So, you want to study medicine at university? Here’s everything you need to know

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Georgia graduated with a Masters Degree in Renaissance Literature from Girton College, Cambridge, last July

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First things first, congratulations on your choice of subject for university! Deciding that you want to become a doctor is a major life decision, and is certainly not something to be taken on lightly. Making the decision to study medicine at the age of 17, 18 or even younger, is a big deal, and generally comes from a strong drive inside students who want to learn more about how the human body works, take on an often stressful – but highly rewarding – future career, and, of course, to help those who are unwell to get better – or, in some cases, to help those who can’t get better have the best possible end to their lives.

You will need very good grades

So, with this in mind, the next thing you should know before you study medicine at university is that, yes, there are high barriers to entry, but these don’t necessarily have to be stumbling blocks, as long as you are well-informed about what is required before you start applying. Due to the highly competitive nature of the subject, you will need top grades in (mostly) science subjects in order to have a fighting chance. Medicine is a lot about science, as well as helping people, so make sure you’ve got A-levels in Chemistry and Biology before you consider applying.

Make sure you take time on your personal statement

As it is such a competitive subject, it is worth taking time over your personal statement and making sure you are using all of your limited words efficiently, to really say something about why you’re applying for medicine. Don’t worry, you don’t need to write something really distinctive or profound – and actually, that might have the opposite effect to the one you’re after – you just need to write about why you want to study medicine and what it is about you that makes you an awesome applicant.

Oh, and you’re banned from saying “ever since I was little, I have always wanted to be a doctor….’ as this is a huge cliche and will add nothing of value, only take up space. It is good to show that you have demonstrated a commitment to medicine over time – a commitment which will tide you through a very long degree course – which you can demonstrate through taking on some work experience and then writing about it.  

Work experience for the win!

Which leads us to: work experience! In order to talk about this effectively in your interview or write about it in your personal statement statement, it is a great idea to keep a diary during your work experience so you can reflect upon what you enjoyed, and, very importantly, what you found challenging as well. As well your academic abilities, you need to demonstrate your compassion and people skills, so volunteering in a care home for the elderly would be the ideal kind of work experience – obviously, you need to make sure you present your work experience positively, but you will come across much more maturely if you can reflect on what you learned, and what was challenging, about this volunteering, and how this might relate to your future career.

Make sure you’re up to speed on science too

As mentioned previously, medicine is a science subject first and foremost. This will depend on which universities you apply to, but Cambridge and Oxford have a big emphasis on sciences as a driving force behind their medical course (especially in the pre-clinical years), so it’s good to make sure you do extra reading on the areas of science you are most interested in. As an extra boost to set you apart from other candidates who will just read the book and say why it’s interesting, make sure you go the extra mile: read that extra research paper on the topic, and ask your teacher to find you more relevant reading too.This way, you will be showing your interest through your actions, which is far more convincing!

You don’t need to pretend to be boring!

In brief, mention your extracurricular activities on your personal statement, as otherwise they might assume you don’t have any. They are choosing someone to become a doctor, not just a student, so make sure you don’t come across as someone who sits and reads books all day, even if that’s true (Take on a hobby now if so!) if you’re smart, you can always ensure that your extracurriculars link back to medicine and help you to stand out from other applicants: whether it’s communication skills from a sport, or responding to feedback on an artistic project, it can all be used to your advantage.

Practice makes perfect on the admissions tests

As you may already know, there are two admissions tests for medicine: the BMAT and the UKCAT. There is so much information about them online – so make sure you’re clued up on that – but the one thing that is worth emphasising is that you can and should practise for them. This will help you learn the format, and to help you gain the best possible mark.

Indeed, sometimes the admissions test sites say you can’t practice for these tests, but they’re wrong, and you should use the practice books out there to your advantage! Also, bear in mind that different universities weigh these tests differently – and the BMAT is taken after you have applied – so all is not lost if they don’t go as you hoped. If you do some research online, you will easily learn which universities take the UKCAT strongly into account, and which don’t, so check this out when you are applying.  

Finally, the interview: No, it’s not a trick

Now, medical school interviews are often shrouded in mystery, with rumours of asking students to ‘surprise me’, or to throw a brick out of the window and so on, but, news flash, none of this will happen, and the interview is not a trick: it’s a chance for you to demonstrate your knowledge and enthusiasm to the interviewers.

Practising your interview technique with someone who is not a friend – as you won’t be in the right frame of mind – is a really good way to get feedback on how you deal with nerves and unexpected questions under pressure. Remember, it is best to think before you talk, and you can always ask them to repeat the question and to take a moment before you answer, especially if you feel thrown by the question. This will make you seem more engaged and mature than blurting out the first thing that comes into your head.

Remember too that they will ask you challenging ethical questions too such as: “Would you force treatment on someone who has cancer in order to save their life?” and, “someone is injured in a skiing accident, which is a high risk activity, should they have to pay for their NHS care?” When they ask you a question like this, make sure you think about both sides of the argument, rather than jumping to any conclusions, as there are no right and wrong answers, and you will come across much better this way if you can talk through your thought process with them.

Don’t panic!

Of course, I could go on, but these are the big things to think about for applying for medicine at university. In short, just ensure you keep engaged with current advances in medical science (a great thing to discuss in the interview), perhaps by subscribing to a medical journal, or even the New Scientist, and can talk passionately about why you want to do medicine, and what makes you distinctive as a candidate, and you’ll be just fine. Enjoy the ride that is medical school applications, and remember, at the end of it, you get add ‘doctor’ to your name. That’s pretty cool!

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