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Practice and Prepare

September 9, 2013
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Recently, a Year 12 student contacted me for advice getting into medical school after reading an article I had a hand in in the student BMJ. This is my reply, for any other Year 12 students out there.

(The article can be found here. http://student.bmj.com/student/view-article.html?id=sbmj.f4532 )

Hello Abbie,Thank you for getting in touch. I hope you liked the sBMJ article.

Imperial College School of Medicine offers a traditionally taught medical course which is six years long. The first two years consist of lectures, tutorials and some small group work like PBL. The third year is the first clinical year, where you will spend most of your time on the wards, learning medicine and surgery a bit more practically than previously. The fourth year is an intercalated BSc degree in medical science, so more lectures. It gives you a chance to develop some specialist scientific knowledge and it means you’ll graduate with two degrees – Bonus! The fifth year is back on the wards, rotating through the different specialities; paediatrics, psychiatry, obstetrics and gynaecology, et cetera. The sixth and final year is a lot like the third year; more medicine and surgery, while you prepare for your final exams…like I should be doing!

It sounds like a lot. It is. But from my experience, it is also a lot of fun and generally worth the effort. The medical school has quite a lively social life, with hundreds of student clubs and societies to cater to your interests, and there is a strong sense of community within the medical school. Imperial also offers the chance to study in London, a unique opportunity (excepting St George’s, GKT, UCL, and Bart’s). There is a lot of variety with Imperial as well as clinical students learn at any one of around twelve different hospitals in west London. It can be quite illuminating to see the different ways medicine is practised, even in London.

Right. That’s the easy bit over with.

I wish I knew the secret on how to get into medicine, if there was one. The truth is that applying to medicine will be difficult, no matter who you are. It is highly competitive and everyone else will be just as talented and as remarkable as yourself. I’m writing this not to put you off. I think it’s great that you want to study medicine. I just want you to be aware of what is in store.

A caveat: I applied and got in to Imperial in 2008. All the advice I have is at least six years old so please bear with me.

Grades first. Congratulations on your GCSE results – If you can keep up the good work and repeat the results at AS and A2 level, that’s one obstacle down already. The problem is that thousands of other students will have very similar results. To your prospective universities, you all look very much the same on paper. Some use the UKCAT or the BMAT exams as an extra measure of aptitude. When you think of everyone else sitting these tests, you’ll want to distinguish yourself so make sure you practice and prepare for them.

The truth is that good grades and a good UKCAT/BMAT result aren’t enough. 

Then universities turn to your personal statement. This must broadcast, loud and clear, why you want to study medicine and why you would make a good doctor. Your personal statement must convince the admissions boards that out of all their applicants, you are the person they want. Have a think, a long think, about why you want to study medicine, about why you want to be a doctor. “Because I want to help people” isn’t enough. It’s boring and cliche. You have to put your motive down on paper and make it genuine. And be prepared to defend it, because it is a perennial question at interviews. The personal statement is also where your exploits and achievements go. I am very impressed with what you’ve done already – It’s more than I ever got up to. But don’t just list all these things – bring everything back to support why you want to be a doctor or why you would make a good doctor. I think you only get around 700 words for your personal statement which is not nearly enough space so make sure you make every word count too.When you’ve written your personal statement, get everyone to read it. Family, friends, teachers, any doctors you may know, the old lady at the bus stop. Absolutely everyone. Get them to read it, re-read it, critique it and ask them how you can improve it. You want to polish your personal statement so much it shines.

After all this, you will apply to the universities of your choice. Take your time to choose, and choose wisely. I’m touched you contacted me but you may find that Imperial is not the place for you. One of the beautiful things about learning medicine in the UK is that there are a number of different but equal ways to learn. Some universities focus on self-directed learning and PBL-work while others are very didactic and lecture-based, while others still offer a very practical, clinical curriculum. Work out what kind of approach you think will suit you and apply accordingly. Do not apply to a university because you’ve heard it’s easy to get into. That is a lie – no university is easy to get in to.

If you’re lucky, some universities will offer you an interview to further assess your quality as an applicant. I can’t give you too much advice here I’m afraid, as all the universities conduct their interviews differently and I’ve only been to two. What I can say, and this is merely repeating what I’ve said earlier, practice and prepare. There are lists of interview questions available and you should practice answering them in the run-up to your interviews. It would be a shame for all your hard work to be undone by an attack of panic in the interview room. The best strategy to avoid that is to practice answering all sorts of questions and to have practice interviews. Familiarise yourself but don’t let your answers become rote. Admissions tutors are very good at spotting people who have learnt a script to parrot.

This is a very long email and I apologise for wittering on. If nothing else, please remember this: Practice and prepare. In everything you do and at every step: Practice and prepare and practise and prepare some more!

One last thing. This is how things went for me, oh so long ago. 2007, I had all the grades, the UKCAT, a decent personal statement…and I got no offers to medical school. Undefeated, I spent that year working in WHSmiths while I acquired more clinical experience shadowing in local hospitals, practising for UKCAT and BMAT and buffing my personal statement. In 2008, everything that could be better was better than before. I had two interviews at Imperial and Nottingham and was accepted in Imperial College London. Since then I have not looked back. So, even after everything things don’t work out – It’s not the end of the story.

If you really want to study medicine, you can find a way.Thank you for contacting me. You sounds like a very busy girl. From what you’ve told me, I think you would make a very fine medical student.

Kind regards.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. T. Obi permalink
    October 2, 2013 9:59 pm

    Reblogged this on the unreasonable optimist.

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