Medical School Update #2: First Semester in the Books!

Hey everyone, I hope you are well and enjoying winter break! I truly cannot believe that the first semester is already over. It feels like yesterday when I took my white coat pictures and started school during the hot summer days and now here I am during break in the cold winter. It is truly surreal, and I keep pinching myself to make sure it’s happening. 

One of the questions I get asked the most when I reconnect with people is “how is medical school going (doing, feeling etc)?”. And for the most part, I give them the short answer of it’s going or it’s well. But to be completely honest, there were some parts of it that were not well. In fact, this semester was really rough and the pimples on my face are a testament to that. In this blog, I am going to be talking about my full experience during my first semester very candidly. So, grab your favorite drink (tea or hot cocoa are mine) and let’s go through it. 

First Semester in a Nutshell, Courtesy of Reddit

So, let me start where I last left off, taking my first medical school exam. Boy, the Oumou from four months ago did not know what was going to hit her. Alhamdudillah, my first and second exams were not that bad. In fact, I was doing pretty well in medical school. I was connecting with my classmates (virtually and sometimes socially distanced), I understood the lecture material since it was mostly biochemistry-related, and I was hanging out with some old friends from time to time. For our medical school curriculum, we take a break from biochemistry-related topics and focus on anatomy for a month. I was scared about anatomy, partially because I did not take it before and also because I knew it required so much memorization in a short amount of time. Also, I never really dealt with cadavers and I was scared to start dissections. But I thought, hey, if everyone else can do it, why not me? However, when I was meeting with a fourth year who was helping me with Anki, he told me, “Look anatomy was a tough course and God is going to have to help you get through it.” I thought he was playing. Of course, God was helping me with all my courses, but he made it seem like anatomy was going to be the worst thing ever. I just assumed it would be difficult but bearable. But no, I was wrong. 

For anatomy, students were required to come to campus every day and participate in dissections. This sucked for me because I lived an hour away from campus and they told students last minute about this. So, my total daily commute was 2 hours. During the first day, we learned about all the back muscles, so students had to watch pre-recorded videos of the dissection and come prepared to dissect for an hour. In the beginning, watching those videos were painful. I remember thinking, how in the world am I going to do that to a person who was once alive?  

I remember coming into the cadaver room and my heart filling with dread as I saw all of them laid out in front of me. I went to my assigned one with my partners and started guiding them on the dissection from the instructions on my iPad. “Oumou do you want to try?”, one of them asked. Nope. I was not touching anything. That hour felt like the longest hour of my life and I kept looking at the clock waiting for it to be over. When it finally did end, I remember washing my hands for a while and then trying to rush home. However, I encountered traffic along the way, so my daily 2-hour commute turned into three hours. I cannot possibly do this every day, I thought to myself.  

Not only did we have to know every muscle and nerve associated with it during lab, but we had other things to learn in the class portion of anatomy. If you read my last update, my class is designed as a peer instruction (PI) course where students are assigned as groups for the week and they ask questions related to the reading and videos that are required to go through the day before. I always felt like the dumb teammate in class because I never really understood what was going on. Some of my classmates had masters in anatomy, so they were doing well in class and understood everything. But I did not. And my performance in class was affecting me mentally. I remember emailing my teacher, telling him that I did not know what to do. He recommended that I meet with my advisors so that they could give me insight on how to do well. But my advisors could only do so much. I was falling behind and with each day in anatomy, it was getting worse and worse.  

Before I continue, I need to explain the structure of the class. We had three exams altogether and PI. The exams were given back-to-back and the first two exams accounted for 70% of our grade. The PIs accounted for 30% of our grade. We needed to have an overall 70% in the course (meaning getting a C- altogether for the exams and class questions), to sit for the last and final exam. That final exam would determine whether we would pass the class. 

When the day of our first exam arrived. I was scrambling, trying to study by going over notes, going over PI questions and trying to do a little Anki. Studying for this was harder than studying for the other exams in Origins. I legitimately did not know what to do and I felt the fear of failure creeping in. My dad said that he would drop me off at school, just so I could use that extra hour to study in the car before the exam. The exam composed of a 35 multiple-choice questions for the class part and 35 questions that you type out that are related to pictures for the lab part. When I started the lab portion, I could not even answer half of the questions. My anxiety started kicking it and I just knew this exam was going to be an L. When the multiple-choice portion started, I started guessing on some of the questions. I did not know certain nerves, certain muscles, their actions, what spinal levels they were related to, etc. My mind could not handle it. 

After the individual portion was over, there is a group portion in which teams go over the answers just to the multiple-choice portion to see what the right answer was. I felt like the most unintelligent person in the group. For example, everyone would be like, I chose A for this answer, and I would be the only one saying well…I chose B. At one point, I just stopped giving my insight because I knew I would be wrong. My group mates came to me afterwards and said if you needed any help just to contact them. They were nice about it but I was so ashamed to feel this lost. Like why now? I worked so hard to get into medical school and I thought it would be smooth sailing afterwards. But God was showing me that that would not always be the case. 

My dad was so nice after the exam and got me a snack from Starbucks. “How was it?, he asked. “Hard.”, I told him. I just remember wanting to cry in the car but if you have foreign parents you know they don’t believe in crying. So, I stared out of my window until the car ride home back. 

I got Fs on both portions of the exam meaning that my final grade would make me ineligible to sit for the exam. I was so bummed and what made it worse was that the next day, one of our teachers accidentally left her microphone on while the main professor called us all morons. I was completely shocked and spent the rest of the day crying. I had already felt unintelligent as it was and to have a professor call you that was very messed up. I even addressed him during class, telling him how difficult the course was and how COVID was making things 10x worse. Fortunately, our school acted swiftly by demoting him and making sure he would not encounter us any longer. But the damage was done. I felt like a moron. I was not understanding this class and I thought I was going to fail and retake it. 

But I still had a small chance. If I did well on the second exam and in class, I could bump up my grade and hopefully sit for the final. So, I became a machine. After dissections instead of going home, I would stay in the library, going over questions with my classmates. I would then come home and prepare for the following class without fully resting, watching almost three hours of videos. I was not getting sleep at all; at most 6 hours a day and I was exhausted. But I was determined because I wanted this nightmare to be over. My classmates were helpful, and my lab partner was great, teaching me about all the muscles and nerves after we were done with our portion of dissection. I even started liking dissections and was actually becoming a pro at doing it. I was slowly getting the hang of things, or so I thought. 

When I sat down for the second exam, I knew I was going to fail. I still did not know certain bones or muscles that were presented in the pictures. And I was guessing on the multiple-choice portion again. I did slightly better on the multiple-choice exam, but I failed the written portion. Our final exam was the following week, and I did not know whether I would be sitting for it. When I got my grade back, my overall grade turned out to be a 63%. I remember sitting back, stunned, and crying. Why was I not smart enough to pass? What was wrong with me? 

One of my classmates had a birthday dinner that I decided to go to that day. When we were talking about scores,  I was embarrassed to tell them that I would probably be ineligible to sit for the final. All of them gave me pity stares (I hate those) and told me that it would be ok. But would it be ok? It didn’t feel like it would be. After the dinner, I went to bed right away, hoping that the pain I felt would leave me. My parents were worried about me and told me to have faith. I was trying to, but I was struggling. 

I emailed my professor (the other one) and told her how I was scared about failing and retaking the class. She told me to keep trying my best because the medical school might allow me to sit for the exam due to difficulties that came with COVID. I also messaged a second year who did well in anatomy, and she gave me motivation to continue. I soon began to realize that there was not anything wrong with me, but with the way I was studying. I was so focused on doing what other people were doing that I forgot that I am my own person. I learn best when I do questions, not passively reviewing and doing Anki. So, I started doing questions before class and before you know it, my grade went up. I started understanding class more because I realized that when I got questions wrong, the explanation for why it was wrong stuck in my head and helped me learn more. However, I feel like my realization came too late for the final. 

So yes, everyone could sit for the final! I was so elated but anxious because if I did not pass, I would have to retake it after fall break. And if I failed that retake, I would have to take anatomy over the summer, the ONLY summer we have as medical students. Our last class and dissection were on Tuesday and our final exam was on Thursday, so I had two full days to study. I said goodbye to all my classmates and my teachers, hoping that it would be a true goodbye and that this nightmare would finally be over. When I was studying for the exam, I realized I had so many concepts and topics that I did not fully understand, but I was hoping that I would still be able to pass the final exam. 

Finally, the day of the final came. I remember being so nervous and dealing with so much anxiety. I needed to pass this; I mean I wanted to enjoy my break and move on with my life. I would never bad mouth biochemistry anymore if I pass this, I told myself. As I was taking the exam, I just knew I failed once again. As I was submitting it, I raised my hands up “Please God, I hate this class, please just let me pass.” 

This next day, I had clinical medicine and professional pictures that the medical school did for students every year. I was determined to move on with my life as if I passed the final exam. However, I received an email stating that our grades would be going up ASAP so that students who needed to retake would have more time to study. “Oh no”, I thought. “That’s me”. I rushed home and checked my grade. Guess what I got? You guessed it, I got an F. No, no, no no, no, no.  

I told my parents about my retake and they started giving each other looks. They never saw me like this before. Usually, things turned around for me. But now, here I was, one of the 10 people in my class of 120 people who had to retake the final. And I had 10 days to turn this around.  

For the next couple days, I worked my behind off. It was fall break, so I was able to spend hours upon hours doing questions, reviewing, looking up nerves, muscles, going over study guides and doing more questions. I went to the anatomy lab with some other retakers and spent time going over muscle and nerves with them. I asked many questions and made sure I knew what I was doing before moving onto a certain topic. I just had to pass. I was not going to retake this course, like I could not. But I was still scared. I remember emailing my teacher telling her that I thought I was going to fail. “Oumou, you have to believe in yourself”. She replied. She sent me extra questions to complete and was there when I needed guidance. Her T.A. was also very helpful and encouraging whenever I interacted with her. I felt myself improving.  

Finally, it was the day of the retake exam. I was so nervous yet confident that I have done everything in my capacity to succeed. I gathered with the other retakers in the lounge and we talked about how anxious we were. We were put into a large room and proceeded to start on the exam. This time I knew I did well. For the written portion, I answered almost 90% of it within the first 30 minutes. For the multiple-choice portion, I was more uncertain, but I felt confident in a lot of my answers. But what is the multiple-choice one turns out poorly? I asked myself. After the exam, I got myself ice cream and hoped that I passed. 

The next day, I could not do anything the whole time because I was waiting for the results to come. What if I thought too highly of myself? What if I have to retake? So many questions went through my mind. I face-timed my best friend so that I had someone by my side to watch me see my score. Finally, it was 5PM. I clicked for my grades to see my score. My score was…I got…I GOT AN A!!!!!!! 

I screamed and jumped up and down almost breaking the flooring with tears streaming down my face for about 20 minutes. Ohmygosh I passed! I passed! Alhamdudillah! Thank you, God, thank you!  

I spent the rest of the day telling my parents, my mentors, and my classmates that I passed. I just could not believe it. The nightmare was over. I even emailed my teacher and the TA. “See girl I knew you could do it!!!!”, my teacher responded. I went and got myself Wendy’s to celebrate the day (I barely get junk food so it’s a celebration when I order it).   

That ordeal, although the hardest ordeal I had to go through during my medical school journey thus far, has been such a teaching moment. I realized that I could not rely solely on past knowledge to get me through medical school and that I had to find a way to retain the information I was learning every day. I also learned that I should always ask for help and I should not feel ashamed for not knowing as much as my classmates. And I also learned that medical school is a marathon, not a race, and that there would always be some sort of challenge coming my way as I continue. 

After anatomy, I went back to learning biochemistry then genetics, histology, physiology, neuroscience and then pharmacology. The subjects were hard, but not as hard as anatomy. I was back to understanding what I was learning. I was also equipped with the newfound knowledge I have gained from anatomy. 

For that block, we had our final exam this past Friday. This would be everything we learned from July until December (not including anatomy). The fear that I felt during anatomy started to creep back. What if I failed the final exam? What if I failed the retake? And worse, what if I had to repeat the year? Failing the retake would be worse for this block than for anatomy because that meant I would have to start the whole year again with the incoming class. So, during thanksgiving break, I started studying and in total I studied for 23 days. In the picture below, you can see all the questions that I have done. I did at least 500 questions to prepare and I reviewed using BRS, First Aid and Boards and Beyond. I even made 300 flashcards on quizlet to make sure I retained the knowledge. I really wanted to enjoy winter break and not make the same mistake of retaking the exam.

Finally, the day of the NBME came. It was a total of 150 questions and 4 hours long. I took it in my dad’s classroom because I definitely was not going to take it at home with all my siblings making random noises. Halfway during the exam, I had a slight panic attack. What if I fail? I asked myself. “No, Oumou, you are going to pass!” I kept repeating that in my head until I finally completed the exam. Now the wait began. 

Around 6 pm that night, the school emailed us saying that all those who had to retake had been contacted and that if you have not, then you passed the exam. I checked my phone. I was not contacted…this means I passed right? I passed? I PASSED! I GET TO ENJOY WINTER BREAK! I ran to the kitchen and told my whole family the good news and just cried tears of joy. I cannot believe I finished my first semester. I truly cannot believe it. 

This semester was very rough to say the least. I did not think I would be able to get through it, but by the grace of God I did. I wanted to write about my experience because I hear so much about people struggling to get into medical school, but not so much the struggles of staying in medical school. Medical school is hard, and I am not even going to mince it. It really is. It’s not the material that is difficult but the pace and volume of the stuff you must memorize and connect with other concepts. It’s truly insane how much my brain had to expand (that’s probably why my forehead looks bigger than usual lool). But I am truly grateful for the experience and the obstacles I had to overcome. 

And that is it! If you read this long post, then thank you and I hope you benefited from it. This was my experience during my first semester and maybe you will have a different one and that’s ok. But just know that if I could get through it, then you most definitely can as well. Just believe in yourself, find out what works best for you, ask for help, trust God and put your all into it. You can do it future physician! 

8 thoughts on “Medical School Update #2: First Semester in the Books!

Add yours

  1. First off, congratulations on completing 1st semester girl! I appreciate you being vulnerable about your experiences, struggles and achievements concerning your first semester at Medical School. It is refreshingly honest and realistic about what to expect as a first year medical student. I felt your energy when you talked about receiving an ‘A’ on the anatomy exam; had me jumping up and down too! I am excited to watch and read about your journey. Keep it up, what you’re doing is awe-inspiring:)

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I love you so much Queen. You’re working hard and your efforts are definitely seen! Too proud to be your friend and too excited to meet Dr. Oumou Fofana !!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. You are such an inspiration to myself and others. Such a hardworking individual that never give up no matter how hard things get. This was such an amazing read mashallah! Look forward to more posts haha!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Great job on first semester! Its a beast isn’t it?

    I am a nurse who went back to school to pursue MD and the first semester was definitely a bit of a shocker. I can relate a lot to what you write about. Luckily, I did not have a 2 hour commute for anatomy – zoom university actually cut down the commute quite a bit.

    I reflected on my first semester too:

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Wow thank you so much! And going back to school after nursing school, that’s amazing! I will definitely check out your blog, it’s nice to see how other med students’ experiences were 🙂


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