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A Taste of Medical School - What you do.


Medical school is an extremely intense experience. Coursework consists of about 24 credits of upper-division science courses per semester with labs. Most medical students would tell you that it is do-able - it just requires lots of hard work.

There are two general approaches to teaching medicine today in medical school:
1. Traditional curriculum
2. Integrated/Problem Based Learning (PBL) curriculum

In the Traditional curriculum, the first 2 years of medical school are classroom based and dedicated to studying the "basic sciences" (don't be mislead by "basic" - does not mean "easy") to give you a basis for clinical medicine. This is followed by 2 more years in clinical rotations, for a total of 4 years spent in medical school. See the schedule posted further down the page to get an idea of what the curriculum looks like.

Students complete courses in a semester format, several courses at the same time. Anatomy is studied, then Physiology, then Pharmacology, etc. each as distinct courses (although not just one course per semester as simplified in this example) from beginning to end. Patient contact is primarily reserved for the last two years, although some patient interaction usually occurs on a limited basis. This approach generally provides a good foundation and immersion in the basic sciences.

In the Integrated/PBL curriculum, the courses are more integrated, as the name implies. All courses are taught at the same time on the same topic. For example, the heart may be the topic and students learn all the Anatomy, Physiology, Pharmacology, etc. related to the heart. So, the material is learned more by topic (system) rather than by course. Early patient contact and clinical integration is more emphasized as well in this model. This approach provides earlier patient interactions, but may not provide as much depth in the basic sciences, as some contend.

Also, for an overview of the entire medical training from beginning to end, not just limited to medical school, check the Path to Medicine section.

This page covers the courses and rotations you have to complete in medical school.
To find out more about the medical school experience itself, you should check the Medical School Experience page and read some of the Medical School Diaries written by actual medical students.

First and second year

The following schedule is for the Medical College of Wisconsin. Most medical schools will have a very similar schedule, although they may integrate or place some courses in different semesters, drag some courses out over several semesters or combine them into one semester. However, all medical students are required to pass the board exams (USMLE or COMLEX) and, therefore, need to cover essentially the same material and topics. The following is an example of the Traditional Curriculum discussed previously.

1st Semester
Clinical Human Anatomy/Gross Anatomy
Human Development
Clinical Continuum (medical interviewing, etc)

2nd Semester
Cell and Tissue Biology (Histology)
Clinical Continuum

3rd Semester
Foundations of Clinical Psychiatry
Clinical Continuum (physical exam, etc.)

4th Semester
Foundations of Clinical Psychiatry
Clinical Continuum

As already mentioned, all medical schools have a similar curriculum, although there is some variation. The goal is to prepare students for the USMLE1 (or COMLEX1 for DO students). This exam, and later licensing exams are required for graduation, obtaining a residency and practicing medicine.

As you have seen, there are two approaches to the curriculum. One is the more traditional didactic (lecture) format. The other is a Problem Based Learning (PBL) curriculum with more integration of clinical experience and basic sciences and small group work right from day one. Most medical schools still use the traditional format, although they often supplement with PBL sessions in various courses and to varying degrees.

The USMLE1 or COMLEX1 board exam is particularly important since it is used by residency directors to assess your abilities when you apply to residency programs (similar to the MCAT for pre-meds)

Third and fourth year

In third year, you begin with "rotations". Rotations are the clinical part of medical school with most time spent in a hospital or other clinic setting, depending on the rotation. The following are typical rotations during 3rd year (list is from Medical College of Wisconsin):

3rd Year Rotations
Family Medicine - 1 month
Pediatrics - 2 months
Ob/Gyn - 1.5 months
Psychiatry & Neurology - 1.5 months
Internal Medicine - 2 months
Clinical Procedures (Anesthesiology, Trauma Surgery, Emergency Medicine, Radiology) - 1 month
Surgery - 2 months
Elective Rotation or Vacation - 1 month

Third year usually contains mostly "core rotations" intended to give you a good foundation in all major fields and are required by all medical schools and needed for you to pass the USMLE2 (or COMLEX2). During the 4th year, and occasionally during the 3rd year, you can choose more rotation electives. But, quite frequently, the 4th year also includes some required core rotations.

4th Year Rotations
Subspecialty in Internal Med, Pediatrics or Family Med - 1 month
Subspecialty in Surgery - 1 month
Ambulatory Medicine in a subspecialty (cardiology, etc.) - 1 month
Integrative clinical selective - 1 month
Elective Rotations - 5 months
Vacation - 2 months

Electives give you opportunities to experience other specialties or augment knowledge in areas that relate to future residency training. (A family medicine resident may want to spend some time rotating in dermatology, oncology, or other areas that may benefit and be useful to family medicine rather than doing another family medicine rotation.)

The 4th year is usually more flexible, with more time do elective rotations. Typically, during this time, you can also go abroad or to other areas of the country for rotations, participate in medical missions in third world countries or schedule extra research, and VACATION!

In terms of the calendar

1st year
Class from August - May
Summer is off (many students participate in research or become clinically involved over the summer via externships)

2nd year
Class from August - May
6 weeks off after class - (you take the USMLE Step 1 - or COMLEX 1 - during this time before 3rd year rotations begin)

3rd & 4th Years
Rotations from July (beginning of 3rd year) until May at end of 4th year
You can schedule 8 - 12 weeks of vacation during this 2-year time period.

Many people assume that they will have plenty of time rotating through many different specialties before they have to make their residency and specialty choices. However, residency choice and applying to residency programs happens early during the 4th year, before completing many rotations.

So, most medical students may only have their core rotations and maybe one or two other elective rotations completed before having to decide on a specialty. I would highly recommend the book, Iserson's Getting into a Residency, which covers in detail what you should do while in medical school to prepare for residency.

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