The application process made easy.
You're nearing the end of your first year at college, and it's time to apply to university. You've got your heart set on following a career in medicine, whether it be for the status, the perceived high salary, genuinely altruistic reasons, or simply because your parents told you to. The only problem is that your Sixth Form knows next to nothing about sending their students to medical school, and it all seems completely overwhelming. This article is designed to make the next few months that little bit easier.
Step 1: Document everything!
No doubt by this point you're doing plenty of voluntary work and medical work experience (if not, start now!). It is imperative that you keep some kind of record of everything you do, for 2 reasons: firstly, it will help you remember everything you saw when it comes to your Personal Statement (later), and secondly, some universities may ask for proof of your work experience at interview. You definitely don't want to be leaving a bitter taste in an interviewer's mouth by not having documentation to hand when it's needed, so start putting everything in a folder - call it "Medicine stuff", "Things to bring to interview", or "Lemurs wearing stockings" as you will, just as long as it exists. Be sure to keep this folder close to the one containing your GCSE certificates and any others you may have accumulated along the way (eg. St. John's Ambulance awards).
Step 2: Consider your options
Medical programmes in the UK last 5 or 6 years. That's a long time, and carries a huge financial burden. Also, the current ruling says that if you have previously studied at another medical school anywhere in the world, you may not be allowed to reapply. Therefore it's absolutely essential that you only apply to the universities that are right for you. Although they all follow a fairly standardised curriculum, they have very different teaching methods. For instance, the University of East Anglia (UEA) use a system called Problem-Based Learning (PBL). This involves keeping students in lectures for a bare minimum duration, perhaps only 6-8 hours per week. The rest of the time is spent in labs, clinical sessions and independent study. Students work in groups, carrying out their own independent research into a particular medical scenario or case study. At the end of the week, the groups assemble and share their discoveries, so that everyone may learn from each other. Conversely, the University of Nottingham prefers a "death by lecture" approach, with up to 40 hours a week spent in lecture halls! Different styles of teaching will work for different people, so be sure to choose one that's right for you. Details of the various courses can be found in the universities' Prospectuses, which can be ordered from their websites.
At this stage, you should also consider which universities you are most likely to receive offers from. Medicine is extremely competitive, with some universities receiving upwards of 15 applicants for every place. The vast majority of these will be predicted AAA or more at A Level. The competition is stiff. But you can tailor your application to suit your strengths. If your GCSEs are particularly strong, for example, consider Birmingham, who will only accept applicants with 8 or more A* grades at GCSE. If your UKCAT score (later) is astronomical - a score of 750+ is considered to be the "golden standard" - consider Newcastle or Sheffield, where a high score in this test guarantees you an interview. Again, extensive research at this stage will maximise your chances of securing a place in this furiously competitive field.
Step 3: Take the UKCAT*
With a few exceptions (Oxbridge, UCL, Imperial College London), the UK Clinical Aptitude Test is the admissions test used to distinguish between medical applicants. While some have questioned its value in discriminating between the top applicants, it continues to have a considerable weighting on your application. Some universities (eg. Kings College, London) will use your score to make up for other shortcomings in your application (eg. poor GCSEs). Some will use it to decide whether or not to interview borderline candidates. A few will choose who to interview purely based on UKCAT score - these universities are said to have a "cut-off", and it pays to check what the cut-off score has been for the past few years so you know where you stand when applying.
You will sit the test at a local test centre some time in the late Summer of the year you apply. It consists of 4 scored sections and 1 non-scored section; more information can be found here. The test administrators maintain that it can't be practiced for, but it pays to look over the style of the questions asked, as it will definitely help you with the timing in the real exam. Many of the questions are not "hard" per se, but they're made infinitely more difficult by the tight time constraints. You will find out your results as soon as you finish the test, so no suspenseful nights need be spent awake and praying! Just remember: a good score will help your application, but a poor score is by no means a death sentence to your application. The next section is far more important:
Step 4: Write your Personal Statement
The Personal Statement (PS) is probably the most important aspect of your application. Academically, everyone applying to medicine is much the same - top of their class. Every teacher gives a good reference. Most UKCAT scores, where relevant, will be strong. Your Personal Statement is your one chance to distinguish yourself from all the other candidates. In it, you should write about your reasons for choosing medicine, along with any work experience you have done to gain an insight into the medical profession. The trick is to avoid cliches; your "love of people" may be true, and will be a great attribute to have in your career, but it adds nothing to your application. 20,000 other applicants will be writing the exact same thing as you, and unless your genuine love for the subject shines out of that piece of paper, you will be lost amongst thousands of equally suitable candidates. Several websites exist to help you with your PS (try the PS Helper service at TheStudentRoom), but never be tempted to copy passages from those you see online - UCAS have a plagiarism detector that will screen your Personal Statement before sending it off, and if you are found to have copied others' work, your application may be withdrawn.
Whatever you do, check it, double check and triple check it before you send it off. You should be looking at writing at least six drafts before you consider it anywhere near finished. This is your one chance to show the world why you would make an amazing doctor - don't waste it!
Step 5: Apply through UCAS
Your college should help you through this process; as long as you have all your previous work documented (see Step 1) and a strong Personal Statement, this should be a straightforward process.
Step 6: Interviews!
Once you've sent off your UCAS application, you'd almost be justified in deciding to sit back and relax for a while. Don't! Most colleges will send off your application in mid-late September, and some medical schools begin interviewing as early as October, so there's no time to waste! At this stage, you need to get as much practice as you can, from as many different people as you can - all universities will conduct their interviews slightly differently, so asking for help from a variety of sources is invaluable. Personally, I asked for - and received - mock interviews from 2 friends, my biology tutor, my mum and my sixth form headmaster. Each focused on a different aspect of the interview process, and combined to make me feel exceedingly confident about the real things.
There is no "magic solution" to medical school interviews, largely because each school will be looking for something subtly different. Cambridge, for instance, will question you almost exclusively on your scientific understanding. It will be ruthless, and push you far beyond your comfort zone. Newcastle, on the other hand, are more likely to explore your knowledge of the NHS, motivations for pursuing a medical career, and ethical awareness. As well as this, the interview structures themselves will differ, from a traditional "2 interviewers and a desk" approach, to the more modern Multiple Mini Interviews (MMI) method whereby you will rotate between 8 or so stations, spending no more than 5 minutes at each - kind of like speed dating, with more pressure!
There are, however, some general tips that apply to all universities:
- Re-read your Personal Statement before attending. Reflect on your work experience and make sure you have an answer to the very common question, "What did you gain from doing...[insert experience here]?"
- Be confident. Interviewers understand that you will be nervous, and won't judge you poorly for having the shakes - in fact, at her UEA interview my girlfriend was so nervous that her hand shook so violently she poured a glass of water down her top! She still got an offer from that university. However, they won't be so lenient on a prospective doctor who clearly has no people skills or self-confidence, so make sure you put yourself across in a positive light, even if it's so draining that you collapse 4 steps out of the door!
- Don't exaggerate or make anything up. Some people have done so in the past and got away with it. Others have tried and weren't so lucky. The worst that can happen is that not only will you be rejected from that medical school, they may choose to inform UCAS and suggest that your entire application is withdrawn. While you may have absolute faith in your ability to lie flawlessly, it's a gamble and a manipulation that would not be valued traits in any doctor of mine!
Remember, while some universities start interviewing very early, many don't interview their last batch of candidates until much later; the deadline is the end of March. So while it can be very demoralising to see your non-medic friends rolling in offers while you still haven't received a single interview, don't automatically jump to the conclusion that you won't have gotten in! In fact, the university that I'm now at didn't interview me until the end of February, having already seen a good couple of thousand candidates!
Step 7: Wait for offers to roll in!
Decisions will be arriving in your UCAS Track account between March-April, and of course you will be praying that you've got an offer or two. Don't worry if you receive a few rejections in the meantime - while it can be soul-destroying to see your medical dream slowly evaporating before your eyes, salvation can come right at the death! The aforementioned girlfriend of mine had received rejections from 4 out of 5 of her choices before she finally got the email confirming her acceptance into UEA - as long as at least one of those "Decision" fields on Track is empty, the dream is still very much alive! Even if you feel you performed poorly at interview, try to stay calm. Many hundreds of people each year receive offers from universities where they felt they had messed up, and yet more are rejected by those where they felt they'd excelled - it is simply impossible to know exactly what the interviewers are looking for!
Steps 8 and 9: Accept an offer - and meet it
Think long and hard before choosing your Firm and Insurance universities, because once that decision has been made it can be notoriously difficult to reverse. Think about all the things from Step 2 that drew you to the university to begin with, and try to imagine yourself studying there for 5/6 years. Consider the location of the university - a high percentage of medical students are still working within the county they graduated in 10 years later. Try not to worry too much about cost, real or perceived - London universities may cost a fortune, but you won't be paying any of it back until later when you're on a reasonably comfortable salary, so it shouldn't factor too highly into your decision. When you're ready, confirm through Track and take a hard-earned breather!
Now get to work studying for your A Level exams (or equivalent) in June! You sure haven't come this far only to fall at the final hurdle, right?
As well as the UKCAT, some universities use an alternative admissions test known as the BMAT. Full details can be found here, but essentially the test focuses more strongly on the science knowledge required to succeed on the A100 programme. The website claims that each subject (Biology, Chemistry, Physics, Maths) is tested up to GCSE standard, but there is no denying that some of the questions will deal with extremely tricky concepts that will look entirely unfamiliar to you unless you've studied the subject at A Level. What's even worse than the difficulty of the questions, however, is the timing - even moreso than the UKCAT, you simply will not have time to think about all the questions. With 5 minutes of each section remaining, you should consider taking "educated guesses". With 1 minute left, just plain guesses will suffice. The test is positively marked (ie. you don't lose points for incorrect answers), so you may as well fill in as much as you can!
Unlike the UKCAT, you sit this test after applying to your medical schools, so it is a riskier option, as you won't know whether you've scored well until you've already applied to a BMAT-using university. Don't let that put you off, however, because these schools tend to place even greater stock in the admissions test than those that use the UKCAT. An exceptional BMAT score will almost guarantee you an interview at UCL or Imperial College, assuming you meet their academic requirements. It's a tough test, for sure, but it can be very rewarding.
You should also note that the results from this test aren't given to you on the day like the UKCAT; rather, there is a "Results day" as with college exams on which day your results will become available online via a personalised access code.
While this guide is by no means definitive, I hope it helps to clarify some of the questions or doubts you may have had about applying. As always, my comments box below is open to any further questioning, and I will do my best to answer any queries as promptly as possible.
Finally, all that is left to say is good luck and best wishes! It is natural, throughout this long and arduous process, to have misgivings about your decision to become a doctor. It's certainly not an easy career, and for some it may be simply too much. But, even as a first year student, I can honestly say that I've already experienced enough to prove to myself that dedicating my life to medicine is the right - no, the only - decision. The role of the doctor in society is changing, and it no longer commands the respect that it may once have, but no other profession can hope to match the satisfaction of a life spent easing suffering and improving lives. Who knows, maybe someday I may even have the honour of working with some of you?
I hope you enjoyed my article. If you would like to read more about studying medicine at university, check back regularly for more related posts.