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Failing Med School: Tips to Succeed as a Med Student

A lot is at stake once you are accepted into medical school. You’ve probably dreamed of becoming a doctor for years, and now you’ve made it to one of the final steps. Yet your fear of failing out of medical school is causing you to feel anxious and emotionally paralyzed. Maybe your grades have dropped, or you failed a particularly challenging exam. Now what?

I’m overwhelmed and failing to keep up.

Access your options

Your medical program has invested in you, and their good reputation depends upon you graduating. For this reason, US medical programs have various options in place to support struggling students. New medical students go through extensive orientation to help prepare them for the long road ahead. Your school likely offers tutoring services, peer support programs, and other means of support and guidance. Many programs allow students to re-take failed exams or revert to the following year’s class for an academic re-set. Find out what resources are available to you and take full advantage of them. They are there for a reason – your success!

Communicate early, then make a plan

While your school will have many options that are created to support you, you will need to make the effort to access them. Begin by finding out who can best help with your particular challenges. It could be your academic advisor, an experienced peer, a doctor you already know, or your professor. Assess your needs, then create a plan – and do it at the first sign of academic distress. The sooner you do, the higher your chances will be of finding an effective way to get you back on track.

Don’t lose your confidence

Medical students have earned their place among a group of elite, academically-gifted individuals. Only 41% of applicants are accepted into medical programs, and you are one of them. Your higher-than-average GPA likely demonstrates that you are an experienced student, one who has already shown proficiency in assimilating information, grasping difficult concepts and learning how to apply that knowledge on exams. Passing the Medication College Admission Test ® (MCAT) was a huge accomplishment, and the panel of advisors who invited you to their school believed in you enough to choose you. Don’t forget that most medical students successfully graduate. In 2020, the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) found that average graduation rates in U.S. Medical Schools are 81.6% to 84.1%. The odds are in your favor.

Foster your strengths

While you may have little control over certain things, such as which courses are required or how difficult the curriculum is, you DO have control over how you meet those challenges. While the MCAT is a reliable indicator of success in medical school, there are other aspects that influence success rates among medical students. A strong inner drive, maintaining good mental health, making physical health a priority, getting enough sleep, finding time away from studies for fun, effective time management – all these things will strengthen your tool kit and propel you to success.

What if I do everything I should and still fail an exam or a course?

1. Give yourself a break

When things get tough, sometimes you need to let yourself hit rock bottom. If you need to break up with studying for a bit to reset, give yourself permission to do that. Spend time with friends and family. Splurge on your favorite meal. Sleep in. Get out of town. Do what you need to do to process your disappointment – with the understanding that this is a temporary setback, and your negative feelings about it will be temporary, as well. If you need time to wallow in sadness and regret, do it. Just don’t stay there.

2. Progress over perfection

It’s easy to second-guess yourself when you’re feeling stuck. But failing an exam, or even a full course, does not mean you will fail the entire program. Medical school is tough, and there are sure to be pitfalls along the way. Talk to any practicing physician, and they will tell you they had some close calls in medical school. Learn from your setbacks and keep moving forward.

3. Keep it in perspective

According to an AAMC study, as many as 3.3% of students left medical school in 2020. The reasons they left are varied and personal, and some were not within their realm of control. Some students pursue medical school to fulfill another’s dream, not theirs. Others have health issues or decide they can’t – or don’t want to – keep up with the demands of a medical program. Some believe that their skills and passions could be better utilized in non-physician roles. Finding the right path for you is the most important thing. If you decide your path is leading you elsewhere, there’s no shame in that. Your true passion just might be found at the end of a new path.

It’s a marathon, not a race!

Persistence and patience are your friends.

Take pre-exams, determine in what academic areas you are weak, focus mostly on what will likely trip you up on the next exam, and review missed questions on each exam you take. Use whatever study techniques work best for you, whether that is repetition reading, making outlines, creating flashcards, rewriting notes, or hiring a tutor. Material will be much easier to learn when you find what study techniques are most effective for you.

Pro Tip: Most medical students get really good at note-taking in their first years. Taking notes in your own words, and supplementing them with drawing and diagrams, is a great way to get a good comprehension of a concept. Later on, many students discover spaced repetition flashcards. Flashcards are great for memorizing lots of information, but they can easily grow to a point where you’re just recalling isolated facts, while losing sight of the bigger picture.

Traverse is an app that helps you comprehend and memorize in one smooth flow. Your concept maps, connected notes and smart flashcards are all in one place. Flashcards no longer live in isolation, but connect with your notes and mind maps, reflecting how knowledge is connected.

Take it day-by-day.

For the top 10 US medical schools, 75% is passing. In the end, the most important thing will be earning a passing grade – even if that grade is 1% above passing. While your ultimate goal is to become a physician, try not to let that cloud your daily perspective. The road to becoming a doctor consists of consistent, daily decisions and actions. Focus on the “now,” and the future will likely take care of itself.

Remember your “why”

Medical school is difficult, and you likely knew that going in. Physicians are expected to be intelligent, knowledgeable and competent. Remembering all the reasons you wanted to practice medicine is a powerful tool that can push you through when you’re tempted to give up. Ten years from now, when you’re writing “Dr.” before your name, you’ll be glad you didn’t.

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