Medical school entry has become more competitive than ever before with more and more new routes and pathways onto medical degrees and more options including schools in the EU and around the world. As medical school admissions expert John Wilson describes, in such a competitive environment, it is essential that prospective applicants take time to plan and prepare their applications carefully and thoroughly.
Applying to medical school is a process that needs to begin long before the deadline of October 15. The medical school admissions tutors are looking to find applicants who not only have researched and planned their applications over a long period of time, but who can also evidence this research and planning. Applicants should be able to reflect on a range of activities stretching back over a substantial period of time that demonstrate an appreciation of the many different skills a junior doctor will be required to have and to have exposed themselves to some of the challenges and experiences of the career. It is very difficult to ‘fake- it,’ so aspiring medics need to begin their application process and discuss their application with their UCAS advisers as early as possible.
Planning your application
There are no prizes for guessing that any good medical applicant will have an excellent academic record and be expected to achieve the highest possible A level grades. A*AA or AAA at A level are the typical offers made by universities these days and all applicants should be demonstrably capable of achieving this.
Interestingly, the personal statement is becoming similarly taken for granted by the UK medical schools. Personal statements are less likely to be scored or ranked as they may have been in previous years, but are used as a tool to look for evidence of wider reading, evidence of work experience and evidence of preparation for a medical application. The assumption here is that all credit-worthy candidates can write a good statement, but the admissions tutors are able to identify those who have genuinely researched the career and those who have not. In other words, the personal statement either does or does not demonstrate this - no in-betweens!
The challenge for the aspiring medical candidate then is not the writing of the statement, but amassing sufficient experience of their research into the career and reflecting on this with evidence.
What might this evidence entail?
Each person’s application and experience will be unique to them and will reflect their own interests in the career. The summer holidays between years 11 and 12 and years 12 and 13 are an ideal time to begin researching some of these options, however the best candidates will have a number of activities and interests that are ongoing and built into their day-to-day life.
A good place to start might be to look into some of these options:
Giving your time willingly and for free says a lot about you as a person and demonstrates that you are prepared to use your skills for the benefit of others. Volunteering became very popular in the UK in the wake of the 2012 Olympic Games in London which recruited an army of ‘Games Makers’ and its popularity has increased the opportunities to volunteer in engaging interesting ways that allow you to learn as well as to give your own time.
Try to look for voluntary placements that give you regular experience over a sustained period. For example a placement every Saturday morning for six months is more beneficial than a week of work-shadowing in the summer.
It is nice to have hospital-based work experience but by no means is it essential and it is very difficult to obtain. However you can experience some of the circumstances and gain some of the skills you will need to demonstrate in a variety of non-hospital settings. Useful experiences will include working in an centre for the elderly, working with young children and volunteering for a charity such as in a shop or as a fundraiser.
Any type of part-time job that involves interacting with the public such as in retail or hospitality is really helpful experience. Doctors interact with members of the general public every day and there are many similarities in the ways in which they are required to respond to them.
Medical students are expected to be well-rounded, knowledgeable people. You cannot read enough to prepare for a medical school application. Applicants should read a broadsheet newspaper every day and familiarise themselves with current affair, especially those relating to medicine and the NHS.
In addition to reading up on the career itself from journals like the StudentBMJ, applicants could also take some time to read some scientific writing and popular science literature. Many applicants focus their time on exploring the pastoral skills of a good doctor such as empathy, understanding, communication and time management, but forget that doctors are, first-and-foremost, scientists about to embark on a career of lifelong study and learning. My favourite popular science books are:
- The Selfish Gene - Richard Dawkins
- Human Instinct - Robert Winston
- Almost like a Whale - Steve Jones
John Wilson, Medical Admissions Expert, Dukes Education. Co Head, Eaton Square, Mayfair.
John is an Oxford graduate with an honours degree in Biological Sciences, also holding a PGCE from Cambridge. He brings extensive knowledge of medical school admissions to Dukes Education.
John is a lay member of the university admissions panel for medical school undergraduate entry at UCL (University College London) and has also performed this role at Imperial College and Queen Mary University in London.
John was educated at The Queen’s College, Oxford, and studied for his teaching qualification at Homerton College, Cambridge. He joined Ashbourne Independent Sixth Form in 2000 as a Biology and Science teacher, becoming Director of Studies in 2005. From 2014 to 2017 John was Principal of Acorn House College, an independent Sixth Form College in West London, specialising in preparing students for university degrees in medicine and the sciences.