How to get into Medical School
Getting into Medical School is notoriously competitive. Our Head of Science, Simon Horner, has written a book called ‘Getting into Medical School’ containing tips and advice to help students maximise their chances of success. In this article, we summarise some of his tips for you and share the key dos and don’ts of making a Medical School application:
- First things first: your academic profile and background
- The tests you’ll need to take
- How to write your personal statement and complete your UCAS form
- How to pass an interview
What grades do I need to get into Medical School?
The A level grades you need to study Medicine are AAA and recently some candidates have even received A* offers. For IB applicants, this means 36-39 points and Scottish applicants need AAAAB in Highers and AA in Advanced Highers to be made an offer. A decent GCSE (or equivalent) profile will also strengthen your application: take at least 8 subjects, and get mostly As.
If you do not have these grades, including in Biology and Chemistry, you need to get them. It is more difficult, but not impossible, to get into Medical School as a retake student. Alternatively, you could consider a profession such as Pharmacy or Physiotherapy, where you will still have patient contact and learn a lot about medicine and the human body.
What work experience do I need to get into Medical School?
Having the requisite grades is an important start for a Medical School applicant but it is not the be all and end all. Just over 40% of applicants are successful in winning a place which means that Admissions Tutors must decide against over half of students, including those with AAA predications.
You must get some relevant work experience to apply to Medical School. This can include shadowing a doctor in a hospital or observing at a GP’s surgery. It is also a good idea to do something that demonstrates the less glamorous side of practising Medicine. Volunteering to spend time with people in a home for the elderly is a very worthwhile thing to do. Try to get more than one work experience placement if you can, to cover different aspects of a doctor’s working life, and take notes of your daily experiences while you are there. Quality is important: you need to learn something from what you are doing and you need to be able to explain why your work experience has strengthened your desire to practise medicine.
Most universities ask applicants to take one of the following tests: the UKCAT or the BMAT. You can, and should, practise for both. Past papers and example questions are available online so you can investigate the nature of the tests and what to expect from them in advance.
The UKCAT is designed to evaluate candidates’ cognitive ability and thought processes. There are sections on verbal reasoning, decision making, quantitative and abstract thinking, and situational judgement. It does not question you on any curriculum or science content.
The UKCAT is not negatively marked which means you will receive a mark for every correct answer but no marks for an incorrect or blank answer. As you will not have marks subtracted for getting something wrong, if you are not sure you should try and make your best guess anyway and not leave any questions blank.
You need to take the UKCAT before you submit your UCAS application. Testing in 2016 begins on 1st July and closes on 5th October (the UCAS deadline for Medical School applicants wanting to start university in September 2017 is mid-October). The best time to take the UKCAT is over the summer, leaving you with plenty of time to start the second year of your A level courses, put your UCAS application together and prepare for the BMAT if you are taking that.
The BMAT has three sections to test your aptitude and skills, scientific knowledge and application, and your writing. Again, your thought processes matter and although you cannot revise for the BMAT, you can practise your technique and how to approach the questions. It is marked in the same way as the UKCAT so you should try not to leave anything blank, as no marks will be deducted for getting something wrong. The essay section of the BMAT is double-marked including marks for the quality of your written expression.
The number of universities who ask for the BMAT is less than the UKCAT but includes Oxbridge, Imperial and UCL so if you have your sights set on them you will need to take it. The BMAT is sat in early November: the next sitting will be 2nd November 2016, with results issued by 25th November.
Your Personal Statement
Your personal statement is incredibly important as it needs to convince Admissions Tutors that you are worthy of an interview or even, in the case of some universities, a place. It is a good idea to start drafting your personal statement over the summer between year 12 and 13, so that when you start back at school in September you can focus on your studies without it distracting you.
Your personal statement needs to explain why you want to be a doctor and why you are a suitable candidate, backing up your points with anecdotes from your work experience. A good start is to plan it as though you were planning an essay and make a note of the key themes that you really want to include. Then elaborate on this structure by expanding on why each theme is important (what is interesting about it, why is it relevant to you wanting to study Medicine, what have you learned from it). Make sure you also include an introduction and a brief conclusion summarising what you have said.
When you have finished the first draft, leave it for a day and then come back to it and start editing it. For every point, ask yourself “does this explain why I should study Medicine?” and if it does not, either modify the sentence or delete it. Be ruthless: a personal statement is only 4,000 characters long and you need all of them to work for you. Once you have done your best edit, ask someone else (a parent or teacher) to read it and offer feedback. Students often go through this process a number of times before they are satisfied that it is ready to send.
Your UCAS Form
Once you have perfected your personal statement it is time to choose where to send it. You can only apply to four Medical Schools. Research the different universities carefully to see which would suit you best and which you are the most likely to get into. Some universities offer intercalated courses or teach through Problem Based Learning. Some are on campus and some are not. Read their websites and attend open days to learn more about the place and the course – you will be living there for a long time and need to feel comfortable.
Another thing to consider is your chance of receiving an offer from each university. A small number (Edinburgh and Queen’s Belfast, for example) do not interview. If your UCAS application is extremely strong and you are worried about underperforming at interview, it is probably a good idea to choose at least one of these.
You will already have your UKCAT score by the time you submit your application. If you have done very well then choosing universities who will value this such as Durham, Exeter and Nottingham will make your application more competitive. If, on the other hand, you have underperformed on the UKCAT you might instead turn your attention to universities who will look at your score in the upcoming BMAT (Imperial, Leeds, Brighton and Sussex) – and start practising for the exam.
So, you’ve passed the UKCAT and the BMAT with flying colours, written a dazzling personal statement and chosen four great universities. They agree that you look like a fine candidate to read Medicine and would like to meet you for the interview: your final hurdle.
At interview, admissions tutors will be trying to confirm that you are:
a) A student who will be able to cope with the rigours and intellectual demands of an undergraduate degree course in Medicine;
b) A knowledgeable, empathic and dedicated person who would one day make a good doctor.
In order to convince them of this, you must prepare thoroughly by:
Reading through your personal statement
Refresh your memory of what you said when you applied. Make sure you can expand on any points you made and can talk fluently and intelligently about any reading you say you have done. Remind yourself about what you learned on your work experience, what was interesting, and how it fuelled your passion to become a doctor.
Reading about medicine in the news
As someone interested in being a doctor, you should be doing this anyway. On a daily basis, read the health section of a broadsheet newspaper (or their website). Subscribe to the BMJ and New Scientist, or borrow your school’s copy from the library. Make notes about what you have read and consider your own opinion on what is reported. Keep up to date with what is happening for the NHS as well: they are likely to be your future employer, after all.
Practising your answers to predictable questions
You are likely to be asked why you want to be a doctor, for example, and why you have chosen that Medical School. Make sure you can give a convincing and well-researched answer to both. Other questions that may come up include asking about your work experience or wondering about your response to a particular scenario or ethical dilemma. While you do not know exactly what these will be, you can reflect on some similar situations and how best to approach them to stand you in good stead for the interview. For example, think about the arguments for and against euthanasia, or whether smokers should be treated on the NHS.
Getting into Medical School is no mean feat and many students feel daunted by the competition they face and the pressure they are under. Remember everyone is in the same position with the same feelings and every year thousands of students are accepted to Medical Schools. Maybe next year one of them will be you. To maximise your chances of making that happen, you need to work hard, prepare early and ask for help from everyone around you. Best of luck.
You can find more information and examples of typical questions in our article How to Pass a Medical School Interview
Simon Horner read Biology at the University of North London. He has subsequently held a number of senior science teaching and lecturing positions in schools and universities and became Head of Faculty for Sciences and Mathematics at MPW London in 2010. He is co-author of Getting into Medical School and co-ordinates MPW London’s preparation programme for prospective medical students.