How to Thrive in Medical School During a Pandemic

In the era of COVID-19 and social distancing, medical school is different than students could have ever imagined. It is also a unique experience for students at all phases in training, but especially for those in the didactic years. With medical schools switching to hybrid or fully online classes, at least for the first semester, medical students are in an unanticipated, isolated academic setting. Read on for tips and tricks from current first and second year medical students from all over the country, sharing their advice for how to thrive as a student of the "Zoom School of Medicine".



Student Doctor Urooj Arshad @UroojSaysIDO Sam Houston State University College of Osteopathic Medicine c/o 2024 Specialty Interests: Primary Care, Women’s Health



Getting Dressed Up is a Great Mood Booster


It helps you feel motivated-when you look good, you feel good! Get dressed up nicely every once in a while. With quarantine and online classes, it’s easy to get in a rut and just wear your PJ's all day. While this may be super comfortable, getting dressed helps you feel good about yourself!


If You Are Meeting in Person, Practice Smiling with Your Eyes!



With everyone wearing masks, it’s a lot harder to express certain feelings that we could with facial expressions. I know I use my smile a lot during interactions, and now that isn’t super visible. It can feel silly at first but smiling with my eyes helps me feel connected to people I interact with, so I would encourage others to do so as well!


Even if your classes are online, set a routine as if you had live classes. Wake up at a time that works best for you, and start your studying around the same time every day. This will help you get in student mode and keep you focused and on track.


You’ll reinforce the feeling of your purpose, and hopefully, with good time management, you’ll have enough time for self-care!


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Student Doctor Violette Simon @StudentDoctorV

University of Colorado School of Medicine c/o 2023

Specialty Interests: Trauma Surgery, Orthopedic Surgery


Asking for Help is Not a Weakness, but an Incredible Strength


Ask for help! This is relevant for anytime in medical school, but especially during a pandemic. Whether you’re reaching out to friends, mentors, deans, or mental health professionals, it is so incredibly important to recognize that asking for help is not a weakness, but an incredible strength.


Make a Schedule


It was somehow easier to manage my time when my calendar was packed with classes, student interest group meetings, labs, shadowing, and precepting. With a completely blank slate, it’s easy to lose track of time. I find that chunking my days into blocks of time helps me to stay motivated rather than continue hitting “Next Episode” on Netflix…


Practice Gratitude


It’s as simple as acknowledging that I’m grateful for events, people, and things in my life – this can positively shift my frame of mind and motivate me to continue to work hard when school starts to feel like “too much”

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Student Doctor Megan de Kok Rocky Vista University College of Osteopathic Medicine, Colorado c/o 2024 Specialty Interests: Reconstructive/Plastic Surgery, Mohs Surgery, Psychiatry, Emergency Medicine

Keep Moving


Since we get to rock activewear on a daily basis, we may as well embrace the active-part. It is far too easy to sit at your desk and study for ten + hours per day, especially since we are watching lectures via Zoom and doing virtual anatomy labs. I wear my Garmin watch to hold myself accountable in terms of movement, striving to get around 7-9k steps in per day. I mostly achieve this through taking my dogs for short walks, but if my fiance walks the dogs and I have an exam coming up I have been guilty of taking less than 1000 steps... the pedometers keep you honest with yourself and serve as a gentle reminder to move!


I was able to get my Garmin Vivoactive 3 with music refurbished on Amazon, and there are plenty of affordable movement trackers by brands like Fitbit, even basic pedometers for around $25 available on Amazon.


Another thing that keeps me moving is my yoga mat that I set up in my study space. Keep in mind, I live in a 600 square foot apartment. My "study space" is confined to the left side of my bed, where my small desk is set up, and the right side of my bed, that has just enough space for a yoga mat. Make it work for you! As first and second years, we are in the didactic phase of our training, which means a LOT of sitting... which has been called "the new smoking". I have an alarm on my phone that goes off every hour, and when it does I take five steps to my yoga mat and do a few sun salutations and various stretches to counteract all of the sitting. Standing desks are also an option, but personally I just use a portable laptop stand (a stack of textbooks works too!)


Embrace Technology to Bond with Classmates and Share Experiences (and Study Materials)


One of the saddest parts of starting medical school in the COVID era was the realization that I wouldn't meet my classmates in the traditional way. Our white-coat ceremony was postponed, our orientation was virtual, and we have never all been in the same place at once. Our bi-weekly small group sessions consist of the same cohort of 6 students for the entire year to minimize exposure. This makes it very hard to meet people, let alone make friends. A classmate of mine started a GroupMe for all members of the class, and it has been a wonderful source of commiseration, camaraderie, and humor throughout this process. It has become a way to share memes about our unique situation, make inside jokes, share study materials and mnemonics, and even served as a jumping off point for smaller GroupMe chats for specific interests like rock climbing and running.


Succeed in Anatomy Without Cadaver Lab


Cadaver lab for many is a right of passage, a tradition that pre-meds look forward to and older doctors fondly reminisce about. I was heartbroken to learn that we would not be dissecting due to COVID. And I know that many institutions have phased out cadavers, but as someone interested in procedural specialties I was very much looking forward to meeting my first "patient". While our school has done a great job with Zoom labs, I have found several resources that helped me visualize the structures a little bit better. Kenhub.com has been an awesome resource for individual muscles (I have the free membership), and Complete Anatomy has been a game changer for understanding the three-dimensional organization of spaces within the body, our school provided us with subscriptions but their annual student pricing is super affordable compared to other study services (around $35!!) Youtube also has great videos, I especially enjoy Dr. Sam Webster's anatomy playlists.


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Student Doctor Rainey @sexplained_med Saint Louis University School of Medicine c/o 2023 Specialty Interests: Obstetrics & Gynecology, Sex Functional Medicine


Do Not Compare Your Experience to Your Peers and Allow Yourself to Carve Your Own Path


When I first started medical school, I contemplated hiding my aspirations of working in sex medicine because of fears of going against the grain. I was already insecure about my capabilities and being surrounded by such brilliantly smart peers can cause you to make a lot of comparisons and feel like you are not enough. By creating my own health projects to fuel my creative side, I have become more motivated and excited for my med school curriculum and feel like there is a light at the end of the tunnel and it's so worth all the time and work! Having projects that you are passionate about during a pandemic can be a great motivator for studying and staying on track.



Try out different STEP study materials early on to see which ones you like before picking the ones that you want to commit to. For me personally, Sketchy and similar visual mnemonics totally changed my learning styles for the better!





Making Studying a Positive Experience Starts With the Study Environment






Create a happy and peaceful home study environment since we are not able to frequent coffee shops or libraries. I light candles, make a great playlist, and use an essential oil diffuser (watching the steam can be so relaxing while listening to long lectures!). I also brew a yummy coffee or tea and have healthy snacks around to feed my brain!


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Student Doctor Sheela Anasseri Nova Southeastern University College of Osteopathic Medicine c/o 2024 Specialty Interests: Internal Medicine


Maintain a Healthy Routine


Whether you’re starting medical school on a hybrid or completely virtual basis, still maintain a routine even if you’re not getting ready for the day to physically attend a lecture. Wake up and go to sleep at a set time, make your bed, get dressed, eat a healthy breakfast, and take a break during your day for exercise or mindfulness practice.


Maintaining the consistency and routine of a regular day will keep you from burning out behind a screen for hours at a time.


Make an Effort to Connect with Your Classmates



I know before this pandemic we all envisioned meeting and getting to know each other as we celebrate the huge accomplishment of being accepted and starting medical school. Even though we may now be more isolated and not physically attending campus, take the time to connect with your classmates. This can help you find a study partner and keep you motivated.


We are all in this together and finding new ways to support one another, even virtually, will make challenges easier to overcome than going through the semester alone.


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Student Doctor Taylor Fisher

Rocky Vista University, Colorado College of Osteopathic Medicine c/o 2023

Specialty Interests: General Surgery


Utilize All of the Incredible Technology We Have to the Fullest



Personally, the biggest challenge of not only surviving, but thriving in medical school during a pandemic has been the lack of support from my former study group. We had established a stable routine for test weeks during our first year that has been incredibly difficult to modify to fit the remote learning model. Make zoom rooms with your study groups, FaceTime your friends, have zoom meetings with your professors instead of just emailing them.



These tactics seem small but can counter the loneliness of social distancing that can hinder your drive to succeed.



Get Involved in a Club or Student Organization


It’s so easy to lose yourself in your studies when there’s no separation between home and school. Getting involved can elicit some segregation between constantly studying and doing something you enjoy. I serve as the president and national liaison for the American Medical Women’s Association at my school and have thoroughly enjoyed getting creative with virtual events for our club to participate in this semester.

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Student Doctor Edeline Sanchez @edeline.sanchez

Drexel University College of Medicine c/o 2024

Specialty Interests: Emergency Medicine, Internal Medicine


Sit at Your Desk As If You Are In the Library


Being home may make studying a little difficult so I think setting a routine as if you were going into class definitely helps. For example, wake up at the same time every day, go to the gym, get dressed, pack your lunch/snacks, and sit at your desk as if you were in the library. Implementing a routine and having a structured schedule can help you feel more organized, ultimately relieving stress and improving your focus. 






Create a Great Study Space


Since classes are on Zoom and many students will not be physically going to campus, it is important to create a good work space in your home. Make sure you have fast WiFi and that your apartment is quiet with minimal distractions so that you can be productive. Invest in a comfy desk chair, and decorate your space with pictures to keep you motivated- whatever you need to keep you going during long study days at home.




Reach Out & Connect with Your Classmates





It can  be hard to connect with your classmates when you're not physically together, but it is so important that you build a network of peers to support you during the next 4 years! Start group chats with your class and identify those who may have similar interests. Even if you can’t meet up in person, host social events on Zoom like movie night, game night, and even virtual happy hours. 


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Hopefully these perspectives have helped illuminate how being a medical student during the COVID era will be challenging, but we are nothing if not well-equipped handle the challenge. If you are struggling with feelings of isolation, sadness, anxiety, or depression- reach out to your school's mental health counselors. Many campuses have virtual, anonymous, and free counseling services available to help students struggling during these times. Especially when isolated from your support systems, remember to take care of yourself. If you have any additional tips or resources for medical students, please share them below in the comments.


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