How to Survive Medical School: Making It Through Academic Hell

So you want to learn how to survive medical school?

If so, you are wise to prepare for one of the most rigorous academic training known to man. Every year, someone drops out, another fails out, and yet another is left back. This will be the reality for pretty much all medical school classes. The question is: how do you prevent yourself from being among the casualties?

At the time of me writing this, I am a second year medical student in UMDNJ in Stratford, NJ. Although I love my school very much, it is academic hell. But if you gave me a choice of any medical school to attend, I would still make the same choice.

Throughout my one and a half year in medical school, I have only one academic goal. It is not just surviving medical school, but to do above average. For most of my classes, I have achieved my goal.

And I want to show you how. I do not only want to show you how you can survive medical school, I want to show you how you too can do above average.

Now some of you may be thinking just because I did above average, does not mean you can do it too.

  • Maybe you think I am a genius. I am not.
  • Maybe you think I have a fantastic memory. I do not.
  • Maybe you think I am smart. I am no smarter than the average applicant. One of my professors always claims to have average intelligence. If that is the case, my intelligence is less than average. I strongly believe that since you are at average intelligence or higher, my how to survive medical school guide would work for you.

What to Expect in Medical School?

The number one reason why students do poorly or even fail out is because of overconfidence. They think that medical school will be like college. I was not a pre-med major so maybe this does not apply to pre-med students, but I know that lots of my classmates in business class certainly did not study all the time. The smart ones, especially, spent a minimal amount of time doing homework and studying.

But when you are in medical school, unless you have a photographic memory or had previous exposure to the materials as a nurse or whatnot, you will be spending a TON of time studying. There will be times when you can go out and have fun, but it will be sparse compared to the college party days.

how to survive medical school - books attacking Mr. Onionhead

Mr. Onionhead is being overwhelmed by the medical textbooks. He needs to learn how to survive medical school. You, too, will be overwhelmed with information.

The course load in college is light compared to medical school. Preparing for exams in college does not compare to preparing for exams in medical school. For example, some people may consider organic chemistry to be one of the harder pre-medical classes. And I admit, I had to spend a bit more time on that class too. Each week, I would spend 9 hours on organic chemistry:

  • 3 hours of class
  • 3 hours of lab
  • 2 hours to write lab report
  • 1 hour to do homework

So if I took 5 courses that requires as much work as organic chemistry (which is VERY unlikely for a college student), I would spend 45 hours per week. That is already more than what most college students spend studying per week, let alone per month.

As a medical school student, expect to spend 60 hours studying per week or more. That averages out to a little more than 8.5 hours a day. And if you go to class, which can go from 8:00 AM to 5:00 PM, that is already over 8 hours right there. And most people study way past 5:00 PM. Hence, most people study over 8 hours a day.

Do you want to know what the sad part is? Even after 60 hours of studying, there is even more you could study to feel more prepared for the exams. No matter how much you prepare, you will always feel inadequate. This pertains even more for classes which are taught by researchers, who are overall very poor teachers. You will be bombarded with tiny details. Some of them are even testable. A lot of people say learning in medical school is akin to drinking from a fire hydrant.

See the page on a typical day in medical school for an example on what a light day in medical school is.

You Can Survive

I am not going to lie to you. It is going to be a long and sometimes lonely road. If you did not start medical school yet, there are a ton of reasons to turn back. But if you are determined to go, this guide will teach you how to survive medical school.

In order to get through medical school, you will need to be efficient. There is too much to know and too little time to learn them. You will no longer have the luxury of time that you had in college. If you struggled in college and if you don’t change how you study, you will fail medical school. If you breezed through college, you could still fail medical school. It is a totally different beast. So how to survive medical school?

You will need to develop a study system. As I mentioned before, I consider my intelligence to be average or lower when compared to my classmates. But what I do have to my advantage is a study system I have developed for myself throughout my first and second year. Since day 1, I took a deep look at how I study and how I retain information. My system capitalizes on how I retain the information not just for upcoming exams but for the future as well.

This “how to survive medical school” guide is broken down into many different sections. You can click on the links in order and get a good idea of what medical school is like and how to prepare for it. Or just visit the sections that you most need help in.

How to Survive First Year of Medical School

First Year of Medical School: It’s College All Over Again
This section presents what the first year of medical school is like. Prepare yourself for medical school and see how to survive medical school as first year student.

Last Summer Vacation Ever

Maximo Nivel’s Medical Program in Guatemala: My Unforgettable Summer Vacation
After the first year of medical school, you do get a summer break, but it will be your last one. So make it count. You can do research, travel, or even bum around. But I want to share my experience volunteering in Guatemala. It was awesome and if you have no clue what to do for the summer, this is an excellent option.

How to Survive Second Year of Medical School

Second Year of Medical School: I Wanted to Drop Out
Second year of medical school was the worst! I hated it. It is supposed to be one of the hardest year of medical school. This section will have tips on how to get through the second year. Make sure you get your priorities right!

How to Survive Third Year of Medical School

Third Year of Medical School: The Real Truth About Rotations
The third year of medical school is when medical students have to grow up and transition into doctors. It is going to feel like work, but you won’t be getting paid for it. This section will teach you what you will need to bring and how to stay sane even when the rotation does not make sense. Expect to find out the real truth of rotations are really like.

How to Survive Fourth Year of Medical School

Fourth Year of Medical School: The End Is Near!
Finally! Medical school is coming to an end. Your fourth year could either be the most relaxing or the most stressful. Find out the many key things you will have to accomplish before getting your diploma. And learn how to juggle them all so you won’t be overwhelmed.

How to Successfully Match into Your Top Choice of Residency
This is the ultimate guide on matching into residency, no matter the field you go into. It is a must-read for all medical students.

How to Choose the Right Medical Specialty
If you’re not sure what you really wanna do …
If you do not want to make the mistake of your lifetime …
Read this section and learn how to choose the medical specialty best for you. You won’t regret it.

How to Study for ACLS 2010 (2011, 2012, 2013, and 2014) and Pass on the Very First Try
… and without breaking the bank! (For less than $5!) This is a must-read if you are preparing to start residency and if you need to be ACLS certified.

How to Study for PALS 2010 (2011, 2012, 2013, and 2014) and Pass on the Very First Try
… and without breaking the bank! (For less than $5!) This is a must-read if you are preparing to start residency and if you need to be PALS certified.

More About Surviving Medical School

The Only Medical School Books You Will Ever Need for Medical School Success
Most likely, you have already received a list of required and recommended books for your classes. Throw that list away and see what I have to say about it. Find out which medical school books you really need.

Studying in Medical School: Alex’s Tips and Techniques
This section is a very important guide on some of the study techniques out there. I also show you how I personally study to do better than average. Remember, it is not just about working hard but also working smart! That is how you survive medical school.

Subjects Taught in Medical School
This section introduces the two different curriculums available. It also lists the subjects taught by year. You will certainly want to follow it as your go from a first year medical student to a fourth year medical student.

How a Doe-Eyed Pre-Med Student Changes into a Jaded Doctor
If medical school is stressing you out …
If you’re having second thoughts about medicine …
If you just wanna meet my brother, Hoover …
… check out the article. You won’t be disappointed!

How Medical School Transforms You into a Charming, but Cold-Hearted Sociopath
After more than 3 years of medical school, I am strongly convinced that medical school is good training for sociopathy. If you’re a normal, empathetic person, you may graduate with sociopathic tendencies. If you’re a full-blown sociopath (i.e. you cannot emotionally relate to others, you lie and cheat without remorse, your goal justifies your means, you torture animals for fun, etc.), you may learn how to fit perfectly in society.

Failed Medical School: What to Do Now?
Medical school is hard. And unfortunately, some people fail out. If you failed medical school, read this section to find out what that means and what you should do.

My Boyfriend’s in Medical School and He’s Changed. Should I Stay or Should I Go?
In medicine, relationships change. What should you do?


  1. I get more afraid reading things like this, yet I do it anyway because I want to succeed and in order to succeed, I need to know the reality of things….thank you for this.

  2. Sunny Liew says:

    I have study so hard for my exams but I still get C, I really disappointed, what should I do to get at least grade b?

  3. Hey Alex

    Thanks for the heads up and for this website it really helps. I want to start my medicine next year. I’m currently on a gap year. I hope I get in medical school next year. Thank you again for all thr info

  4. Hey Alex,
    I want to join medical school and become a doctor. But I am in high school. Do you have any advice for me?
    Thank you for sharing your experiences by the way!

  5. hey alex!
    I really enjoy reading your website. I am currently in high school (you may think i sound crazy 😀 !) but i really want to get into med school. Do you have any recommendations of things I can do right now that can help me achieve this future goal?
    Thanks 🙂

  6. King Kosiso says:

    I am a first year medical student in Nigeria. Thank you so much for this post. I really find it helpful. I pray I survive my medical school. Thanks once again for this post! Keep up the good work!

  7. Rayany Amor says:

    Thank you so much for taking the time to write this blog, it’s extremely helpful and straightforward without any sugar coating. I’m currently a 20 year old and I’ve recently changed my mind from respiratory therapist to a hospitalist and I would like some advice aside from whether or not I’m too old to even think about starting the treck to med school. I’ve almost completed my GE and started a few science classes, my GPA was good (not great) at a 3.6 but then a C from a intro to chemistry class dropped it to a 3.3 I’m currently taking an anatomy and physiology class and still have many classes left to take ahead of me, do you think if I get As and Bs in the rest of the classes I can get my GPA up to a reasonable 3.7-3.9 range? Also what premed degree to you suggest? I’ve heard from some websites that sometimes a chemistry or biology degree is excessive. One last question, though it’s more personal, taking in account the hardships and struggles if you had a do over would you still choose to go to medschool?
    Sorry for so many questions that I could probably find the answers to online, I just wanted your opinion. Thanks again!

  8. When I was 2nd MB student, seniors said 2nd year is one hardest year in medical school. But when I became 3rd MB, I mad who told this year is not hardest. Part 1 will be the same and Part 2 is the death end.House surgeon is welcoming to kill you. All years are hardest years! This is so called Medical school! I hate pharmacology so much. My intention was ‘I wanna save lives.’ Now I only know I will die before that. :-‘(

  9. Hey Alex!

    Thank you for the heads up! You sound so accurate. Can you be more specific in you memory retention techniques and study system? hope to hear from you soon bro. I’ll start Med school next year.

    God bless!

  10. Hi,
    I am 41. I have been a lawyer for the past 11 years.
    Suddenly this passion to study medicine inside me woke up and I cannot stop thinking to study medicine.
    I got a place to study medicine this year.
    I promise I will do much better than average BUT do you think it’s too late for me?
    Head of UEA medical school told me that last year graduation time they had student graduating at the age of above 50 years of age!!! She certainly encouraged me.
    Yours words CERTAINLY helped me a lot and I am really determined to do this.
    What do you think?
    Thank you.

    • Alex Ding says:

      Hey Behzad,

      If you are doing it for money, I think you’re too old. If you do it because it is your passion, then go for it. Beware of the sacrifices you will make for medicine. It won’t be easy.

  11. Hello.. I just want to know how much chemistry and physics we have in med school? if we do have what are the units?
    I hope you understand what I mean.
    Thank you.

  12. I love this, Alex. I will be going in medical sch. by next year….thanks

  13. I probably shouldn’t be reading this during pharmacology lecture. But this was very helpful.

  14. Fuck being a doctor, i regret every single day choosing this career

  15. Wow, i don’t know if all these students that say you inspired them if they have been reading the same post as i. what you wrote on your blog about medical schools makes army training feel like a girl scout organization.

    But i too want to congratulate you for giving them courage and inspiration for them to also make it out successfully from medical schools.

  16. Thank you for this article(s) Alex.
    Means a lot

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