Medical School Anatomy: It’s Kind of Gross With Lots of Memorization

What Is Medical School Anatomy?

What class is most associated with medical school? Medical school anatomy, without a doubt. You are not a real medical student until you have dissected your first cadaver.

For those who are unaware what anatomy is, a simple way to describe it would be a study of the human body. So, just as I thought, the course covers bones, muscles, and organs. But that is not it. It also covers arteries, veins, and nerves. And it is not enough to simply memorize them all (though it would help). You will have to relate the materials to diseases and medicine.

Medical school anatomy is clinically based. So throw in cancer that affects the rib (i.e. Ewing sarcoma), throw in lesions (or the disruption) of various nerves, throw in bone fractures and basically anything else that results in physical trauma to the human body. That, my friends, is anatomy. So to summarize medical school anatomy, you will be studying anything you can see in the body with the naked eye and any associated diseases. It is broad.

And because this is a clinically oriented class, expect to learn (memorize) how to read diagnostic images (x-rays, CT scans, etc.). In my opinion, that was the easiest part of the class. Maybe I should be a radiologist.

medical school anatomy

This picture is bringing back lots of repressed memories.

And not to let anyone down, yes, you will be dissecting cadavers. A common statistic that medical schools like to present to potential students is the students to cadaver ratio. For my school, it was around 4 or 5 students to a cadaver. Obviously, lower is better right? Wrong! The fewer students to a cadaver, the more work you will have to do. Before you guys jump down on my throat about doing less work, let me explain.

Your anatomy lab is not graded on how well you dissect but on how well you can identify structures on the cadaver. In addition, your learning of the anatomy does not come from dissection but comes from seeing the finished product. Your dissection is just manual labor to prepare the corpse for the practical examination. It is basically unnecessary work.

So in my school, anatomy is a three-part course:

  • written / clinical cases
  • diagnostic imaging
  • dissection lab

How to Succeed in Medical School Anatomy Class?

I came into medical school without a good idea of what I will be learning. The most advanced science class I took was organic chemistry II (and I only took it because it was required). It is no wonder I was feeling a bit apprehensive about medical school anatomy. Partly because I was never exposed to it and partly because it is supposed to be one of the tougher courses for first year. Since the first day of class, I felt a bit overwhelmed. I remember the first lecture was on anastomosis. Ana.. what? I was totally lost.

My first exam grade was a pass (around 70). My last exam grade was an honor (around 90). I would like to think I got better at anatomy as time progressed.

Anatomy is all about memorization. The class is in a sense memorization galore. What structure is that? What nerve is that? But what medical school course is not all about memorization? I can only think of one, which happens to be my favorite class: physiology. Yay for less memorization! Anyways, back to anatomy for medical students.

Try Not To Memorize Whenever You Can

Since there is just so much to memorize, do yourself and favor and do not memorize whenever you can.

For example, a basic question would be a lesion of the median nerve would result in what manifestations? So to properly answer that question, you would first have to memorize some facts about the median nerve. It innervates the thenar eminence. It carries sensory data from the thumb, pointer and middle finger on the palmar aspect (palm side). So based on that, you can deduce that lesion of the nerve would result in atrophy of the thenar muscles and loss of sensation for the thumb, index finger, and middle finger on the palm side. (There are more, but this is just a really simplified answer.) This way, it reduces a bit of memorizing (which is my weak point) and replaces it with a bit of reasoning.

Apply reasoning whenever you can because it will make classes easier. I’m more of a thinker than a memorizer.

Study Efficiently

My high scores were mainly due to learning what resources worked and what did not. For the first exam, I read everything. I read the professor’s lecture slides. I read the professors handouts. I read Grant’s Dissector. I did practice exams. The bulk of my study time in the first year went towards medical school anatomy and my scores did not reflect that.

I asked my friend how she did on her anatomy exam and surprisingly, she did better than me only by using the lecture slides. I tried it out and my scores went up a bit. So I ditched the extra handouts and ditched Grant’s Dissector.

But I did not stop there. I constantly refined how I studied. By the middle of the first year, I had a good idea of what I was weak in and adjusted my studies.

For example, my practical exams were lower than average. So, I first got really comfortable with the practical exam structures list. I would look it up on Netter and lead the dissection for my lab group. I continued to study the lecture slides. And continued doing practice exams. By using Netters (which I did not do at first) and by really preparing for the dissection ahead of time, my grades shot up.

Study Tips

  • become familiar with the practical exam structures list by using Netter
  • read the professor’s slides
  • do practice problems (best if from old exam)

Additional Medical School Anatomy Resources

The resources listed are items I found to be helpful in my studies, not including the teacher’s slides.


The only purchased resource you will need is Netter’s Atlas of Human Anatomy.

Use it to prepare for the dissection lab. And once you know what is going on in the lab, you can ask more intelligent questions when the professor comes to your table. In addition, you will probably finish the lab faster. This is a must for medical school anatomy success. Read the medical school books section for more details.

Online Resource(s)

University of Michigan’s anatomy website is really popular with medical students. It is supposedly one of the best medical school anatomy websites out there. Some people from the class before me recommended it. I took a look at it and it is pretty good. You can find dissection videos and practice quizzes, which in my opinion, are the two most relevant things for your studies. But I did not really use it for my studies. I’m just listing it because the quality is good and it’s free.

Hey, you! Do you want to know how an accountant, without a science background, made it through medical school without any difficulty? Do you want to know how I memorized a sea of information without cracking my skull in half and dumping the books into my brain? No, I did not slave away all night studying in the library either. If you want to know my complete study system, check out The Secret of Studying.

This article is part of the How to Survive Medical School series. Click on the link if you want more tips and hints about surviving academic hell.


  1. I love it. I am studying to be a Medical Coder. There is just so much to know but I like this approach. Any help is good.

  2. Sweet Jeebus, I’m so glad I found you.
    I’m currently half way through semester 1 of first year, and I’m falling behind. I have forgotten how to study! (been out of acedemia for 4 years).
    Thanks for the anatomy wisdom, anatomy and I are currently on bad terms, so the website you pointed out is a great help.

  3. arthur travis says:

    can u create an account even though you are not a student of tht school and i am trying to read ahead for school. I applied for 2014 entry.

    • Alex Ding says:

      Hey Arthur,

      You need to be a student of the school to have an account. But you can view most of the site without one.

  4. I was wondering how u fit all the surface features and remember them? or what book u used for that….id be grateful for a reply.

  5. This was 3 years ago. How are you doing?

  6. Custodio issa says:

    I am a portuguese doctor who met last May a Danish medical student in Greenland.
    He is also a teacher of Anatomy in Copenhagen.
    It happens that i los is contact.
    His name is Sia (Sea? Seier ?).
    He is quite tall and with brown skin. of Afghan or Indian origin.
    Can anyone help me finding him?
    Many thanks.

  7. Hi! Great article! I also found a page that was very helpful for me when learning anatomy –
    Give it a try, I hope it will help!
    Good luck with exams and anatomy!

  8. This article is quite cool.
    Please can anyone rate Grant’s atlas and Netter’s for me.

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