The 3 Biggest Challenges of Medical School… and how to overcome them

In CaRMS Guide, Mentorship by Anton Gervaziev11 Comments

Getting into medical school is hard. According to recent statistics, both applicants and University enrollment have been increasing. medischool hardThe desire to become a doctor is at an all-time high and many claim that the hardest part of medical school is actually getting in. Whether or not that statement is true remains debatable. This article aims to give a short list of the hardest non-clinical struggles medical students have. As a subjective piece, some aspects will be omitted, and you are welcome to further the list in the comments below. So here are the 3 biggest challenges of medical school… and how to overcome them.

1. Medical Terminology

Daunting at first, the textbooks are ridden with words that look like they require a degree in Lexicology just to pronounce. Medical dictionaries the size of a Russian classical novel petrify freshmen in the libraries- and rightfully so, with over 250 roots, dozens of prefixes and suffixes – the combinations are plentiful. Yet everyone
agrees that knowing the vocabulary of medicine is absolutely crucial to effectively practicing the craft. Medical terminology is about as complicated as a language

Fortunately, it has rules that can be utilized to your advantage. Breaking down medical terminology to its building blocks will aid in formulating the definition, rather than just remembering it. A tried and tested method is flash cards – never underestimate their usefulness.

2. Workload

In addition to the highly complex, long and seemingly abstract terms, the volume of information students are required to know is dumbfounding, especially in the first two years. Having to learn most of human anatomy, pathophysiology, pharmacology and microbiology is a daunting task. In the moment, you may feel terror in your heart as you complete peer-medical termsreviewed presentations, clinical exams and worst of all – written exams.

You need to remember that others have gone through what you are experiencing. And they survived. Find out how. Ask third year and fourth year medical students how they prepared for exams. Did they approach the tutor directly? Do any of the lecturers share useful information in office hours? How were the hardest exams passed? You can follow my example and use post-it notes around the apartment. In my first year, I found that study groups were very helpful with the complex concepts. In addition, I would recommend that you take full advantage of different learning methods. Record your own voice, join discussions or watch online videos – whatever you deem best.

3. Motivation and Burnout

Remember the question “Why do you want to be a doctor”? Now if you look at yourself in the mirror – sleep deprived, tired, unmotivated, not having seen your family and friends for what seems to be eons – and you have difficulty answering that question, you may be suffering from burnout. Ishak et al. (2013) have found that more than half of all medical students will suffer from burnout. It is a serious and complex problem. Contributors include lack of appropriate mentorship, poor exercise habits, unhealthy diet, lack of sleep, lack of autonomy, stress in the work place, exposure to trauma etc. Most often it is a combination of issues. According to the AAMC the 4-year graduation rate is at its lowest rate, 81% in 2009, and has seen a continuous decline in the last 30 years.


With all the work you are expected to do, the pressures you feel from everyone around you and especially from yourself, it is easy to go into a state of overdrive. Talk to your friends and family. Often they will be the first to recognize that something is wrong. Listen to them when they are concerned. If you think it is appropriate, contact the student help center in your university. Never forget – you are the future of medicine and people care about your wellbeing. I cannot stress this enough: you need to care about your wellbeing first and foremost.

There are a few things that one can do to prevent burnout:

  • The first is related to motivation. I can suggest that you search for motivation from within. The BoringEM series #DearPreMed highlights the importance of ensuring that your motivations for medical school are intrinsic. As one of many studies suggests, intrinsic motivation is more lasting and brings about better results as compared to extrinsic motivation. The ALiEM bookclub discussion on Drive also focused on intrinsic motivation. Find out what excites you and what makes you happy about getting up in the morning or on the wards. Then find ways to be involved in those things.
  • Seek out mentorship. Find someone who can help you when times are tough or when you need to talk through a case and to keep you on track when things are going well.
  • Sleep well. Eat well. Work out. Laugh. Love. Don’t forget to take care of your body and to fill yourself up with friends and family. Schedule these in. Make them a priority.

Bottom Line

Getting into medical school is hard. Surviving the first 2 years of medical school is hard. Graduating from medical school is hard. But doctors have the privilege of caring for patients. That is not a responsibility that should be taken lightly. So yes, becoming a doctor is hard, but it’s also incredibly rewarding. Remember to find ways to feel those rewards every single day.


Reviewed by Eve Purdy

Anton Gervaziev

Anton Gervaziev

Anton Gervaziev

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BoringEM has been 'bringing the boring' to emergency medicine since 2012. In 2016 this Canadian blog brought its content to CanadiEM.