If you are reading this blog post, hurray! You have not let the current debate about the new junior doctor contract put you off the thought of medical school. This is the first step on the way to studying Medicine in the UK – it shows commitment to a medical career, despite challenging circumstances, and this is a quality that would recommend you to the university admissions teams. On the other hand, if you simply have missed the conflict regarding the new contract that the government is advocating, perhaps you should read up on this before making any definite decisions!
In all seriousness, however, it is important for you to have a realistic understanding of the current demands and challenges facing the medical profession; not just to meet the university selection process, but also to decide if this really is the career for you. Have you balanced up the rewards of working in a caring and intellectually challenging profession, against the challenges of long working hours, uncertainty over salary and working within a health care system chronically short on funding? If you have come out in favour of continuing along this career path, welcome to the fold! If you are still unsure, there are plenty of resources that can help you to make your decision and now is the perfect time to start using these, regardless of whether you are applying for entry to Medicine in 2017, or further on in the years to come.
How to find out if Medicine is for you?
My advice, as a doctor who works for a company called the MSAG (the Medical School Application Guide), which supports applicants in successfully applying to medical school in the UK and in English in the rest of the world, is to first have a chat with a doctor you know. This doctor could be a friend, relative or even your own GP. Ask them what they do on a day-to-day basis; what they enjoy most about their job; and what is difficult about their role. Many schools can help their students to gain work experience in the field of Medicine, but it is even better to take the initiative and email hospitals and GP surgeries yourself to arrange specific work experience that appeals to you, from which you will gain the most value. Seeking your own work experience also demonstrates to your chosen medical school, that you have initiative, an important quality in a doctor.
Which medical schools to choose (a huge consideration!)?
When you have made the decision that Medicine is the right career path for you, the next stage in the process is to consider the medical schools to which you would like to apply. In the UK, although all medical school courses will lead to a primary medical degree and provisional registration with the General Medical Council (GMC) to allow you to practise Medicine as a Foundation Doctor; there is a lot of variation between the different courses. The first consideration is probably your likelihood of getting a place on a particular medical degree course, as each university will prioritise different aspects of your application. For example, some universities, such as Queen’s University Belfast, put a lot of emphasis on academic record, such as GCSE results. Others, such as the University of Nottingham, place a high value on applicants’ UKCAT scores (or the score in other admissions exams). Some medical schools will place more emphasis on work and voluntary experience, or extracurricular activities.
It is also important to realise that medical schools are trying to widen participation, so that they can train doctors who have come from disadvantaged backgrounds and bring more opportunity and diversity to the profession. For example, if a candidate has attended a school that has below average results in general, they may be eligible to apply to certain medical programmes, with grades lower than students who have attended schools that typically have higher than average results at GCSE and A level.
So, perhaps surprisingly, being smart about which schools you apply to, can have a huge impact on your likelihood of success in securing a place at medical school. Early research is therefore important, as you may need time to meet the criteria of medical schools to which you are applying. Things that you need to begin thinking about early include which admission exam, or exams, you will need to take; what work and/or voluntary experience you will need; and also what the medical schools’ admission teams are going to be looking for in your personal statement. Writing a personal statement in retrospect is unlikely to be as successful as if you plan ahead to take part in activities which will increase your chances of getting into medical school. Your personal statement is there to highlight your achievements and experiences, and gives the admissions team clues to your leadership abilities, team-working skills, communication skills and your maturity of thought – that is, what you have learned through your experiences and how you have applied this learning. One of the MSAG services is helping candidates to create their personal statements in a way that stands out, not just using ‘buzz words’, but helping them to portray their own experiences in a meaningful way.
Another consideration for choosing the medical schools to which you apply, is also how the course is taught and structured. There are traditional lecture and classroom-based taught courses; courses with a focus on Problem-Based Learning (where students prepare for each session beforehand and try to find solutions to clinical problems with the assistance of a facilitator); systems-based courses which may use a variety of teaching and learning methods to focus in depth on the different anatomical and physiological systems, e.g. the cardiovascular system; also there are integrated courses, which use a combination of the above course structures. It is useful to reflect on how you learn – for example, are you someone who prefers to direct your own learning and come together in class later to discuss what you have learnt? In which case, Problem-Based Learning (PBL) may be perfect for you. Or perhaps you prefer a lot of contact with teachers and lecturers and absorb a concept someone is explaining to you, better than you would from reading it in a book. In which case, the traditional or integrated teaching courses may suit you the best. Are you looking for a course which teaches you the theory of what you need to know before starting your clinical placements in hospital, or would you prefer a course with early patient contact, in which you learn the theory and the practical and communication skills needed to be a doctor alongside each other? All of these factors, will not only help you make an informed choice about where to apply; they will also help you to rationalise your decision when you get to the interview stage of application (a favourite interview question is: ‘Why would you like to study Medicine at our university?’).
How can the MSAG help with your application?
You can find information about the different UK medical courses on our website, which is updated on a yearly basis. We also have information on a number of medical schools in English in Europe, the USA and Canada and plan to expand our content further in the near future. We offer an admissions consultancy service to help you plan your choice of schools in a strategic way to maximise your chances of admission. Another service to help you in your application is our feedback service on personal statements, which can be via email, Skype or in person.
What about medical school interviews?
Medical schools are placing increasing priority on how well applicants perform at interview. The reasons for this are two-fold. Firstly (but less importantly), competition to get a place in medical school is increasing year-on-year and the interview is an added dimension that helps admissions teams to select a certain number of candidates to whom offers can be made. The second reason (and most important) is that Medicine is a profession in which non-cognitive skills are crucial. These skills involve communicating with unwell patients, working with other members within a team, and showing leadership skills and empathy. These are skills that can be developed, but having aptitude in these areas are necessary to fulfilling the role of a doctor, and the best way in which to assess these skills in prospective medical students, is through interview. The two main types of interview for medical schools include panel-style interviews, where the candidate is invited to a 15-30 minute interview with 2+ panel members from the university, and questions will be asked by each of the interviewers. The other style of interview, which is becoming increasingly popular, is the MMI (Multiple Mini Interview). In this style of interview, candidates rotate around different stations with different interviewers, each station lasting approximately 5-8 minutes. They may be asked questions at these stations, or take part in a role play exercise, or be given a scenario on which to answer questions. For both styles of interview, preparation is vital, especially practicing mock interviews. This can be done at home with family members or friends, but I recommend practicing at least once, with a person who does not know you well. The MSAG offers two different interview preparation services – we run small group courses of 9 students or less (with at least two qualified doctors facilitating) and we also offer 1-1 interview preparation with a qualified doctor, either in person (depending on location) or via Skype. Each of these services includes mock interview practice, and detailed feedback on how to develop your answers further.
In conclusion, getting into medical school is a process that requires careful consideration and preparation. We have loads of free resources on the MSAG website to help you through this process, as well as the services that we charge for, including admissions consulting, personal statement writing, interview courses and interview 1-1 sessions. Our founder, Dr Dibah Jiva, has been running these services for over 7 years now, and has a wealth of knowledge and expertise on medical school applications. She also has a highly trained team of doctors behind her, and each of us really cares about the applicants that we help – we value the experience of helping future generations of doctors to get started on their career paths, into what is a highly rewarding, if challenging field.
Header image used on licence from Shutterstock
Medical Exam Prep would like to thank Dr Oonagh King from the MSAG for contributing this guest blog post