In this series of articles, medical students from across the UK speak about their personal journey to medicine. Ellen is an undergraduate medical student at Brighton and Sussex Medical School.
Hello! My name is Ellen and I’m a medical student at Brighton and Sussex Medical School. We’ve finished early because of the current COVID-19 situation, and although we still have online lectures and exams, I have a lot of extra time on my hands. I thought I’d take this time to explain my experience of sixth form and getting into medical school to you all!
I am from the Wirral, which is near Liverpool (a long journey to Brighton!). I went to a comprehensive school, and although my school was highly supportive of the few of us who applied to do medicine, it definitely wasn’t a school that churned out medics. My parents didn’t go to university, and although my family does consist of a few NHS workers, I have no close family members who are medics.
Medicine was a bit of a rogue choice for me. I remember my auntie hinting to me in Year 10 to become a doctor - at that point I was not interested in science at all, and instead wanted to do film or drama! (Side point: I still do theatre at medical school if you're wondering!) When it came to GCSEs, I realised that I was actually pretty good at school, particularly science. This is when I started thinking about university.
I knew I didn’t want to do a straight up science, and I wanted to find a middle ground between science and humanities.
I thought about doing anthropology or similar for a while, but the academic challenge of a medical career particularly appealed to me, so I decided to apply to medicine.
For AS level, I did Biology, Chemistry, Maths and History. Looking back, I wish I did something like Politics or Philosophy instead of Maths. I thought after getting an A* in GCSE maths I’d be good at it, and it would “look better on a medicine application” - a myth! My first year of A-Levels was okay, but I don’t think I realised how hard I had to work, and maybe subconsciously became a bit complacent after doing well in GCSEs. I ended up with BBBB, and although it was better than I expected, looking on student room obsessively at AS level results day threads made me doubt my abilities a lot!
When it came to Year 13, I dropped maths. I put a lot of pressure on myself to get 3 As, and I was convinced I wouldn’t get into medicine first try.
I seriously stepped up my game, and ended up getting A*AA, with my A* in Biology.
I credit this to finding a study style that worked for me - I used a LOT of past papers to learn how to answer questions, and repetition to make things stick. I also used Tailored Tutors online videos for Biology, which I credit my A* to.
Finding medical work experience was particularly hard for me - I had no doctors in my close family, so I didn’t have any inside passes
Luckily, my school was part of a scheme with the local NHS trust that gave aspiring medics a week’s work experience around different hospitals and specialities. During this week, I was able to shadow a mastectomy, an outpatient orthopaedic clinic and a breast cancer clinic amongst others. Although it wasn’t months of work experience, I was able to reflect on these experiences in my personal statement and use them to give good examples about what is involved in the job of a doctor, and what qualities they need to have. I believe that it’s much more about quality than quantity when it comes to medical work experience.
I was also lucky enough that my auntie was a research scientist working at eye and ageing science. At the time research wasn’t something I considered doing. However, looking back now, it was a valuable insight into how multifaceted a medical career can be, as my auntie also worked with ophthalmologists and other medics.
I also volunteered in a kitchen of a local hospice. Although I wasn’t shadowing doctors, I was speaking to patients in their final weeks, even days of life.
It was a valuable insight into palliative care, although I was just serving meals.
Doing some form of volunteering is particularly important for a personal statement - whether it’s in a hospice, care home or working with children.
Throughout sixth form, I held a job as a customer assistant in a cinema. Honestly, I think that this was probably the biggest learning experience for me out of all my work experience and extra-curriculars
Any sort of customer service job can show you the best and worst of humanity, and you can twist it around in personal statements and interviews to give examples of qualities needed as a doctor. (For example, working in a team under pressure, resilience, interpersonal relationships, adapting your approach to customers of different age groups)
In my interviews I spoke more about this job than I did about my medical work experience!
I took part in two medical school residentials in Year 12, which were free because my school qualified for Outreach Programmes. My first one was with Lancaster University, and my second one was with the Social Mobility Programme. I loved them both, as I got to talk to current medical students, learn about what medical school involved, and most importantly network with others who were applying to medicine. I’m still friends with people I met on these programmes who are now also in medical school, and it created a nice support network when I was applying.
If your school does qualify for these types of residentials or outreach programmes, I’d definitely recommend getting involved.
Some also offer guaranteed interview schemes (like the one I did with Lancaster).
I also took part in the NCS Programme in the summer of year 11, which is a classic to talk about in your personal statements and interviews. It shows good examples of working as a team, such as having to organise events to raise money for a charity as part of the social action project during the programme. It’s also good to do if you want to work with young people on the NCS programme in the future, as I now have a summer job working as a team leader for NCS. (Although maybe this summer is a bit optimistic!)
During sixth form, I was Deputy Head Girl in Year 13. Another classic to speak about in personal statements and interviews!
The role was great as it gave me the opportunity to show leadership and again, team work skills
I also took part in a Mental Health First Aid Programme with CAMHS, where we were required to give an age-appropriate lesson to Year 10s about mental health problems.
It was challenging to keep the class engaged, but any form of teaching to younger students is a good experience, especially if you want to get involved in medical education as a medical student!
I related the experiences that I talked about above to various qualities that make up a good doctor. For example - the doctor as a scientist, sensitive communication and interpersonal skills, working in a multi-disciplinary team, professionalism and recognising your limitations.
I focused on the importance of treating patients holistically by also taking into account socio-economic deprivation, as I once shadowed a community paediatrician who advocated for a newly-homeless patient by writing a letter to the local council, demanding they be placed in social housing. This experience stuck out to me a lot, so I really wanted to include it in my personal statement one way or another.
My advice on personal statements is don’t just do the formula that everyone else is doing because you’re scared that your interests won’t look good. Don’t worry if you aren’t a sporty person, or you haven’t volunteered abroad in your gap year, etcetera.
You can shape almost any work experience to show that you recognise what qualities are needed in a doctor, and why you’d be suited as one
It’s all about quality over quantity - show good reflection on your clinical experiences, no matter how much or little you have! Equally, still try to include buzz-words such as MDT and interpersonal skills, as however cringe-worthy it may be looking back on my personal statement, important buzz words are what universities may look for.
UKCAT and BMAT
My UKCAT was very average, even below average - 632.5. I did every practice question on Medify, so I was very disappointed! Please don’t get disheartened if you don’t get in the 700s. It’s still very possible to get offers and get into medical school. Although Bristol rejected me, I got an interview from Liverpool, another UKCAT school. I liked the BMAT better as it wasn’t completely an ‘on the day’ situation where you could practice for months and still do average (Like the UKCAT!). I did better in the BMAT, which was lucky because I applied to BSMS as a wild card, hoping that my BMAT would be above their threshold. For the BMAT, I used the 700 BMAT questions book.
Interviews and Offers
I applied to BSMS, Liverpool, Lancaster and Bristol. I chose these universities strategically, based on my UKCAT and BMAT scores as well as my GCSEs and A-levels. For example, I got 6A*s 3As and a distinction* at GCSE, which although was good for my school cohort, meant that I couldn’t apply to some places. Please do your research on what different medical schools require and apply strategically, as this makes a big difference!
I got interviews from all but Bristol, and offers from BSMS and Liverpool. My BSMS interview, which was my first interview, went much better than I expected - I got a phone call later on that day to give me an offer! After that, I felt more relaxed as I really liked BSMS when I attended the interview day - it seemed much ‘chiller’ than other medical schools. I debated between BSMS and Liverpool for a long time. My advice with interviews is do a lot of research on the NHS, current medical affairs and medical ethics issues. Also, prepare an example from your work experience/extracurriculars for each personal quality they could potentially ask about, such as teamwork, leadership and communication.
Having knowledge on the medical school course, as well it's the area and it’s specific medical issues is also helpful
What happens if I don’t get in?
I am extremely lucky to say that I got into medical school first try. However, many of my friends and cohort at medical school did not take the same route as I did. Many took gap years (both out of choice and to resit) or had previous degrees. I also know some who have completely changed career paths, and taken an access course later on in life.
Going straight from school is NOT the only way to get into medicine!
It’s easy for me to say, but if you know you want to do medicine, DO NOT GIVE UP! It does not mean that you aren’t suited to medical school and medicine if you don’t get any offers. There are so many ways into medicine. I’d recommend reading articles on The Aspiring Medics from people who didn’t come straight from school and looking up YouTubers who didn’t get in first try for some inspiration - I've started my own which you can find here.
Brighton & Sussex Medical School