Every year, thousands of students apply to study medicine at university. It is one of the most popular courses, almost always oversubscribed, and there is a lot of information online about the application process. From interview advice to admissions test preparation courses, there’s lots of websites dedicated to supporting medical school applicants. However, this is only the first step of the process. You’ve put in the hard work, got your offer to study medicine, and are ready to go. But what is medical school actually like? How hard is it? What does the average day look like?
As a current medical student at Oxford University, this article will be a full guide to my experience of studying medicine, answering all the questions I had as a new medical student.
Disclaimer – this article is based on my own experiences. Although some of it is specific to Oxford, a lot of it will be relevant no matter which medical school you go to. However, everyone’s experience of medical school will be different!
Table of Contents
What does the average day studying medicine look like?
There are lots of different aspects to studying medicine at university – lectures, practicals, placements, free time, exams… it can be helpful to have an idea of how these all fit together to make up an average day in the life of a medical student.
Bear in mind that at university, each day on your timetable will likely look a little different. This is in comparison to school or sixth form, where most students are used to a repeating timetable of lessons every one or two weeks.
Generally, medical students will have 2 or 3 lectures each day, normally in the morning. On some days – maybe 2 per week as a rough guide – there will also be a practical session, and you might have fewer lectures on these days.
The afternoon is normally less busy with timetabled teaching, and lots of students like to meet friends for lunch and then head to a library to get some work done. This might be going over lecture notes, making flashcards, or preparing work for tutorials.
Tutorials are a type of small group teaching you will have once or twice per week, that Oxford places a lot of emphasis on.
For medicine, you will normally have to write a scientific essay to prepare for these tutorials, so this can take up quite a lot of the time you spend independently working.
Of course, if you have a particularly intense workload one week, you might want to keep working a little later. However, most days you will be able to spend time in the evenings going to societies and clubs, or spending time with friends.
It’s really important to have a work-life balance, particularly for medicine, which can be a really full-on degree. I would definitely recommend giving yourself some time every evening to unwind.
Even if you don’t want to commit to too many societies, you can always just relax with some TV, or go to a friend’s room for a chat.
How are you taught for medicine at university?
We’ve mentioned a few different teaching methods, and it can be helpful to know exactly what each of these involves.
Lectures are possible what comes to mind first when you think about university. They involve large groups of students in a lecture hall, and are often the main source of teaching, covering the essential information for your degree.
For medicine, your lectures are often grouped into topics, for instance, anatomy, or biochemistry.
Practicals are a really important part of medicine. Some of these will involve looking at samples down a microscope to visualise what you have been taught about in lectures.
Anatomy practicals often involve prosections, which are human samples that have been prepared by professionals so you can see the structure of the body.
A few medical schools still use dissection, where the students do this themselves, however, this is growing less common. Oxford doesn’t use dissection, while other universities, including Cambridge and King’s College London, do.
Tutorials have been mentioned, which are a type of teaching specific to Oxford – Cambridge also has an equivalent, called supervisions. These are normally one hour long, in groups of 2 or 3 students with one tutor.
Tutorials are really helpful to ask any questions you have about content, as well as being pushed to think beyond the core content you need to know for medicine.
Other common teaching methods for medicine include problem-based and case-based learning. Oxford doesn’t use these, but they are much more popular at other medical schools.
It involves being presented with a specific medical scenario, and working out what information and knowledge you need as a doctor to work through the case.
For more on how this type of teaching works, check out this article from UniAdmissions.
How many contact hours do you have for medicine?
So, we’ve gone through the main ways you can be taught for medicine in university – but how much of your time does all this scheduled teaching take up?
At Oxford, we’ve said that you’ll have 2 or 3 hours of lectures and practicals per day, and 1 or 2 tutorials a week. Overall, this gives about 12 to 16 hours a week of contact time, although it can be more or less than this.
Remember, though, that this isn’t all the work you will have to do. As a rough guide, the timetabled teaching will be about half the time you spend working.
The contact time you have changes a lot depending on the subject you study, so don’t be taken aback if you have friends studying humanities subjects with far fewer lectures than you do! Medicine is among the subjects with higher contact hours, because there is a lot of factual scientific content you need to be taught.
How much work do you have to do in your own time for medicine?
As mentioned, about half of all the time you spend working at medical school will be independent study, so 12 to 16 hours a week.
Exactly what you do in this time is often up to you, and it can be difficult to get used to this freedom. You’ll naturally develop your organisational skills, and find what methods work best for you, as you get more used to this way of learning.
Lots of students find it helpful to go over lecture slides and notes. Lectures can be intense and it is unlikely that you will come out of one and remember everything that was taught! Active methods of doing this can help, such as making flashcards with key points from the lectures.
You can also have a look at this article from Imperial College London for advice on note-taking in lectures.
At Oxford medical school, you will also spend independent study time reading around a particular topic you have been set an essay on. There are various sources you might want to look at before you start writing, from lecture notes, to textbooks, to online academic articles.
Then comes writing the essay itself, as well as editing it. You’ll generally have 4 or 5 days to research and write an essay, although this is just a rough guide.
If you are at another medical school that uses problem-based or case-based learning, some of your time may also be spent independently researching a current case you are working on.
As mentioned, it’s still important not to spend all your independent time studying. There’s a stereotype that medical students, particularly at Oxford, spend all their time working, but this is definitely not true!
A work-life balance is a key part of being a student, and you will always work better if you are well-rested and not burned out.
How much can you interact with patients when you start studying medicine at university?
Of course, a vital part of studying medicine is interacting with patients and learning clinical skills that all doctors need. However, a lot of people wonder exactly how you get this experience as a new student with very little medical knowledge.
Each university has a different approach to placements in a medical environment for new students. Some will have you interacting with patients from the very start, for example, with weekly GP placements. This helps you to get experience early and build your skills throughout the course.
Other, more traditional universities will focus on scientific background, then bring in patients later on in the course once you are a bit older and have more medical knowledge. This is the way Oxford University structures their medical course.
To read more about how long medicine degrees in the UK are, check out this Think Student article.
In the first couple of years, while there is a course that introduces you to clinical skills, you will have little interaction with patients. These are the 3 pre-clinical years.
In years 4, 5 and 6 of the course – the clinical years – much of your time will be spent on placements in hospitals and GP surgeries with patients.
For more on this, have a look at this article from Medic Mind which discusses these two different approaches to medical teaching.
How hard is doing medicine at university?
Medicine has a reputation of being a difficult course, and this is something many new students worry about. Firstly, this is a very subjective question, and everyone will have a different opinion.
Additionally, you may struggle with different aspects of the course compared to friends. You might be good at learning new words from anatomy lectures, but find it harder to understand the concepts from pharmacology lectures, for instance.
Overall, I would say that medicine is indeed a difficult course with a significant workload. However, it is certainly manageable if you organise your time and prioritise the work you want to get done.
Don’t worry if it takes some time to adjust to the new styles of teaching and learning as well. I recommend finding notetaking and revision methods that work best for you.
For instance, for taking notes in lectures, you might want to try handwriting, or use online software like OneNote or Notion. If you can get your notes organised in a way you understand, your workload will be much more manageable when it comes to revision.
How to manage workload studying medicine at university?
When it comes to the content itself, don’t be scared to ask for help if you don’t understand something. Oxford is a great university for this because your tutorial teachers will be able to offer you individual help.
You can also always ask for pastoral help at any university if you are really struggling to keep up with your course.
Learning to prioritise is also a great skill to stop you from getting overwhelmed in medical school. You might have a huge to-do list, and you know you don’t have time to complete it all.
Focus on the most important tasks – perhaps working on the essay due soon. Make sure you still leave a little time to relax and take a break from working.
Additionally, remember that you have time in the holidays between terms to revise content. This is particularly true for Oxford, as the terms are significantly shorter than at other universities. You can have a look at their term dates on their website, linked here.
What is the step up to medicine from sixth form college like?
Similarly, students starting medical school wonder about what the transition from sixth form or college is like. It’s true that, no matter what course you study, moving to university is a big change.
For many, it will be the first time being away from home for a long period. This comes with a whole range of things to think about, from managing your own finances to living with new people next door in student halls.
For medicine specifically, the level and depth at which you are learning increases significantly. This is to be expected, and remember, you have done a jump like this before – for instance, the content you are learning at A-Level is considerably more advanced than at GCSE.
One key change to consider when it comes to medicine at Oxford is that you will be expected to write scientific essays. For many students, they will not have had experience writing essays since GCSE English, and these are definitely not science-based!
However, essay-writing is a great skill to learn. It makes sure you really understand the topic you are writing about, compared to short answer questions.
Remember, your tutors will not be expecting you to arrive at university able to write a perfect essay. You will naturally improve throughout the course as you get more experience reading scientific works and collating your knowledge into an essay.
If you’d like to read about how difficult it is to get into medical school, I’d recommend reading this Think Student article.
What specialist equipment do you need for medicine?
Another question new students have is what they actually need to take with them to university. There are plenty of general packing lists available online, that will be applicable to most universities and courses. For example, you can have a look at this list from the official UCAS website.
For medicine in particular, there is actually very little specialist equipment you need to think about. The only thing I needed to bring was a lab coat, which is needed for practical sessions.
These can be ordered easily online, such as this lab coat from Amazon, and you may even have one from A-Level science practicals.
The other equipment you may have questions about is what sort of textbooks you need to bring for medicine. I would definitely advise against buying textbooks until you start university, unless you have been specifically asked to bring certain books.
This is because the university has lots of resources that mean you won’t have to buy piles and piles of textbooks for your course – keep reading for more!
What resources does the university provide for medicine?
Many universities will give you a login once you arrive that can be used to access textbooks online. Waiting until you reach also means you can also then ask tutors or older students what textbooks they recommend.
Last but definitely not least, university libraries will stock almost all the textbooks you might be looking for for medicine. In fact, libraries are a great resource at university that you should definitely make the most of.
Textbooks are often expensive, but can be borrowed for free from your university libraries. They also offer services like printing and photocopying, as well as providing a great environment for working without distractions and noise.
It’s also helpful to make sure you know about the university welfare resources available to you. From welfare staff to organised welfare activities, there will be plenty of places to go if you are feeling overwhelmed.
Medicine is certainly not the easiest degree, but there is always support available – and this article has hopefully given you a guide as to what to expect when you get there!