Medical School Terminology and Jargon You Should Know

November 21, 2023


Reviewed by:

Akhil Katakam

Third-Year Medical Student, Lewis Katz School of Medicine at Temple University

Reviewed: 6/6/22

Looking to brush up on your medical terminology? Read on for a complete list of medical jargon you should know as a pre-med or medical student. 

As a pre-med student, your med school research can get confusing. Many websites and articles contain advanced medical school terminology that alienate incoming students. If you’re considering attending medical school, there are some terms you should familiarize yourself with.

Let’s review the basic terms you should know as a pre-med student. We’ll explain terms for institutions, tests, types of med schools, and more confusing jargon to make your transition into med school easier. Let’s get started!

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Terms Pre-Med Students Should Learn

We’ll review a list of terms pre-med students should understand before entering med school. We’ve included terms related to medical school, tests, helpful organizations, application services, and more.

Medical School Years

Below are terms that refer to doctors in different stages of the training process.

  • Pre-medical or Pre-med: A pre-medical student is a college student taking prerequisite courses to attend medical school. 
  • MS1-4: This stands for “medical student” (MS) and the number of years they have attended medical school.
  • Resident: A medical school graduate in a residency program training to become a doctor.
  • Intern: Term for a first-year medical resident.
  • PGY1-7: This stands for “Post-Graduate Year” (PGY), followed by the years a resident has been in their residency program.
  • Sub-I: This means sub-internship, an audition rotation during your last two years of medical school. 
  • Junior Resident: A resident who has completed less than half of their residency program.
  • Senior Resident: A resident who has completed more than half of their residency program.
  • Chief Resident: A resident in their final year of residency who is the appointed leader of a group of residents. Chief residents supervise clinical duties, administrative functions, and more. Program directors or senior physicians appoint their responsibilities.
  • Fellow: A medical fellow is a doctor who has completed residency and is sub-specializing through a fellowship program.
  • Attending Physician: An attending physician is a board-certified doctor who has completed med school and residency and is practicing medicine in a hospital/clinic. 
  • Senior Doctor: A doctor with years of experience who has the authority to oversee multiple projects and patients.
  • Specialist Physician: A doctor who specializes in a particular medical area. Highly sought-after specialists are doctors who have completed a sub-specialty through a fellowship program.

Medical School Organizations

Here we’ve listed important acronyms for medical school organizations you should know about as a future medical student.

Medical School Application Services

We’ve listed acronyms for the three most common application services for medical students and residents. 

Types of Medical Schools

There are two types of medical schools: allopathic and osteopathic. Both types produce capable doctors with the same residency and job opportunities. The main difference between the two are philosophy and teaching methods. 

  • Allopathic: An allopathic or “conventional” medical school trains doctors using a science-based curriculum focusing on diagnosing and treating patients. Graduates receive an M.D.
  • Osteopathic: Osteopathic medicine follows the same scientific principles of allopathic medicine, emphasizing holistic care and the body’s ability to heal itself. Graduates receive a D.O.

Medical School Tests

These are the types of exams you’ll encounter throughout your medical school journey.

  • MCAT: The Medical College Admissions Test is a standardized, multiple-choice exam typically required as part of your med school application.
  • STEP exams: The United States Medical Licensing Exam (USMLE) is divided into three steps, commonly referred to as “step” exams.
  • USMLE Step 1: The first of three USMLE exams taken after the second year of medical school.
  • USMLE Step 2: The second USMLE exam taken during the fourth year of medical school.
  • USMLE Step 3: The final step of the USMLE is typically taken after the first year of residency. 
  • Pre-Clinical Subject Exams: NBME exams assess knowledge and readiness to become a licensed physician, often held at the end of a course. Pre-clinical subject exams also include performance feedback reports.
  • Clinical or “Shelf” Exams: Exams conducted during a third-year medical student’s clinical rotations to assess their knowledge.
  • Block Exams: Refers to a period (typically a week) in which exams for different subjects are tested every day.
  • Mid-Terms or “Colloquiums”: Mini tests taken throughout the semester, typically during scheduled class time.
  • MCQs: Multiple-choice questions.
  • Oral Exams: Exams in which a student writes an essay to later answer a series of related questions in spoken form. 
  • OSCE: In an Objective Structured Clinical Examination (a.k.a “practical exam”), students are asked to demonstrate clinical skills and patient assessments on actors, real patients, or volunteers. 
  • Final Exams: Exams in various formats taken at the end of each course.
  • Board Exams: Independent examinations that play a role in determining your medical licensure, similar to USMLE Step exams.  
  • COMLEX Level Exams: The Comprehensive Osteopathic Medical Licensing Examination is a three-part exam for the medical licensure of DO students. These exams are the osteopathic equivalents of the USMLE Step exams. 

Other Med School Terms

Other med school terms you should know include the following: 

  • Shadowing: Following a physician through their daily routine to observe their methods and responsibilities. 
  • Rounds or “Rounding”: To go around a hospital or clinic to check on patients. 
  • PIMP: Stands for “Put In My Place.” “Pimping” is a slang term referring to an attending or senior resident asking medical students questions to test their knowledge.

List of Medical Jargon

We’ll review some medical terms to familiarize yourself with before medical school. Below we’ve included a list of popular medical school jargon defined by St. George’s University. 

1. Abrasion: A cut or scrape that usually isn’t too serious. 

2. Abscess: A painful accumulation of pus, generally caused by infection.

3. Acute: Can be used to describe a condition or disease with symptoms that appear quickly. 

4. Benign: Not cancerous.

5. Biopsy: The removal of tissues/or cells to be taken for testing. 

6. Chronic: Chronic conditions last one year or more and require continued medical attention, treatment, or both. 

7. Contusion: An area where capillaries have burst, resulting in a bruise.

8. Defibrillator: A device that uses electric shocks or pulses to restore a normal heartbeat.  

9. Edema: Swelling caused by capillaries leaking fluid.  

10. Embolism: An arterial blockage.  

11. Epidermis: The outermost layer of skin. 

12. Fracture: Broken bone or cartilage. 

13. Gland: An organ that produces and secretes chemical substances for a particular function. 

14. Hypertension: High blood pressure. 

15. Inpatient: A patient who stays at the hospital during the course of their treatment. 

16. Intravenous: Delivered by vein. 

17. Malignant: The presence of cancerous cells. 

18. Outpatient: A patient who receives care/treatment without being admitted to a hospital. 

19. Prognosis: The predicated course of disease and outcome. 

20. Relapse: The return of a disease or symptoms after a time of improvement/stability.

21. Sutures: Stitches.

22. Transplant: The removal of organs/tissue from one body to be implanted into another. 

23. Vaccine: A substance that stimulates immunity against a particular illness/disease. 

24. Zoonotic disease: A disease that’s transmissible from animals to humans and vice versa.  

Medical Prefixes and Suffixes

Some common prefixes and suffixes can help you determine what terminology means: 

1. A-, an-: Lack of or without. 

2. -ation: Signifies a process. 

3. Dys-: Abnormal, challenging, or painful. 

4. -ectomy: Surgical removal. 

5. -ismus: Indicates a spasm/contraction. 

6. -itis: Signifies inflammation. 

7. -lysis: Decomposition, destruction, or breaking down. 

8. Macro-: Large (referring to size).

9. Melan/o-: Black or dark in color.  

10. Micro-: Small (referring to size). 

11. -ology: The study of a concentration (for example, the study of the heart/vascular system). 

12. -osis: Indicates something atypical. 

13. -otomy: To cut into. 

14. -pathy: Disease or disease process. 

15. -plasty: Surgical repair. 

16. Poly-: Many. 

17. Pseudo-: False or deceptive, usually regarding manifestation and appearance. 

18. Retro-: Behind or backward. 

Medical Root Words

These root words mostly relate to parts of the body. 

1. Cardi/o: Related to the heart or vascular system

2. Derm/a/o; dermat/o: Related to the skin. 

3. Encephal/o: Related to the brain.  

4. Gastr/o: Related to the stomach. 

5. Hemat/o: Related to blood. 

6. My/o: Related to muscle. 

7. Oste/o: Related to bones. 

8. Pulmon/o: Refers to the lungs. 

9. Rhin/o: Related to the nose. 

10. Sclerosis: Hard or hardening. 

11. Stasis: Slowing/stopping a bodily fluid’s flow. 

12. Therm/o: Heat.

Medical Abbreviations And Acronyms

These are some common medical abbreviations and acronyms you should know: 

1. ALS: Advanced life support. 

2. Bl wk: Blood work. 

3. BMI: Body mass index.

4. BP: Blood pressure. 

5. CPR: Cardiopulmonary resuscitation, A.K.A. mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. 

6. C-spine: Cervical spine. 

7. DNR: Do not resuscitate, meaning the patient doesn’t want to have CPR performed on them. 

8. ED/ER: Emergency department/emergency room. 

9. EKG: Electrocardiogram.

10. HDL-C: High-density lipoprotein cholesterol, A.K.A “good” cholesterol. 

11. HR: Heart rate (beats per minute). 

12. LDL-C: Low-density lipoprotein cholesterol, A.K.A “bad” cholesterol. 

13. Lytes: Electrolytes. 

14. NICU: Neonatal intensive care unit.

15. OR: Operating room.

16. Pre-op: Preoperative.  

17. Psych: Refers to psychiatry or the psych ward. 

18. PT: Physical therapy.

19. Rx: Prescription, usually for medication (but can also indicate other treatment types). 

20. Stat: Right away. 

FAQs: Medical School Terminology

Here are answers to the most frequently asked questions concerning medical school terminology.

1. What If I Don’t Understand A Medical Term My Professor Uses?

Misunderstanding medical terminology happens to everyone. Remember, you’re a student and here to learn. Don’t be ashamed to ask professors or peers questions. You can also make notes of terms you didn’t understand to research them later. 

2. When Is It Appropriate To Ask A Professor To Clarify Something In Medical School?

Most professors open the floor for questions at different points during a lecture or demonstration. If you have questions you feel can only be answered by a specific professor, you can make an appointment and visit them during their office hours.

3. What Are Examples of Medical Terminology? 

Examples of medical terms include those listed above, such as hypertension, prognosis, benign, etc. 

4. Is Medical Terminology Required for Med School?

While you don’t need to know every medical term before med school, learning more about terminology as a pre-med student can help make your transition easier. You’ll need to know these terms by the time you graduate medical school! 

5. What Is the Fastest Way to Memorize Medical Terms? 

Some students may prefer to review flashcards, make notes, use mnemonics, or try a different method to memorize medical terms. It may take some trial and error to learn what strategies work best for you. 

6. What Are Good Study Habits for Medical Terminology? 

Good study habits include making notes when you don’t understand a term to research it later, reviewing your notes regularly, and practicing when you can.

Final Thoughts

While you won’t be expected to understand every medical term you hear immediately, it’s great to familiarize yourself with common acronyms and terms. Starting medical school can be alienating as a first-year student, so it may be comforting to research the culture you’ll be entering.

Other ways to integrate yourself into medical school culture and learn more terms include listening to medical school podcasts, joining clubs, and learning more about your program. If you’re ever confused about an unfamiliar term, don’t be afraid to ask your academic advisors, peers, or professors questions. 

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