“How to get into UK medical schools?”
I was recently asked this question by a junior of mine. Having gone through the application process not too long ago with the memories of endless sleepless nights spent to complete the application still vivid in my mind, I jokingly told her that she would have to first come into possession of superpowers like those of the Powerpuff Girls to be able to survive this process unscathed.
Now come to think of it, getting accepted into medical schools is not that much different from creating Powerpuff Girls. What you need to succeed is basically a mixture of “sugar, spice and everything nice.” Sweet compassion to serve (sugar), strong desire to preserve the health of patients (spice) and other exemplary attributes (everything nice) such as empathy and truthfulness. Not to miss out is the extra something similar to the chemical X used in creating Powerpuff Girls to give you the edge over the other equally qualified candidates.
So what is the X factor required to succeed? Here comes the tricky part as, to be honest, I have no idea. I am still grappling with the fact that I did actually receive offers. So, what I shall do is that I will guide you through the application process, highlighting some mistakes I previously committed and tips I deem useful along the way, to enable you to start your quest to seek that X factor early.
Choosing the right university
You are going to spend your next five or six years there, so it makes sense that you should choose wisely after considering all the factors. A few things to ponder before making the final decision: location, course structure, cost, and reputation.
Think if you would prefer living in a vibrant city, always feeling the bustle and excitement or taking a slower pace at an idyllic countryside with lush greenery? As for the course structure, keep in mind that different universities, although offering the same subject, may approach it differently. Do you prefer the traditional approach (think Oxbridge) where medicine is taught primarily through lectures and tutorials/supervisions, or problem-based learning (i.e. University of Manchester), which depends on group efforts which are supervised by a facilitator?
Try to research about the tuition fees and calculate an estimated living cost to see if it fits your budget. Reputation, especially in the form of university ranking, though a good reference for you to make comparisons between universities, should not be taken as the sole indicator for judgment. The university which tops the list may not necessarily be the best fit for you.
To maximise your chances of success, you should also apply according to your strengths. Different universities are looking for different qualities. Some universities prefer candidates with academic prowess, while some may favour applicants with active participation in co-curricular activities. For example, the University of Cambridge expects applicants to submit their UMS scores. So if you have high UMS scores, apply to Cambridge! It is also worth taking note that certain universities impose a UKCAT threshold score. Candidates with scores lower than that will not be called for interviews. I was once told by a senior that if I were to get a high UKCAT score, I should try applying to the following universities: Glasgow, Manchester and Newcastle. I did not apply to any of these universities, so I do not know if his advice holds water.
To ensure that you have a clear idea of what being a doctor entails, you should do at least one clinical attachment before you come to a firm conclusion that medicine is the correct course for you. You can choose to shadow a GP (general practitioner), serve as a porter at the Emergency Department, or even volunteer at a local hospice.
It is not necessary for you to confine your option to doing an attachment at large central hospitals. Don’t get me wrong: an established medical centre is a great place for you to do your attachment. Not only do you get to shadow doctors from different specialties, but if you are lucky enough, you might also get to observe how surgeries are being carried out in the operation theatre. However, do take note that a placement at one of these hospitals may be hard to attain. These hospitals receive hundreds of applications from prospective medical students all over the country for only a few limited slots; hence, keep in mind that the waiting list can be notoriously long.
You are most likely to be asked about your shadowing experiences during the interview. So be prepared to talk about what medical procedures you have seen, how do doctors and other medical personnels work together as a team, etc. Bring a notepad along so that you can quickly jot down anything you deem interesting. You should be proactive in talking to the patients (of course not in an intrusive manner) at appropriate times, and take the initiative to ask for explanation of diseases or treatments used. If you ask in a polite manner and when they are not overly busy, the doctors and nurses are usually more than willing to explain them to you.
My advice is to START EARLY. Don’t leave it until last minute or you face the ramification of having to submit an unpolished piece. Aim to complete your personal statement one month before the deadline so that you would have the luxury of time to have people proofread for you. However, do understand that your personal statement can never be deemed “perfect” by each and everyone you show it to. Learn to make a prudent judgment to determine if the ideas supplied are suitable and coherent with the overall theme of your personal statement. Don’t feel compelled to incorporate every suggestion that you have received. Too many cooks spoil the broth!
Most personal statements share the same structure, starting with reasons for choosing medicine, followed by experience during clinical attachment and achievements that they have accomplished, before ending it with how committed they are towards the goal of becoming a doctor. Hence, to make your personal statement stand out, you will need two key ingredients: details and personal reflections. Incorporate in your personal thoughts to give your personal statement a distinctive “flavour.” A common mistake that many applicants are guilty of committing is to just list down all their accomplishments without making a link between how those activities shape their personalities or make them suitable candidates to pursue medicine with the accolades they have won. Admissions tutors are more interested to know what you have learned rather than what have you achieved.
UKCAT & BMAT
The UKCAT & BMAT are university entrance tests for medicine and dentistry courses used by some institutions in the selection process. For undergraduate entry medicine (A100), universities which use BMAT include: Cambridge, Oxford, Imperial College London, UCL, University of Leeds, and Brighton and Sussex Medical School. The rest of the medical schools pretty much fall into the UKCAT cohort. However, there are some universities which are exceptions in that they use neither BMAT nor UKCAT. They are Bristol, Birmingham and Liverpool.
I shall not delve into the individual components of BMAT and UKCAT as there many articles/blog posts/student forums explaining them in great depths available online. You can also visit the official websites to find out how these tests are being conducted. Instead, I shall share with you same tips on how to prepare for them.
- Register early. You may miss out the date that you prefer if you register late. In the worst case scenario, if all the time slots have been taken, you will have no choice but to take the test in a different country.
- Practice using the computer’s calculator as you are not allowed to bring in your own calculator.
- I prepared by doing questions in the 600 UKCAT book. You should definitely try getting yourself a copy of that book. The book provides you with an overview of each component tested before giving you some ideas on how to tackle each section. That being said, as I only used 600Q and some free online resources, I am not entirely sure if that book is the best in the market.
- For those who have attempted questions in that book and are now a little despondent on getting a high UKCAT score, a piece of good news for you: the questions in it, especially those in Quantitative Reasoning (QR), are harder than those in the actual test.
- I personally find that BMAT requires more time and effort to prepare. As BMAT usually takes place at early November when most of the candidates will also be having their AS exams, it pays for you to start preparing early to avoid having to burn the candle at both ends.
- Make it a habit to read. You will need all the facts and information to help substantiate your arguments when you write the essay.
- Download all the past year papers and aim to complete them. Take note that there is a trend of questions of getting more difficult in the recent years. In that sense, timing becomes more important. Try answering the questions under timed conditions every time you practice to train yourself to think and answer under time pressure.
- You are not allowed to use a calculator. Practice calculating using mental arithmetic.
The way an interview is conducted can vary considerably from one institution to another. It can either be in the form of MMI (which stands for Multiple Mini-Interview), or in the traditional way of panel interview. I have not experienced any MMI before, so I am not exactly sure how they are carried out. All the interviews that I attended were traditional panel interviews. A typical panel interview involves an applicant being interviewed by several admission team committee members at once. The panel can be formed from a combination of admission tutor, doctor, head of departments, researcher and final year medical student.
You must be eager to find out what questions could be asked during the interviews. Hence, I have kindly compiled a list of most basic questions that you can expect to be asked during a medical school interview.
- Why medicine? (Rest assured, this question will definitely be asked. I was asked this at each and every interview I went to.)
- Why this particular medical school?
- Tell me about your work experience/hospital attachment.
- What is the most common disease in your country?
- Have you done any volunteering works? Tell me about them.
From my personal experience, I find out that most questions you get at interviews are stemmed from your personal statement. So, go through your personal statement at least once before any interview. Be sure about the details of stuffs you have written down in your personal statement. Also be prepared to do some research and background reading about NHS and medical ethics. Information and articles about NHS are aplenty in the Internet, do take some time to understand the function and basic structure of NHS. You don’t have to be an expert on medical ethics, but you absolutely must know the four ethical principles of Medicine: autonomy, beneficence, non-maleficence and justice. These principles will come in handy when you are asked to discuss and analyse ethical scenarios.
After The Interview
Yay! You have cleared the last hurdle on your path towards becoming a medical student. Maybe it is still too early to throw confetti and celebrate, but do give yourself a little pat on the shoulder for all the efforts you have done. Avoid falling into the pitfall of feeling exceedingly remorseful over the mistakes you have committed along the way. Don’t cry over spilled milk. Focus on your studies/family commitments/etc instead. (Reminder: A-Level finals coming soon!)
Just take a seat, lean back, relax (by doing A-Levels past year questions) and wait for the offer letters to come with fingers crossed.
Links which you may find useful:
- BMAT: http://www.admissionstestingservice.org/for-test-takers/bmat/about-bmat/
- UKCAT: http://www.ukcat.ac.uk/about-the-test/what-is-the-ukcat/
- Purchase 600 UKCAT: http://www.amazon.co.uk/into-Medical-School-comprehensive-explanations/dp/1905812094
- Structure of NHS: http://www.nhs.uk/NHSEngland/thenhs/about/Pages/nhsstructure.aspx
Nixon Phua Cher Yang is a determined dreamer who will be pursuing his medicine degree in University College London under the National Scholarship. He is a caring person with a soft spot for adorable animals. He would like to have a Hippogriff or Puffskein as pet.