July 10, 2019, by ttzpr
Tips for getting into medical school – Habeeb Muhammad-Kamal
From my work in Widening Participation with the university, organizations and in a personal capacity, it is clear to me that many students are deterred from studying Medicine on a regular basis. Being told to “be realistic” is a common phrase heard by these students, especially if they come from a non-medical background, do not attend a prestigious school or are a member of an under-represented group in the medical profession. This message is both believable and disheartening as it can come from friends, family, and schoolteachers. With this article, I hope to provide direction and clarity on the journey to medical school, making the aspiration to be a doctor more realistic and achievable.
I will begin with GCSEs.
GCSE’s are an important hurdle. Many medical schools have high cutoffs for GCSE grades with 8-10 A*’s being the norm in my year of medical students at Nottingham. To my understanding, an A* is an 8 or 9 in the current GCSE system. Achieving this level of attainment comes down to working hard and having good study habits. As content becomes more difficult, good study habits are integral to continue to perform highly, especially at A Levels and the medical school itself. Everyone is different therefore you must find out what study and revision system work for you. So, what does it mean to have good study habits?
I would broadly advise the following activities:
- Get regular sleep and rest
- Eat well, drink water and exercise
- Engage with the content throughout the year (making notes, highlighting and practice questions)
- Completing all the practice papers available – and repeating them when you have time to
- Staying consistent with work and using your time wisely
- Speaking to teachers and asking for help when needed
If you are in a situation where it is difficult to follow these, do as best as you can. I.e. If it is busy at home, try and find a local library with a quiet place to study that you can attend regularly.
If you have already completed your GCSE’s and they are not at this level, do not worry as different medical schools put different weightings on different parts of the application process.
When it comes to A Levels, I would advise transferring to your nearest, high performing school for your studies. This is because in these schools you are more likely to have the infrastructure and support needed to access the higher grades. This does not have to be a private school or grammar school (as some of these may not be well performing) but should be a school which has a good record of getting students into competitive courses. Data and league tables on schools are available on the BBC website and through attending open days and induction days, you can get a feel of which school is best for you. The added benefit of making this change is that you gain the skill of meeting new people and acclimatizing to academically rigorous environments – which will be a bit like medical school. Also, by going through the application process with other prospective medics, you can help each another with your applications. Moving schools is not a necessity however and only helps. A-Levels are a big individual effort therefore wherever you study- you must work extremely hard.
Adhering to good study skills will be integral to performing at A-Levels. Make sure to be well informed on the subjects required to study medicine so that your choice of A-Levels will not be a barrier to your admission. Most schools require Biology and Chemistry A-Levels. Also, ensure to maintain good relations with your teachers as they will be responsible for your predicted grades. A Levels are the most important part of your application as they will be what your offers are based on. Therefore, ensure to prioritize them accordingly. Another important part of the application process will be the UKCAT and BMAT.
UKCAT and BMAT
The UKCAT and BMAT exams are extra tests that you must arrange and sit in order to apply to most medical schools. Different schools require different test and will have different cutoff marks which you will need to find out for yourself. The content of the tests themselves and the dates you can take them are also on the internet. Here are the links for both exams below:
Don’t be discouraged if you find out that others may be paying for courses for these exams – it is entirely possible to get admission if you cannot afford such courses. Adding to this, the UKCAT reimburses the fee for taking the exam and travel costs for students who may not be able to afford it. If your school does not sit the BMAT, try and find one that does in good time.
Practice makes perfect for both exams and I would advise completing all the past paper materials available to you, multiple times. These tests are designed to test your mental aptitude in unconventional ways, therefore ensure that you are at your best on the day. i.e. well rested and well fed. It may also be useful to buy question books but ensure that they are the most recent edition. Here are a few I used:
After completing the UKCAT and BMAT, the next hurdle would be the personal statement. This would be where you would typically discuss your work experience. Medicine is unique because it requires you to have work experience in order to apply for the course. It is difficult to get medical work experience if you do not know any doctors yourself, however medical schools also look at experience just as volunteering in the community. This is because it is not the type of experience that matters but the skills and understanding you gain from them such as communication, empathy, leadership, and teamwork.
The best way to get work experience is to visit places like hospitals and care homes and hospices directly and asking to volunteer. Having a CV and cover letter at hand would also be useful. Most hospital trusts have partner volunteering organizations that you can sign up for. If you have a family member who works in the NHS, you can ask them if they know any doctors that would be willing to allow you to shadow them. Work experience will not be the only section that matters in your personal statement and you will need to write a well-structured piece that can convince a medical school to offer you a place to study medicine.
My personal statement was structured as so:
- Your personal reasons for studying medicine
- Work experience
- The skills that you have developed and how the experience has given you an insight into the medical profession
- Academic interests
- Why you choose your A-Level choices and how they relate to medicine,
- The books you have read and how they are related to the medical career
- What you do in your spare time and how it shows that you will be a good doctor
- Why the medical school should offer you a place and what you would bring to the medical school if it did
This structure is not prescriptive and will differ from person to person, however, if you ever want to have your personal statement looked at, reach out to doctors or medical students and they are likely to be willing to help.
After you have completed your GCSE’s, A-levels, UKCAT and personal statement, you will be expected to send off your UCAS application. BMAT examinations are after this so be careful that you are confident that you will score well on the BMAT before applying to a BMAT medical school. The best thing to do after this would be to stay calm and focus on your A-levels. Many people miss out on medical school despite getting offers because they do not perform in their A-Levels at the end of the year. Therefore, do not neglect yours.
Each medical school has a different process, putting different weights to different parts of the application process. You should know this information in detail so that when you apply, you apply to the medical school that is best for you. Ensure that the medical school that you apply to is not just the one that you have the best chance of getting into but also one that reflects who you are and the type of doctor you would like to be. Having a look at the course structure and the skills medical schools’ value in their graduates will help you with your choice. All this information is available on medical school websites. All medical schools must interview their candidates and each medical school also has different interview styles.
In terms of interview practice, I would advise that you get some books. I also found the GMC’s Good Medical Practice in Action scenarios useful as they helped understand the ethical decision-making framework required for doctors. Here are a few links:
It is also extremely important to undergo interview practice with a wide range of people. The greatest barrier to excelling at interviews is nerves, therefore I would advise having practice interview sessions with unfamiliar people. This is because you may be too comfortable being interviewed by family members and friends, although you should also do as many of these as possible. At the end of the day, the interview will be a conversation and if you have gotten to the stage of interview you can be confident that the medical school would like you as a student. Therefore, staying calm, composed and natural would be best.
If you feel that you have been disadvantaged throughout the application process for any reason i.e. because of the school you attended or your socioeconomic circumstances, some medical schools provide foundation year courses. These provide a pathway into the medical course if you fulfill certain criteria. This is because these schools have recognized that disadvantaged students may have lower grades in general education but still perform well in medical school. Information on foundation year medicine courses are available on the internet however it’s important to be aware that such courses are not offered by all medical schools. If it is not clear if a medical school offers a foundation year, make sure to enquire through email.
If you did not secure a place the first time around, make sure to apply again the following year. Many people in medical school did not get any offers the first-time round but with more experience, guaranteed grades and a proven dedication to the career, they stood a better chance the second time around. Another option would be to do another degree and apply for graduate entry medicine. With this option, you gain a wider range of skills and knowledge which would put you in a stronger position as you prepared to progress through medical training.
Once you do make it into medical school, make the most of it. You will have a challenging but rewarding number of years ahead of you. It might be intimidating at the start, but the key is to remain confident in your own ability to achieve your goals. I hope this article helps you in some way towards this.