What I Did (and Didn't) Learn from Med School

As my fourth year of medical school winds down, I'm looking back at what I've learned—but not just what I learned from the curriculum. Since undergrad, I've kept ongoing notes titled, "What I Learned…" to keep track of all the information I wasn't tested on but thought might be valuable (or at least laughable). I think it’s helpful to think back on what you’ve learned in life, even if it was never on a written exam.

To warm up, here are a few things I learned in undergrad:

  • People are always more important than things.
  • It's completely ok to say, "I don't know."
  • Being aware of the other humans around you will change your life and theirs.
  • College can teach you a lot, but it can't teach you to be taught. You must decide that for yourself.
  • Saturday mornings are the best and worst time to do homework. Best because it's early in the day with no bloated schedule. Worst because, in the words of my old roommate, "All I wanna do is sleep." (This one is a personal favorite.)

Next come the notes from medical school. As I wrote personal statements and applied for residency, I looked back at what I wrote down. I sought to be reminded of all the "other stuff" in medical school—beyond the USMLE, beyond the classroom, and even beyond the hospital.

  • My status as a medical student does not change the fact that I am a human being with a responsibility before other humans and God to simply care for others. (This one is from my first day of medical school, as I was being overwhelmed by the immensity of the journey ahead.)
  • “Find out what all essential nutrients and minerals you need … then you can eat all the Goldfish and crap you want.” (A quote from my biochemistry professor.)
  • Life is already happening. Don’t believe the lie we try to tell ourselves that life begins with a paycheck, board exam, etc. I am living life right now. I just so happen to be a full-time student.
  • Learning from fellow medical students is a huge blessing. I was readily embraced on a first-year shadowing experience by a fourth-year student and taught some basic skills. Thank you, George!
  • I don’t have to wait until the third or fourth year to learn how to comfort people that have been stricken with disaster. There are people in my own class who have had horrible events occur, and I can learn how to “comfort the afflicted” even now by simply caring for my classmates.
  • You can never learn it all. But you can learn well.
  • Days seem long; years seem short. (A realization from MS2.)
  • "New students, huh? Don't forget compassion; it's the most important thing." (A quote from a cancer patient walking past us in the hallway during MS3.)
  • "I hear about these people not getting vaccines … and all I can think about are wards full of measles patients. It's horrible. I wish I could take them just to see the kids' faces. Puffy eyes, miserable. Get the vaccines. Don't wish this on yourselves." (A quote from an Infectious Disease physician who trained and practiced in Africa.)
  • Never lose touch with the artistic side of yourself, even if you don’t think you’re THAT artistic. Music, art, poetry, literature— these are all essential pieces to a well-rounded human. They keep you in touch with what can’t be touched. They show you what can’t be seen. They teach you what can’t be taught.
  • A conversation … Psychiatrist: “How many sober days do you have now?” Patient, holding a Chick-fil-A cup: “Well, this is my first day. I usually don’t, but I just had to get a soda today for some reason … ” Psychiatrist: “I said ‘sober’ not ‘soda.’”
  • Sometimes the best thing we can do for a patient is provide palliative and supportive care. By doing that, we can focus on the human and forget about the patient.
  • A conversation … Me: “Are you suicidal today?” Patient: “No, but I don’t want to be alive.” (I will never forget this moment, and it has prompted me to ask it more often regarding depression.)
  • If you have to-do lists within your to-do lists within your to-do lists and you feel as though you’ll never get it all done, just pick one thing from that list and do it. Cross it off. Then repeat. Within a couple weeks, your to-do list will be significantly less. BUT ONE KEY: make sure you do the urgently important items FIRST. You need deadlines for pressing events so you can keep priorities straight.
  • Don’t be afraid to start at the bottom. By starting, you’ve already done more than many others, and you will learn more than those who were “too good” to start at the bottom. Each and every step will teach you more than you thought you could learn. This is the pathway to mastery. 
  • How to deal with feedback: 1) Receive feedback entirely, no matter how offensive or upsetting. 2) Externalize it (think: “This isn’t about me personally”). 3) Evaluate feedback received versus actions and words given. 4) Make necessary changes (or do nothing). 5) Remember feedback does not equal you.
  • The difference between opportunity and success is a whole lot of hard work, early mornings, and late nights.

I hope this short list has reminded you of some important things you’ve learned along the path. Please share them in the comments below!


Image by ievami / gettyimages


Jeffrey Cannon is a fourth-year medical student at WVU School of Medicine. He is applying to Anesthesiology residencies and is interested in global health, mentorship, and servant leadership. On the other hand, he is also interested in baking cookies, singing barbershop harmony, and playing board games. You choose which list you like better.

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