I only really felt qualified to write anything about medicine once I’d at least passed first year and it is with great joy that I’m writing to you guys today; I passed!
So, you’ve finished your A levels, no doubt you’re making plans for what is going to be the best summer of your life, raiding Debenhams for kitchen stuff, telling people you’ll definitely keep in contact with them and generally feeling like you’re on top of the world. Then comes September and you realise you’re leaving home, the dread sinks in; “are they going to like me?” “What if I hate it?” “Do I need to start revising already?!?” In this post, I’ll try to take you guys through what it’s like being a medic fresher.
The first week
Truth be told, I’m not really a Londoner, I’m actually from The North (*gasps*) so I brought my stuff down on the train. This was a challenge; two large suitcases, smaller suitcases and other bags. I had my family down to help me but I really don’t recommend it because by the end of the year, I had so much more stuff meaning moving out was an absolute nightmare. However, I managed and there was an almost tearful goodbye, then I was on my own.
The first few days go by in a blur, you meet endless numbers of people who’s names you can’t hope to remember, you do so much stuff in the name of freshers fortnight and as a medic, yes, you’ll probably still have 9am lectures so this is good practice for the rest of the year. You’ll have some sort of freshers fayre where all the different societies will have stalls – join a society! Its a great way to blow off steam and meet some of the other people in your year who aren’t medics. Then there’s the nightlife. Medics go hard. Its a common thing at most universities to have a night where all the sports teams get together and be social; sports night. Sports such as rugby, hockey and rowing are renown for the sheer amount of alcohol they consume (one poor university even made the papers!) and if this is your cup of tea then you’ll fit right in. If, however, you don’t drink or getting smashed isn’t your scene then there’s nothing really stopping you still enjoying a good night out. Most societies often cater for those who don’t drink, although beware, this doesn’t mean you get it easy in circle!
Aside from the constant activity and socialising, there is a little bit of work involved. You have loads of “introduction to..” lectures which are designed for your constant ‘morning after the night before’ mind. Lectures are where, for the most of us, the real learning curve begins. Professors and Doctors speak to you, at length, about a subject, for an hour at a ridiculous speed. And the volume covered in one lecture, you’ll have yourself wondering how you managed to do so little in one biology class! It scares a lot of people but the truth is, if you’re über keen you’ll read up before the lecture and treat lectures like revision. If you’re good at managing your time, you’ll go to lectures and then read up on the material and try to understand the notes later on and still have time for other stuff. This may be totally different if you’re not on a traditional style course, but there will be similarities I’d imagine.
But don’t sweat this, the stuff to sweat comes later, enjoy your first two weeks of freedom. For the London students:
Stuff to do:
Exploring London town (close tube stations):
- Hyde Park (Marble Arch, Hyde Park Corner, Lancaster Gate, Queensway & Knightsbridge)
- Oxford street (Marble Arch, Oxford Circus, Tottenham Court Rd.)
- Regent’s Street (Oxford Circus, Piccadilly Circus)
- Leicester Square (Leicester Sq., Piccadilly Circus)
- Covent Garden (Covent Garden, Leicester Sq.)
- The Natural History and Science museums (South Kensington)
- King’s Road (Sloane Sq.)
- Regent’s Park + Primrose Hill (Gt. Portland St. , Regent’s Park, Baker St. , Camden Town & Chalk Farm for Primrose Hill)
- London Eye (Waterloo, Westminister (walk along Victoria Embankment for a really nice view)
- Westminster Abbey (Westminster)
- Big Ben (Westminster)
- Houses of Parliament (Westminster)
- Downing Street (Westminster)
- Buckingham Palace (Hyde Park Corner, Victoria & Charing Cross – lovely walk down The Mall )
- St. James’ Park – Right in front of Buckingham Palace
- Trafalgar Square, The National Gallery (Charing Cross)
- Portobello Market (Notting Hill Gt.)
- The Gherkin (Liverpool St., Bank)
London is a big place, this list is just the start and points out a few of the most obvious haunts. However, the longer you stay in London, the more you make it your own, discover new little nooks and crannies in this big town of ours and, of course, keep them to yourself like all good secrets should!
Cheap and cheerful staples of the student nightlife
- Monday – Moonies (Moonlighting) – it’s cheap. Nothing more; you get what you pay for!
- Wednesday – The Roxy – Again, it’s just really cheap. Walkabout (temple) – this one is mainly a King’s haunt after sportsnight
- Thursday – Proud (Chalk Farm) – This is genuinely a good night, free entry if you’re on a guestlist (there are always plenty around), it’s a good venue, music is good, live occasionally, and there’s a terrace
- Friday – ULU (Euston Sq., Warren St., Goodge St.) – I can’t recommend this more, £1 to get in, drinks are really cheap (even for an impoverished northener) and the music isn’t half bad.
- Ministry of sound – unless it’s a student night, it’s really expensive, I paid £22 and hated it. The venue is really good but they ruined songs and drinks were extortionate. In addition, we felt a bit out of our age…
- The Big Chill House – Great, the hip hop night is ace, the venue is good too, not sure how much this place costs though as I’ve only been here on birthdays
- Rainforest Cafe – Weird, fun though! If you’re into dancing next to goldfish. Drinks are pricey
- Piccadilly Circus – The venue is not bad, lots of rooms, but we went one night and there were too many people that were way older than us which sort of killed it for us.
- KOKO – like a theatre, cool
An average week
So the UCL course is a ‘traditional’ course. This means that we have more lectures and fewer small group type things. PBL courses have a lot more of these, they have scenarios which they tackle as a group and present to each other.
Lectures aren’t that bad, okay there are some 9ams that you turn up to and leave probably with less knowledge than you walked in with, breaking down over the prospect of all the work you’re going to have to to to catch up but once you get a hang of how they work and managing time effectively then you just get into the swing of it, no matter how bad that first week feels. Also, (most of) our lectures are recorded, which, yes, technically means there is literally no incentive to turn up but I feel that you learn in a different way once you’ve made the effort to show up compared to rolling out of bed and half-assedly trying to watch the recording.
The lectures themselves cover a vast variety of topics. The biggest divide is between what one would describe as ‘medicine’ lectures and then ‘Vertical module’ or VM lectures. The latter cover things like sociology, psychology and statistics and are widely regarded as dull and uninspiring, mainly because they are, although this depends on the lecture. However, and I can’t stress this enough, and this goes for all medical schools, things (maybe with the exception of embryology) that seem superfluous but lecturers keep rabbiting on about are worth revising because they will come up in exams. The exams are set, for the most part, on what they teach you in lectures. Far gone are the days of a national curriculum or syllabus, they test you on what they teach you,
Aside from lectures, we do have some other things. The biggest is on Thursdays where we have something called Vertical Modules which really different to regular lectures. You’re sent off to one of the 3 medical hospitals in the area; the Royal Free up in Belsize Park, the Whittington up in Archway and some lucky people get to stay in UCH. Here you have small group discussions on some of the things that come up in those VM lectures. These are great, a massive change to lectures. They’re normally quite chilled out, everyone has a laugh and you do learn some stuff. Also, in this time, you have patients that come in after you’ve completed a topic. For example, after doing Circulation and Breathing, we had some patients come in with chest complications and heart issues who we could talk to and do some basic observations like listen to them breathing or listen for murmurs. These are truly incredible opportunities because literally what you’ve just been reading in textbooks is what you’re looking at in front of you. We are truly privileged as medics that we get such an intimate view of people’s lives. Also, pay attention as you have to write up about it!
Then you have small group tutorials on the medicine aspect with some lecturers. These are very scattered through the year, normally come almost at the end of a big topic, none in the first two chunks, more in the last two. They’re really good too, although it depends on the lecturer and your group as to how much you’ll really enjoy it. My group this year was really boring, and extremely dull; no one talked, you could hear a pin drop. However, the lecturer we had taught the hardest module so it all worked out.
Often you’ll have PBL and CAL sessions which directly apply what you’ve learned in lectures in exam style questions (hint, hint) and so the biggest thing I can tell you about these is to turn up and actually do the work because sometimes, and there were some cases this year, they directly take questions from your PBL and put them into your exam!
A good score at A2 level: 80-90% A good score at university: >50%
One thing you will need to get out of your mind is this whole pride thing we’re reared up with. There is going to be competition but what you’ve got to realise is that in college or sixth form, you were a big fish in a little pond. I finished top of my year in college but when I got to uni this meant nothing because I was amongst 350 other people who finished top in their year; see what I mean? You need to aim to pass, otherwise you stress yourself out too much if you don’t make 80-90% as easily as A2 biology and then you won’t even make that 50.
Texts: College – a ~200 page book that you learned like the bible for each of your 3/4 subjects per module and then could pretty much ignore for your next module, University: quite literally an endless library resources with no syllabus to point you to what you need to cram for the exam
In A2, you had a nice framework that you could look to at any point and for any topic that gave you a book and page reference to that book that you get at the start of the year. Forget this existed, comparing it to the infinite span of your university degree will just make you weep. You will get to this point where you’re sat in a lecture and the professor is like “and this binds to CD4578375387 which then activates tinyandreallyinsignifantase which is end product inhibited by 1-3dihydroxyacetonephosphate, a natural product of the enzyme linked reaction between alphabetaihatethisarate and thiscouldntgetanyworseogen”, you frantically try and half scrawl this down and when you go to the library, there are books on every single one of those above molecules; panic! Of course, I’m not telling you to disregard what they say, what they say is what they test you on, I’m just telling you to revise smart. Get a core of good textbooks around you – especially for anatomy, use those and get familiar with them. You don’t want to get too many books because often books have some minor contradictions and you’ll waste so many hours on Wikipedia trying to suss them out that you could have finished getting the basics down and gone out ages ago; work hard, work smart.
- Gray’s anatomy
- Netter’s atlas of anatomy
- Core anatomy for students, Vol. 1 – also known as D&P amongst other, more colourful names. This is worldly renown as THE WORST anatomy ‘textbook’ ever, but unfortunately for us, our lecturer is the one who cursed the world with its existence, and so we are bound to have to struggle to read its dreary black and white pages. However, this denser-than-lead book is sometimes useful alongside another, more reputable atlas.
- Pocock and Richards Human physiology (Vol.3 is good, Vol. 4 has beautiful layouts and fonts 😉 )
- Wheater’s functional histology – great book!
- Vander’s Human physiology
- Introduction to Human Metabolism, D. A. Bender (A fantastic man and a great lecturer)
- Case studies in infectious diseases (Written by Kate Ward and freely available on the internet/moodle)
Exams: Nice mock exams a variable amount of past papers, modules, and ample chance to retake quite safely, One mock exam, very few, if any, past papers, exams at the end of the year and retakes are painful
The worst thing about uni exams is the lack of past papers. I know for maths and physics, you could get your hands on stacks and stacks of these bad boys, burn through them in a day and you’d be ready to sit the exam. Not the case. If you ask the older years, some are bound to have a few but the exam type changes so frequently so you don’t really get a chance to sharpen that exam technique, especially, as I’m sure, for most of you, SBAs and EMQs are something you won’t be familiar with.
SBA means single best answer. How this works is that they give you a list of five options, and you’re meant to pick the one that is the most right. This is tricky and requires that you really do know your stuff, however, it is also good because it eases your cramming burden as you can just recognise some things because they’re written down. It’s all about elimination here as you’ve got to whittle it down to two close ones and then use judgement and knowledge to suss out the right one.
Resits at UCL are horrible, fail one exam and you have to resit them all. This really scares you when you’re sat there in the hall and are like crap crap crap I’ve failed this paper. However, there is some leeway. Firstly, if you’ve got extenuating circumstances, apply for them, don’t leave them till the last minute cos the staff are really helpful because they’ve invested a lot of time into you and don’t want to see you avoidably fail. Next, if you’re within 5% of the pass mark and you’ve passed the other papers well then they’ll probably let you through. Also, as saw this year, the pass mark is a reflection of the entire year, so for one paper it was 46% because people found it hard, yet for the other one it was above 50%, so it’s not a static thing. I tell you now, I walked out of that last exam thinking I’d failed it totally. There was so much VM and I had paid it no attention. However, I passed it really well so even if you walk out with that horrendous lurch in your gut, the thing is with SBAs, you never really know how well you’ve done until you see that email come results day.
The spot test
These vary between universities but at ours, we had one. This is where they really grill your anatomy knowledge. For us, we were on a circuit with 50 miscellaneous body parts, pins, bones and X rays. at each station, you have to do what it says, for example, they may show you an x ray with a pointer at a specific bone or organ and ask you what it is/does/serves/ or where it is in the body. They could also have a cadaver and point to like a nerve and ask you about its course, what it serves, what it is. These vary a lot and can get you off guard. Just make sure your anatomy is on top form. Revise a lot in groups, anatomy is very visual and interactive and is easier learned collaboratively.
The way I studied for medicine did change a little over the year. Everyone has their own way of doing this so this is by no means an authoritative method but it may help some of you out.
So I’m not the sort of guy that can read up about a lecture before the lecture, that’s just too much like hard work. During the lecture, I’d take my laptop in and pretty much, almost word for word, try to get down what the lecturer said. After this, I’d usually go home and look at books and stuff relating to the topic and try to now understand this lecture, and draft up a nice handwritten version of the lecture, a bit more concise and with better pictures than the lecturer used! This was a really good method but it was very time intensive, a lecture took me roughly 2 hours to understand and note down and even after this I didn’t remember much the next day.
Around halfway through the year, I decided to switch up. I just got fed up of spending so much time revising. During lectures I cut down my essays to bullet points and had a copy of the lecture slides alongside my document so I could annotate at the same time. At home, I stopped drawing everything out and made an iBook with all my notes on it (that app is great). This meant that they could still be visually stunning at reduced time costs. This I kept up until the end of the year, sometimes even shortening paragraphs on this solely to bullet points.
When revising it’s really important, also, to keep books nearby. I had the unfortunate experience of not doing this at the start, only relying on what I heard in the lecture, or thought I heard, to have my ‘knowledge’ disproved by friends that actually read the book!
So Enjoy your first year
Being a medical student is a lot of work, but its also great fun. You’ll have history students telling you that they’ve never had a 9am or English students that manage to go out every night and still pull a first at the end of the year, you’ll have crises and panic attacks when the workload piles up to your eyebrows and that’s just the monday! However, the stuff you learn is great! (you appreciate this after the exam anyway), the opportunities we get as students, at this age, I mean people donate their entire bodies just so we can do our degree, they sit there and talk to us about their lives, loves, struggles, all so we can help shape a better tomorrow. We also throw the best parties! So, harrowing as the prospect may be, enjoy it!