Struggling med student waving a white flag while hunched over a desk piled high with books.

7 Things Struggling Med Students Really Don’t Need to Hear

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The Worst Advice One Struggling Med Student Received

This article is the second in a series by Dr. MJ, a graduate of an eastern US allopathic medical school who worked closely with STATMed Learning. Here, she shares her personal struggles and the steps she took to succeed in med school. This series aims to give a voice to what it’s like for struggling med students and help share strategies to rebuild your self-esteem and regain your equilibrium. 

From Dr. MJ:

When I initially struggled in my first year of med school, there were several recurring phrases I did not want to hear.  Whether it was advice from well-meaning people or offhand comments from other classmates, some words are harrowing — at least they were for me. Was there potential merit in some of these comments? Possibly. But in the middle of the struggle, those words stung. 

With the benefit of time, I realized that people spoke with the best of intentions, and they were truly trying to help. But they didn’t have any frame of reference for my situation. So here are my top phrases to avoid saying to struggling med students. 

Top 7 Things to Not Say to Struggling Med Students 

1. “You need to relax and calm down.” 

Relax and calm down? Are you serious? I was drowning. I was in panic mode. “Calm” and “relaxing” were not in the equation. Whenever I could take a minute away from studying, I would panic about not studying and stress about forgetting everything I had just reviewed. No matter what I did, I couldn’t get ahead of the material.  

I acknowledge that it’s crucial to find a balance between being relaxed and being anxious when you are in medical school. A certain level of anxiety can be helpful to stay motivated and prevent procrastination. Similarly, a certain level of relaxation is necessary to be able to digest and absorb the material. But when I struggled so much to stay afloat, having people tell me I needed to relax had the opposite effect. 

Related: 3 Common Study Problems Med Students Face

2. “I know how you feel – I am terrified that I won’t get an A.”

 One time, I admitted to a fellow student that I was worried about my grades, and this was the response I got. It took all my self-control to not grab him and yell, “I am trying to PASS. I am praying for a C. So, no, you do not know how I feel!”  

3. “Don’t worry. Somehow, things always come together right before the test.”

 No, not always. Maybe for you, but certainly not for me. I barely passed the last exam and did not pass the exam before that one. What are you doing that allows everything to always come together before the test? What am I doing wrong?  

4. “Are you really sure you want to be a doctor?” 

Truthfully, at the time, no. I was not sure I wanted to be a doctor. I was not sure about anything. All I knew for sure is that I needed to get through the next exam. I couldn’t think of anything other than surviving the maelstrom of material thrown at me, and I had no idea how to do that.  

Of course, it is not bad to assess whether the goal of being a physician is worth the sacrifices it requires. But when I was in the middle of an avalanche of anatomy to memorize, I was not able to rationally answer that question.

5. “If it is so bad, just quit.” 

You don’t think I haven’t thought about it? I thought of it multiple times a day. But this isn’t like dropping a class in undergrad; I wanted and worked for this opportunity for so long. I studied for the MCAT while my friends were having fun at the bar. I was memorizing physics equations in the summer when people were on vacation. In short, I gave so much of my life to this goal, I could not just walk away. 

6. “Maybe you should be working harder and putting in more time.” 

But I couldn’t work any harder. I worked harder than I ever thought possible. All I did was study. No TV. No reading books for fun. No exercise. I was barely sleeping. Even my dreams featured med school when I was able to sleep. My friends would text me to see if I was still alive because I never responded.  I’m convinced my parents thought that instead of starting med school, I actually entered the witness protection program because I basically disappeared.  In short, I do not know how I could have worked harder, and I certainly could not have put in any more time.  

Related: Frameworking, retrieval practice, and the ASA changed my life.

 7. “Don’t worry, you will be fine.” 

Honestly, this comment bothered me the most, because I knew in my heart that I was not going to be fine. Maybe everyone else would be okay, but not me. If anything, I really wanted to know what these people were doing that allowed them to be “fine.”

This is my personal list, but I’m sure that others who were in a similar medical school situation can add many variations to these comments. 

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