In this series of articles, medical students from across the UK speak about their personal journey to medicine. Katie is an undergraduate medical student at Sheffield Medical School
Hello! My name is Katie, I am a medical student in Sheffield, just starting my 4th year of medicine but 5th year of university after intercalating last year – so it’s been a while, but this article will describe my experience of sixth form and getting into medical school.
I am from a small village in North Wales. I went to a normal state school in a normal town. I am neither the first nor last student from my school to do medicine at university, but equally my school wasn’t a production line for Oxbridge medical students. Another note: I went straight from school to university, no gap year. I can only speak from my own experience, and I hope this is helpful if yours is a similar story to mine, or at least a bit interesting if it is nothing like, or at least a bit interesting if it is nothing like.
Picking A Levels
I did the standard: 3 sciences and maths, dropping physics after AS levels. This was mainly because I liked those subjects, I was good at them, and my school science department was my favourite place to be. My advice for picking subjects would be to do chemistry and biology (unless there is a real reason why you don’t want to or can’t do them, even if the medical school you want to go to doesn’t specify them, I found the base knowledge extremely useful for starting first year). Besides these, it really is up to you – pick things you are good at and won’t despise when you’re knee deep in revision.
The jump between GCSEs and A Levels
The jump is real. I was told there would be a jump, but I had always done well at school without much effort, so my expectations for the step up were not entirely accurate. I may have been aware of the jump, but I had not been given any advice for how to make it.
Approach them like you have any other thing you want to do well in. If you are struggling, speak to the teachers, find a way that works for you, and it will click if you want it to and help yourself. Above all, be kind to yourself.
The main message here is: don’t worry if you get a D in the first physics test of the year, it is new and different and you’re allowed to not be perfect straight away.
Picking where to apply
Write a list of all the medical schools available to you. Then go through and cross them off based on your own criteria: this might be location, subjects needed, their teaching style, anything that differentiates them. Visit as many as you want to: it is nice to have visited a place before you apply, but it’s not always possible, and it’s not the end of the world if the first visit is for interview – their website and a google search will give you any information about the university which might be helpful for interviews. Eventually you should have a shortlist of places you want to apply and think you have a chance of getting in to.
Importantly: you can make the most of anywhere. Ask anyone who enjoyed their university experience and they are extremely likely to say that their university city was the best, and their course was perfect for them – don’t worry if you don’t get your first choice, you can (and will) still thoroughly enjoy the experience.
I did the bulk of my work experience in the summer between year 12 and 13, please don’t feel pressure to do months and months of hospital work experience from the age of 10. I do not come from a family of doctors willing to let me observe open heart surgery – the goal of work experience is more about seeing what is involved in being a doctor, rather than the technicalities. It is about seeing and identifying the skills needed to be a good doctor, and that can come from work experience, but it can also come from having a job, speaking to family members about their experience in hospital, or reading articles about it in the BMJ (other reputable sources are available).
Jobs and the extracurriculars
As I said above, the goal is to show you appreciate what being a doctor entails, and whether you appreciate what it takes to be a good one. This can come from jobs and extra curriculars.
I think I might be one of the only medical students to have not done Duke of Edinburgh (not even bronze, tents are not my thing). If you like that kind of thing, that’s great; it shows teamwork, resilience and leadership, but so does a part time job in retail or hospitality. You don’t need to complete the “Overachiever Tick List” (grade 8 in four instruments, play sport for your county, and run a support group for elderly people in your community, just to name a few). You do, however, need to display a range of useful transferable skills, but it is up to you where these come from.
For example, I worked in a clothes shop at weekends, ran craft club in a primary school, and played a couple of sports in my dinner times at school – organisation, communication, hard work: tick tick tick.
Everyone is different and it is so much better to do a few things properly, rather than filling up your week so much that you begin to resent the things you used to do for fun.
The personal statement
The single biggest help for my personal statement was the notes app on my phone. From about halfway through year 12, I had a notes document where I would either bullet point or write rough paragraphs about things I thought might be useful for my personal statement. This could be well worded sentences I thought of on the school bus, someone I spoke to in work that I could relate back to medicine, or even a good answer to the dreaded “Why medicine?” question. This might seem excessive, and by the end of the summer when I started to collate it properly, I had pages and pages of content. I had written about the same things multiple times with different wording, and the vast majority of it got cut or changed dramatically – but starting with a 4 page Word Document of bullet points and half-sentences is SO much easier than a blank screen.
Other than that; send to everyone you know who will look at it and suggest changes, read it out loud and see which parts work best and what needs changing, and get the English teachers to look at your spelling and grammar. Then when you are vaguely happy with it, send it off before you begin to hate it (don’t doubt me, you will hate it at multiple points, but trust it).
It is horrible. You send off your UCAS application way before your friends, and normally hear back way after them. Unfortunately, this can’t be helped, and you just have to get through it. Focus on what happens the other side, and plan something nice to do when you finally send it off.
For me, this was the scariest bit. Going to a new place with new people, all of whom seem to have a million times more experience than you. That is fine, you can only do your best, and I have found that there is a lot of bravado in these situations, so you’re not falling behind already.
I know that currently in Sheffield (I’m not sure about other places), the interview stations and questions are released in advance. This is intended to level the playing field: some schools will be used to sending half their students to medical school and therefore can anticipate the questions, some don’t and knowing what to prepare for is a way of bringing everyone to the same level. It might be tempting to write out and learn your answers by heart. It’s good to know what you want to say, but robots don’t make very good doctors, it is better to have a good idea of things to say, while staying natural and able to adapt if they ask you a follow up question.
Do what you need to do: if you need to spend the morning before the interview in silence, reading the news just in case someone asks you about current affairs, then do that. If you want to practice your answers in the mirror, do that. Often the medical schools have narrowed down the cohort before interview, and then it is a last hurdle to check you’re a good person. Be friendly, smiley, don’t talk over others, and you will do yourself proud.
For multiple mini interviews, my biggest piece of advice, an easier-said-than-done one, is to take each station as a separate event. If you have a bad station, or get flustered on a question, it will only be a few minutes until you can move on, have a breather and move to the next.
I know this doesn’t seem realistic, but try to stay calm. My dad gave me some brilliant advice (and it applies to lots of situations, so feel free to adopt it and maybe even put it on a t shirt) – when you’re crying the night before saying you don’t want to do it, he says “well then, don’t go, what happens then?”. You quickly realise that, as much as you don’t want to have to do the interview/exam/presentation, it is a means to an end and the other side is where you want to be.
Getting the grades
There is no easy answer to this one. Often the final hurdle at the end of a very long and stressful year of applications. Try not to neglect it throughout the year, if you keep on top of it around the rest of your application, it makes it more manageable. Work by yourself, work in groups, whatever works for you.
Try hard, tackle problems before they grow beyond help, and be kind to yourself.
What happens if I don’t get in?
It might seem like the end of the world, but I promise you it isn’t. I know so many people who got to medical school from a different route. I am in a cohort with school leavers, people who took gap years (both out of choice or because they had to reapply), graduates and people who worked for years and then decided to go into medicine. There are so many options besides the conventional application story: if you want it enough, you can try a different route.
My number one piece of advice (if you can) is to plan something brilliant for the summer after all this application chaos is over. Go on holiday with friends or family, spend six weeks in the garden with a library of novels, learn to cook before you go on your university adventure – whatever you do, it has likely been a long year and you deserve it.
You have got this x