What I wish I'd known as a fresher

Now in her fourth year, Casey Cutler reminisces on her fresher days and offers tips for incoming medical students.

Medical school has prestige; it's got this ominous ring to it whenever you mention your degree. For some, it's not a big deal, but it can add to others' anxiety about starting.

Before I started my degree, I was told:

  • "It's going to be the hardest thing you'll do" - physics teacher
  • "That's a long course" - friend
  • "Wow, I could never do that course" - friend (now lawyer).

Each comment made the prospect of medical school more nerve-wracking, with little perspective on what the subject would actually be like to do - which is, at the very least, an adjustment.

Learning to unravel and decipher the anatomy of different systems in the body and other clinical concepts takes time. It's also a different beast altogether putting all this knowledge in practice during your placements - but be patient. Try and keep this in mind to temper opinions during your first year.

All work, no play?

Medicine requires a lot of work, but in practice, the biggest adjustment is switching from secondary school to university. You'll have a set timetable, but most of the work is self-directed study, where you bring your own learning to a session or lecture.

I didn't realise this during my first year, and as there was social distancing in play, I worked too hard - cramming in every little thing, then burning out and doing nothing. Rinse and repeat.

Since then, I've learnt the Pomodoro technique, having breaks to do fun things during your day, and never working longer than you'll be expected to work as a doctor (in other words, no 'all-nighters'). This might not work for you - it's just one way of trying to pace yourself and encouraging you to enjoy life and university.

Life outside medical school

Your life is not over when you study medicine. My biggest tip is socialise and do what makes you happy.

You'll already have boosted your CV to get into medical school, and done some sports, music or volunteering, so you'll have proved yourself to be a well-rounded student with prized hobbies that make your life better. Don't give them up!

Find a university society and go as much as you can. Make friends inside and outside medicine and live the full university experience, because having those social skills and being enriched in all these ways will only make you a better (and more fulfilled) doctor in the future.

Many people describe university as a way to gain useful skills for adult life: cooking, socialising, balancing work with study. This is as much of a right for medical students as for other students. Have fun, and that'll help make your degree more enjoyable.

Prepare and budget your finances

There are several aspects of medical school that I hadn't anticipated - mainly whether it would be financially feasible.

Up to fourth year, you're covered by the normal student loan pathway and some maintenance loans. After that, you can get the NHS bursary to help, but it's still difficult with the rising cost of living.

I've had conversations with peers about whether they can afford to continue the degree with only one year to go. Most of us were unaware of how the costs keep coming - from electives to conference opportunities, accommodation, and transport to and from placements.

The best way to combat this is to do your research so you can prepare and budget. And most importantly, get the financial help you need from the university early to stay on your feet.

No-one should be barred from this career, and there's a lot of help out there, like university-specific funding and student support, the Royal Medical Benevolent Fund (RMBF), as well as:

Look for that help early and it will be in place when and if you need it.

Medical school and medicine can be tough, but very rewarding. I'd recommend it to anyone with a passion for it - but especially to those who love other hobbies almost as much.

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This page was correct at publication on 04/07/2024. 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.

Casey Cutler

by Casey Cutler

Casey Cutler is a fourth-year medical student at Lancaster University. She has a passion for rugby, which she plays at any opportunity as it helps keep the balance between work and free time. Her goal in the future is to work for Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in emergency medicine and make a positive impact once she graduates.