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10 Things I Wish I Knew Before Medical School

Are you in medical school or heading to medical school and wondering what to expect? Dr. Erin Carlquist is discussing being a woman in medical school and how to thrive as a medical student! She shares the 10 THINGS she wish she knew before starting medical school today on the blog.

The ten things I wish I could go back and tell this little baby student-doctor Bascom (my maiden name) in this picture before I started medical school at this time 10 years ago:

1. Don’t sweat the small stuff, soon it will all be a distant memory.

The things you stress about today will literally mean nothing in the future. That is no exaggeration. Think back a few years to things you were worrying about in high school or at the beginning of college. Do they matter to you at all today?? Nope. Now, this is not an excuse to be lazy but instead give yourself a little bit of a break. You are already killing it at life! You made it to medical school. You are already accepted into this elite group of medical professionals. You have made it, by the majority of society’s definition of success. Now it is time to take things day by day, one task at a time. Chapter by chapter you study, patient by patient you see, and test by test you take and pass, you will slowly transform into the physician you were made to be.

So if you fail to make all A’s this year, let it go. It literally does not matter. If you got 10 points below your goal on the Step 1 exam, forget it and move on. You will still make it into whatever specialty you want. Maybe you do not get the recognition you feel that you deserve from a mentor or your peers. This will give you the motivation to work harder and look towards even bigger goals, ones that will actually mean something to your life. Commit to giving each day the best version of you that you can be.

If you come up short, brush it off and try your absolute best again tomorrow. With this mindset you will have no choice but to succeed.

2. SPEAK UP and ask questions.

Ask every single question that comes to your mind. Even if you are afraid to ask because you feel that you should already know the answer (“hello” imposter syndrome), ask the dang questions anyway! Think you may seem obnoxious? Who cares! Your future patients will be thankful that your inquisitiveness formed a solid foundation of knowledge, allowing them to put their trust (and lives) in your hands.

Self-care 💆‍♀️, self-care 🤸‍♀️, self-care 🏝.

3. Put yourself first.

Did you hear that one?? You need to put YOU FIRST! Over and over again, every single day you need to keep putting you first. Make it a habit so eventually it will feel natural and come second nature. You are the most important person in your life, and you should treat yourself as such. This is not a selfish or conceited notion. This is the only way you can ensure that you make it through this almost decade-long marathon of medical training without burning out. You cannot simple hunker down and muscle your way through this one armed with just talent and willpower. This journey is too long and the stakes are too high. You have invested most of your life towards this goal of becoming a doctor. You have already spent countless sleepless nights in the library studying. You have already sacrificed time with friends and family to make it to this point. You have already spent thousands on tuition, med school applications, MCAT prep and the MCAT itself. This is the biggest investment of your life. Treat it like you would treat your most prized possession.

How?? Take care of you, first. Prioritize time for self care. Get a massage. Pamper yourself from time to time. Take a long walk. Go on a vacation. Read a book, like a REAL book (textbooks do not count!). Take a long bath. Exercise regularly. Spend time with loved ones. Eat right and take care of your body.

Investing in your mental, emotional, and physical health will give you abundant returns. Your patients will need a physician who is happy and balanced in order to deliver them exceptional care.

4. Drink more water 💦 and less caffeine ☕️.

I know, I know. Starbucks is so convenient, you NEED caffeine to make it through hours of lectures, plus it’s your fave. You need that (fill in the blank) coffee concoction to get you through those endless hours of lectures and long night shift rotations. This is only partly true. So if you absolutely cannot give up your foamy, chocolatey caffeinated cup of happiness, at least do it in moderation. A little starb’s here and there never hurt anyone.

Make sure you are still drinking at least half your body weight in ounces of water. Pursue other healthy avenues to increase your energy level and attention span. Exercise is a great option. Make sure you get enough sleep. Treating yourself here and there is totally acceptable. All things are fine in moderation.

5. Resist comparing yourself to others. You are all on your own separate journey.

It’s time to tell imposter syndrome to step aside, buddy. We don’t have any time for you. Medical school is uber competitive. Everyone, even your best friends, have to resist the urge to want to one up you. It is just the nature of the beast and you will find it so easy to follow suit. But it does not have to be that way. Leave all of that at the door. That mindset really should have no business in med school. These are the days you need to have as much support as you can gather from your newly formed tribe of doctors-in-training. Lift each other up.

You will be tempted to make assumptions about others and those assumptions will make you feel inadequate. You may feel like everyone else knows more than you, studies harder than you, ties a surgeons knot better than you, gets an H&P better than you.

But it is all smoke and mirrors. I am convinced medical students (maybe second only to celebrities) are experts at deception. Everyone is in a constant state of organized chaos. Most of them are just really, really good at disguising it. You are all terrified. You all have no idea what to expect or how you will make it through the week. But you have the advantage of this very unique situation in life. You are all going through it together! And you automatically have this tribe of like-minded individuals who you can turn to for support. Don’t waste your time competing or feeling inadequate. Forget your ego and insecurities. Embrace this amazing group of individuals that will walk this path to ‘doctor’ by your side.

6. A test score is just a number, it does not define you or your future as a doctor, AT ALL!

You are about to learn that the MCAT was just the beginning. The MCAT is kid stuff compared to what you are going to encounter. Your future holds one board exam after another, for years and years to come. No joke. These tests will determine whether you get a full medical license and become certified in your chosen specialty. As if that wasn’t enough pressure, brace yourself, because you are about to be bombarded with loads and loads of pressure and expectations. You will be told what score you ‘need’ to score in order to match in a desired specialty. You will be shown charts of averages over the years you will obsess over and the further your score deviates from the mean, the lower your chances of reaching your dreams.

You will hear numbers thrown out all over the place from your mentors and peers. You need to hit this number to be a surgeon, that score for dermatology and another for radiology. You want to do plastics?! Ha! Good luck with that buddy!

It is easy to get your self-worth all wrapped up in the anticipation of the ideal test score. One day you will get your score back. So what is going to happen if it is not what you had been shooting for??? Will you feel less than? Think you are not as deserving of this doctor title you are striving for than your peers with higher scores? Will you feel pressured by your mentors to change your life plans and switch specialties based on this one number???

No. That is crazy! You are more than a number, you hear me!? You have so much more to offer to the field of medicine than a number on a transcript. No matter what, you will be an incredible doctor. Do your best, take the test, and move on.

7. Get a financial advisor (yes, I know you’re poor. Do it anyway!) and remember just because you get student loans 💰 does not mean you have to spend it all! 🤦‍♀️

This is big! I mean HUGE!! If you have to take out loans, you are about to have a mind-boggling amount of debt quicker than you ever thought possible. Be proactive and go out and get some advice. And do it now! Make a plan. Ask for help. Whether this is from a certified financial planner, or from a financially-savvy family member, go ask someone to help you make a plan for your money. Yes, I know you’re poor. Guess what?? You are about to get a heck of a lot poorer before you even get your first baby paycheck in residency. Do it anyway!!! Be conservative and smart with your money now. Your future attending-self will thank you for it!

8. Keep sight of the big picture. Med school may be your whole world 🌎 right now but it is such a small snapshot in your life story.

It is going to feel like your medical career is your entire world, your entire universe, even. But you have to remember, there is more to life than medicine. There is so much more to YOU than medicine. Remind yourself of this and find ways to stay connected to the ‘outside world’ (see #9).

9. Have an identity and purpose outside of medicine. You seriously need a hobby (I really did, and my husband told me this all the time)!

Find something that you like to do that has absolutely NOTHING to do with medicine. This could be literally anything. Have you always liked photography?? Pick up a cheap camera and snap away. Do you want to work on your fitness?? Maybe you try out yoga for the first time. Always wanted to learn how to cook?? Follow a food blog and try out some new recipes on the weekends. Maybe you like to write. Start a blog. You need to have an outlet. A safe place away from the relentless grind of medicine to clear your mind and recharge your batteries.

10. Create a solid morning routine to remind you of all the reasons you are so freaking blessed and set you on the path towards achieving your big life goals!

Take 10 minutes every morning to be quiet and sit with yourself. Gift yourself that time to reflect, plan and dream. Your life is about to move a million miles an hour and it's not going to slow down anytime soon (or maybe ever!). Putting aside a little time each day to think will do you wonders. Using a journal is a great way to get in the habit. Reflect on the previous day: patients that challenged you, things you killed it at, something you could have done differently. Then envision your day and how you want it to play out. Write down all the small but incredible reasons you are blessed beyond measure. Have a dreams list. Non-medical dreams. Do you want to lose weight? Eat healthier?? Work on your relationship?? Get deeper in your faith?? This practice will keep you focused and keep you grounded.

You can go about this medical school thing in two different ways. You can stress, self-sabotage, and abuse your body to make it through. Or you can choose to take care of yourself, relax and keep a positive outlook. Either way, in the end you will be a doctor at the end of the next four years. You might as well enjoy the journey!

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