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Thrive Not Live: How to Thrive in the UK as an International (Medical) Student

Updated: Dec 14, 2021

Around a month ago, I did a presentation about adapting to university life for a society event. While preparing my presentation, I came to realise that I’ve been able to do all the things I currently do because I have gotten comfortable with being in the UK studying Medicine. I think settling in is fundamental for someone to be able to thrive during university. It’s very tough when the most basic things in your life such as having a bank account or being able to manage your time have not been sorted out.

My own experience taught me this. I struggled immensely during my first semester in medical school, to the point that I had no headspace to consider anything except passing my exams. I’ve been very lucky to have adjusted to university life serendipitously but I hope some of my thoughts + tips can help you along your journey of settling into being an international student in the UK - enjoy!

Disclaimer: these tips are focussed on what international students can do to support their transition into studying in the UK on a personal level but I think all institutions have the responsibility of providing better support to their international students - international students are not lacking qualities that make us “fit in” less.

Quick Links:

Being a University Student

I’ve mentioned briefly in my previous post that you get a lot of freedom to do what you want with your time as a university student. This was particularly anxiety-inducing for me, since I knew the consequences of how I spent my time were entirely on me. On top of that, I also:

  1. Wasn’t sure how to prepare for my exams. (More on revision methods in the next section.)

  2. Found it very difficult to make the most of the different types of teaching I was receiving e.g. small group discussions and role play-based communication teaching.

It was challenging to join in during group discussions because I didn’t know how to do so. I felt like I might interrupt someone and I didn’t dare to say my answers with confidence for the fear of being wrong (when in reality I was actually right).

All of this started to improve when I realised that the only way I would benefit from all my teaching was to participate. I was spending over £20,000 a year to be in medical school and I should be making the most of all that money my parents are investing in me. Getting your money’s worth, am I right ;)

My tips:

  • Learn from the local students. You can pick up certain phrases to use and emulate how they speak.

  • Volunteer to be the first person to do things. It gives you a lot more capacity to make mistakes and this helps boost your confidence.

  • You need to develop a thick skin. If you make a mistake, so be it. You can laugh at yourself then move on (as long as this isn’t a mistake that ends up harming people).

Time Management

Time management was another thing I struggled with when I first moved to the UK. There were multiple things competing for my attention and it was very tempting to do everything except work. I came to develop a system of managing my time that I’ve somewhat perfected in my third year of Medicine. I use:

  1. Google Keep (note-taking app) to create daily/weekly to-do lists and write down any ideas I have.

  2. Google Calendar + Calendly for scheduling.

  3. Evernote to keep track of useful resources I come across.

My tips:

  • Flounder with purpose. You’re going to flounder when you first start anyway, why not make the most of it? Use the time during which you’re floundering to figure out what a typical day/week would look like for you, and use that time to try different ways of managing your time and revising. Then once you find something that works for you, STICK TO IT.

  • Use a calendar app to keep track of your schedule. Export your university timetable and add every scheduled event/meeting there.

  • Figure out which sources of information you need to consider when planning your time. This can include your calendar app, upcoming deadlines and learning to be done for university sessions.

  • Create a weekly and daily to-do list. In your weekly to-do list, you can put down by which day of the week a certain task should be completed. While these to-do lists should stay flexible, they provide clarity as to what needs to be done in the time you have. Rule of thumb: if you can’t assign a specific day to a task on your weekly to-do list, you’ve probably overestimated what you can complete in the span of a week.

  • Break down your to-do list into sub-tasks for different areas. For example, I write down what I need to do each week for my learning in medical school and different extracurricular commitments e.g. as Events Director for the local medical research society.

  • Factor in time for “adulting”. Starting university means that you will need to prepare your own food, clean your living space, do laundry etc which might not have been something you needed to do before starting university. These things can take a lot of time without you realising it!

Your New Way of Studying

I was picking up new knowledge in a multitude of ways in medical school. Revising was no longer just about picking up theoretical knowledge so I had to adjust my revision methods accordingly.

My tips:

  • Active recall and spaced repetition are your best friends. While most people associate active recall and spaced repetition with recalling facts, I think the principles apply to the various types of things I had to learn, including practical skills such as clinical examinations.

  • Do a brain dump! I sometimes do a “brain dump” where I write down everything I know about a topic without referring to my notes. This is a way through which I implement active recall while assessing the gaps in my knowledge. You can do something similar using mind maps as well.

  • Whichever way of note taking or revising you choose, make sure it works for you. You don’t have to buy an iPad because other medical students are doing the same. There are various factors to consider when deciding on note-taking and revision methods - as long as it works for you, go for it.

  • Go to peer-led teaching sessions! These are usually organised by the local medical education society and sessions are delivered by students in the years above. Those sessions are great for consolidation because the content covered will be very relevant to your studies.

Finding Your Feet in a New City

To settle into a new city, familiarity with your surroundings is KEY. Making your city feel more like home will go a long way in helping you settle in.

My tips:

  • Make your room feel more like home. This can be something as simple as putting up photos with your friends and family - I recommend the app “FreePrints” to get photos printed at an affordable price.

  • Explore your city! I use the “100 things to do in Manchester” poster to get ideas for what to do when exploring the city - most other universities will have something similar you can reference :)

  • It’s very important to have friends from a range of backgrounds.If you’re studying Medicine, I recommend having some non-medic friends because they help ground you. There might also be a society for students from your country of origin through which you can meet new people. At Manchester, the International Society does a lot of socials where you can meet people - that is where I met some of my non-Malaysian international friends.

  • Always invite people to meet up outside the setting in which you initially meet them! This allows you to consolidate that budding relationship and get to know them better.

Life Outside the Degree

Being in university is one of the best times to try out new things because a range of sports and societies are very beginner-friendly. On top of that, the cost and commitment to get started is relatively low and it is a great way to do something outside your degree and meet new people. For example, Manchester has the Sporticipate programme which offers sports sessions to students for free/at an affordable price. Through that programme, I tried out kickboxing and archery in my first year. I also continued my karate training in university so I would highly recommend trying out different activities to find something you would enjoy :)


And there you have it! These are my tips for thriving as an international student in the UK, hope this was helpful!

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