Top tips for first-year medical students

The first year of medical school can be exciting, but challenging too. To help you navigate this new journey, we’ve asked our wonderful RMBF student volunteers to compile a list of essential tips. From study strategies to self-care, this article offers practical advice tailored for first-year medical students.

Study resources

  • Make use of online resources and questions to help you understand the course content.
    • Quesmed and Passmed are good resources for practice questions – universities don’t typically provide past papers, which can be difficult to adjust to for many students.
    • For anatomy, Acland’s and are excellent resources.
    • Online flashcard tools, such as Quizlet and Anki, are good for revision.
    • Notion is good for note-taking.
  • Before committing to a subscription, ask for a free trial to see if the system works for you. Alternatively, ask someone who has a subscription what it is like.
  • Check if your university offers bulk subscriptions for their students. For example, many UK medical schools offer access to Capsule.

Study techniques

  • The revision styles that worked for A-levels might not be the best for medical school. Try not to compare what you’re doing to other students as what works for them may not work for you.
  • At the same time, don’t be afraid to ask senior students and peers how best to study for different aspects of the course. A lot of material is new, e.g. clinical skills, and finding studying techniques for these may involve some trial and error.
  • Don’t be afraid to experiment with a variety of study techniques – trial and error is part of the learning process in first year. Try different methods such as creating posters, quizzes, summaries, etc.
  • It can be useful to organise your notes digitally for easy access.
  • Focus on the ‘high yield’ conditions that come up frequently in exams. These tend to crop up over and over in practice questions.
  • If you opt to learn by flashcards, don’t take full notes during lectures. Try and condense what you have learned so you are not doubling your workload.
  • Cultivate a curious mindset. Ask “why” and seek to understand the underlying mechanisms of diseases and treatments. This will make you a better student and inspire your learning.
  • Create a study timetable that includes dedicated time for lectures, study sessions, and personal activities.
  • Practice taking a history and examining your friends and family. It’s a great way to put your skills to use and to memorise techniques.
  • Make sure you keep on top of your lectures – it’s easy to get left behind!

Placement guidance

  • Always prioritise patient welfare and ethical practice if starting clinical exposure early on. Familiarise yourself with medical ethics and professionalism guidelines such as “Achieving good medical practice” from the GMC.
  • Bring a small notepad and pen to take onto the wards or to GP. There is lots to learn on placement, so it’s good to make a note of things to read around in your own time and to summarise patient presentations. You are often also required to give feedback on your peers’ history-taking and examination.
  • Always bring your stethoscope with you! You are sometimes asked to perform examinations, or listen to things such as a heart murmur that the doctor might point out for you.
  • Your medical school should have some teaching about how to structure an introduction and take a history from a patient. Try to remember the key headings of the history-taking structure, in order to get lots of information from the patient (and impress your tutors).
  • Do a little bit of prep the night before: read around the conditions that you might see, so that you have a good foundation. Placement is for putting what you know into practice, and you need to be prepared to get quizzed about a patient you have seen!
  • If you are going to the hospital or GP for the first time, plan your route well in advance. Is it within walking distance? What are the public transport routes, and what if there are delays? Is there someone who can offer you a lift? Where are the bike parking facilities? And always set off with some time to spare so that you can navigate the building.
  • Try to find the time to shadow other allied health professionals such as occupational therapists, physiotherapists and speech and language therapists, to get an idea of how the multidisciplinary team works.
  • Set up a WhatsApp group with fellow students, so that you can share any opportunities you find on the wards which will be helpful for portfolio sign-offs.

Time management

  • Try and keep on top of the workload by doing a little bit every day, rather than leaving things to pile up for the weekend.
  • The transition from A-level learning to medical school learning is difficult. You need to revise as you go along –leaving revision until a few weeks before exams isn’t feasible. Also remember, you can’t learn everything! There are consultants with decades of experience in their fields who don’t know it all.
  • If you’re finding a topic difficult, it can help to go over it with someone else rather than struggling alone.
  • Staying organised will make life a whole lot easier, especially with so much going on in first year – whether it’s storing your lecture materials, managing deadlines, or planning your revision schedule.
  • It is important to learn effective time management techniques in order to balance your academic responsibilities and personal life. Leave time out for yourself and for doing the things you enjoy!
  • Set yourself a cut-off time at night when you don’t do anymore work, no matter what is going on, so you get some proper sleep.

General wellbeing

  • Remember, it’s normal to feel overwhelmed when you start university – but you will find your feet.
  • Balance is incredibly important. You can’t be your most productive if you aren’t taking care of yourself.
  • Although working hard is important, join clubs and societies and get involved in things outside of medicine as much as possible.
  • Prioritise your physical and mental health. Get enough sleep, eat well, exercise regularly, and seek support if you’re feeling overwhelmed. Ensure you have downtime to relax and recharge. Overworking can lead to burnout.
  • Don’t hesitate to ask for help if you’re struggling with coursework or adjusting to university life. Speak to university staff and your learning support team if you’re struggling – they’re there to help and can offer study tips!
  • Don’t hesitate to seek assistance from peers, upper years, your medical societies, professors, your personal tutor, etc. Support is always around you. They’re approachable and willing to help you navigate the challenges you encounter.
  • Self-care is key – your physical and mental health is paramount. Recognising and addressing early signs of stress and burnout is crucial for sustaining a fulfilling life in medicine. Be kind to yourself!
  • Taking the time to genuinely acknowledge your achievements, and understanding it’s normal to have moments of self-doubt, can help overcome imposter syndrome.
  • Be comfortable being average! Most people entering medical school have been among the top achievers in their high school. Aiming for average might seems counterintuitive, but it helps prevent competitiveness and ego developing. Just allow yourself the time and space to learn.
  • Comparison is always rife within medical school, but remember the analogy about the paddling ducks: everyone seems to be gently floating along the river, but you have no idea how hard they’re paddling under the surface to maintain that image of serenity. Although you might not feel it at times, you may look like you’re gently swimming to others too.
  • Don’t be afraid to be wrong! Even though it can be scary, answering questions and getting them wrong is the best way to learn. You might even be right! One of my biggest regrets from early in my student years was sitting in tutorials and not saying anything at all. Looking back, I would have benefitted so much more from simply speaking out and being wrong.
  • Enjoy the journey. Remember why you chose to pursue medicine in the first place. Find joy in the learning process and the prospect of helping others – it’s not just a race to the finish line. Make sure to really take in what you are doing and where you are.
  • Make a note of your student support staff contact details, so you know where to turn if you need help.

Other helpful tips

  • Give feedback to your university and clinical supervisors if they ask for it – this helps them improve the course for students. Also, be open to constructive feedback and use it to improve your skills and knowledge. Equally, don’t let overly harsh or critical peers or lecturers get you down.
  • Join or start up study groups: they can be beneficial for discussing complex topics and sharing study resources. They also provide emotional support.
  • Don’t be afraid to say no if people are doing things you don’t want to do, but do keep an open mind when trying new activities. Ultimately, trust your gut instinct.
  • Form a good relationship with your personal tutor – it’s really useful to have them on your side.
  • Get comfortable with being outside of your comfort zone.
  • As a medical student you aren’t sitting in front of a screen most of the time – you’ll have a lot of practical tasks to do such as clinical scenarios with simulated patients. It’s good to get a group of fellow medics together to practice these.
  • Try and have friends outside of medicine and get involved with non-medical societies. It helps to make you a more rounded person.
  • Batch cook – set time aside on a Sunday to prepare lunches and/or dinners for the week ahead so you can avoid having to buy expensive canteen food.
  • If you have poor transport links in your area, consider buying a bicycle to get you to placements etc.
  • The transition to medical school can be demanding, but it’s an enjoyable and exciting journey. Take time out for yourself and for others, and seek help whenever you need to!

Thank you so much to our medical student volunteers for sharing their words of wisdom!

Support from the RMBF