FIRST YEARS AT MEDICAL SCHOOL VS SIXTH FORM: HOW BIG IS THE DIFFERENCE?

By TheDepressedMedStudent
A common question that lots of people have asked me in the past is: are you enjoying medical school?

It’s a very good question. It just seems like yesterday that I was sitting in my bedroom at home, packing my bags, looking through the events scheduled for fresher’s week (or, as is the case at my medical school, fortnight) and getting excited over all the exciting new words that were put down on my timetable. I was completely unaware of the challenges that would face me. As far as I was concerned, I was going to go to medical school, have a bit of fun, learn a little bit of medicine and become a doctor.

I can’t help but feel that I was rather naïve before I did start. I don’t think – or at least, I hope not – that I was the only one who entered medical school with that naïve mind set. Now, in my second year of medical school, I have some idea of the challenges that face medical students – many of which, may I add, were completely unprecedented. Familiar challenges did also arise, however, and these were similar to the challenges that I had felt during my A-Levels.

Exactly what are the differences between Sixth Form and Medical School? 

The sheer content of information

Many people will have heard that medical school is cram packed with lots of information. This is definitely true – but no words, from anyone, could have prepared me for just how true this statement was.

My goodness is there a lot of information. Here’s the big difference, however – at A-Levels, we were expected to have a knowledge of pretty much everything on the syllabus. At medical school, it has been made clear to us that we don’t need to know everything on the specification at all. Indeed, most of the medical students in my year had not finished revising the course in time for their exams but still managed to pass.

It sounds great but in many ways, it isn’t all that. We all come from backgrounds where we are used to knowing all the information for an exam, ready to show off our knowledge. To suddenly shift to this culture now is very…odd. It results in constant stress. We always end up feeling inadequate in our knowledge, unprepared for our exams to the extent that it has now become impossible to enter an exam without the feeling that we will probably fail.

What we learn very quickly is to prioritise the topics we have been taught. We need to somehow work out how likely it is that the information we are revising will come up in our exams and, if it’s unlikely, whether or not we should bother revising it at all.

Unless we were cramming in A-Levels, this is something which was completely new to me.

Scoring 90% vs Scoring 50%

At A-Levels, it was vital for us to score high marks to hit those A or A* grades. After all, those were the marks that were needed for us to progress to medical school. Although this may depend on each different medical school, for mine, that has completely changed. Now, we need ‘only’ 50% to pass and progress to the next stage.

Given the sheer content of information that exists, it’s not as easy as it sounds. I would be lying, however, if I said that it was harder than scoring the high marks required at A-Levels. Perhaps that’s controversial of me to say, and undoubtedly many medical students will disagree, but I do genuinely feel as though it is easier to pass exams at medical school than it is to ‘pass’ (i.e. hit those A/A* grades) at A-Level.

Nevertheless, the exams feel more stressful than A-Levels. It sounds odd – but it again relates to the previous point that I raised. Once again, we are not used to scoring ‘only’ 50% in exams and so we often leave the exam hall feeling as though we’ve failed. The reality is more like that we’ve scored something like 65%, but feel as though we’ve failed because we’ve not scored that 90% that we were used to from Sixth Form.

It is hard to explain but if I had to summarise, I’d say: revising is much harder at medical school but, although it doesn’t feel like it, the exams are much easier.

Practical lessons are very different!

During sixth form, practical lessons tended to consist of things like titrations, iodine-clock reactions and maybe the odd counting plants exercise that existed in Biology. Medical school practicals are completely different – and sound much more exciting.

The ‘practicals’ at medical school include things like dissection, surface anatomy (where we basically palpate and draw on each other to find anatomical landmarks) along with a little bit of lab work. I have to add again, however, that this will vary between different medical schools – some may do all of the stuff that I have mentioned, whilst others may do absolutely none of them.

Everyone has different opinions on things like dissection. For me personally, I found it very exciting to begin with but then slowly, the novelty begun to wear off. But it does sound much cooler. After all, the most exciting thing that happened in practicals at sixth form was the colour of a solution changing at the end of an iodine-clock reaction or titration. At medical school? We can claim to have held a human heart, kidney, brain and so on at the end of our practicals.

The differences in teaching

Depending on which medical school you study at, teaching will come in the forms of lectures, tutorials, problem based learning or a combination of all of them. Regardless of the teaching method, it is important to realise that at medical school, unlike sixth form, you are very much left on your own.

Again, this is both good and bad. It is fairly obvious why it can be bad – on the one hand, unlike at sixth form, there is no teacher monitoring our progress, ready to give us a kick up the back side should they feel we need it. It is now completely on us to make sure we keep up to date with work and understand what we are being taught.

On the other hand, it does mean that we are now much more independent to choose how to revise. It means that we have full control over how we structure our revision, and we can choose to do as much or as little as we feel necessary. But the best part? No homework! Whilst others may again disagree, I personally found homework at sixth form to distract me from my own revision, and mess up my own revision schedules. This doesn’t happen at medical school.

So…are you enjoying medical school?

Before concluding on this blog post, it is important for me to mention that I am mainly talking about pre-clinical medicine here. Of course, things change even more when you’re actually on the wards and learning how to become a real doctor.

Of course, just like everything in life, there are pros and cons to medical school. I am, however, very much enjoying medical school and genuinely would not want to be doing anything different. Well, I prefer it to Sixth Form at least.


TheDepressedMedStudent is a second year medical student at Imperial College London. He runs a blog aimed at spreading awareness about mental health issues amongst medical students.

Read more of his blog here
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10 thoughts on “FIRST YEARS AT MEDICAL SCHOOL VS SIXTH FORM: HOW BIG IS THE DIFFERENCE?

  1. really enjoyed this post! I’ve been searching for more medical students blogging about their experiences and I’m so glad I found this blog as well as thedepressedmedstudent 🙂

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  2. HI, Hang in there! I did not go to medical school but did finish my PhD in molecular biology (and gave birth twice before I defended). It took 4 and half years, required pots of coffee and getting 50% in physical biochemistry was a blessing! As a result I was able to choose a career path that allowed me to spend summers with my kids when they were young and set me own hours. I don’t know if I would have had that kind of flexibility if I had stopped at a masters. So, It will be worth it! Our daughter is looking at PA schools now, I will have her read your post for inspiration! Best of luck and thanks for stopping by my blog and checking it out!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thank you for following my post Masumah. Unfortunately the education systems we have developed, have these grading processes. What is key is that as a student if you learn to absorb the knowledge, question every assumption and have a curious mind to find the answers, you are on your way to becoming a good doctor. Wishing you the very best in your academic pursuits.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Thank you for this post. I believe I’ve heard of TheDepressedMedStudent blog and am glad to read this. His work on bringing to light mental issues for physicians is super important. Blessings on your journey. 😊

    Liked by 1 person

  5. A really nice guest post, I have sent the link to my cousin who has some interviews coming up for medicine I am sure she will benefit from this post as have I for any of my students interested in entering medicine!

    Liked by 1 person

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