This is based on my own personal experience as a physician assistant student, so this only includes the first half of my didactic year as that is only as far as I have gotten. Didactic year was like no other year of college that I have ever experienced. Unlike my previous two years of college there was no starting out slow, you just went right into it. With that being said, you better be ready to go, organized, and have some kind of study plan/technique that you know works for you ready on the first day of classes. Most of the professors had a syllabus day the first day and just discussed what their class would be like, what was expected of you, etc., etc. However, some did lecture on their first day of classes; most of the ones who did gave some kind of a heads up. So make sure that you have everything printed out or pulled up on a laptop if that’s your thing. Even if you only had one lecture on your first day and you feel that strong urge to just not study and push it off until tomorrow since it is only one packet anyways… DO NOT DO IT. Think of it as a gift that you only had one lecture on your first day. Now you have extra time to learn that packet, learn even more than you would have been able to do if you put if off until the next day. Getting that first packet down will put you in a great position for the rest of the semester in addition to getting yourself into the “have to study” mode. If you do not review that packet on the day you get it then you are already putting yourself at a disadvantage, it would be the second day and you would already be behind! This goes for the rest of the semester too, you should at least review every packet the day you get it, if not learn most of it. This also works in your favor since if you were confused about something you can email your professor with questions about that lecture.
For our first few Clinical Medicine lectures they had started us off with Dermatology which, to me, was one of the easier subject matters to grasp as compared to something like Cardiology which was more towards the end of the semester. With these “easier” subjects you need to work extra hard to learn and understand them. If you get an excellent grade on this first exam then you put yourself in a better position for the rest of the semester allowing you more wiggle room for when you need it. As the semester goes on the subjects will get harder and things will become more and more difficult to learn so you might need that wiggle room for the Clinical Medicine exam you did not do so well on during hell week. Side note… hell weeks are as awful as they sound, it is not fun to have a Clin Med exam, Pharm exam , EKG quiz, behavioral medicine quiz, and Physical Diagnosis & Lab exam all within the same week. However, if you do not do well on the first exam then it is not the end of the world, you still have time to get that grade back up and now you know that whatever study method you used might not have been the best one.
Also, you really don’t realize how much more time you will be spending on campus and studying as originally thought. The idea of having class 8 AM – 5 PM every day sounded bad but manageable, and it is and you will manage to do it, but it will be harder than you expected. The first week is a really good time to figure out a routine, something that will work for you every day. It is important to have a regular routine that you can stick to during your didactic year. One that worked well for my weekdays: wake up at 6:30 AM, get ready/eat and be out the door by 7:10 AM (earlier if bad weather/traffic), park by 7:40 AM, in class by 7:45 AM, 8 AM-12 PM class, 12 PM-1 PM lunch and review slides with friends, 1 PM – 5 PM class, get home by 5:45 PM, dinner then studying for the rest of the night. The time I went to bed varied day to day depending on the material but it was usually around 11 PM and always by 1 AM (productivity stops after 1 AM for me). It is essential that you learn how to manage your time efficiently. Yes, you could study during dinner if you really wanted to but I felt like that just stretched out the dinner longer than it needed to be and I wasn’t studying as effectively as I could have been when not eating. Also, never take a full day off from studying. Even if all you do is just quickly review a couple of packets and that’s it that is fine. You can take an afternoon/evening off but don’t let the whole day go to wasted even though you really really want to. I usually used my evenings off (at least three a month) on Saturdays or on Fridays if I just had an exam. It was very hard for me to learn how to manage my time at first but I eventually got the hang of it. Even though you won’t get to spend as much time with friends and family as you would like you could still do so efficiently on your non-break days by doing things with them that you would need to do anyways such as eating and taking a study break to go on a walk as compared to just hanging out or going to the movies or something.
Lastly, as I have mentioned before, the semester’s materials will become more difficult as it goes on. And if your program was like mine then you will have a cumulative exam for each class at the end of the year so you can’t just binge and purge in terms of studying. You need to understand the material and learn it. Do not simply memorize the packets and forget it all as soon as you hand in your exam. You should know the material well enough to explain it to others effectively, almost like telling a story about what things happen, why, how to treat them, rather than just learning random facts. You should review old packets whenever you feel like you are starting to forget them. A quick way to see if you are forgetting them is picking a random disease in binder and seeing if you could “teach” someone about the disease effectively, if you can’t then you need to review. You will need to know all of this material well not only for the cumulative exam at the end of the semester but also for your clinical rotations, boards, and your career.
Look for my next blog on the small stuff that matters during your didactic year!