Only around 40% of applicants for medicine are successful in gaining places. Does this mean that the remaining 60% were unsuitable?
The answer, of course, is no. Many of those who are rejected are extremely strong candidates, with high grades at GCSE and AS under their belts and the personalities and qualities that would make them into excellent doctors. There are a fixed number of medical school places available each year and so not all candidates can be successful. But many promising applicants do not put themselves in a position whereby they can be given proper consideration, simply because they do not prepare thoroughly enough.
Ideally, your preparation should begin at least two years before you submit your application, but if you have come to the decision to apply to study medicine more recently, or if you were unaware of what steps you need to take in order to prepare a strong application, don’t worry. It is not too late. Even over a relatively short period of time (a few months) you can put together a convincing application.
Have you shown a genuine interest in medicine?
This question has to be answered partly by your reference and partly by you in your personal statement but, before we go on, it’s time for a bit of soul-searching in the form of a short test.
Answer all the questions truthfully.
- Do you regularly read the following for articles about medicine?
Daily broadsheet newspapers
- Do you regularly watch medical dramas and current affairs programmes such as Panorama or Newsnight?
- Do you possess any books or CD-ROMs about the human body or medicine, or do you visit medical websites?
- Have you attended a first-aid course?
- Have you arranged a visit to your local GP?
- Have you arranged to visit your local hospital in order to see the work of doctors at first hand?
- What day of the week does your favourite newspaper publish a health section?
- Do you know the main causes of death in this country?
- Do you know what the following stand for?
You should have answered ‘yes’ to most of the first six questions and should have been able to give answers to the last three. A low score (mainly ‘no’ and ‘don’t know’ answers) should make you ask yourself whether you really are sufficiently interested in medicine as a career. If you achieved a high score, you need to ensure that you communicate your interest in your UCAS application.
Have you done relevant work experience and courses?
It is always advisable to arrange your own work experience, and it is perfectly reasonable to use contacts, whether family members or friends, but medical schools will not want to see in your personal statement that you have shadowed a parent after they arranged the work experience for you. Organisational abilities are a vital component of becoming a doctor. This could be used as an important means of proving that you have the necessary skill set.
In addition to making brief visits to your local hospital and GP’s surgery (which you should be able to arrange through your school or with the help of your parents), it is important to undertake a longer period of relevant work experience. If possible, try to get work experience that involves the gritty, unglamorous side of patient care. A week spent helping elderly and confused patients walk to the toilet is worth a month in the hospital laboratory helping the technicians carry out routine tests. Unfortunately, these hospital jobs are hard to get, and you may have to offer to work at weekends or at night. If that fails, you should try your local hospice or care home.
Hospices tend to be short of money because they are maintained by voluntary donations. They are usually happy to take on conscientious volunteers, and the work they do (caring for the terminally ill) is particularly appropriate. Remember that you are not only working in a hospital/ hospice in order to learn about medicine in action. You are also there to prove (to yourself as well as to the admissions tutors) that you have the dedication and stomach for what is often an unpleasant and upsetting work environment. You should be able to get the address of your nearest hospice from your GP’s surgery or online.
Volunteer work with a local charity is a good way of demonstrating your commitment as well as giving you the opportunity to find out more about medicine. HIV/AIDS charities, for example, welcome volunteers.
Any medical contact is better than none, so clerical work in a medical environment, work in a hospital magazine stall or voluntary work for a charity working in a medical- related area is better than no work experience at all. When you come to write the personal statement section of your UCAS application you will want to describe your practical experience of medicine in some detail. Say what you did, what you saw and what insights you gained from it. As always, include details that could provide the signpost to an interesting question in your interview.
Have you been involved in your local community?
A career in medicine involves serving the community, and you need to demonstrate that you have something of the dedication needed to be a good doctor. You may have been able to do this through voluntary jobs in hospitals or hospices. If not, you need to think about devoting a regular period each week to one of the charitable organisations that cares for those in need.
The number of organisations needing this help has increased following the government’s decision to close some of the long- stay mental institutions and place the burden of caring for patients on local authorities.Your local social services department (its address should be in the phone book) will be able to give you information on this and other opportunities for voluntary work. Again, it is helpful to obtain brief references from the people you work for so that these can be included in what your teacher writes about you.
Making sure medicine is right for you
It is important to do your research into why medicine is indeed the right career choice for you. If you have chosen medicine for the wrong reasons, it is likely to come out at interview. There are short courses run by M&D Experience and practising doctors at local hospitals who give an insight into medicine as a career. They do not intend to promote or glamorise medicine, but rather expose it as a profession. This might be an excellent way to assess your motivation at an early stage and also act as part of your work experience in medicine, which would be a good talking point at interview to justify your career choice.