How to Get Into UK Medical School Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

How to Get Into UK Medical School

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Stethoscope and medical books

So you want to be a doctor? Well, before you get to sprint down corridors with a stethoscope round your neck shouting 'Nurse, I need adrenaline now!', you need to do some training.

Becoming a doctor in the UK is considerably more streamlined than in the USA. Most would-be doctors begin their training after leaving school at 18 years old, although an increasing number are beginning after getting their first degree. After five or six years at medical school you get to call yourself doctor, and you can pre-register with the General Medical Council. After you have worked successfully for a year this can be upgraded to full registration. Once you are fully registered, you can enter one of the recognised training programmes that will eventually lead to you becoming a consultant or family doctor.

Training consists of working in a relevant field, and sitting a series of exams. In general it takes an additional five years to become a family doctor (General Practitioner or GP), and up to ten to become a consultant. But you can take a non-consultant post if you do not want to complete the full training.

Step 1: Preparation

The first thing you need to do is get a place at medical school. This can be quite tough, as for every two places there are three applicants. It is getting easier, though: in 1996 it was more like five applicants for every two places, according to the Universities & Colleges Admissions Service, or UCAS. Before you even pick up an application form there are a few things you need to consider.

You'll need the right A levels at the right grades. These vary from year to year, although a high academic standard is always required. So check the current requirements in prospectuses or at the University websites (for example, Birmingham University). There have been many well-publicised cases of students with strings of grade A passes who were refused places. The Daily Mail1 has claimed that this is because they went to comprehensive schools, but it's more likely that in their application they came across as geeks who had no idea of what a medical career involves. To stand a reasonable chance of getting a place, you need to have gained work experience in a medical environment, so that you know what you're letting yourself in for. If you don't have this sort of experience get some - you need it. You also need to have some non-academic activities, to show that you're a well-rounded person.

To get experience of medicine:

  • Telephone or write to your local hospital, asking for work experience. You may have to be persistent and call several hospitals, as many are understandably cautious about who they let in. You have a better chance if you wait until you are over 16.

  • Ask your family doctor. You will probably end up doing routine clerical duties, but grin and bear it - it will help get you into medical school.

  • Get a part-time job in a care home or hospice. These are usually easy to come by, and show you to be a practical person who isn't afraid to get their hands dirty.

  • If there aren't any vacancies, ask if you can volunteer. Hospices in particular are always looking for helpers. Take up any chances for voluntary work that you can, since almost anything is useful.

  • Some pathologists will allow sixth form students to witness Post Mortems. Make a start by writing to your local hospital.

  • Consider doing an evening class in sign language or basic counselling skills. As a student you may get reduced rates.

When you are on work experience be prepared to help out with the most menial tasks, and try to be as pleasant and helpful as possible. You will spend most of your time bored and wondering how on earth this will get you into medical school.

Almost anything else you've done will help give the impression that you're a well-rounded individual, especially activities that involve teamwork. Another important thing to do is to contact your family doctor (you could always ask for work experience whilst you're there) and arrange a Hepatitis B screening. You cannot be admitted to medical school if you are a carrier, and vaccination takes about nine months and needs to be completed before you start medical school. It is also advisable to check that you are up to date with your other vaccinations.

Step 2: Applying to Medical School

There are currently 24 medical schools in the UK. Think carefully about which four you apply to, as some of them are more oversubscribed than others. Look in the Big UCAS book in your school library, or in the prospectus. Under the current system, you have to take your first job with the Health Authority that you trained under, so this means that you will spend at least the next six years in the area where you go to medical school. It is important that area's at least bearable.

The academic course doesn't vary in actual content, although the methods of teaching vary. Some courses are entirely problem-based, whilst some have a more traditional lecture-based approach. Some are five years long and result in two degrees, whilst others are six years long and lead to three degrees. At Oxford or Cambridge the course is divided into two separate degrees. After you have completed the first three years, you would apply to take the clinical course, either at the same institution or at another (usually Oxford, Cambridge or one of the London medical schools). Some institutions have both written and oral exams, and some have only oral.

Get a UCAS application form and fill it in. To maximise your chances, do this as quickly as possible, since at the time of writing the application deadline for the Medicine course is the 15th of October, the year before you wish to start studying. Spend most of your time drafting a personal statement, and discuss it with anyone who will listen, since this is the most important part of the form. You can fill in a UCAS form either electronically (submit it online) or on paper (post it) - your Sixth Form will do one or the other. If you're using a paper form use a pencil first, and get a few spare copies. You could consider typing your personal statement and photocopying it onto the form. If you do this use a clear readable 12pt font with a line spacing of 1.5. Once you've sent it off, all there is to do is sit back and wait for the post.

Overseas Students

There are a small number of places available to overseas students, though some schools give priority to those from countries with limited medical training facilities of their own. If you are not normally resident in the European Union you will have to pay the full tuition fees. To apply you will need to contact UCAS. Most schools will accept overseas qualifications, but will have to interview international students.

Mature Students

Some medical schools now run accelerated courses for mature students, for which funding is currently available from your Local Education Authority. The others will accept mature students but they will have to meet the same entrance requirements as school leavers, and have to take the full five-year course.

Step 3: The Interview

However perfect your application, some medical schools may reject you outright. Don't be disheartened. Sooner or later you will get a thick brown envelope inviting you for an interview. First breathe a sigh of relief that you have got this far, and that after reading your application form they like what they see. Then spend some time preparing.

Sometimes an interview will be a full day, including taking an entrance exam and/or writing a short essay. It will often include a tour of the medical school, given by current students. At Oxford and Cambridge great importance is placed on the entrance exam. However, when it comes down to it the final decision is made after an interview.

If this is your first interview then ask one of your teachers to give you a mock interview, preferably one who will be brutal. Read through the newspapers and the New Scientist magazine. If there are any medicine-related stories read them, and develop a balanced opinion on the topic. Buy a new outfit: boys should wear a shirt and tie, and girls something formal and conservative. Work out where the interview is and how best to get there. Arrive at the interview about ten minutes before the designated time. If you do use your parents as a means of transport, leave the parents outside the medical school, as you want to appear mature and independent.

At the Interview

Smile pleasantly as you are introduced to the people interviewing you. There will be at least two. Sit down when invited to, and when answering the questions make eye contact with the person who asked them. The actual answers to the questions are not as important as the manner in which you answer them. Try to appear confident without being arrogant. If you don't know the answer then say so: one day, admitting that you don't know could make the difference between life and death for a patient.

After the introductions they will probably make a gentle start with...

  • The Innocuous - based on your application form:
  • Arrrh, you climbed Ben Nevis last summer. How long did it take you?

    I see you support Liverpool. Did you see the match last night?

    These questions are there to put you at ease, and to check that you actually know something about those exotic hobbies you put on your application form2.

    Once you're sitting comfortably, they will move on to...

  • The Ubiquitous
  • Why do you want to become a Doctor?

    What made you choose to apply to this medical school?

    As you will be asked one of these two questions, it makes sense to have prepared an original and genuine answer to them both. Try to come up with something that will make you stand out from the other ten applicants they will see today. Never ever say that you want be a doctor because 'I just want to help people', as you will come across as an idealist who couldn't handle working in the Health Service. By all means mention your altruistic motives, but make it clear that you understand that you won't always be able to help people and save lives.

    One particularly deadly variation on this is 'Why didn't you consider nursing?'. This is designed to trap you either into saying that you want to do medicine for the money or status, or revealing that you are unaware of how advanced modern nursing is. Some nurses can diagnose and prescribe, and nearly all can do clinical research.

    So you survived that, and were breathing a sigh of relief about how nice this is, and then they move on to...

  • The Terrifying
  • How long would it take you become a consultant?

    What makes a successful team?

    What do you think of the [recent controversial medical] case?

    These questions are generally put to every candidate, so ask the previous candidates which questions they had, and prepare your answer to them. If there is an issue, show that you have the ability to see both sides of the argument, even if you passionately disagree with one side.

    As a Catholic I feel that human life is sacred from the moment of conception. However, I can see that in some circumstances, such as after a woman has been raped, an abortion may be justifiable.

    In general it is the way you answer the questions, not the specific answers you give, that matters. So don't worry too much if you can't remember the name of the body that sets exams for surgeons.

    After the interview comes a gut-wrenching week or so when you wait for the results.

    If you got a place, great - now all you have to do is get good enough exam results.

    If you didn't - get the best exam results you can possibly get. On results day, ring around every medical school in the country and ask if they will take you. Though places on medical courses are not advertised though 'clearing', there are sometimes a few available to those who ask. If that doesn't work, write to the Admissions Tutors and ask why they rejected you. If you can learn a lesson from this, do so. Then spend your year out doing something medically related, even if it is working as a care assistant, and apply again for next year. If your exam results weren't quite good enough you could consider doing a Biomedical Science or related degree and applying as a graduate. (Unless there are extenuating circumstances very few medical schools will accept a student who has re-taken their A Levels.)


    At the time of writing, students who are resident in the UK or EC can apply for means-tested financial support.

    In England and Wales

    If your parents' or spouse's income is below a certain threshold all tuition fees are paid, and you can get a Student Loan (which is higher if you are studying in London) to 'cover' living costs. If your parents or spouse earn above the threshold, you may have to pay towards the cost of studying, and the Student Loan may be reduced. If you get a full loan for the five years of the course, you will be considerably in debt by the time you qualify.

    Up-to-date information on the level of financial support in England and Wales is available from the Department for Education and Skills.

    As this Researcher has discovered, it is possible to get through Medical School without your parents contributing anything. If you can't afford to live on the loan available, there are a number of hardship funds you can apply for:

  • The Access Fund provided by the University
  • Scholarships administered by the Medical School itself
  • The British Medical Association
  • Certain banks are able to provide a loan until you graduate
  • In Scotland

    The student support system has recently changed. If you start medical school in Scotland from 2002, all your tuition fees will be paid, and you may be entitled to a bursary.

    Good luck!

    Related BBC Links

    1A British tabloid newspaper that, er... leans to the right, somewhat.2If you lied, make sure you can bluff effectively.

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