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Steps for Success for First-Year Medical Students

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Step 1: Learn How to Study Effectively

At one medical school, faculty assigned nearly 30,000 pages of reading! How can a student read and retain such a large volume of information? That's the question you will face as you start medical school.

Substantial research indicates that it's not enough to study longer and harder to succeed. While a strong work ethic is important for success, the highest-performing medical students effectively strategize and utilize the techniques of active learning.


As you adjust to medical school, we urge you to take stock of your study habits and learning strategies. If your strategies are not serving you well, explore other options. You can elevate your performance as long as you are open to new strategies and techniques. Your medical school will have resources to help you, and we recommend that you investigate these further. 

Step 2: Explore Specialty Options

The preclinical years are an excellent time to explore specialties. One major limitation of our current medical education system (at most schools) is that students are only able to rotate through 7-10 specialties before a career decision must be made early in the fourth year of medical school. 


In the two years that you have before you begin clerkships, take the time to shadow physicians in different specialties, attend career guidance sessions and workshops, and join specialty interest groups. Another excellent resource is the AAMC Careers in Medicine


We're constantly reviewing the literature on future directions in medicine, and especially as these relate to particular specialties. What is the future jobs outlook for radiology? What are some of the changes in store for the field of anesthesiology? As you explore specialties during the preclinical years, these articles make for fascinating, thought-provoking reading. 

Step 3: Understand Criteria Important to Residency Program Directors

Even at this early point in your medical education, it's important that you become familiar with the criteria that residency programs use to select residents. Preclinical students who are well informed can make appropriate decisions that will maximize their chances of success in the residency match. 


The NRMP [National Resident Matching Program] publishes data on matching outcomes every 2 years. This resource is known as "Charting Outcomes in the Match", and it's an extremely valuable data set. For each specialty, the NRMP includes remarkably specific data points, such as how many applicants with a USMLE score below 220 were able to match into orthopedic surgery in the 2016 cycle. 

The NRMP also surveys program directors (PDs) in every specialty. The PDs report on the factors that are most important to them in deciding whom to interview and whom to rank. 

Step 4: Begin to Plan your Residency Match Strategy

When we speak with preclinical students, one of the questions we're asked most frequently relates to residency planning. "I'm an MS1, and I'm interested in orthopedic surgery. How can I learn more about the field and meet potential mentors? And how can I start to strengthen my credentials? I'm still in the basic sciences, and I have yet to meet a single orthopedic surgery faculty member." 


We were asked this question often enough that we created an E-book on this topic. Many students with whom we've worked have instituted the recommendations in this book. In doing so, they've been able to significantly strengthen their residency application. In dermatology, for example, these students have a notable advantage over classmates who may be scrambling to locate mentors, identify research projects, complete research projects, and work on publications---all during a very busy span of a few MS3 months. 


Click below to receive a free copy of "Head Start: Exploring Specialties and Establishing Credentials as a Pre-Clinical Student." 

Step 5: Find a Mentor

The further we've progressed in our own careers, the more it becomes apparent how many individuals have helped us along the way. To achieve professional success in almost any field requires help.


This may not be initially obvious to new medical students, who are used to studying hard and achieving high grades on their own. 


Securing a spot in medical school though, definitely required help. Professors who provided help outside the classroom, researchers who offered the opportunity to participate in their project, advisors who provided letters of recommendation: the list goes on. 


Succeeding in medical school, and succeeding in the residency match itself, requires even more assistance. At this next stage of your career, informed guidance and advice becomes even more important. 

Step 6: Make a name for yourself outside of the classroom

As in college, the learning environment in medical school extends beyond the classroom, and institutions offer valuable opportunities to participate in a variety of extracurricular activities. Involvement in these organizations provide a number of opportunities and benefits. 


Involvement may also help students reach their professional goals. Data from NRMP surveys of program directors indicate that extracurricular activities do serve as a significant nonacademic factor in the residency selection process. 


Evidence suggests that meaningful contributions in extracurricular activities, particularly leadership may serve as an indicator of residency performance. 


Plus getting involved in other pursuits can be fun and rewarding, offering you an opportunity to lead a more balanced life during medical school.

Step 7: Win Scholarships and Awards

There is a belief among students that only academic superstars win scholarships and awards during medical school. While some awards favor high academic achievers, there are a surprising number of awards based purely on nonacademic criteria.


Are you an aspiring neurologist who has a love for poetry? Are you known for your ability to make compelling videos? Do you seek a fellowship that will provide an immersive experience at a center dedicated for the treatment of alcohol addiction? Would you like a stipend to pay for your overseas clinical elective?


Winning scholarships and awards can provide a major boost to your residency application, and set you apart from your peers. Awards can be placed in the application, MSPE (Dean's Letter), letters of recommendation, and CV. We have found that interviewers often ask about awards during residency interviews.

Step 8: Take action to Bolster your Credentials 

As you begin to narrow your specialty choice, it will be time to take additional action. And that involves a series of steps to bolster your credentials and strengthen your application. 


Our specialty-specific action items walk you through the process. These recommendations are applicable to both preclinical and clinical students. 

Step 9: Mantain a Balance in Your Life

Stress is common among medical students. Studies have shown that students experience considerable stress right form the start of medical school. In a survey of medical students at 16 U.S. medical schools, nearly 70% reported experiencing either "moderate" or "a lot" of stress in the last twelve months.


Increased stress in medical school can lead to depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and burnout. Think about your current coping strategies and reserve. Are they serving you well? If not, take the time and make the effort to establish new, more effective strategies. 


You'll hear about the importance of exercise, good sleep habits, and nutrition. You'll be reminded to maintain and nurture your relationships with friends and family. This is all excellent advice, and you must adhere to it for your emotional well-being. It sounds simple enough but plenty of evidence indicates that the demands of medical school make it difficult for students to follow these recommendations. 


If you tend to your psychological health, you'll be in better position to make good decisions in medical school, decisions which will maximize your chances of success in the residency match.

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