Zheqing's Journey (Oxford University)
In this series of articles, medical students from across the UK and the world speak about their personal journey to studying at a UK medical school. Zheqing has an offer to read Undergraduate Medicine at Oxford University.
Hi! I’m Zheqing (or ZQ) from Singapore, quite an unconventional appearance on this UK-dominated site, I would say. I am extremely blessed to have been offered a place to read Medicine at the University of Oxford starting October 2020.
The thing about my experience which sets me apart is undoubtedly my background. Deciding to apply for one of the most competitive courses at one of the most prestigious universities in the world was something like the Apollo 11—an almost fantastical shot for the moon. Many seniors advised against pursuing an overseas medical degree. After all, why would you want to spend ten times the money when you can get the same degree in Singapore, with one year less of school and earlier exposure to the local healthcare system? The adventurous and foolhardy me was not to be swayed, however.
My interest in medicine goes way back to my childhood because my parents had studied medicine (albeit in China, so they couldn’t practise in Singapore), and I was simply intrigued by this enigmatic field. As I grew older, that childish passion turned into ever deeper introspection. I was so perturbed by the idea that people were dying every day and that one day, I, too, would succumb to finitude. Despite not having endured the death of a loved one, I began thinking about mortality and the meaning of life.
Reading books written by renowned physician-writers such as Paul Kalanithi and Atul Gawande reinforced the conviction that medicine would be my future path. In those volumes, I saw something extraordinary. Medicine is the intersection of life and death, of art and science, of humanity and technology. It is where the latest advancements in science and technology are brought into close contact with patients, and where healing takes place not just in the form of physical disease, but also in the spirit of human compassion.
One of my all-time favourite quotes related to medicine is by Sir William Osler, who famously proclaimed:
“The good physician treats the disease; the great physician treats the patient who has the disease.” - Sir William Osler
This resonates deeply with me as I have always hoped that the fruits of scientific research can be maximised in service of others, where all the knowledge carried in my mind can be displayed in tandem with the kindness of my heart to create a tectonic impact.
Due to my unique background, I’ll give you a quick insight into the education system and national examinations in Singapore. Almost everyone takes the Singapore-Cambridge General Certificate of Education Ordinary Level (GCE O-Level) which is akin to GSCE’s in the UK, but I didn’t because I was part of the Integrated Programme, meaning that my secondary school was affiliated with my Junior College (which equals Sixth Form). In the transition from secondary school to JC, I simply took my school’s internal exams.
As a Science stream student, I knew I would continue taking mainly Science subjects for A Levels. My A-Level subjects were Biology, Chemistry and Maths, plus General Paper, Project Work and China Studies in Chinese (my contrasting humanities subject). I also took H3 Biology (an additional subject) in my second year of JC. If you’re curious about what exactly that entails, you can read my blog; I will not bore you with the details here.
Unlike in the UK, where work experience programmes are rife, there are very few such dedicated programmes for aspiring medical students in Singapore, unless you have connections (family, friends or relatives) working in hospitals, or if you apply early for the few available hospital job shadowing opportunities, which only last two to three days. Due to my busy schedule and overseas immersion trips (as a bicultural studies student), I failed to complete such an attachment before my applications.
As such, I didn't have any hospital work experience. Nonetheless, I have been a regular volunteer-carer at a hospice for the past two years, and this became considered as my work experience, which I was asked about (twice!) in my Oxford interviews.
For four hours every Saturday, I helped the nurses with changing, cleaning and turning the patients, keeping them safe, bringing them around in wheelchairs, and sitting with or talking to them to keep them company. When there was not much to do or when the patients were asleep, I would stock up the supplies in the cupboards, pushing a trolley around the entire ward. Since I always volunteered at the same ward, I became friends with almost all the nurses there and could remember most of them by name. The patients came and went, however, and the impermanence of hospice life dawned on me as the weeks flew by. I came to see that life is short, but that we can make the end of each life filled with peace and love.
To prospective applicants, I think the most important thing is not how many hospitals or departments you have been to, but rather the passion and learning behind your experience. One habit I kept was to write reflections after each volunteering session, almost like a diary, which became a valuable store of memories and lessons when the time came to write my personal statement.
To broaden my perspective and understand what a medical course and career would really involve, I attended a three-day symposium (the National Healthcare-Medical Symposium) organised by my school in conjunction with the NUS Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine and SingHealth. The year after that, I was privileged to be one of the few students in my school to be given the chance to attend the inaugural Anatomy and Physiology Workshop organised by the NTU Lee Kong Chian School of Medicine (the only other undergraduate medical school in my country). Both experiences made an appearance in my personal statement.
Speaking of which, I started writing my personal statement in early August to meet the 15 October UCAS deadline. Fortunately, my school had an experienced Education and Career Guidance (ECG) department, which allowed us to submit drafts for vetting by our schoolteachers. They also held talks and workshops for personal statement writing, which helped me to understand the expected content and structure. However, I know not all students are fortunate enough to have access to such resources, which is why I’ve been sharing tips and experience on my blog, in hopes of levelling the playing field.
Since I was intent on Oxford, my personal statement was much more academically-oriented than most, in which I gushed about my intellectual curiosity and passion for medicine, with only a single paragraph on extra-curriculars. For other medical schools, you may wish to increase the proportion of extra-curriculars slightly to show that you’re a well-rounded individual. Starting early is crucial as you’ll have to go through several drafts and editing to fit your personal statement within the 4000-character limit.
Try to imbue an element of who you are into your writing and let your personality shine through as this will form the admissions officers’ first and only impression of you as a person, besides your academic results.
Choosing Medical Schools
When confronted with medical school choices, I was essentially debating between Oxford and Cambridge. This wasn’t because I was arrogant enough to think that I was too good for the other schools, but because as an international student who was ineligible for financial aid and student loans, I felt that it made no sense for me to spend half a million dollars on an overseas degree which was not crème de la crème.
Another factor to consider when choosing your school is their teaching style, which includes traditional, integrated and PBL (problem-based learning). I know there’s all this hype around more “modern” and “21st-century” paradigms, but I was personally attracted to the small-group tutorial system in Oxford and the fact that students are constantly challenged to think for themselves. I concede there may be a slight disadvantage in terms of delayed patient exposure, since the course is clearly delineated into three pre-clinical and three clinical years, as opposed to integrated courses where scientific knowledge is delivered alongside clinical training.
The main point, I think, is to find a course structure that suits you and appeals to you most.
Somehow, I knew instinctively that Oxford was right for me. It wasn’t just the medical course, but also the vibe of the city and the colleges scattered all over it (I was lucky to have visited on an immersion trip two years before applying).
If you have the chance, you should go for the schools’ open days to get a feel of the atmosphere before deciding! If you’re an international student like me, you can either visit on your travels or look through their websites.
In the end, right before my UCAS submission, my parents expressed their incredulity at my “Oxford only” mindset and persuaded me to add Imperial and UCL, two other medical schools which accept BMAT (since I wasn’t planning on taking the UCAT). Eventually, I got interview invitations from Oxford and Imperial. I went for my Oxford interviews in mid-December 2019, flying halfway around the world in pursuit of my somewhat ludicrous dream. I had four interviews over two consecutive days (with two at each college). Each interview was conducted by two to three professors, all looking remarkably knowledgeable and distinguished.
Honestly, the interviews were both the toughest and most exciting part of the application process. Having no idea what to expect, I relied on my sole resource—the Internet—and spent the two weeks immediately after my A Levels preparing for the interviews. Mostly, I just read news articles and books related to medicine and healthcare.
I found YouTube videos by past applicants to be quite useful too, as they provided candid and accurate renditions of interview experiences. Oxbridge interviews are more like academic discussions than conventional interviews.
Besides the common questions, I also revised my A-Level Biology and Chemistry and tried answering questions from past Oxbridge interviews (none of which appeared in my own interviews, obviously). The benefit you derive from this preparation is not learning the model answers, but rather learning how to respond to unpredictability and explain your thought process clearly.
I know many candidates suffer from nerves and fail to perform to their fullest potential, but surprisingly, I was quite fearless because I had prepared well. Besides, it was such a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and all I wanted to do was enjoy myself thoroughly so that I could look back with a fond smile, even if I didn’t eventually get in! The interviewers were kind, but the questions were unforgiving. Still, t