In this series of articles, medical students from across the UK speak about their personal journey to medicine. Owain holds offers to read Undergraduate Medicine at Sheffield and Birmingham Universities; he also had interviews at Sheffield, Birmingham, Leeds and Oxford.
Deciding to to Medicine
Year 10 Work Experience
Up until Year 10 I had put no thought into what I might like to do when I was older. We had a compulsory work experience week in June of Year 10; I first wrote to a couple of law firms (probably only because I had been watching Suits) but didn’t hear anything so I tried various hospitals instead as going into medicine had always been something I thought I may like to do because of my Dad being a doctor and my interest in the sciences. After many frustrating email exchanges with work experience coordinators at various hospitals, I finally got a week’s placement at a hospital in Bristol.
My week consisted of spending a day in a few different areas of the hospital including cardiology, orthopaedics and pre-op. Because I was under 16 I was not allowed in surgery, but nonetheless I got to spend time shadowing doctors and nurses in various clinics and spending time on the wards.
It was a great opportunity to learn more about what being a doctor entailed and whether I liked it, and to improve my communication skills
The week did not put me off medicine, however it was not until after making my A-level choices and getting my GCSE grades that I became fully invested in pursuing it. When making my choices, firstly I wanted to make sure I could do medicine if I decided I wanted to (so I needed Chemistry + another science/maths) *Always check the university websites for up to date information*
Next I crossed off any subjects I was finding particularly horrible to revise for (History, English Literature and Language and Physics in my case) and ones I knew I didn’t want to/couldn’t do because of my GCSEs, leaving me with Biology, Chemistry, Maths and French.
I decided to do Biology, Chemistry and Maths A-Level, plus French AS and EPQ. Biology and Chemistry were my two favourite subjects and ensured I could do medicine; I liked French but thought it would be too difficult to do for two years; I wanted to do an EPQ on a topic related to whatever university course I decided to do; and although I didn’t love Maths, I was getting good grades and honestly I didn’t know what else I would do (on reflection I think I should’ve done something I was more interested in like sociology or economics). Even at this point I was still not firmly set with medicine, but I made my choices with the thought in the back of my head that I might like to.
The final ‘nail in the coffin’ to make me decide to pursue medicine was getting my GCSE results. Achieving seven 9s and three 8s gave me the confidence that I had a chance of getting the A-levels to get in.
Preparing for my Application
The ongoing and most important part of your preparation for applying to Medicine must be to engage properly with your A-level courses to ensure you can get the best results possible.
There is no point getting loads of offers if you then miss the conditions of your offer (ranging in my experience from A*A*A to ABB).
Work experience is another important and helpful way to prepare for your application.
It gives you experience of healthcare which you can talk about in your personal statement and interviews.
I was lucky to have support from my school with this, as well as from my Dad with some of the links he has with doctors he knows. However, I also gained many experiences without any help by being proactive, so I want to stress that you do not need links to doctors to get work experience. Here is a list of all the placements I went on
Year 10 five-day hospital placement (organised myself)
Weekly volunteering in the activities team at a nursing home (organised myself)
Year 12 hospital work experience (organised through school)
“A day in the life of a doctor” lecture at Bristol Uni in year 12 (applied online after school told us about it)
One day placement in histopathology in year 12 (organised myself after speaking to a doctor at the lecture event above)
One day in a biochemistry lab at Bristol Uni (organised through school)
Three-day placement in a GP practice summer after year 12 (organised by my Dad through a friend of his)
Attend monthly meetings of my local Patient Participation Group (organised myself after a friend told me about it)
If you read my personal statement article, you will see how all these experiences gave me lots of interesting examples to talk about in my personal statement. They were also very useful during my interviews. For example, I was once asked ‘tell me about a time you helped someone’. Now I could have talked about helping a younger student struggling with maths during my tutoring at school, but having my experience in a nursing home gave me a more healthcare-centred answer allowing me to be more insightful.
This follows on to another important point: hospital work experience is by no means essential or the only form of work experience you can do. I got a couple of hospital and GP placements, but also used my initiative to get experience volunteering in a nursing home, join a patient participation group and secure a histopathology placement.
However proactive you are you may still find it impossible to find any healthcare-based experience and this is where getting involved in as many other activities as possible becomes important. For example, I was asked in interview “tell me about a time you’ve worked in a team” and I was able to talk about my Gold Duke of Edinburgh expedition. Here is a list of the other things I have done that came in handy when writing my personal statement and at interview to display my qualities:
Duke of Edinburgh award
Volunteering at my swimming club and going on to get my Level One teaching qualification
Volunteering at school tutoring students in Educational support and Maths
Part-time job working in a gym kids club
Got involved in the Sixth Form Committee at school and got elected Vice-Chair
Became Deputy Head Student
Ran a Medical Society at school to help students in Year 12 with their medicine applications
The next important part of the application process is the medicine entrance exams. It’s an important stepping stone to getting a place at medical school that unfortunately can’t be avoided.
I wanted to apply to Oxford, so I had to do the BMAT as well as the UCAT. I first focussed on the UCAT. I ignored preparation until the start of the summer holidays, revised pretty much non-stop and did it at the end of the fourth week of the summer holidays.
I would recommend trying to do your UCAT as far back during the summer holidays as possible.
This gives you lots of time to focus solely on your UCAT preparation because it would be very difficult to juggle UCAT prep with school work at the end of Year 12, and similarly I wouldn’t leave it until term starts in year 13 as equally the start of this year will be very intense. My style was to study flat out for four weeks and this worked well for me but if you prefer to do little and often, you should start much earlier.
The key to UCAT prep is practice.
There is a small amount of learning you can ‘revise’ at the start such as the different question types and strategies for each, but you must dedicate the rest of your time to practice questions to find the strategies that work best for you. My main preparation tool was a computer programme I bought (for about £60) called Medify. This has lots of individual questions for each different section of the UCAT, mini timed tests for each section, as well as the all-important full mock tests. I found this to be money well-spent but equally, you by no means need to spend that much (or anything). There are books you can buy (or borrow) with thousands of practice questions and mock tests as well as lots of free resources on the UCAT website.
The BMAT is a very different beast and my advice would be to only do it if you really want to go to a university that requires it. I did mine at school in October of Year 13 and because I dedicated all of my summer to UCAT prep I was left with only September and October for BMAT prep. This may seem like a long time but when you are juggling schoolwork as well, you are not left with much time. Therefore, if you do decide to take the BMAT, don’t be like me and try and fit some BMAT prep into summer; my failure to do this meant I did not perform very well in my BMAT (I got an interview at Oxford and Leeds but did not receive an offer from either and feedback from Oxford showed that my poor BMAT score was part of the reason for this).
Another important thing to try and do as much as possible of is wider reading. Not only can this help with your A level curricula, but reading will also be something interesting you can talk about in your personal statement and at interview.
Extra reading shows commitment and academic engagement
Here is a list of some of the things I read:
This is Going to Hurt - Adam Kay
Nine Pints – Rose George
Bad Science – Ben Goldacre
The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat – Oliver Sacks
Life at the Extremes – Frances Ashcroft
When Breath Becomes Air – Paul Kalanithi
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks – Rebecca Skloot
The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing – Richard Dawkins
War Doctor – David Nott
It’s much better to pick one or two of the books you’ve read to maybe read again or do some reading around before your interviews than to know a little bit about 100 books
However, an important point here is that of all these books, I only mentioned one, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, in my personal statement and interviews. Therefore you should favour quality over quantity. Interviewers expect you to be literate so there is absolutely no point simply listing all the cool books you’ve read; they are far more interested in what you think about the book and what it taught you about medicine.
Applying and Interviews
Choosing Where to Apply
The way I did this was to copy a list of all the medical schools in the country into a spreadsheet and fill in columns of information for each by looking at their website (I was told to be wary of ‘Medic Portal’ as their information is not always up to date). My columns were:
Course type (traditional/integrated/PBL)
Exam type (UCAT/BMAT)
Interview type (MMI/panel)
Application to place ratio
Ranking (from the complete uni guide)
Anatomy teaching (dissection/prosection/models etc.)
Distance from home in the car
I then colour coded the universities with red for ‘definitely not’, amber for ‘maybe’ and green for ‘definitely yes’.
The way you decide which universities you put which colour is completely down to you but for me the most important things were the course structure (I liked the traditional course at Oxford and the systems-based integrated courses at Sheffield, Leeds and Birmingham*), what the city is like (from going to an open day, researching on the internet or speaking to friends and family), how they teach anatomy (e.g. Exeter only using models put me off*), and finally a cursory glance at their ranking (however I was always told that all medical schools are good so there is no need to look too much into their ranking; for reference I applied to medical schools ranked 1st, 18th, 19th and 28th). There are loads of universities so the most important thing here is to try and rule as many out as possible, leaving a small group that you might be able to go and visit or research online to get a feel for and narrow it down further.
Interviews are the final hurdle to getting into medical school. I had interviews at Oxford, Sheffield, Birmingham and Leeds. Sheffield, Leeds and Birmingham were MMI interviews. For these you need to be prepared to answer questions on things like:
Medical ethics and the GMC
Why you want to be a doctor
Your work experience
Qualities needed to be a good doctor and medical student and how you match up in that regard (i.e. teamwork, stress, dealing with failure, empathy, communication etc.)
Why you chose that medical school
Calculation (maths) and role-play stations
There are many ways to go about this preparation. Sheffield gave us all the questions we were going to be asked in advance which meant I spent lots of time writing model answers and reciting them in the mirror. Unfortunately this is not commonplace, but you can do the same with common questions that are likely to come up which you can find in books and on the internet.
Mock interviews are the gold-standard of practice and certainly helped me learn about some of the common questions, as well as become much less nervous when it came to the real thing
I was lucky that our careers advisor at school set up a few mock interviews for us, and a group at Bristol Uni near me also held a mock MMI evening. If you cannot find such opportunities, ask your teachers, family and friends to help by giving them some common questions to ask you. Even if they are unlikely to be able to give you much feedback from a medical point of view, the practice will be a great help.
Oxford was, much like the BMAT, a different beast. I had three 20-ish minute long interviews with two academics, students or doctors at each of the two colleges I had interviews at. The main difference with Oxford is that the interviews are more personalised. Whereas MMIs are by their very nature standardised (everyone gets asked the exact same questions), panel interviews can go in very different directions prompted by something you wrote in your personal statement, something ‘sciencey’ such as a graph or diagram, or an ethical scenario. The main advice I was given was to ensure I always showed my line of thinking as I answered; they are trying to push your knowledge until you don’t know, and it is at this point that they are interested to see how your brain works. The other advice I got was that you will not be penalised for not knowing a bit of science and that they are more interested in how you react in this scenario, but equally (and confusingly) you should ensure you refresh your A-level learning, as the feedback I requested from Oxford credited my “lack of core knowledge” as a reason for my application being unsuccessful.
I am writing this during the coronavirus lockdown. This has proved a unique time and I have spent it relaxing and doing lots of the things I didn’t have time to do when I was revising all the time such as doing some (non-medical) reading, work with my local Labour party and gardening!
I am also looking into seeing if I can do some volunteering at my local food bank
It is very strange that after all the work I have put in I may be unable to go to medical school as normal in September. The first problem is grades. I think my teacher-estimated grades for Biology and Chemistry should be good enough, but I am worried that Maths may be my downfall! I am also not rejoicing at the prospect of possibly starting my course online, at the cost of £9,000 a year, so I am hoping that if this becomes the plan, I would be able to defer and start the year after instead.
I hope this has been helpful and good luck!