What is the first year of pharmacy school like? In this article a second-year pharmacy student reflects on her experiences as a first year pharmacy student, discussing the reality of what she encountered versus her expectations, and providing insights future first year pharmacy students may find valuable.
Authored By: Erin Mays, PharmD Candidate
[Last Updated: 19 October 2017]
I came into my first year of pharmacy school with honestly no clue as to how the year would go. I had several pressing worries, such as: (1) “Could I handle the curriculum of pharmacy school?”, (2) “Would I be able to join extracurricular organizations and still manage my time effectively?”, and definitely since I was coming from out of state, (3) “Would I make friends?”
As a current second year pharmacy student, I can now reflect back on everything I experienced during my first year. And yes, for all of the pre-pharmacy students out there, I did survive!
Here are a few expectations that I had when starting pharmacy school, and the realities of what I actually observed in my first year.
Expectation #1: I thought the environment of pharmacy school would be super cutthroat and competitive
I knew when coming to pharmacy school I was entering into a class of some incredibly smart people. While I was pretty pleased with my PCAT score, knowing that 139 other students had done just as well or pretty close to it was incredibly intimidating at first. When meeting other students at orientation, undergraduate majors were shared in icebreaker activities as well as pharmacy work experiences. When listening to the backgrounds of my fellow first year students, I naturally had thoughts running through my head such as, “maybe I should have majored in microbiology” and “why did I not do that summer research?” Not knowing how I would stack up against my peers definitely caused me a bit of anxiety when starting classes. After all, I wanted to do well, so the last thing I wanted was to be at a disadvantage from the start by trailing behind my classmates.
To my pleasant surprise as my classmates and I all got to know each other a little better, it was amazing how quickly any initial fronts that were put on or opinions we had of each other quickly disappeared. Some people had majored in biology rather than chemistry, and some had attended large public universities for their undergraduate degree while others (like me) attended small liberal arts colleges. Some students had their Bachelor’s degrees and some did not, and a few even had their Master’s degrees. However, these differences quickly became trivial as we were thrust into the fast-paced environment of pharmacy school.
Instead of an aggressive classroom environment of people constantly trying to impress the professors and each other as I had feared, the general theme that emerged among my classmates during our first few months of classes was a powerful feeling of “we’re all in this together.”
I truly do not believe I would have made it through my first year of school without the help of my classmates. We operate a class GroupMe and Facebook page, where due dates and reminders are constantly shared as well as Quizlets and study guides. We wore group Halloween costumes, and even had a class-wide Secret Santa to give everyone a pick-me-up during Finals!
Don’t get me wrong, my classmates and I all still love a good healthy competitive round of Kahoot (best classroom game ever!) and get personal satisfaction out of receiving a test score above the class average. However, that competitiveness definitely does not transfer over to our day-to-day interactions with each other. If anything, this shared sentiment is even stronger now that I am in my second year.
Expectation #2: I could study for tests in pharmacy school the same way I studied for my tests at my undergraduate university
Wrong… So wrong! I learned it the hard way on my first test too. Coming into pharmacy school, I thought I had my study methods down pat. I had successfully mastered the best way to study for my tests as an undergraduate. It worked well for me then, so why wouldn’t it work well for me in pharmacy school?
For one, the amount of information you are expected to know for tests in pharmacy school sometimes feels insurmountable. Everything that comes out of the professors’ mouths is important! Plus, there is no way you will be able to understand what the professors are even saying if you don’t do the pre-class work to begin with. As an undergraduate, I made handwritten study guides for every test, and wrote out everything I needed to know in perfect, neat handwriting. While this method may work for some pharmacy students, I quickly found that this method took way too much time, as the information load was just too much. I transitioned to typing my study guides after the first month of pharmacy school, and that completely changed my life. I could easily include figures and tables from the lectures then print them out so I had something tangible to write notes on when studying my study guides.
Second, for most of my science tests as an undergraduate, memorization of all class concepts was the best way to get an A grade on a test. In pharmacy school, application-based questions and patient cases make up the bulk of my test questions, at least in my core pharmacy classes. This was a difficult transition at first, as memorization was what I was previously most comfortable with, but it was not enough for my tests in pharmacy school. Being able to fully understand information and apply it to real life scenarios is imperative, which leads to me in to my third point.
Third and finally, I would say the biggest difference in how I study in pharmacy school compared to undergrad is partaking in group studying. Some students may cringe at that phrase, but, it seriously is the best way I have found to truly feel like I have a good grasp on the material before a test. Group studying allows you to walk through concepts with other classmates, and hear how they remember a certain idea, or what they think is important to know. It also gives you a chance to pick up on things you may have missed in class, but your classmates caught. And, probably my favorite part of group studying, is the opportunity to teach others what you feel like you understand well. I think there is a quote that exists out there about how “the best way to learn is to teach”! Of course, you can’t group study with everyone in your class, as some personalities just don’t mix, and a study session of 15 people sometimes can turn into chaos. Luckily for me, I was able to find a solid, core group of people that I study well with during my first year, and we make sure to have a group study session before every test.
Everyone has their own preferred individual study method, so what has worked for me in pharmacy school may not work for others. For first year pharmacy students, it is important to figure out what works best for them, as early as possible!
Expectation #3: I would never be able to decide which extracurricular organizations to join
A frequent piece of advice that I received at the beginning of my first year of pharmacy school when it came to extracurricular organizations was not to spread myself too thin, and to join just a few organizations that I thought I had the most interest in. This way, I would be able to devote sufficient time to them. However, when I attended the first organizational fair and learned about all the possible organizations, I remember feeling incredibly overwhelmed, and not just from trying to remember what all the acronyms stood for. How could I already know which ones were the best fit for me, and would align the most with what I wanted to do with my career?
Luckily, most all of the organizations had introductory meetings where they gave presentations on what they were about and their yearly membership requirements. I made sure to attend all of the ones I had any interest in, and to take detailed notes. If you decide after that first meeting maybe you are not as passionate about it as you thought, you do not have to go to any more meetings (I did that for a few!). Also, as I began to meet upperclassmen at these meetings and other events, I always asked them what organizations they were a part of, to get a sense of what was possible for a typical pharmacy student to handle along with their course load. For the upperclassmen that I admired or who impressed me right off the bat, I especially looked into what organizations they were members of.
Luckily, I was able to narrow it down to the recommended 3-5 organizations I wanted to join during my first year, and I am very happy with what I decided! My best advice would be to listen to your gut; even if you think an organization may look great on your CV- do not join unless you know would enjoy it. It is definitely possible to feel out which organizations will be best for you, even if initially you do not have a good sense of what you want to do after pharmacy school.
Expectation #4: While I knew having access to technology was important, I grossly underestimated the significance of being proficient at using technology in pharmacy school
This point may seem like a given. A personal laptop is often listed as a requirement upon admission to pharmacy school. However, I feel like I underwent a complete technology transformation in order to keep up with the demands of pharmacy school.
Being able to take efficient notes in classes is essential. Professors usually put up their Powerpoint slide decks for students to download before class, so it is easy to follow along by taking notes on the actual slides. I prefer to use Microsoft OneNote for all of my note-taking in class. If you have never used OneNote, I highly recommend it! It is included in most Microsoft Office packages, which many universities provide to their students for free or for a discounted rate. OneNote allows you to import Powerpoint slides and then type wherever you want on them, and easily organizes your notes for all classes by date. You can even log in to OneNote online on another computer and all of your notes will be there. I took a poll of my fellow second year pharmacy classmates, and 53 out of 82 who responded said they use One Note to take all of their notes in class- 65%!
Besides just taking notes, all of my exams in pharmacy school are administered on personal computers as well. The necessity of having a fast, dependable computer cannot be overstated in these situations! There is nothing worse than still waiting for your computer to load your exam while all of your classmates around you are 5 minutes in to taking the exam (I’ve been there with my old computer!).
While many still use a handwritten agenda, I made the transition last year to an electronic calendar so it syncs across all my devices. This was a game changer for me! Being able to access my calendar from multiple devices and receive notifications on due dates and meetings is huge. Also, when setting up meetings with professors or preceptors I have noticed that many use the Outlook calendar app to send a meeting request. You are able to “accept” the meeting, sending notification to them, and then the meetings immediately sync to your calendar.
As shown by these few examples above, the importance of being proficient with technology in pharmacy school cannot be overstated.
Expectation #5: I would never feel ready to go out on my first IPPE rotation after only one year of pharmacy school
While I had worked in a community pharmacy as a technician before pharmacy school, the initial thought of being sent out on introductory pharmacy practice experience (IPPE) rotations, or “early immersion” as my school likes to call them, was a bit terrifying. I assumed that during my first year of school, the focus of my curriculum would be on entry-level information (i.e., some basic pharmacology at most). In reality, I never knew I could learn so much in a year!
Besides my core pharmacology classes, I had a class on pharmacokinetics, learning how a drug works in the body and how to make dose adjustments based on patient-specific factors, as well as a class on pharmaceutics, learning the ins and outs of the drug development process. Throughout all of these classes, a patient case was always included in every lecture so we were able to see how that information we were learning could be applied to a real life scenario. I even had an entire lab devoted to direct patient care encounters, where I learned how to take medication histories and perform medication counseling on simulated patients.
While of course I did not know the answer every time, there was no better feeling on my first IPPE rotation then when my preceptor would ask me the indication for a particular drug and I could recall it, or would ask me to speak to a patient about something and I actually felt comfortable, and almost confident, throughout the entire encounter. If I did not know something I was asked and needed to look it up, I would often look for it first in my lecture notes (another plug for Microsoft OneNote!) and study guides I made during my first year. It was extremely reassuring to know that my tuition was paying off!
As I trudge on through my second year of pharmacy school, my first year now feels like a blur (although it maybe did not at the time). While there were of course some low moments, and some incredibly stressful ones too, my first year of pharmacy school was by far one of the best years of my life. I did make friends, in fact the girl who intimidated me the most in the initial icebreaker at orientation by talking about her undergraduate research project is now one of my best friends. I learned more than I ever thought I could in a year, and best of all, it truly confirmed to me that I chose an amazing profession for my career. I could not be more excited to see what the next 3 years will bring!
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