Overwhelmed and Scared

Hi All,

About a month ago, I left my full-time job of 9 years and went back to school. I am pre-med, second degree student, majoring in biology and am so overwhelmed and scared.

I know the material and am familiar with it, however, I don’t know my left from my right. Even though I’ve been through college once, it’s been 9 years and I was a journalism major. (I’ve always wanted to become a doctor, I just needed to mature…big time). On these first tests in my chem and precal class, my knowledge was not reflected on my exams. It was like a disconnect between what I know and what to put on paper. On my precal test, I knew how to solve the problems, but failed because of tons (and I mean tons) of small mistakes I lost points on. On my chem test, I knew that material, but I did so much memorization, I failed to understand the concept beyond its definition.

Basically, how do I handle it all? My mom and boyfriend keep telling me that I just need to get adjusted, get back in the swing of things because I was working prior to. Will there come a time when it will all click and I’ll be able to manage. What advice can you all give me on how to handle coming from work to school? I look at other nontrads and they seem to handle it like its a walk in the park and I can’t figure out what it is I am missing.

Any advice y’all can give me is greatly appreciated.

Thank you so much!

I, too, have had problems with doing well on tests. What seems to work for me is to take practice tests to both enhance recall and increase speed. I am gradually adding these into my MCAT study, and hopefully they will work for me when that dreaded test comes around this Spring.


Thank you for this advice, it really does help. I took the past year chem exam that our professor posted and that did help me see what I knew and be prepared for his format. What I wasn’t prepared for was actually applying concepts and terminology to scenarios. While improving my note taking system, I’m going to have to include scenarios of concepts.

Talk to other people who are taking the class and see what their study tactics are. Also, sit down with the professor and ask for help - that is what they are there for! Explain your difficulties and ask for tips. I’m sure they’ve had other nontrads before and might have some serious wisdom to impart.

This is good advice, I think I’ll definitely make appointments with my professors to explain my situation and ask for guidance. I hope I can find a student to talk with, most of them seem as if they are there for themselves and only concerned with their own agendas. Just from open discussion in class, it seems that most of the students study method is to study sun up to sundown. I study, but I do allocate breaks for myself.

Thank you again!

When I went back to school as a postbac after 10+ years, I, too, was overwhelmed and lost. I think this is quite normal.

What worked for me was doing as many problems as possible and repeat them multiple times until I could do them in my sleep. Knowing the material is critical but you must do problems in order to do well on the exam.

Best of luck to you.

Before I started the pre-med track, the last time I was in school was high school - 15 years prior. I never had the opportunity to go to college until 3 years ago, so I was working all those years. One thing I noticed pretty quickly is that college is not like high school. I think high school was largely about recognition of material, whereas college is about recollection - two very, very different things. I’ve really had to examine and tweak my study habits in order to succeed, especially in classes like orgo II and biochem II where you are given a blank sheet and expected to draw lengthy mechanisms and molecules from scratch - definitely no “recognition” there!

No need to worry, though - just take a look at your approach and see what you can do to tweak it. Looking back, on tests where I felt I knew the material but didn’t get the score I wanted, it was really because I only recognized the material while studying, I didn’t fully understand it and become familiar enough with it to recall it and apply the principles to unfamiliar scenarios. I’m sure there is info out there about how to improve recall, so maybe that would help. Or this may not be an issue for you at all - maybe test anxiety is a problem? My brain goes blank when the test timer starts, so I’ve learned to look for an easy question to get me started. This gets the brain juices flowing and helps minimize my anxiety after those first few minutes of panic.

If you really look at your process critically, and ask other students about what helped them, eventually you’ll find what works for you - just keep at it.

I will reiterate what others have said here and on other posts: Practice, practice, practice! I’ve been given this same advice numerous times and it never fails for me. Premed classes require an understanding of concepts, yes, but to really get the material to sink in and to excel on exams it is crucial to do numerous problems. Sometimes, trying to read the texts which can often be dry and memorize and “get it” from just that is not the best approach. I often read the text and if I hit a roadblock or find my eyes crossing, walk away. It’s also crucial to take breaks and sleep on it, too. Skimming a particularly tough part of a text isn’t awful either, just back up that skimming with other sources of information that are more engaging and then practice, practice, practice to make sure you can apply what you know. It sounds like you get the material, but are having a hard time applying it. As future doctors, we won’t be given multiple choice tests, but real life situations that will require us to recall and apply our knowledge on the fly. I think the best way I’ve learned to prepare for this is to follow the advice of others and practice. Like others have said, also, you will find your groove and what works for you. It is not uncommon to freak out early on (I do it w/o fail at the beginning of every semester), but the key is to keep with it, don’t let little mistakes kill your confidence, analyze ways to improve, and don’t give up. Best of luck!!!

That’s sound advice, especially in math and chemistry, practicing problems over and over will ensure that I know my steps and don’t mess up on the little details. Along with memorization, I do need to know, and know well, how to solve any and every type of problem.

When you said that in high school is about recognition and college is about recollection, I completely agree. In fact, a lot of the true undergrads in my classes have done nothing but complain about how they hate college, how they miss the fact that the material was given to you in high school whereas in college you have to actually apply yourself. I think for not only the nontrads but the true freshman, we are all experiencing a learning curve due to coming from high school to college or from our nontraditional backgrounds.

A seriousl analysis of my student habits is needed. I’ve been looking back at how I’ve prepared for the past test and can cleary see how they didn’t work in my favor. I do think like you said the fact that I recognized the material instead of truly understanding it is why I didn’t do as well as I wanted to on my test. All I focused on, which is important, is making sure I knew how to do it. Not taking into consideration comprehending the steps and why they are done.

Thank you again! I’m definitely going to research various methods of trying to recall information to better prepare myself and tame my test anxiety and preparation.

Practice is definitely the key to my sucess, I’m seeing this through responses and after evaluating my performance. I need to practice problems everyday, especially this time around because I have a math and chem test on the same day. One thing I learned is doing the problems one time around isn’t the key to sucess. I agree with just trying to read the text, it can and is sometimes very bland and has not been the best approach. I need to find outside resources that explain the material in a less vanilla way and will help me be able to understand and apply the material.

Thank you!

I can’t find the quote (not enough coffee), but someone says above that the other postbacs make it SEEM like a walk in the park. SEEM being the operative word. A girlfriend of mine went to Harvard, you know, that American college, for her first degree, also about 9 years ago, and is totally freaking out (I’m sorry to say) as she enters a grad program that requires econ and statistics. But she looks the part, you know, polished, together, and just the right amount of nerdy, so no one would ever know. You’re not alone!

It’s sort of the scorched earth approach, but re: doing problems, why not decide you’re going to do EVERY PROBLEM in the book? A classmate (who by her own admission is not that great in math) pulled out a flat A in calculus by this very tactic. I wouldn’t have believed her except that I looked at her solutions. :wink: Now, I grant you, she had few outside responsibilities. But think of it: if you DID do every single problem, how hard could the test possibly be after all that? It’s at least something to shoot for.

Here’s a technique I use when I’m bored in lecture–and there’s a fine line between scared, overwhelmed, and bored. Think of some subject (ideally a school subject, but anything could work) that you’re naturally good at. You just get it and you’re (almost) always fascinated. (Even, say, a hollandaise sauce–you know how some people can’t make one to save their lives? Maybe you can. Besides, it’s an EMULSION. See Orgo 2. QED.)

When you’re in a lecture that’s escaping you, invent a character who’s naturally good at it. Put him/her in the perfect classroom with the perfect notebook and just the right amount of classmates around. Think of that feeling of effortless mastery. That’s what your character feels right now! “Whoa, what a cool observation, Dr. Forchheimer. It reminds me of when I was…” That’s your character’s internal monologue. When you feel bored and your mind wanders, just remember! Your character is ENTHRALLED! This is the greatest hour of his life! The knowledge is impacting his brain clear as a bell!

Sounds dumb, but try it sometime.

Best of luck!


Thank you for this advice. I definitely try to keep myself engaged in my lectures and luckily I’m interested in the materials, especially when I understand it. But I’m sure that when that lecture comes that escapes me, your tactic will come in handy!

I think my main problem is that I just need to do a overall clean sweep of how I study for these classes. I’m going to have to do problems over and over again, and even do like your friend and learn how to do every problem, because there is always the chance that I’m going to encounter one of those types of problems.

In my original post I mentioned how the other nontrads act like its a walk in the park. And you are so right, they put on the front like they have it together, but I think to myself, they have to be stressed as well as I am. They make me feel like something is wrong with me for being concerned, stressed and having trouble.

Thank you again! I appreciate this!


I have been in your shoes!! And I hate the feeling.

What works for me is to do as many of the practice tests/problems as possible. I do this until the problems are second nature. This takes a LOT of extra time on my part but it’s worth it when the tests roll around and my mind is sharp and at ease. Hope that helps. Hang in there!

Wow – sounds like your stressing bigtime…like I used to…

Get control of the fear and angst now…

A couple things –

Math – you have to be willing to kill trees. Do a LOT of practice problems showing EACH step. DO NOT combine steps in your head as that is where most people blow it. Also, understand what you are doing and don’t just do it by rote.

Chemistry - Same type deal as with math but this one will be a bit different. You can get with a study partner/TA and discuss the concepts but you’ll also need to do problems…

Get into the habit of having a study partner now and carry it with you into medical school. Believe me, it will help your grades–keep looking until you get one you click with…My grades went up one level (C’s to B’s) when I started studying with a partner. We’d go through the PPTs and ask what kind of questions could come at us from each one…more often than not, we had gone over all the possible permutations and they showed up on the exam.

Lastly, relax a bit…it’ll all come back.