How Difficult Is Medical School? Here’s What to Expect


Is becoming a doctor in your future plan? According to the Association of American Medical Colleges, over 50,000 people applied to medical school in 2019. 

But, if you are one of the lucky few that gets in, what happens next? And can you hack it? Can you stand up to the pressures of medical school as you did your undergraduate degree?

Let’s answer the question, “how difficult is medical school?”.

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The Basics of Medical School

First, we should go through what the structure of medical school is. Medical school lasts for four years (although once you’re done you will have to complete a residency.

You’ll likely be used to the application process and the like since you’ve already gone through your undergraduate degree. But, once you get to medical school, the structure may differ quite a bit from what you’re used to.

There’s a sharp divide between the early years of medical school and the later years of medical school, so it’s important to know what you’re getting into.

The Early Years of Medical School

It can be tricky when you first start out in medical school. You’ll start off in medical school about the same way you did during college, taking various science classes you’ll need to learn the foundations of medical school.

Many of these classes will have large lecture components, where you’ll have to take copious notes.

These are some of the classes you might encounter:

  • Anatomy
  • Pharmacology
  • Physiology
  • Biochemistry
  • Genetics
  • Microbiology
  • Neuroscience

These classes will be heavily based on memorization, so make sure you have your memorizing study tactics practiced to perfection beforehand. Besides lectures, you’ll have lab classes to learn more about anatomy.

So, if you’re not interested in dead bodies, medical school may not be the best place for your future career goals. 

In your second year, you’ll likely be moving beyond the basics and into the specifics of actual diseases and health problems.

And, you’ll be practicing problem-based learning methods. In these scenarios, you’ll be diagnosing a patient based on described symptoms and deciding the course of treatment that is right for that patient.

While you’re in the early years of medical school, you’ll start practicing speaking with and properly communicating with patients to make sure you’ve got these skills down pat before you head out to begin your residency.

You may be working with an actual patient (meaning, an actor, or volunteer) or working off a case file instead, depending on your school and how far along you are in your medical school career. 

You’ll also have to learn about interacting with people who aren’t patients or doctors, like Christopher Sarofim, a board member at the Baylor College of Medicine. That’s important for maintaining a successful career as a doctor!


The Later Years of Medical School

Eventually, you’ll begin doing clinical rotations at your medical school. That’s where you’ll learn some of the hands-on skills that you’ll need as a doctor. You’ll have different rotations as well, in different specialties that may interest you as a doctor. Some of these clinical rotations may be required, but others will be optional based on your interests.

These clinics will be based at hospitals and other facilities affiliated with your medical school, so you’ll be working in the field with trained medical professionals, getting a feel for your future roles.

You’ll often be working under attendings, residents, nurses, and the like. But, you’re the new kid on the block, so don’t get it twisted — you’re there to learn, not to be anyone’s doctor (yet).

These last two years are the ones that set you up for your future medical career, so make sure you do your best to figure out what you’re looking for in the first two years.

You don’t need to settle on an exact specialty, but having a good range of things you think you might be interested in, so you’ll know what you want to explore in the later years of medical school. 

These are some of the specialties you might want to look into when you’re deciding what to focus on in your final years of medical school:

  • Internal medicine 
  • Psychiatry
  • Family medicine
  • Obstetrics and gynecology
  • General surgery
  • Dermatology
  • Head and neck surgery
  • Pediatric medicine
  • Intensive care medicine
  • Anesthesiology
  • Neurology
  • Radiology
  • Emergency medicine

Of course, these aren’t the only options available, so do your research so that you know what schools offer what rotations.

The Home Stretch And the Pathway to Residency

In your last year of medical school, you’ll have more freedom to focus on the specialties you’re most interested in, so you can decide what sort of residencies you are most interested in doing next.

Many schools also offer a pathway to residency, where you’ll do rotations at some of the places you’re considering doing your residency. These rotations act as sort of a test run, both for you and for the facility you’re working at.

In many ways, residency is one of the toughest parts of becoming a doctor. Not just the process of landing the residency of your dreams, but the grueling process of actually doing that residency.

You’ll interview with various residency programs, hand in your hard-won letters of recommendations and statement, and rank the programs you’re interested in. The programs also submit a list of what medical students they’re interested in, although neither will see each other’s list. 

In the end, it all comes down to Match Day, when you find out if you have matched with any programs. You’ll have to wait until later to find out exactly what program you’ll be doing your residency with. It’s certainly a nerve-wracking process!

Of course, not everyone goes to medical school to work in inpatient care. If you’re more interested in consulting or research, that’s something to consider when you’re choosing a medical school program.

That way, you can make sure that the program you choose has the right facilities and opportunities for you.


What’s the Workload Like in Medical School?

It won’t surprise you to hear that medical school students have quite a heavy workload. However, medical schools are much smaller than your undergraduate program, and the people who work there will help you do your best to succeed.

It’s also important to remember that, even if you succeeded in most science classes during your undergrad, your new classes in medical school might be a lot more difficult. Be prepared to have to study a lot more and a lot harder than you did previously.

Ideally, create a study schedule in advance so you’ll be prepared when the time comes to buckle down with the books. On average, medical school students need to study at least 3 to 6 hours each day, so you’ll need to find a way to work that time into your schedule.

This workload can seem overwhelming, so you should make sure to pace yourself. You don’t want to burn out before the end of the semester, after all! It can also be hard to keep your personal life and school balance. Make sure you’re working in plenty of time for self-care and that you’re still taking care of your own health.

The workload may also differ depending on what medical school you end up going to. Discuss the workload with some of the alumni or current students, ideally. Plus, the curriculum can differ between different schools, so ideally, you should research each school and find a school with a curriculum that’s right for your interests. 

Do vs. MD: Know the Difference

Additionally, if you’re attending a DO (Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine) rather than an MD (Doctor of Medicine) school, your experience may be quite different. Both programs will make you a medical doctor, of course — a DO program maybe a little more hands-on than your standard MD program.

Reach out to the program to see what resources they have for you before you commit — or at least before you start orientation!

How Difficult Is Medical School? It’s Certainly Not Easy

Medical school isn’t exactly a breeze. But, if you prepare yourself and know what you’re getting into, you can complete medical school, finish the residency of your dreams, and join the wonderful community of healers. And, by then, the question “how difficult is medical school?” will be completely out of your mind.

Are you interested in reading more about your education options and other related topics? Check out some of our other blogs today.


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