Medicine and UCAS: The toughest thing you’ll go through as an A-level student
I remember hearing from my family members and seniors about how tough it is to be a medical applicant to UK universities. In fact, getting a place at any university seemed close to impossible. And this is the point of this article: to debunk that myth. Do not be mistaken – medicine is by far one of the toughest courses to get a place for. However, if you know how to prepare, what to expect and assuming you give twice the maximum effort you could give, you can get a place.
Firstly, I will explain the medical application process (as everyone else does), type of medicine courses, tips (my experience going through interviews) and finally how I handled receiving bad news! (i.e. getting rejected)
Medicine Application Process
UCAS allows students to apply to 5 UK universities. However, for reasons I cannot comprehend nor know of, we can only apply to 4 universities for medicine. Bummer. Fret not, you only need ONE offer – still possible.
Prior to the application process, you will need to undertake an attachment programme, for whatever length of time, wherever, and in any field you want. I shadowed a medical officer in a private hospital. Not the most exciting of options but it got the job done. The point of this is to grant you a glimpse into the medical profession and everything that it involves. The length and the activities you choose do not determine anything – it is what you learn from it and how you reflect on experiences that determines whether it will be fruitful.
During the application process, you will be required to write a small essay about anything in the world, and this is called a personal statement. This is, some would say, the most important piece of writing where you must give them reasons why you should be allowed to study in their university: basically selling yourself. Most people find this essay to be the hardest thing they had ever done before, while some people write theirs in a week. I, myself, took more than 20 drafts to get it right and that took me just over 5 months. Long indeed. Now, you do not need to start that early – I only intensely worked on it for 1-2 months. I will include my own guide to writing a good medicine personal statement below – hopefully it will help.
Now, medical universities use entrance exams. They are really tough exams which absolutely test you and yes, you have to prepare for them. The entrance exams are called BMAT (BioMedical Admissions Test) and the UKCAT (UK Clinical Aptitude Test). The UKCAT can be taken before or during your application (or even after, though I would not recommend that). The BMAT can only be taken after submitting your application, usually in the first week of November.
UKCAT: 5 sections – one of which is the situational judgement test (SJT). Some universities do not take into account the SJT, but some do. Each section comes up to 900 marks. Total score is 2800 for the four sections and you are graded in bands (Band 1 to 4, I think) for the SJT. The total score (out of 2800) is averaged over the four subjects and that is your UKCAT result. Try to aim for 700 and above – some universities are very competitive, and 5 marks can make a huge difference. In addition, this test is taken on a computer at the test site: your results will be given to you immediately.
BMAT: 3 sections – Section A: Aptitude; Section B: Theory based on maths and science; Section C: English essay. A tough exam. Sections A and B are graded out of 9. Average is around 4. Section C is graded based on the quality of the essay (1 to 5) and your English (A to E). Work hard and start early – aim to get above 5 or 6 in Section 1 and above 7 or 8 in Section 2. A score of 4A and above in Section 3 will get you anywhere (even Oxbridge!).
After submitting your application, you will be put onto UCAS Track where you will begin the seemingly-endless days of checking Track in the middle of the night awaiting any updates. Tip: they always email you if there is an update so do not do what I did, please!
Once that is all done, and you have done your entrance exams, you begin the wait (AGAIN!) to see if you get shortlisted for the interview process. All universities have interviews (except Edinburgh – they have a criterion whereby they rank their candidates). Interviews will take a long time to master and prepare for – they are hard work indeed. Some universities have their interviews in Singapore/Malaysia, whereas others require you to fly over to the UK. Blimey. I would advise you not to get too worried about the prospect of having to go through the interviews. It is really a good experience, once you’re there it’s not at all daunting and really enjoyable. Interviews are an opportunity to have a friendly chat with top professors in the field! Generally here’s when you’d be notified:
Cambridge & Oxford: 2nd week of January
UCL: 3 days after final date of interview for international applicants – can take 2-4 weeks depending when you get the interview. [some people have said they have received it 3 days after the 1st interview date – so it can vary]
Queen Mary: 2 weeks after interview
Edinburgh: Late February/Early March
By March, you should have gotten your decisions. Do not fret over what the outcome could be (unless if its motivating you to work harder!). It is alright to get rejections. I myself got rejected by Cambridge, even after working mightily long and hard for it. Think of it as a learning curve – you are meant to grow and improve every step of the way.
Personal Statement (PS)
This is a 4000-character essay where you are given the seemingly impossible task of selling yourself to convince them to take you on as a student. Hard. But doable. Though, you are not going to sell yourself through describing what you have achieved and done: what they prize most above everything else is a good thought process. Explain how you think and reflect in each sentence. Ask yourself why, why and why all the time and then you will find yourself inferring and thinking critically.
In your PS, you should ideally explain your motivations behind this career choice, show a deep understanding of what the profession is all about (including the negative bits of it all), show what you have learnt from extra-curricular activities (no more than one paragraph) and finally, show what you have learnt from your attachment and how that has cemented your career choice. Good personal statements will be more academic and reflective than descriptive (and about your achievements). Talk to them about something sciencey. If you are planning on applying to BMAT universities, and especially Oxbridge universities, you should include at least one paragraph talking about one scientific topic which interests you, which also contains your reflections. For example, talk about cancer/infectious diseases etc.
I would recommend you to only put in 1 paragraph for your extra-curriculars – they can go into your reference (which is done by your teacher/someone in Sixth Form). Try to get them to write something good for you and if possible, let them know what you’d like to see in your reference (as in, what extracurriculars you think are necessary to include in the personal statement)!
Avoid jargon, waffling (unnecessary sentences) and overly emotive descriptions – they do not really care. They care more about what you learnt from your experiences and your thoughts on everything. Reflect, reflect and reflect should be your mantra for personal statements.
Here’s how I wrote my PS: one paragraph of introduction explaining why you chose medicine (only briefly! ‘Why medicine’ has to be evident throughout the PS and they must be able to see that, so you should be capable of expressing that passion very well). Paragraphs 2, 3 and 4 should contain one theme each [related if possible but varying at the same time]. This will show that you are a wholesome person – always thinking of varying perspectives. Your PS should, in overall, carry one overarching theme/point. Paragraphs 2, 3 and 4 should reflect that if possible. Paragraph 5 should be about extra-curricular stuff and more importantly, what you have learnt from it or how you have grown because of it.
Every medical school requires an interview bar one – University of Edinburgh. A friend once told me: medical interviews are basically a platform where you try to teach them something whilst learning something from them. You are teaching them about your mindset – your perspective of things and maybe they’ll actually learn something! In addition, listening to whatever they say, you are inadvertently learning. It is also an intellectual conversation – simple. Talk to them like how you’d speak to your headmaster/head of sixth form or even any teacher. They want to pick your brains, nothing else: not your physical prowess or other, but to assess whether you can be a good student, doctor and ultimately contribute to society (or the university) down the road.
Some interviews are long, some are short – it matters, but arguably it should simply be an incentive to give it your best shot if you’ve been shortlisted for it. Just 15 minutes with the professor/doctors of your dreams. You can handle it 😊
Interviews come in mostly these forms:
- Panel (2/3/4 on one) – most universities
- One-on-one – Cambridge (if you opt for an interview in Malaysia)
- MMI – multiple stations where you move around, completing a task/answering a few questions at each station, each of which is manned by different interviewers.
Every interview will be different and there is not one method which will help you go through each brilliantly. The following is what I know about interviews. My knowledge regarding MMI is not very good – I did not apply to MMI interviews nor did I get any interviews that were MMI-based.
Types of interviews/format:
- Science – mostly Oxbridge
- General/about anything – UCL [they think interesting people make good doctors]
- Traditional – the usual type of interview where you get ‘why medicine’ etcetera.
Challenge of interviews:
- They go through thousands of candidates – the pressure of trying to stand out.
- Nerves! Some of you may not have gone through any interviews before or even anything as important as this. Trust me: it is completely fine to be nervous. I would be worried if you weren’t!
- Body language – trust me when I say 25-40% of the decision process goes into demonstrating yourself as someone sociable, open, trustworthy, passionate and simply good company. Basically, whatever a good doctor should be.
- Insightful opinions – it may be hard to think of the best answer when you are put on the spot. Sometimes, you finish the interview thinking you could’ve done better, or said something smarter. I have had those thoughts after every interview I’ve gone through. What I now realise is that if you went through that, everyone else probably has too.
- How do I remember everything? If I forget, and what if I stutter (etc.)? → It is completely fine. It is expected of you!
- 15 MINUTES? HOW?? What if I mess up?
If you notice, most of these challenges take place within your own mind. How can you then solve them? → Do what trains the mind, which is practice! Build confidence, train your mind to generate better and more wholesome ideas and Bob’s your uncle!
My experience in interviews:
I sat for my interview during my AS exam in KL, before my BMAT because I opted to do it here. Crickey.
This interview is not really an interview but more of a private tuition class (i.e. supervisions). They are not interviewing you to see your capability of being the best doctor out there, but the ability to cope/thrive under the supervision system, which is small-group tutoring.
The pro of doing it here – cheap, no jet lag!
The cons of doing it here:
- During AS/A2. [which may be good because it forces you to remember your academics, but in my case, it was a con – Maths was long and gone and I had lost my understanding about some topics which hence resulted in my being unable to answer one question]
- 30 minutes to convince them where you’d have twice/thrice as long in Cambridge itself. If you mess up one question – chances are, you may not get in.
- Conducted by someone who may not necessarily be your college admissions tutor/academic professor. Thus, your college is acting on the recommendations of someone, so although they have been doing it for a long time, it is not the same!
- Unlucky – some people get similar, easier questions whereas others get more complex problems. It really depends on your luck!
Now, what do I mean by answer questions correctly/mess it up?
Answering it correctly means to explain them your thinking process, refer to the basics to solve the complex problem and then get to your answer. You may stumble and be inaccurate/wrong but that does not matter. You just need to think out loud, express your rational opinions (think of every question as a KBAT/HOTS question or Moral essay question – just ‘goreng’ your answer).
For more advice/thoughts, email me! Preferably if it aids in deciding your uni choices/if you have gotten the interview!
This is more of an interview than the above but it felt more like a conversation. We chatted about some weird things which were sometimes unrelated, but at the same time it was really engaging. They were trying to dig into your brain/thinking process like Oxbridge does but instead of using science/maths to do it, they wanted your general thinking process.
The format of this interview is unique – they somehow manage to obtain a copy of your BMAT essay, which is used as a topic of discussion in the interview. The interview is thus split into two ‘parts’, each conducted by another interviewer within a panel of three. The third interviewer is more of an observer – not to ask questions at all. The first part is usually regarding your personal statement, and any general questions. The second part is about the BMAT essay that you have written.
During the first part, they did not ask me about anything even remotely related to medicine, yet still stemming from my PS. Point is, they don’t care if you’re the most academically gifted. They think interesting people make good doctors, so try to be as interesting as you can be, i.e. in your opinions/thoughts.
- Queen Mary London/Barts
Queen Mary is another special one – they base half their interview on an article that they would have sent to you two weeks prior to the interview. Besides the interview, the questions that they asked me were very generic. In addition, they used the same questions for everyone – to give everyone an equal opportunity to succeed!
Receiving bad news – how?
I received my Cambridge result in the toilet of UCL’s Rockefeller Building – where they interview you at UCL. Not the best of times to have gotten it but again, my word of advice is to always just get it over and done with. Bad news means it just is not meant for you. I had many uneasy nights/sleeps thinking about all the ‘what ifs’, but the end result will not change. I would suggest you to learn from the experience and work on it – you may end up getting a better learning experience in some other university.
- Start early – starting earlier means you have a longer time to develop your PS, the way you think and to develop your character.
- Read books – non-fiction books – for this is the best way to learn new concepts/ideas and to develop your character.
- Do not ask for too many people’s opinions for your PS. Stick to two persons – but you must ensure they give you good feedback!
- Work as hard as you can to improve and get to where you want to get to. It takes smarts and hard work to get into any medical university. Work hard.
Hareneshkaran Kirubakaran, a Bank Negara Malaysia Kijang Emas Scholar, is currently a first year at University College London pursuing a degree in Medicine. He is of a calm and composed nature and one can often find him in the kitchen, attempting futilely to cook curry. Sadly, that is just the tip of the iceberg for Harenesh’s sorrow as he will be single on Valentines for the 20th time this year. If you intend to contact the author, feel free to contact the CollegeLAH Team at firstname.lastname@example.org.