreat, you are already beginning to love it here as well. You made an excellent choice, and you will appreciate that more and more as you progress. I could go on and on about what makes Baylor great, but today I’m not here to talk about that. Today, I’m here to talk to you about how to succeed in medical school.

I remember my first day of orientation, and I know the mix of anxiety and excitement you are all feeling. I’m sure you have been told about the flood of information coming your way, and many of you may already be bracing yourself for the impact, particularly those who have had time away from biology or those who have an eye for a highly competitive specialty. While nervousness is perfectly natural, I want to stress that, when the material starts building up – and if you remember nothing else from this talk, remember this – you should not panic. Don’t freak out. People from all manner of academic backgrounds do it every year, and no matter what you’ve been doing or studying for the past four or ten years, you will get through it. It might take a little elbow grease, but you’ll make it.

To help you get started on the right foot, I’ve compiled a short list of things to keep in mind as you begin the basic science curriculum.

First and foremost, try to keep up. This is far harder to do than it may sound, but try your best not to procrastinate. The easiest and most reliable way to successfully tackle any seemingly overwhelming task is to break it into stages, and absorbing the enormous volume of information in basic science is no exception. In college, most of the testing in the sciences focuses on concepts, particularly for upperclassmen. You studied a set of rules for how to calculate electric fields and… something about nucleophiles, and you demonstrated that you could apply those rules. You all have the aptitude and the study skills to succeed in those courses, or you wouldn’t have gotten into medical school. Unfortunately, these skills will not be as effective here because you can’t outsmart basic science. You can’t do it. It’s a whole world of knowledge, and as our professors told us, you just “gotta know it.” You have to put in the hours, and keeping up with the material by regular studying makes this manageable. Get into a routine, and try to stick to it. And when you get a bit behind, and we all get behind at times, catch up as soon as you can.

Second, find a way to study that works for you. This may sound obvious, but I’ve seen students become concerned that they are not in a study group, or aren’t making flash cards, etc. But study groups and flash cards may not work for everyone. There is no “wrong” way to study; if it works, then you’re doing it right.  Your PRN leaders can give you all manner of suggestions for study tips and tricks, and you should feel free to try them out. You have a practice diagnostic exam before your first set of real exams, and you should use it to determine whether your method is working. But even when you find a strategy you like, your study method may not always work. Medical school is a long haul, and there are a lot of different challenges to face. Keep in mind that succeeding here is about adapting and persevering in the long-term. I wasn’t always happy with my performance, I was frustrated at times, but I found that it’s not worth beating yourself up about it. Adjust and prepare for next time.

Third, use your resources. Your professors will provide you with documents and powerpoints of their lectures, and these will sufficiently cover the material. However, you may find it helpful to supplement your reading with outside sources. Don’t overwhelm yourself, but there are all manner of texts and reviews available. Even looking over a topic in First Aid, the Bible of USMLE Step 1, can be helpful for solidifying your knowledge. Furthermore, don’t be afraid to ask for help. Baylor has a culture of cooperativity. Your classmates, your PRN leaders, upperclassmen, and professors are all here for you and will be happy to provide advice and support.

Fourth, stay balanced. Medical school can be very demanding, and it is easy to burn out if you don’t take care of yourself. Go out with your friends. Join IM sports. Go to the gym. If you’re applying to orthopedics, go to the gym again. Whatever you do, take a break. Two productive hours of studying are far more effective than four hours of staring blankly at the same page. Believe me, I know. There will be weeks along the way during which you will work a ridiculous amount of hours and balance isn’t really feasible, and when those come along I recommend trying to make it up afterwards.

Finally, once you’ve gotten settled into a routine, be aggressive. You’re here because you want to be physicians, and you’re paying through the nose for it – though not quite so much at Baylor. Thankfully, you chose an institution with just about every opportunity for research, service, and clinical experience that you can imagine. Seize them. Join student groups. Email professors you want to shadow or work with in the lab. Go to Ben Taub and learn how to start IVs and suture. When you’re on clinics in what feels like forever from now, I want you to remember that you are the only member of your team who is paying to be there. So get your money’s worth. Know your patients, and I mean really know them, and imagine that you are making all of the decisions. Think of your own treatment plans, and ask questions if yours differs from the final one. Medical school shouldn’t be four years you just have to get through in order to become a physician. Don’t let medical school just happen to you. Medical school is your chance to sample the spectrum of clinical medicine and gain the experiences necessary to begin forming more concrete career goals. So once you’ve got your rhythm going and you’re comfortable with your routine, I strongly encourage you to get out there and explore.

J. Mason Depasse, MS4


One thought on “How To Succeed In Medical School

  1. Thank you so much for this. I’ve been feeling down lately because I haven’t found a study buddy before the new semester begins in two weeks. I feel a lot better now 🙂

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