Being a medical student in the UK vs Sweden

Third medical school, third country. Third time’s a charm, right?

Two weeks has passed and I’m slowly transitioning from being a British medical student to a Swedish läkarkandidat. Slowly, I’m leaving the feeling of being a tourist only observing from the outside, to being a part of Linköping’s Läkarprogrammet T7. On good days when I overcome the language barrier of course. It’s okay, I didn’t expect the transition to be easy. But so far, I’m happy. And that’s what’s important.

Nevertheless as expected, I can’t help notice differences between my previous British medical education to my current Swedish one. So far, this is what I’ve noticed during my two weeks of Swedish medical school.

1. People don’t judge you if you admit you didn’t understand

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Sweden: Someone in my class raised their hand up during a lecture and said: “Sorry I didn’t quite understand that, could you explain it again?” and no judgemental murmurs were heard in the room. I was shocked. In a positive way of course.

UK: You don’t understand something? Tough luck, go over it on your own later. Or ask the lecturer on your own time, and not waste precious lecture time.

2. Student life is based on a lot of singing

Sweden: Aside from the alcohol of course, a lot of the traditions are based on singing. It is even a requirement for the main event organisers to sing. It doesn’t matter if you have a good singing voice or not, but you sing anyway. And everyone knows the lyrics. If not, there’s a songbook.

UK: Traditions differ, but it’s all based on doing silly things with alcohol, and not that much singing. Unless you call drunken screaming singing. Not as melodic.

3. Breaks are a necessity not a privilege

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Sweden: For every lecture we have that is over 2h, it is a MUST to have a break in the middle. Otherwise the lecturer gets a negative comment for forgetting on the evaluation form. Also, every time the lecturer asks whether we want him/her to continue the lecture without a break but a longer lunch break instead, that suggestion is always quickly shut down. Breaks are sacred. They’re for stretching your legs and getting coffee.

UK: “Oh look, we have a short break in between our lectures! I’ll just put my head down for a few min and then I’ll look over the next lecture.” Breaks were a privilege, and such a privilege must be used wisely. For the past few years in medical school in the UK, I haven’t had a lunch break. Lunch break for me has always meant quickly eating then studying. Or eating whilst studying. Now breaks in between lectures/classes/for lunch are for socialising. And additionally for my case, fighting my urge to take a quick nap or running off to the library.

4. Taking an interruption during one’s studies is normal

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Sweden: Apparently I wasn’t the only one who was new in our class because many returned from their leave of absence(s). Also, many in my class have told me that they too have taken a break from their studies in the past. Some are even planning on going on another semester’s leave. When you ask what they did during their leave, a common response is: “travel, work, have fun.”

UK: You can only take a break from medical school if you have a valid reason such as taking a Masters, illness or personal/family issues. Also, your application on taking a leave of absence has to be assessed and evaluated, with reasonable documented evidence. I recall seeing several doctors at the medical school about mine. The final being the medical school psychiatrist assessing whether I was “mentally stable” to make such a decision.

5. It’s okay to admit you didn’t prepare for the session

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Sweden: I had a meeting with the co-director of the medical program at Linköping, who explained to me about their medical program. When she came to the part about our group sessions (PBL sessions like in Manchester), she said: “If you didn’t prepare, just say so. You may have had an event in the weekend and didn’t have any time. It’s okay, we all have bad days!”

UK: In St Andrews, if you came unprepared to a session you get a “yellow card.” Three yellow cards means a meeting with the disciplinary head. So if you’re unprepared, fake it until you make it!

6. Exams are 6h long

Goodbye exam ✋

A post shared by Sam (@samvsworld) on

Sweden: 100-something point exams are normally 6h long and most use up the entire time.

UK: We have 2.5h for our 130 point test? Perfect, that gives us just about over a minute for each point!

7. You failed? Just take the resits like the other 30%

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Sweden: To pass, you need 65% and above on the exam, and it is normal for 30% or even more to fail. It is actually expected. And if you fail, it’s okay, just take the resits. If you fail the resits, just take them again. And again. And again. Until you pass.

UK: Passing depends on how the rest of your class does. So if you’re in a pretty studious class (my class in St Andrews broke records for having the highest averages…), you better study. Because if you fail, you only have one chance to redo the exam, otherwise you have to repeat the year!

8. Internationalising is encouraged

Sweden: Within my two weeks of medical school in Sweden, I already applied for going on a semester’s exchange (with scholarship of course) and also got my application for doing a clinical rotation in the US signed and accepted. I got my application back with a note saying: “Happy trip and placement!”

UK: Doing clinical rotations abroad or even at a different hospital in the UK was basically impossible, unless special circumstances like in my case. I was doing medical French as a part of my European Studies, so I was allowed to do a clinical placement in Geneva. Otherwise, you have your final semester of medical school after finishing your final exams to do a clinical elective abroad, not earlier!

9. Group work is actually group work

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Sweden: Group work (in this case I mean PBL sessions) means discussions and encourages inquisitive thinking, and everyone contributes with something. You think together and share ideas, and together come up with a conclusion. Also, you don’t look at your notes because if you forgot a detail, someone else probably remembers it and fills that detail in.

UK: Group work (PBL sessions) was an opportunity to show off the random rare things you learnt from books with complicated names and from newly published research. Did you actually memorise that? No one knows, since you’re just reading from your notes anyway.

10. Medical school isn’t a competition, but team work

Sweden: As a final tip, one of our lecturers said: “Do not compare yourselves to your classmates, because you will all get there in the end”

UK: I used to describe entering the lecture theatre as entering a battle field. Your grades depend on your classmates, and your rank in your class will determine your future. Like what a classmate told me, “We’re all on the same race, and our goal is to come first.”

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Both systems are different with its own pros and cons. Looking back, my years in the UK were difficult, but until now, I still say that my first three years in the UK are the best three years of my life so far. The British system had its own hardships especially coming as a Swedish student. However, through my years there, I feel that I was hardened. I learnt self-discipline and how to work hard. Now, I’m hoping I can use my four years worth of experience in Sweden. I am grateful for the past four years and am looking forward to my final two years of medical school. Doctor Sam, finally, here I come!

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