Life As A Medical Student: 9 Things You Need To Know

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.

If you plan on soon becoming a medical student then there are some things that you really need to know.

Before I went to medical school I definitely had more questions than answers as to what it was going to be like. I had a cousin who was studying medicine at the time but there’s only so much you can learn from brief catch-ups at family gatherings a couple of times a year.

In this article, I’ve tried to compile some of the most common, and most useful, questions prospective medical students might have.

I’ve used my experiences at Leicester Medical School, as well as speaking to my friends who’ve studied all over the place, to put together this resource that should leave you a lot more prepared than I was for what medical school has in store for you.

Do Medical Students Get Summers Off?

If you’re anything like me then holidays are pretty high up on your list of priorities! You may have heard horror stories about how hectic medical school is and how cruelly short the holidays medical students get are.

So, starting out with the important questions, do medical students get summers off?

Medical students do get summers off whilst studying at university. The exact term dates vary from medical school to medical school but summer holidays for medical students will generally be between June and the end of September. As the course progresses, these summer breaks are often cut shorter.

Although there is variation between universities, in your first year as a medical student you’ll probably have pretty much the same holidays as your non-medic colleagues.

Phew, you can breathe a sigh of relief!

For most students, this will mean they’re released in mid-June until the term starts back up at the end of September. That’s pretty much a whole fourteen weeks of summer holiday!

Year of Medical SchoolSummer Holiday Dates
First year10 June – 19 September
Second year29 July – 15 August
Third year5 August – 22 August
Fourth year16 September – 26 September
Term dates for the 2022 MBChB course at the University of Sheffield

However, as you progress through your five or six years at medical school these summer breaks are sadly whittled away.

As you can see from the University of Sheffield’s term dates, in fourth year you get less than two weeks to blow off some steam!

I always reasoned that my non-medic friends who graduated after three years at university had started actual jobs and didn’t get ten weeks of leave every summer- so I shouldn’t expect to either.

Do Medical Students Have To Write A Dissertation?

A dissertation is essentially just an extra long essay, often including an element of original research, that a lot of university students have to write towards the end of their course.

I’m personally terrible at writing essays so was very eager to find out if I was going to be expected to write a dissertation as a medical student.

Most medical students in the UK will not have to write a dissertation. There are some medical schools however that do require their students to write extended essays such as Oxford or Cambridge. Otherwise, medical students will rarely be required to write more than 2,000 words on a topic.

Learning that I wasn’t going to have to write a dissertation was a massive relief to me!

I’m definitely more of a ‘short answer question’ person compared to long and complicated essays.

Two medical students working together on an essay in the library

At Leicester, we did have to write one extended piece- 20,000 words surrounding a patient with a long-term disease that we’d met multiple times over the course of a few months.

We were each assigned a patient with a chronic disease then we sort of interviewed them over time about their experiences living with a long-term condition.

I’ll admit I didn’t find this essay too hard to write as I’d got a lot of substance to talk about- having met my patient multiple times and interviewed him extensively.

I know Oxford and Cambridge do use essays more extensively in their day-to-day teaching at medical school, using them to motivate students to learn about different topics, but in general most medical schools will only very rarely require students to write long essays.

Can Medical Students Assist In Surgery?

If you’re already a budding surgeon then you probably know the best way to learn is by getting stuck in. But as a medical student, will you actually be allowed to assist in surgery?

Medical students are allowed to assist in surgery and can help perform any number of procedures. A medical student will always work under the supervision of a qualified surgeon but under this supervision may be allowed to undertake simple steps in the operation unassisted.

As a medical student, you may have guessed there’s absolutely no chance you’d be trusted to go off and do an operation by yourself. But, you may be surprised with just how much you will be allowed to do.

A lot of major operations are more than just a one-person job. If it’s a keyhole procedure then someone needs to hold the camera inside the body for the surgeon, someone’s often needed to hold organs or tissues out of the way so the surgeon can have a clear view of the operating field and orthopaedic procedures nearly always need an arm or a leg held in a certain position while the surgeon works on the bone.

Aside from these more assistive roles, if you’ve found your way into the surgeon’s good graces by providing a helpful pair of hands throughout the day then they may take some time to teach you some basic surgical skills.

This might be allowing you to make guided incisions with a scalpel, it might be allowing you to suture the wound back up after the operation is finished or it might even be carefully supervised drilling of bone in an orthopaedic procedure.

I still remember the somewhat surreal feeling of making an initial incision with a scalpel into a real-life patient as a medical student.

If you’re keen and show willing, a lot of surgeons will be more than happy to show you the ropes as a medical student in exchange for assistance in the operating theatre.

How Long Is A Day In Medical School?

Medical school has a bit of a reputation for busy terms, difficult exams and long days. But just how long is a day in medical school?

A typical day in medical school would normally be from 9am till 4 or 5pm. How long a medical student’s day is depends on whether they’re a pre-clinical or clinical student, whether they have any upcoming exams and generally if the university has timetabled anything for the afternoon.

I think how long and arduous days in medical school are can get a bit overhyped.

For example, at Leicester Medical School we only ever had lectures from 9am-1pm in first year then 1pm-5pm in second year!

Now this isn’t typical, as most medical schools do operate with a more standard 9-5 schedule for all years, but it does go to show that it’s not always a 9am-9pm slog that you might have heard about.

I’ve actually broken down exactly what a typical day for a medical student might look like here.

A group of medical students in a university seminar

You could however argue that the day for a medical student doesn’t end when their last lecture finishes.

I will admit that in the later years, when you’ve got an exam coming up, you might be shadowing on the wards from 8am-5pm and then have to follow this up with a late night library session.

Those days are long, and a lot of hard work, but it’s more of a short-term solution to cramming in as much medical knowledge as you can for the upcoming exam.

They’re not the norm, and as soon as you walk out of that exam hall you’re able to go back to enjoying your evenings.

Can Medical Students Get NHS Discount?

One of the big perks of being a doctor in the UK is being able to get an NHS discount. Although you’ll be able to access it once you’ve graduated, are you able to start benefiting from it earlier and get an NHS discount as a medical student?

Medical students are entitled to NHS discounts. They simply need to be able to show their NHS ID card that is given to them when they enter clinical training. Medical students are also eligible to sign up for a Blue Light Card which can provide discounts at over 15,000 retailers.

In my experience, as long as you’re able to show an ID card that has the NHS logo on it you’ll be golden.

I definitely remember taking full advantage of my 20% off at Nando’s as a medical student!

The only problem you might run into is that different medical schools give their students NHS ID cards at different points in the course.

Some medical schools, that pretty much have students on the wards from day one, will have to sort out these cards pretty early on. However, if your medical school has more of a defined pre-clinical/clinical split then you may not get an NHS ID card until you start the clinical portion of the course.

Without having an ID card with the NHS logo on it, your claim to an NHS discount may not be accepted as easily by staff at some shops.

This is the problem some students run into when applying for a Blue Light Card. A Blue Light Card is a discount card available to NHS staff that opens up discounts to even more stores than your normal ID card would.

It costs £4.99 to get one but most people find they easily make that money back with the discounts on offer.

The issue is that to apply for one you have to send in a photo of your ID card clearly showing you’re affiliated with the NHS. Which isn’t so easy if you’ve just got a normal student ID as a medical student.

If you find yourself in this situation however I would get in touch with their support team as they have stated in the past that all medical students are eligible to apply.

Do UK Medical Students Get Drug Tested?

American medical students are often drug tested when they enter medical school, when they transition from the pre-clinical to the clinical portion of their course and when they start work as junior doctors. Are British medical students also subject to the same rigorous drug testing?

Medical students in the UK are not routinely tested for drugs. However, if a medical school has reason to believe one of their students may be abusing recreational drugs they may ask the student to undergo a test. Drug abuse has serious implications for a medical student’s fitness to practice.

I don’t believe any UK medical school currently routinely tests their students for drugs.

If a medical student were to be caught with illegal substances or found to be under the influence of recreational drugs this would have very grave implications for their studies.

As doctors, we have privileged access to any number of controlled substances so must conduct ourselves with the highest level of integrity.

As a medical student, you’re essentially held to these same standards as you will be tomorrow’s doctors.

I have heard about a case of a medical student who admitted to abusing marijuana, so as part of an agreement between her and her medical school she was subjected to consecutive drug tests to prove she was maintaining abstinence.

Every case like this will however be individually evaluated, with the unique circumstances, individuals and institution all playing a role in what outcome is reached.

Can Medical Students Prescribe?

Doctors can prescribe medications to patients to treat whatever problem they might have presented with. As medical students are training to be doctors, are they allowed to prescribe in order to practice this important skill?

Medical students can not prescribe medications. Only qualified health professionals who have successfully passed the Prescribing Safety Assessment (PSA) are allowed to prescribe. Generally, this will be immediately after a medical student qualifies as a junior doctor.

Medical students are not able to sign prescriptions and there would be very serious implications if they were found to be doing so.

Legally, prescriptions have to be signed by someone assessed to be qualified to do so. This generally means a doctor who’s passed the Prescribing Safety Assessment.

A junior doctor writing a prescription for a patient

The Prescribing Safety Assessment is a national exam that every final year medical student sits so that they’ll be allowed to prescribe medications once they graduate.

The exam focusses on pharmacology and the legal requirements for different prescriptions.

If a medical student were to fail the Prescribing Safety Assessment, they can actually still graduate as a junior doctor but just won’t initially be allowed to sign any prescriptions. They’ll have to resit the exam, hopefully after a bit of a brush-up on their pharmacology, and only once they’ve passed will they be able to prescribe medications.

A medical student signing prescriptions would essentially be breaking the law, so if found to be knowingly doing so, they’d very likely be kicked out of medical school.

Why Do Medical Students Do Research?

You may have heard about all the exciting research opportunities that are open to medical students while studying at university. But why exactly do medical students choose to do this research?

By getting involved with research, medical students are able to increase their understanding of the scientific method and how medical research is evaluated, it allows students to develop in-depth knowledge regarding a certain area and published papers can be incredibly beneficial to a student’s CV.

Medical research is essentially the backbone of academic medicine. It will be the main focus for a lot of your lecturers at medical school and can be incredibly rewarding to be a part of.

If you think you already know what area of medicine you want to specialise in, there’s no better way to deepen your understanding of the field than by participating in research in it.

The doctors or professors who are conducting the research are often more than happy to enrol a keen medical student who’s more than happy to help with some of the legwork.

As a medical student, you probably won’t find yourself doing anything incredibly glamorous- it’s more likely you’ll be evaluating data in an Excel spreadsheet, but just by being a part of the team you’ll learn a huge amount about the process.

Another added bonus of being a part of a research team in the field you want to specialise in is that having published papers in the specialty you apply for can be a fantastic addition to your CV!

Can Medical Students Give Medical Advice?

As soon as your friends and relatives find out you’re studying medicine you’ll very likely have a queue start to form asking for your expert medical opinion! But considering you’re not actually qualified, as only a medical student, are you allowed to give medical advice?

Medical students are able to give medical advice as long as it’s within their scope of practice. Often the only difference between a fifth-year medical student and a newly qualified doctor is a graduation ceremony- so students should be able to give sensible advice within their limits of confidence.

The key is that medical students should only be giving medical advice within their boundaries of both confidence and competence.

These boundaries will be very different for a first-year medical student (who’s essentially just sat through a few biology lectures), compared to a final-year medical student who will start work as a doctor in a couple of weeks.

A lot of the advice I find myself giving, as a qualified doctor, is just that the person asking me should go and see their GP.

You may be surprised about how little a doctor can be sure of without a patient’s medical record, a careful examination and access to some simple investigations such as blood tests.

If you’re about to become, or already are, a medical student you are allowed to give friends and family medical advice. However, a tip I’d have for you is to limit their consultations to one question per year unless you want to be looking at your aunt’s fungal nail or cousin’s wart at every family gathering!

Final Thoughts

I hope I’ve been able to answer some of the common questions you might have had if you’re soon to become a medical student.

If you are about to start your medical school journey then I’ve got to admit I’m incredibly jealous of you: it’s one of the most enlightening, engaging and fun experiences you’ll have ever had.

The friends you make at medical school will stick with you for years and I’m positive any doctor you ask would jump at the opportunity to do it all over again.

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.