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How Hard Is Medical School? (From Someone Who's Done It)

How Hard Is Medical School? (From Someone Who’s Done It)

Updated on: December 3, 2023
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Written By Dr Ollie

Every article is fact-checked by a medical professional. However, inaccuracies may still persist.

You hear so many stories about the ridiculously long days and non-stop tests medical students have to deal with… making medical school sound like the hardest thing in the world!

But is this really the case or are medical students just being a tad dramatic?

The majority of medical students would agree that medical school is undoubtedly hard work. Not only is it two years longer than a standard undergraduate degree, the rigorous examination procedures coupled with an extensive syllabus makes completing a medical degree incredibly demanding.

But don’t get me wrong, you won’t spend every waking minute sweating into an anatomy textbook…

I found plenty of time for sports, hobbies and socialising as a medical student.

It also isn’t just one consistent level of ‘hardness’ as you go through the course…

Is Medical School Really As Hard As Everyone Says?

The thing with medical school is that its ‘difficulty’ often has a lot to do with how close you are to an exam.

During ‘exam season’ in my later years I’d often find myself waiting outside the library for it to open in the morning, then still be there long after it had got dark.

But, in fifth year, I did also have my medical elective- essentially a two-month-long holiday anywhere in the world, in which you can learn about foreign healthcare systems.

So swings and roundabouts as they say!

What I particularly liked about Leicester Medical School is that in the first two years you only ever did half days in uni.

You’d be in 9am-1pm in first year and 1pm-5pm in second year.

So that gave you plenty of free time to read around topics you were learning about in class, but I did always feel like I should be doing work at home because of the relatively small amount of time we had in lectures.

One of the things I particularly liked about starting work as a junior doctor was that when my shift finished I was done- I didn’t have this nagging feeling that I should be revising something at home.

Compared to your friends on other courses at university, you will often find yourself having to work a lot harder. In medicine, we don’t have the luxury of our first year ‘not counting’ towards our final grade..!

However, just because you’re putting in more hours in the library compared to your friends doesn’t mean that medical school is a horrendous five-year-long slog.

If you use your time efficiently, you’ll find ample time to pursue your hobbies and interests outside of class- whether that be sports, watching Netflix or drinking!

Does Medical School Get Harder As You Go On?

I think medical school definitely gets harder as you go on.

Medical school generally gets progressively more difficult as you advance through the years. The majority of medicine courses first begin with a foundation in basic sciences before moving onto more complex and novel subject matters in the latter years.

I feel like medical school gets harder mostly because of one simple reason:

I found it quite easy to begin with!

My first year of medical school built upon a lot of knowledge that I’d accumulated through my A-levels.

Lots of biochemistry, physiology and cellular biology.

All things I was familiar with as a result of having taken both biology and chemistry at A-level.

Now this could be a very different story if you were coming to medical school as a humanities postgrad!

But for me, I felt quite comfortable. I was definitely learning lots, but the lectures were mostly building upon topics I’d been studying for the last two years.

In the later years of the course, everything I was learning was almost entirely new.

Which meant I had to dedicate far more time and effort to learning and understanding these topics.

Is Medical School Harder Than A-Levels?

The teachers at my school used to absolutely love telling us how much harder university was going to be compared to school.

“They’re not going to spoon-feed you the information at university like we do here!”

But is medical school really harder than A-levels at school?

Most people find medical school more difficult than their A-levels. Although in many cases there isn’t much difference in the complexity of subject matter, the sheer volume as well self-directed learning required by medical school means more students struggle to thrive compared to at school.

I think for a lot of people it does just boil down to those two factors:

  1. There’s a lot more information to learn
  2. You have to go out and direct your own learning

There’s only a handful of concepts that you’ll learn at medical school that will make you go “woah that was difficult!”

For the majority of things, they’re perfectly understandable and even logical, it’s just there are so many!

Students listening to a university lecture

As my teachers warned, a lot of students also won’t be used to doing so much self-directed study.

In my first year, we only ever had lectures/seminars from 9am-1pm. Everything else was our own time!

But although I was ‘in class’ for shorter periods of time than at school, I was doing a lot more work under my own steam.

This meant having to learn new study skills, as well as having the self-discipline to get out to the library/concentrate at home to get the work done- without the structure of a school day.

P.S. If school really wasn’t your thing that doesn’t mean you can’t become a doctor. Check out my article on how to get into medicine with low grades!

Which Year Of Medical School Is The Hardest?

I was recently having this debate with one of my good friends from medical school:

“Which year of medical school is the hardest?”

Statistically, medical students find the 4th year of their course the hardest. There is however significant variation in opinion depending on the medical school, course structure and individual. 4th year in general involves a great breadth of subject matter to revise without providing the release of completing finals.

I had said fourth year, but he thought first year due to the sudden shock of new information that you have to take in in double time.

To settle the argument, I actually took a poll of over 500 junior doctors. Here are the results:

Hardest Year of Medical SchoolPercentage of Respondents

So the majority of respondents agreed with me- 4th year really can be a struggle. But it certainly isn’t clear cut…

As you can see from the percentages, there’s a good spread of opinion across all five of the years students spend at medical school.

I can totally see how the argument can be made for each year:

  • In first year you’re suddenly bombarded with a host of new concepts, topics, and assessments
  • In second year you’re continuing to learn theory at an unrelenting pace but now have to revise all the first-year material too
  • In third year you have to adapt your learning to suit the placements you’ll be doing throughout the year
  • In fourth year you’re being assessed on everything you’ve learnt so far while also covering new material
  • In fifth year you have finals: which means being tested on everything you’ve learnt over the last five years!

In reality, which year you find the hardest will depend a lot on where you’re studying and your personal strengths and weaknesses.

What’s The Hardest Subject In Medical School?

At medical school, you’ll learn a lot of new things.

From pharmacology to cardiology to even some behavioural psychology!

But what do most people consider to be the hardest subject you study in medical school?

The hardest subject in medical school is biochemistry. Biochemistry explores the chemical processes within living organisms; and so contains some extremely complex interactions between a cell’s molecules. Other subjects students find challenging include anatomy (particularly neuroanatomy) and renal physiology.

I’ve got to admit I did not look forward to my biochemistry classes at medical school!

Ironically, I never actually did too badly at it in exams- as I was quite good at chemistry at school. But I never really felt like I got my head round all the different chemical reactions and equations involved in the subject.

I also remember both me and a lot of my classmates struggling to get our heads round the intricacies of renal physiology- a.k.a. how the kidneys work.

Despite having come across the Loop of Henle and the like in biology class at school, when you have to combine the theory with pathology (i.e. things going wrong) it really does get quite confusing!

Interestingly, in my research into what subjects other people found difficult at medical school, I found this research paper.

They surveyed 185 medical students at Southampton University to find out which parts of the anatomy curriculum they found most difficult.

A neuroanatomy textbook showing the blood supply to the brain

As might be expected, neuroanatomy was perceived by the students to be one of the most confusing topics, along with head & neck anatomy.

As someone who can only just about tell you the ‘head bone’ is connected to the ‘neck bone,’ I’d have to agree with the Southampton respondents!

What Is The Dropout Rate Of Medical School?

Sadly, not everyone who begins medical school will go on to graduate as a doctor.

There’s a multitude of reasons why people might not finish the course- from personal circumstances to mental health, to deciding medicine isn’t for them.

So, having done some digging, I was curious to find out what the dropout rate from medical school in the UK is.

The dropout rate from UK medical schools is approximately 10%. Roughly 60% of students who drop out do so in the first year of medical school- likely representing the shock of university life and those who decide on an alternative career path. Following this, the rate remains relatively steady.

This 10% figure isn’t gospel however- it’s the best estimate I could come up with from the research available.

This paper looked at the percentage of students dropping out from University College Cork from 2001-20011.

It came out with an average figure of 5.7%. Which rose to 6.8% if only the 2002-07 cohort were included.

On the other hand, this 2018 paper analysed nine other research papers on the topic- and came out with a figure of 14% for the UK.

I think these differences just reinforce the idea that there’s not one universal rate at which students will leave medical school.

There’s a thousand different factors that can influence who leaves the course- from the exams, to the faculty, to world events… But 10% seems to be a good middle-ground rule of thumb.

Final Thoughts

Hopefully, this guide may have helped calm your fears over how difficult medical school is.

There certainly is a tremendous amount of hard work that goes into becoming a doctor… but it is also a lot of fun too!

What one person finds incredibly challenging may actually be a breeze for you. Everyone is different so I wouldn’t put too much weight on what other people complain about.

I’m confident that you’d have what it takes to get through medical school if you put your mind to it.

About the author
After studying medicine at the University of Leicester, Dr Ollie now works as a junior doctor in London. His interests include medical education and expedition medicine, as well as having a strong belief in the importance of widening access to medicine.