It takes time to settle into your first year at medical school, so remember to go easy on yourself, says student Leah Brooks.

When I think back to my first year of medical school four years ago, I can still feel the whirlwind of emotions: excitement, nerves, determination, curiosity.

I remember sitting in a tired seat belonging to so many students before me, surrounded by strangers who would become my peers and friends, asking each other the typical question, ‘What specialty do you want to do?’ – even though we hadn’t held a stethoscope or talked to a patient yet.

But it was thrilling, knowing that for the next five years, I was finally starting my journey into medicine.

Classes were finally enjoyable (I was no longer having to push myself through organic chemistry questions) and I was focusing on what I enjoyed – learning about the marvels of the human body. I was able to learn in a variety of different ways I never had at school – small group teachings, placements in general practices. My first full body dissection class was an emotional and eye-opening experience – to know someone had donated their body to our learning was a huge privilege, and one I cherish to this day.

It wasn’t all a daydream though. There was new material to learn, new ways to learn it and a lot of it. Medicine is broad, and it’s not always clear exactly how deep to dive into each topic, but practice makes perfect. An older year pupil once told me that during my first year, I should ‘learn a little about a lot, and not a lot about a little’ – this is the key to finding serenity in a field full of complexities.

Finding a balance

That said, there were times when I felt overwhelmed, and I’d be lying if I said my mental health wasn’t affected on occasion. A combination of academia and a personal glutton for punishment meant I was pushing myself too hard and not feeling good enough.

I’m no expert in finding a balance at medical school for everyone, as you're the only one who can. Everyone is unique and will have their own way of optimising their happiness. For me, this meant prioritising my work, hobbies and relationships equally, never sacrificing one for the other, while making sure that medicine would never consume me. 

That doesn’t mean I didn’t have the odd late-night study session to finish an assignment or missed a get-together (that’s one of the sacrifices of a career in medicine), but planning in time for yourself and friends, in the same way you’d plan in study time, will help you find a balance one way or another. 

It was thrilling, knowing that for the next five years, I was finally starting my journey into medicine.

Starting your journey

My first year was one of growth. I started as a semi-awkward 18-year old with very little confidence or sense of belonging among people who I saw as more worthy and intelligent – bright, young doctors in the making. Throughout the year, I slowly began to find myself and gain a little more confidence on my journey towards becoming a doctor. I realised I was not so different from my peers as I thought.

While medicine has taught me an enormous amount of knowledge about the human body, clinical presentations, anatomy, and disease of our amazing and dynamic organs and vessels, I truly believe the best and most important thing medicine has taught me so far is about myself.

Top tips for freshers

Here are my tips for freshers after spending four years riding the medical school rollercoaster.

  • Freshers’ week is not exam season. You don’t need to study intensely for the first few weeks – it’s way more important to adjust to university, settle into a potential new city, and focus on your wellbeing.
  • Making friends can take time. Some people may be lucky enough to find an amazing group of friends during the first week! Others may feel they don’t belong yet, and that’s okay. Finding friends can be hard and it can take time, but the right people will come along in time. And when you do find your people, don’t feel you need to close yourself off – meet as many new people as possible!
  • Netflix > nightclub – that's okay! Don't feel like going to the club with your flatmates? While freshers’ week does have a stereotype of being a week of clubbing and ‘going hard’, there’s nothing wrong with prioritising your mental health, taking it easy and doing what makes you happy. There’ll be others who feel the same. No excuse is needed for your choices.

This page was correct at publication on 02/09/2022. Any guidance is intended as general guidance for members only. If you are a member and need specific advice relating to your own circumstances, please contact one of our advisers.