The truth is, medicine is like the weird uncle of A-Levels. You can see how they’re related (just about) but even though you’re prepared for the start of medical school to come around, you’re never quite sure what’s coming next and what work will be thrown at you.
It’s a lot more fun than A-Levels, but also tougher and funnier. It becomes both the best and worst time of your life very quickly.
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An admissions tutor for medicine once told me that medical school was like doing 6 A-Levels in one term whilst nursing a crying baby and trying to plan a wedding. Thankfully there haven’t been any weddings or babies yet, but medicine is definitely like doing 6 A-Levels in a term.
The workload is heavier and the pace is much quicker, although you could be mistaken for forgetting this.
With nobody checking how much work you’ve done each week and everyone around you saying to enjoy your time at university, it’s easy to think that you can cram for medical school exams just like you could (supposedly) for A-Levels – but it’s not true.
The work isn’t necessarily harder in content- the biology and chemistry is in fact more basic than anything covered at A-Level – it’s just the sheer amount of it.
By the end of your second year you are supposed to know enough theoretical medicine to step onto the wards, where you’ll be taught the practical side of things.
You’re expected to know the anatomy of the entire body and roughly 200 drugs and their mechanisms. Common conditions are believed to be your bread and butter; lecturers would have you believe you’re supposed to eat, sleep and breathe cell pathology.
Instead of A-Level teachers who understand you’re taking other exams, suddenly everything is focussed on getting you through two written papers and some OSCEs (a practical exam).
The learning style is also very different. You’re given lectures, which are sort of like classes except without any worksheets and without the time to stop and spend time catching up with a textbook and working through problems. If you want to work through cases or spend more time on certain problems, you do it on your own time.
Whereas at A-Level you’d spend a couple of hours on one topic and then revisit it a few more times, at uni you’re expected to learn it from being covered in an hour’s lecture with several other topics.
The acid-base balance, taught over around 3 days worth of teaching at A-Level, is taught in half an hour.
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There are no essays or problem sheets to check your understanding, so you need to work hard to understand the content in your own time – motivation is crucial.
Mock papers are rare and there is no mark scheme where everything is explained. Your teaching is either in a group of over 200 or in a small group of 10 – there is no real in-between.
You also have the choice as to whether you attend teaching now- once you’ve started university, your time is your own and no-one really chases you up if you haven’t attended, so motivation is key.
Then again, lectures aren’t the be-all and end-all – you’ll spend large amounts of time wandering around the wards looking for patients, waiting for teaching, swotting up on a textbook before a class.
There will be anatomy sessions where you marvel at how many people donate their bodies to science and how intricate the human body is, only to go into surgery and realise orthopaedics is like carpentry and medicine is actually way more complicated and nuanced than any book could ever explain.
There will be ward rounds where you trail like little ducklings after a registrar, see four patients who have all had a stroke, and then marvel at how just one clot can cause such massive changes.
You’ll write up notes about the patients you’ve seen and you’ll see them again on the ward the next day, and in clinic for their follow up, and maybe even in your GP sessions.
You may be lucky enough to have GP teaching around a cup of tea and a biscuit. In your clinical years, a lot of your best teaching will be informal things from the years above you.
You will have to take responsibility for yourself – you can’t rely on reading the textbook to cover everything, because you’ll never remember it all.
You’ll sit in exams and suddenly you’ll remember a certain condition and what drugs you need because of dear old Mrs Brown who shared her fruit pastilles with you.
You’ll remember what to do in emergencies because you’ve seen the cool, calm and collected consultant stand over a dying patient without breaking a sweat. You’ll have the time of your life and never again will you say ‘but when will I ever need this?’ (Except for the Krebs cycle. Even that is limited in its uses.)
Words: Katie Hodgkinson
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