Applying to medical school: 5 ways to successfully get through the process

If you're going to be spending some five years-plus studying to become a doctor, make sure you prepare in plenty of time

Rohan Agarwal
Friday 10 June 2016 10:21
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It’s likely you’ve known for a long time that you want to do medicine. You’ve been studying hard, and now it’s time to apply. The application will determine where you will spend the next five or so years of your life. However, faced with such stiff competition, you’re not sure you’ll get a place, so follow these five tips to maximise your chances of success during the application process:

1) Choose the right medical school

Since you can only apply to four medical schools through Ucas at the same time, it’s important to choose ones that are right for you. For example, there’s no point applying to Manchester if you don’t like a Problem-Based-Learning (PBL) teaching method. Similarly, it’s best avoiding Oxbridge if you’re looking for patient contact in your earlier years.

Remember: you can adjust your choices once you’ve got your UKCAT results. For example, it isn’t a good idea to apply to King’s (which place great emphasis on the UKCAT) if you’ve done poorly in the exam.

Go to open days, read websites, talk to current students, and read all the information available to you. You’ll be spending a long time there, so it’s important you choose the right place for you.

2) Work experience or volunteering

The admissions tutors want to know you’ve got first-hand experience of medicine, and work experience or volunteering is a great way to achieve this. There are many different ways to approach work experience and it’s not limited to shadowing a doctor for a few days - you could even volunteer in care homes or assisted living, or in a hospital.

The most important part of work experience is what you do with the information afterwards. It’s important to reflect upon your experiences and be able to offer a confident, balanced view of what becoming a doctor will be like. The best way to do this is to keep a reflective journal; at the end of each day, jot down what you’ve learned and accomplished. You’ll then be able to draw upon these experiences more easily when it comes to the interview phase later in the year.

Finally, don’t feel pressured into doing months of work experience - generally a few days in a GP surgery (primary care) and a few days in a hospital (secondary care) are sufficient if you attend diligently.

3) Personal statement

Your personal statement is your chance to show the admissions tutors who you really are. The rest of the application is faceless statistics - the personal statement allows the admissions tutors the opportunity to look beyond those statistics at you as an individual: the person they may spend four to six years training and who will eventually become a doctor.

It’s not a transcript of your academic accomplishments, nor just a list of all the things you think the admissions team might want to hear. It should be a true and natural account of your aspirations and who you are as a person, why you want to study medicine, why it is important to you.

In it, you have the chance to show the admissions team you are a balanced person, academically gifted, but also that you’re able to handle the social aspects of a career in medicine.

4) Admissions tests

Depending on which medical schools you’re applying to, you’ll need to sit either the UKCAT and/or BMAT. A common myth is that “you can’t revise for the UKCAT/BMAT.” This really couldn’t be further from the truth - with knowledge of the test, some useful time-saving techniques, and plenty of practice, you can dramatically boost your score.

Once you’ve practiced and know how to answer the questions, the clock is your biggest enemy. This seemingly obvious statement has one very important consequence. The way to improve your UKCAT + BMAT scores is to improve your speed. There’s no magic bullet, but there are a great number of techniques that, with practice, will give you significant time gains, allowing you to answer more questions and score more marks.

Added tip: some students like to check their answers after each question. By splitting the question into two sessions (the first run-through and the return-to-check) you double the amount of time you spend on familiarising yourself with the data, as you have to do it twice instead of only once. This costs valuable time. In addition, candidates who do check back may spend two to three minutes doing so and yet not make any actual changes. While this can be reassuring, it’s a false reassurance as it has no effect on your actual score. Therefore, it is usually best to pace yourself very steadily, aiming to spend the same amount of time on each question and finish the final question in a section just as time runs out. This reduces the time spent on re-familiarising with questions and maximises the time spent on the first attempt, gaining more marks.

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Those who prepare more thoroughly do better on these tests. Use every resource available to you, such as BMAT past papers, courses, and textbooks. Although these tests are designed to be difficult, they are by no means impossible to pass.

5) Interview

If you get an interview, that means the admissions tutors were interested in what you had to say in your personal statement, and your test scores. The interview is not a place to recount all of this information - it’s a place to showcase your knowledge, integrity, and ability to stay up-to-date on relevant medical news.

Different medical schools often approach interviews in slightly different ways. Some may concentrate more on dissecting your personal statement, exploring your motivations and medical work experience so far. Others may try to test you primarily on your scientific grounding or your understanding of medical ethics. Some schools may question you on your BMAT essay. In most interviews, however, you’re likely to face a combination of these. Similarly, some medical schools like to do a single long interview, while others like to do two. Indeed, some have opted to use Multiple Mini Interviews (MMIs).

Overall, interviews require dedicated preparation, so don’t leave things to chance. Medical school interviews are extremely formulaic and you can predict the vast majority of questions you’re likely to be asked. Unsurprisingly, so can everyone else. You do yourself a great disservice if you don’t have comprehensive answers prepared for these questions. Ensure you’ve done your research on the interview format, the pros/cons of that medical school and have answers lined up for the common interview questions, such as “Why medicine?” and “Why this medical school?”

Dr Rohan Agarwal is the director of operations at admissions company UniAdmissions

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