Applying to Medicine 101

It’s time to settle in because this is going to be a long post! Lots of people have requested that I share my tips for applying to medicine in the UK and so I decided I’d put together this post to serve as a sort of guide. I am going to be focusing on the UK as that’s the only system that I know, but I’m sure some of this information is useful for those of you that are applying to other countries too!


Contents (yes, it’s really this long):

  1. Introduction
  2. Deciding on medicine
  3. Finding work experience
  4. Looking at medical schools
  5. How to succeed in the UKCAT
  6. How to succeed in the BMAT
  7. Writing a good personal statement
  8. How to prepare for your interviews
  9. Fulfilling your offers
  10. What if it all goes wrong?
  11. TL;DR

Introduction

Applying for medicine can be a very stressful experience, especially if you are one of the only people applying for it from your college. It’s also very different to applying for other university courses as you need to think about your application much earlier than other students – ideally around the time of your GCSEs – and you’re likely going to be waiting much longer for offers.

One of the things that I realised is that applying for medicine is a marathon not a sprint (is that too cheesy?) so it’s important that you don’t let it get on top of you. Many students don’t get into medical school the first time around even though they’re excellent students who definitely have the potential to succeed. This is something that you need to keep in mind as a rejection doesn’t mean that it’s the end of the road and there are plenty of other options left for you.

On that note, I think it’s time that we get into this (hopefully) useful guide!

Deciding on Medicine

Hopefully you’ve decided that you interested in medicine before you started college/sixth form so that you have plenty of time to think about your A Levels/other further qualifications. I have only studied A Levels so unfortunately my advice will be centered on those, but here are some other posts which may be useful for those of you studying the IB instead:

If you’re still in Year 11, then you need to think about the entry requirements for medicine when choosing your A Levels. Chemistry is an absolute must-have subject as I believe all medical schools require applicants to have this subject (not including graduates or access course applicants as they often have different entry requirements). Beyond that A Level Biology is advised as it is also required by the vast majority of medical schools in the UK so it is definitely useful to have when applying.

I often get asked if you need to take 3 sciences to apply for medicine (Chemistry, Biology and Physics/Maths) and unless you’re applying to Cambridge, you definitely don’t. No other medical school gives you an advantage for having these subjects, so unless you enjoy them and think you could get the grades required then I would just recommend picking something you’ll find interesting.

If you’re in year 12 or above (sidenote: if you’re in Year 13/going into Year 13 and you’ve only just become interested in medicine, I would recommend a gap year in order to build up your work experience and outside reading in the subject so that your application is more competitive) then the only thing you need to worry about is becoming more informed about the course.

Once you’ve decided that you’re interested in medicine, it’s time to start building up your personal statement which means you need to find some work experience and do some reading. Don’t worry though, finding work experience isn’t as daunting as everyone thinks!

Finding Work Experience

Many applicants think that the only work experience worth having is things that were done in a clinical setting, i.e. shadowing a doctor or going to a GP surgery. Whilst these experiences are useful for seeing what the life of a doctor is really like, it can actually be better to get some hands on experience in different areas of care.

To break it down simply, there are three different types of work experience that students typically undertake:

  • Clinical – shadowing, working in a GP surgery, volunteering in a hospital, etc.
  • Non-clinical – working in a care home, helping a primary school or with disabled children, etc.
  • Other volunteering – in a charity shop, fundraising, as a leader/young leader, etc.

Ideally you should try and get some kind of clinical experience just so that you can reflect on the realities of being a doctor (although if this isn’t possible there are countless autobiographies written by surgeons, junior doctors and all sorts of other people who talk about their experiences). However, many medical schools will look favourably on non-clinical or even non-caring volunteering as it demonstrates that you have a lot of good characteristics that they’re looking for in their students beyond academic ability.

When I applied for medicine, I had completed a variety of experiences with my local medical school alongside one week of shadowing, a week at a sexual health charity, four years as a young leader at Beavers and a year of volunteering at a local preschool. One thing that can make your application stand out is having at least one long term placement so that you can show you’re committed to something (as opposed to just completing countless placements to fill up your personal statement). Many medical schools won’t care if this is a volunteering placement or just a part-time job that you’ve had for around a year.

It can also be beneficial to have hobbies on the side to show that you’re a well-rounded student (UCL and HYMS are amongst the medical schools which like their students to have interests outside of medicine) so it probably isn’t time to give up your sports activities or music lessons. If you feel like you don’t have anything like this, look for opportunities within your school which are low commitment but can be mentioned on your personal statement – joining the council, a debate club or the choir can still be mentioned on your application but they don’t take up as much time as learning a new instrument or sport.

If you want more information about the kind of work experiences that can be useful when applying for medicine, check out my post about finding work experience. One thing to remember is that it isn’t always about quantity, but more about how well you can reflect on it.

Looking at Medical Schools

As corny as it may sound, when you apply to medicine you have to play the game. This means focusing on the strengths of your application and ruling out places that judge applicants on things you’re weaker on. This is harder to do before you have your UKCAT score (and maybe your BMAT score if you take the September session) but you can still start to narrow it down based on GCSE results and other factors (like location or A Level requirements).

Initially it may be best to start your search on the UCAS website so that you can see which universities in the UK offer medicine as a course. After that there are several other factors which you may need to consider depending on what you’re looking for:

  • Entry requirements – A Levels, GCSEs, etc.
  • Is it UKCAT or BMAT?
  • Campus or city university?
  • Interview type – MMI or standard?
  • Location
  • Course structure – integrated, traditional or PBL/CBL
  • Is there an intercalated degree option?

You should try and have some variety in your choices too (of course you should still like them all) as applying to 4 extremely competitive universities may just result in 4 rejections. If you’re looking at courses with an A*AA standard offer then maybe consider applying to one or two with an AAA standard offer so that you have an insurance option on results day. Applying to medicine is one of the few courses where attending a Russell Group university will not necessarily boost your career options in the future due to the fact that F1 applications are pretty much blind to where you went to university and they are introducing a standardised final exam for all medical students anyway. Therefore, you shouldn’t rule out any universities just because you don’t think they’re as prestigious as others.

Although it may be annoying, you should also try and visit any universities that you’re interested in before applying as something that looks good in the prospectus may not suit you in real life. I was dead set on putting Manchester University as my fifth non-medical course, however after visiting I realised that I just didn’t like the city style of it and it wasn’t right for me. On the other hand, I visited UCL and found that, despite the fact it was one of the ones I just looked at out of curiosity, I loved the general ~vibe~ it gave off and the course options there.

It may seem like there’s a lot to consider when looking at the different medical schools so I’ve put together a printable that will hopefully help you to organise your different options.

If you want to download it, click here!

How to Succeed in the UKCAT

Most medical schools in the country require applicants to take the UKCAT before applying. This is a computer-based exam with five different sections: Verbal Reasoning, Quantitative Reasoning, Abstract Reasoning, Decision Making and the Situational Judgement Test.

Each medical school uses the UKCAT differently when looking at their applicants so it’s useful to know their methods before applying there. This document summarises how each medical school used the UKCAT score for 2018 entry, however this may change for future years. Like I mentioned above, you need to look at which universities you have a realistic chance of getting an offer from based on your score. Some universities like Birmingham and Edinburgh are very UKCAT-heavy so if you have a good score then it may be best to use it to your advantage and apply to universities like these. On the other hand, if your score is weaker (for example, if it’s below the average score for that year) then you should avoid these universities to maximise your chance of getting an offer.

In theory, the UKCAT is meant to be a test that you cannot study for as it doesn’t test knowledge. However, the trickiest part usually isn’t the questions themselves, but the fact that you have a limited time frame to complete them in. This means that you can definitely practice different techniques in order to improve your speed before the test. A lot of people start worrying about the UKCAT once it gets to around January time but you really do not need that much time to prepare for it. I started preparation around a month before the exam and then I did serious practice a couple of weeks before.

You can also choose the test date that you want and whilst this isn’t always important, it’s worth considering carefully before booking it. If you’re planning on taking the BMAT I would highly recommend booking it for some time in September if you’re doing the early BMAT test or in August if you’re doing the November test. This means that you are not taking away time from the BMAT which definitely requires more preparation than the UKCAT in order to do well.

If you’re interested in finding out about the best UKCAT preparation resources, then I recommend this post and if you want more information about the test itself I recommend looking at the official UKCAT website or my post that I made last year.

Unfortunately the technique required for the BMAT is not so simple…

How to Succeed in the BMAT

The BMAT follows a totally different structure to the UKCAT and it is more focused on knowledge than inherent ability. This means that advanced revision and practice is key in order to get a good score on the day. There are three different sections to the BMAT, taken as three separate papers in a row:

  • Section 1 – The Aptitude and Skills Test which looks at general skills like problem solving and understanding arguments, 35 questions in 60 minutes
  • Section 2 – The Scientific Knowledge and Applications Test covering GCSE-level biology, physics, chemistry and maths, 27 questions in 30 minutes
  • Section 3 – The Writing Task gives you a choice of three questions (typically a quote, a question about science and a question about medicine) and you have to write an essay about it, 1 question in 30 minutes

If you have already taken the UKCAT, then you should be fairly comfortable with employing similar techniques in Section 1. The questions that will most likely be unfamiliar to you are the understanding arguments questions. These give you a passage and then ask you about what is an assumption the author makes or a conclusion of the passage.

Like the UKCAT, the only real preparation you can do for Section 1 is practice until you can do the questions faster and more accurately. Don’t worry if you don’t understand the questions or the answers the first time around; this test is designed to be taken by the brightest students in the country so it will always be difficult. For more guide on Section 1 question types, I’d advise looking at this document from the official website.

Section 2 is another story altogether though! I only studied Biology and Chemistry at A Level so I really struggled with this section as there were many concepts I hadn’t even thought about since GCSE. The best guide for Section 2 is the official revision guide that has been put together to fit with the BMAT specification. If you really don’t understand a concept then you can always dig out your GCSE revision guides, check out the good old BBC Bitesize or find videos on Youtube which cover the topics.

Like the UKCAT, the BMAT is multiple choice so you don’t have to worry about exam technique or wording particularly (at least not for the first two sections). It also means that if you’re unsure of an answer, you can quickly choose one and move on. This is an important tactic as many people find that they run out of time in the BMAT so you definitely shouldn’t dwell on questions. Unfortunately, I’d often find myself unable to finish properly so I’d guess the last few questions a few minutes before the end and then I’d go back and properly complete the ones I felt I could do.

As for Section 3, there is less pressure when it comes to time so you have time to plan and consider your ideas carefully before writing. You are given space to do any planning on the question sheet and it’s important that you are clear about what you are going to write before you do it as you are only given one side of A4 to write your essay on (actually, it is smaller than that due to the header at the top). If you look back at the past questions, there’s usually a quote, a question relating to scientific principles and a question relating to medicine. Previously, there was a veterinary medicine question too, however they removed this for 2018 entry.

The questions usually feature a statement and then there’s 3 sub-questions you must answer in order to score a 3 or above for content, usually something like:

  • What does this statement mean?
  • Argue to the contrary
  • To what extent do you agree?

In order to do well on Section 3, you have to have a decent enough knowledge of scientific principles and the four ethical pillars of medicine. These provide you with a solid foundation for answering the scientific and medical questions so that you can give well thought out arguments which would potentially allow you to access the 4/5 score. The quote-based question can be a little harder to prepare for as it can consider anything from ancient philosophy to the limits of technology.

There is no benefit to choosing a particular question so it is important that you choose the one that you believe you have the best arguments for. If you are quick, you may have time to plan for two questions and after that you can decide which one you want to do.

When preparing for Section 3 you may want to look at books like Medical Ethics: A Very Short Introduction, sites like The Medic Portal’s guide to medical ethics or the Wikipedia page on the scientific method. Remember that these ideas are just a starting point and you will get top scores for coming up with your own original and well thought out arguments.

BMAT scores are a little more abstract than UKCAT scores as they are not organised into deciles. The website states that the most able students will be able to score a 5 in sections 1 and 2, although most people applying to Oxbridge will typically score a 6 or above in each section. It is very rare to find people that score higher than that and almost no one will score a 9. For Section 3, you gain a 3 for content just by answering all 3 sub-questions that you are given. Beyond that it is down to the strength of your arguments really as to whether you gain anything higher. You also score an A by having very few grammar or spelling mistakes. Most people score an A so it may put you at a disadvantage if you score below that (although this may be different for those with a valid reason, such as dyslexia, however for more information you will need to contact your universities themselves or the BMAT support team). For the full Section 3 scoring criteria, check out this link.

Writing a Good Personal Statement

You should be aiming to start writing your personal statement after you Year 12 exams/mocks in order to give yourself enough time to perfect it. I, unfortunately, did not follow this advice and instead did a bit of planning over the summer and then rushed to finish it once I went back to school in September. My initial plans were just a list of things that I could include in my statement, including books I’d read, courses I’d done and any work experience I had undertaken. After that I tried to group it into sections, for example:

  • Wider reading/research
  • Work experience
  • Volunteering
  • Hobbies/extracurricular activities

This gave me a starting point for writing various paragraphs in my personal statement. It’s important to remember that you only have 4000 characters/47 lines to convince people that you are truly interested in a career in medicine, so it’s important that you focus on your best attributes and avoid waffling on. It is also a good idea to follow a structure to ensure that you don’t miss out any key information; for example, The Student BMJ suggest:

  1. An introduction that explains why you want to do medicine
  2. Anything you have done to further your interest in medicine, including reading books or MOOCS, then give another reason why you want to do medicine
  3. Details of any work experience you undertook, including what you did and what you learnt from it – where possible you should give timings and specifics
  4. Academic extracurricular activities which have helped you to develop the skills needed to be a good doctor, for example research activities and being a mentor to younger students
  5. Non-academic extracurricular activities which have helped you develop the skills needed, including volunteering or musical instruments
  6. A conclusion that sums up why you’d be a good medical student and future doctor

Obviously this structure will alter depending on your own personal experiences (I added a separate volunteering paragraph and then put all of my extracurricular activities together) as you may lack experience in some areas but have a lot in others. For more tips on writing a personal statement for medicine, I recommend The Student BMJ and The Medic Portal. It may also be worth considering that certain medical schools will have specific things that they look for in personal statements so it can be worth using these as a guide if you know where you want to apply. You can usually find these on university websites, although you might need to do a little digging around! This is the one for UCL and Edinburgh (page 95) although it will differ for each medical school.

If you’re running out of things to write on your personal statement then I recommend reading some medicine-related books, such as those that I mentioned in this blog. A word of warning though, you will most likely be asked about these in interview as they will want to ensure that you didn’t just Google the title. I learnt a couple of cases from both of the books that I mentioned and researched the diseases that the considered so that I could talk about it if I was asked. This also goes for mentioning any specific disorders: I spoke about dementia in my personal statement so I learnt the ins and outs of it just in case I was asked about it at interview.

An alternative way to bulk out your personal statement is to do some MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses). Sites like Future Learn, Coursera and edX have countless healthcare related courses in a wide variety of areas. I completed the UCL/Future Learn course on The Many Faces of Dementia in order to supplement my research into dementia, but there are many others which cover anything from diabetes to autism to antibiotic resistance. Once again, make sure you can actually discuss the course in an interview before you write it in your personal statement.

When writing your personal statement, the key thing is to get as many people to read it as possible. I made my family members, my friends, my form tutor and my UCAS teacher read it and help me improve it. There will likely be at least a dozen drafts before you’re happy for it to be sent off so don’t worry about if your first draft is a trainwreck! The most important thing is that you have something written down so that you can then begin to improve it bit by bit. This is much easier once there is already the foundations of a good personal statement laid out on the page!

How to Prepare for Your Interviews

Each medical school will have their own unique interview process, so whilst I will aim to give you some advice for interview preparation in this section, you will need to look at what is expected of you from each school you’re applying to. It may also be worth mentioning that Oxbridge interviews tend to be totally different to any other medical school interviews and as I don’t have experience of those, I don’t feel qualified to discuss them so I’ll be focusing on . For some school-specific tips, I recommend looking at The Medic Portal (again).

The first thing that you need to know about your interview is whether it will be a MMI (multiple mini interview) or whether it is a traditional panel interview. MMIs will typically feature various stations that are supposed to show certain skills, whilst panel interviews will usually focus on your experiences and personal statement, although some may give you problems to solve.

If it is MMI then you ideally need to find out the type of stations you will face before you go so that you can prepare for them. Some medical schools give people other academic tests that require mathematical or scientific knowledge once they arrive so this is something that you need to be prepared for. Others may have roleplay stations which may seem daunting at first, however they usually require limited to no medical knowledge and just require you to act like yourself (although there are some cruel ones where you have to face crying actors!) so you don’t need to worry too much.

It is also unlikely that MMI interviewers will have read your personal statement so unless there are stations that are specifically related to asking you about it, I wouldn’t worry too much about knowing the ins and outs of it. I would still try and reflect on any work experience that you have done, as they may ask you about the experience you’ve done and how you think it would help you be a better doctor, etc. You should also expect the usual questions of “why medicine” and “why this medical school” as these are usually asked regardless of format.

For standard interviews, I highly recommend that you learn your personal statement down to the details as your interviewers will have most likely read it and they will have questions to ask you about it. As I had mentioned dementia in my statement, I was asked about it in my UCL interview; I had anticipated this and I had already researched various disorders, the causes and treatments so the question didn’t really throw me. Also be prepared to debate your points with the interviewers as they will have more time with you and they want to see how you respond to their counter arguments.

There will most likely be ethical components to any interviews, so once again it is essential that you read up on the four pillars as they are vital to any area of medicine. I also recommend looking up the GMC’s Good Medical Practice as this outlines the key characteristics and duties of a good doctor. It may be worthwhile to look at the NHS Constitution whilst you are preparing too as this can help you when answering any questions regarding the state of the NHS.

Another key thing to do is ensure that you are up to date with the biggest medical stories, including important research or NHS news. I did this by downloading the BBC and the Guardian apps and scrolling through them whilst waiting outside lessons at school or whenever I had a spare moment. I was asked about recent news events at both UCL and HYMS so it is definitely a common topic amongst interviews. The Medical Portal has lots of posts on current hot topics, both in the NHS and in medicine in general.

It may be worthwhile looking up some TED talks or research articles so that you can discuss these in your interviews too. By discussing research that you’ve done outside of school, it shows intellectual curiosity which is something that medical schools like to see in their students. Even if you’re not asked about them explicitly, it never hurts to drop it into your answer as evidence for one of your points.

As for some last minute tips, here’s the things that I have learnt during the application process:

  • Always dress smart – even if the email from the medical suggests that you can dress casually, I can almost guaranteed that everyone else will be wearing a suit/formal clothing
  • Take time to think before answering – some people feel like they have to answer immediately, however interviewers are perfectly aware that you’re nervous and they expect that you need to think about your answer for a few moments before responding
  • Don’t be afraid to ask the interviewer to clarify – they would much rather you asked them to rephrase the question than spend three minutes talking nonsense!
  • Be confident – this doesn’t mean be cocky, but they asked you to come for an interview which means that they think you’re a good candidate for their medical school! In this interview you just need to confirm their beliefs about you and show that you are in fact the right person for the course
  • Make eye contact and don’t fiddle – I’m the kind of person who will fiddle with anything they possibly can, so I went out of my way to make sure that there was nothing around me that I could mess with during my interview (including necklaces, rings, pockets, hair, etc.). It’s important to make eye contact with anyone in the interview whilst answering, although you should try and focus on the person who is asking you the question.

Providing your interviews go well, you should have some offers in which means that you now need to focus on fulfilling them!

Fulfilling Your Offers

Unless you are on a gap year, you will almost definitely have an offer that is conditional on you getting the grades required for medicine alongside some non-academic requirements (like a DBS check, filling out certain forms, etc.). This will usually be AAA or A*AA (A*A*A for Cambridge, although it can be different if you do four or more subjects) and most medical schools will not be lenient if you drop a grade on results day.

Hopefully this should be the easy part (believe it or not)! Providing you have been on top of your revision throughout the year and you have a clear plan set out, you should be well on your way to achieving those A’s and A*’s.

You also need to make sure that you complete any forms that the university sends over to you as they can withdraw your offer if you don’t complete these by the deadline. You may also have to get vaccines prior to starting medical school and you may have your offer withdrawn if you don’t comply with these either.

You also have to complete any subjects that you listed on your UCAS form, even if they are not mentioned in your offer. If you wish to drop this subject after gaining your offer, you need to contact UCAS as well as your universities as they may require that you continue with it despite the fact it wasn’t mentioned in your offer.

Despite the fact that you should be on track for meeting the conditions of your offer, things don’t always go to plan so what do you do if it all goes wrong?

What if it All Goes Wrong?

Many excellent candidates don’t get into medicine the first time around for one reason or another so it’s important that you don’t get discouraged! There are several other options that are still available to you, even if miss the conditions of your offer or you didn’t get any offers to begin with.

The first option is that you go onto a non-medical course that is still related to science in some way. Many people put this course in as their 5th UCAS choice and use it as their insurance offer. If not, there are many biomedical science type courses that go into clearing on results day if you don’t hold any offers for them. If you unsure which course you’d be interested in, I made a post about it here. This shouldn’t be a decision that you take lightly as you’re going to be studying this subject for three years at least so you need to be happy with your choice.

Many people do this with the intention of transferring to the medical course in the second year (FYI, even though some universities offer this, there will likely only be 1-2 places so do not count on this happening!) or going into Graduate Entry Medicine (or regular medicine) afterwards. Both of these options are extremely competitive so you have to prepared to continue in this degree field if you can’t get into medicine.

The second option is to apply for medicine in clearing. This used to be almost unheard of but recently there have been a couple of medical schools that have released places into clearing, although the entry requirements are unlikely to be lower. Once again, you need to consider whether this is the right thing for you as you are going to be studying at this university for a minimum of 5 years so you shouldn’t just rush into it.

Some people also ring up medical schools that rejected them post-interview on results day if they get the minimum grades or higher. However, this is unlikely to be beneficial as many medical schools hold reserve lists of rejected applicants that they will contact if places become available. If you are in the situation where you got interviews but no offers then it may be worth a try, however don’t get your hopes up!

If you miss the grades on results day, you may want to retake the subjects that you missed the grades in. This limits the medical schools that you could reapply to, however there are still a few which will consider you. For example, HYMS now considers students who got AAB and resat an A Level to get AAA. You will likely need to discuss this with your sixth form/college as well as they may require you to do extra courses in order to fill up your hours, etc.

An alternative is to look at medical schools abroad, particularly in Europe. Many European medical schools teach their courses in English (although you’ll definitely need to learn the language for general living and for your clinical years) and their entry requirements may be lower than in the UK. If you’re considering this option, I suggest looking at this page on The Medic Portal.

Your final option is to take a gap year and reapply next year, whether this is for medicine or another course. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing as it allows you to save up for university, gain more work experience and mature. Not to mention the fact that you will have picked up some very useful tips during your round of applications! Many medical school interviewers can instantly spot a gap year applicant as they have a sense of maturity that a lot of sixth formers typically lack, something that is very important for medicine.

TL;DR

I know this was a long post (longer than my EPQ in fact) so here’s a quick summary of everything in here:

  • If in doubt, look at The Medic Portal
  • Applying to medicine is extremely competitive and it’s not uncommon for great candidates to be rejected the first time around
  • If you get to interview, be calm and collected – they know you’re a good potential candidate, now you just have to prove it!
  • Take every single opportunity you can get – experience days with your local medical school, clubs at school, books, online courses! They all fill up your personal statement and give you something to discuss at interview
  • Play to your strengths – if your GCSEs aren’t great, don’t apply to places that rank their applicants by GCSE grades
  • Make sure you know exactly how to tackle the entrance exams and make sure you have plenty of practice beforehand
  • If you don’t get any offers or you miss your offer on results day, it isn’t the end of your medicine dream!

Hopefully this post was helpful to those of you applying for medicine and it answered most of your questions about the application process! If not you can either DM me on Instagram or contact me below:

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