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Tips for Surviving Medical School Abroad

Are you considering attending a foreign medical school? Sherry Gray shares her tips for surviving medical school abroad. U.S. medical students can also benefit from following this advice.

Medical school is the most demanding experience you may ever have, and being away from your family and in another country makes it even more so. The intense workload coupled with loneliness can be completely overwhelming.

If you’re feeling like you’re on the edge of an emotional cliff, don’t worry, you’re not alone. Medical school students burn out for a variety of reasons; one of the most common is overconfidence. Few are prepared for the difference between the cakewalk that was high school and college and the pressure cooker that is medical school. If you’re accustomed to sailing through without studying and being the smartest kid in class, you’re in for a shock. Here are some tips to help you organize, relax, and survive medical school abroad.

1. Develop a study system.

Some people study better alone, others thrive in a group setting. Try out both methods to determine how you best understand and retain information. Medical students tend to fall into one of two study patterns, those who study every day without fail, and those who cram just before the test. Studying every day is a much more efficient system. It helps you build knowledge as you go and it’s far less stressful than trying to learn everything at once. A good night’s sleep before the test is more beneficial than an all-night cram session.

2. Get the help you need.

It’s hard to admit when you need help, but the sooner you acknowledge you’re having trouble and find a tutor, study partner or adviser, the better. If you become completely overwhelmed, you might want to consider lightening your course load. Making a conscious decision to lengthen time you spend earning your degree may result in less stress and a lower chance of washing out or the program.

3. Stay in touch.

Living in another country can be lonely. Most students who attend medical school abroad choose a Caribbean destination, not too far away for a quick trip home over a long weekend or a holiday. If an in-person visit isn’t affordable, schedule regular chats with friends and family via Skype. Or another web-based video chat.

4. Make friends.

Joining clubs is a good way to make friends in a foreign environment. You’ll meet other people who share your interests and start building your professional network. You can beef up your resume by running for a leadership position. Being a student body leader will make you more attractive to residency programs and career positions when the time comes.

5. Relax a little.

Don’t sweat the small stuff. Everybody makes mistakes and everybody gets overwhelmed. How you learn to handle the pressure is an important part of becoming a doctor. If you fail at something, forgive yourself, make a new plan, and move on. Don’t dwell on every mistake and don’t beat yourself up.

6. Find time to enjoy your environment.

You’re in a foreign country. Sample the cuisine, explore the local area, get some fresh air, and lug your books to the beach for a quiet study session. Make yourself comfortable, breathe deeply of the clean ocean air, and multitask study with relaxation.

7. Stay on budget.

Few things in life are as stressful as debt. Before you pack your bags for the flight, make a realistic budget you can stick to. Research the cost of living, find ways to save money on necessary expenses (like buying used books), and budget in money for entertainment and clothing. Retail therapy is a great pick-me-up. A few extra bucks in the budget for a new pair of shoes or a windsurfing expedition can really make a difference when you’re feeling blue. Budgeting in frivolity form the beginning can save you a lot of stress down the line.

8. Eat right.

You’re studying to be a doctor, so you should know the importance of good nutrition. Skip the junk and keep healthy foods and snacks on hand. Shop local produce markets for lots of fresh, healthy fruits and veggies, and stay away from the ubiquitous pizza and burger places that remind you of home.

9. Deal with the competition.

It will be fierce and can be intimidating. Only one student can be at the top of the class. If you’re not that one, don’t worry about it. Doing your personal best is much less stressful than trying to claw your way to the top at the expense of classmates. Look around you. These people will be your professional peers, your co-workers, your teammates, and your network. Claws leave scars. When you land on top, be gracious. When you don’t, be gracious.

10. Do other stuff.

Medical school is time-consuming, stressful, and an incredible grind. Outside interests can help keep you energized and focused. Take up a physical or creative hobby, like hiking, surfing, photography, painting, cooking, or writing. Schedule time in your week to do something that has nothing to do with medicine. Note: if you want to be popular among hungry medical students, cooking is a good choice.

Plenty of medical students wash out. Surviving medical school abroad will depend on your ability to adapt and on the juggling skills you develop. It’s all about finding a balance between school, study, and having a life, and the last one is often the hardest to achieve. The idea that studying less to get in some rest and relaxation may seem a little counterintuitive, but a well-rested student is sharper and more receptive than a sleep-deprived person who can barely function.

You’ll be more successful and less stressed if you organize and manage your time. Study when you’re most alert and awake, and relax when you need a break. You’ll test better, interview better, and your fellow students will like you more. Which means they’ll be more willing to help and to ask for help.

Sherry Gray is a freelance writer in Orlando, Florida. Science, medicine, and politics are her favorite topics to write about and obsess over.




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