An Oxford Undergraduate’s Guide to… Medicine

Lexey Shipley – GSAL Alumna 2018

Written in 2018 by a first year medical student at Oxford, this unofficial guide provides a detailed, honest insight into the challenging process that aspirant medics must go through to secure a place at a leading university. Bear in mind that this guide is just one student’s reflection on their personal journey and is therefore not to be considered definitive; it is the responsibility of any future applicant to check specific entry requirements and application deadlines. Finally, the author, Lexey Shipley, is wholeheartedly thanked for her considerable time and effort in putting this together. Mr C Dodd – Staff Editor

The study of medicine has come a long way since the 13th century. [Public Domain]

Google ‘how to get into medical school’ and you will be/will have been overwhelmed by links to books, websites, blogs and courses. I certainly was. Loads of people – teachers, friends in the year above, medical students, healthcare professionals – helped me with my preparation, so now I’d like to share my experience of applying to medical schools with you. I cannot tell you how you will obtain the offers you want, particularly as I don’t know where you want to study or what exactly they look for in applicants, but I can share the process I went through that ultimately saw me offered a place to study medicine at Oxford.

The first thing I did was set up a folder with a section for everything I needed to do. The folder filled up very quickly and, by the time I had attended my last interview, the preparation I had done spilled over into several folders. If I’m honest, exploring medicine was probably more work than an A-Level; however, it was worth it – not just so I could be fussy about where I applied, but because medicine is incredibly interesting. And, if you don’t find it interesting once you start your exploration, maybe have a look at other university courses/careers!

The headings below all had their own section in my original folder, and sometimes evolved into a folder in their own right.

OPEN DAYS

Apart from giving you a lifetime supply of free pens, going to open days gives you the best insight into where you might enjoy being a medical student. Book onto talks by the admissions tutors as they will often tell you exactly what they are looking for in successful applicants. Each medical school places a different emphasis on GCSE results, predicted A-Levels, UKCAT/BMAT score and personal statement. Unless you take your UKCAT very early, you won’t have your score by the summer open days but you can ask what scores successful applicants have had in the last few years. Talk to the current medical students. At interview, you will need to convince the interviewer why you have chosen that particular medical school. If you can’t talk in specifics, you won’t stand out: for example, at Leeds, there is ultrasound teaching in all five years of the course. At Newcastle, the interviewer joked that I knew the course better than him. As medical courses cost around £37,000 and take at least five years of your life, I’d say you want to know what you will be getting for your time and money – open days are the best way to find out. Look at the accommodation, activities and surrounding area too. Can you imagine spending the next five or six years there, and being happy?

WORK EXPERIENCE

I had a total of eleven days work experience covering a hepatology department, a musculo-skeletal clinic, a GP surgery, an elderly medicine ward and an obstetrics clinic. Be creative to find placements. I contacted the HQ of BASEM (the British Association of Sport and Exercise Medicine), who helped me find the musculo-skeletal placement. For elderly medicine, I looked at the hospital website to find the name of a consultant and then rang the switchboard, asked to be put through to his secretary and then requested through them a few days work experience. If you really want work experience, you can find it – even if you don’t have doctors in your family. Just ask nicely!

When you have secured work experience, you need to make the most of every second. Reflect on everything. Why did the doctor do that? How did the patient react? What impressed me about that situation? How did the multi-disciplinary team collaborate effectively? What were the problems you saw? How did the healthcare team resolve the problem? Recording the challenges faced by healthcare professionals is paramount. The interviewers want to know you have realistic expectations of what the career involves. Make notes as you go through the day or, as a minimum, at the end of each day. Your interviews might not be for months and you will probably forget important details if you don’t write them down.

VOLUNTEERING

Like work experience, volunteering is only useful if you reflect, reflect, reflect. I volunteered for a year at PHAB (www.phab-leeds.org.uk), which is a weekly social club for members, many of whom have mental or physical disabilities. I found this placement more appealing than a residential home or a nursery because it gave me experience working with people aged from 9 to ninety(ish) with a variety of needs. To help me interact more effectively with the older members, I enrolled on a Dementia Friends course (www.dementiafriends.org.uk). I also spent a term of Wednesday afternoons at Parklands Primary School, where I helped prepare Year 6 children for their SATS. Both of these experiences were thoroughly enjoyable and gave me plenty of examples to talk about at interview.

Keep detailed records of dates and contact details for work experience and volunteering as you will be asked to provide them by some medical schools.

POSITIONS OF RESPONSIBILITY

Think about how any positions of responsibility have helped you develop skills that relate to Medicine. An example would be, ‘as prefect, one of the responsibilities I enjoyed was talking with prospective pupils and parents at school open mornings. I tried to ask appropriate questions, which would enable me to find out how I could best help them. As a doctor, you need to build up a rapport with strangers quickly and ask the most appropriate questions so that you can best help them’. Don’t just write a list of what you did in your position; it’s only worth talking about if you can relate it back to medicine.

ADMISSIONS TESTS – UKCAT and BMAT

Medical school websites and open days will reveal which universities require which test and how much emphasis they place on your score as part of the selection process. Until you know how well you have done in UKCAT, there’s not much point in setting your heart on a particular medical school. Knowing that a medical school I really, really loved (Newcastle) demands a high UKCAT score was a massive motivator, though, for me to put a lot of effort into that test. Both UKCAT and BMAT are very hard. Some sources say you can’t really prepare. THIS IS NOT TRUE. If you want an offer from a university that places a lot of emphasis on your test score, you do need to prepare (a lot!). However, I believe there are also medical schools which are less concerned with the admissions tests, so it’s not the end of the world if you hate the style of questions.

UKCAT

I started preparing as soon as my Year 12 exams were over in May and sat UKCAT towards the end of July. I did every question/test… 

You will develop your own strategies for approaching questions in each of the sections, which is important as timing is a challenge. The excellent UKCAT Study Guide, pictured below and also available as a blog, is worth the small cost. You will be able to summarize it into a few pages of notes to go back to as you practise.

I scored a 780 average with SJT band 1 so I knew I should get an interview at both Newcastle and Birmingham. The medical school admission pages will give you an idea of the scores of previous successful applicants. They won’t tell you exactly what score you need, though, as it is dependent on how everyone does in your application year and how many people apply to your chosen universities. To keep your options open, put the effort into getting the best score you can.

BMAT

As soon as I had taken UKCAT in July, I started preparing for the November BMAT. I hoped this would be easier as a large chunk is knowledge based. I was wrong. Only having Double Science award at GCSE rather than Triple Science leaves you with gaps in what you need to know (unless you are taking 3 science A-Levels). You can use the revision guide on the BMAT website to work out what you haven’t covered, but reading it from there isn’t the same as having been taught it (or what would be the point of school?). The resources I used to prepare for BMAT were every question/test… 

Practise your timed essays (on photocopies of the actual exam answer sheets) and ask a teacher(s) for feedback. The website 
www.6med.co.uk will mark mock essays if you pay them. You’ll see what I mean when you start practising, but there will be several examples that you can use in lots of essays (my favourite was Andrew Wakefield and MMR).

I scored 5.9, 5.2 and 4A which was (probably just) good enough to get me an interview at Oxford and good enough for Leeds, but not as good as my UKCAT score relative to other exam takers.

 PERSONAL STATEMENT

I spent hours and hours on this because it is so hard to squeeze everything you want/need to say into 4,000 characters/47 lines of text. Of the universities I applied to, only Leeds scored the personal statement to decide whether to offer an interview. So, I made sure that my personal statement was tailored to exactly what Leeds said they were looking for in their personal statement guide. Make it easy for the admissions staff reading your personal statement to tick the boxes you need them to tick.

Oxford didn’t score the personal statement to select for interview but they used it as a discussion point during all four of my interviews. If you write about something on there, make sure you know it inside out. A girl, who was being interviewed at the same college as me at Oxford, gave (what she admitted was) a superficial answer to a question about ‘The Selfish Gene’ and the interviewer said her response was what he would expect from a candidate who hadn’t read the book properly – ouch! So, be prepared to talk in detail about anything you include in your personal statement.

When I was finally happy with my personal statement, I created a document of answers to every single question I thought I could be asked about it at interview. This helped me develop more thorough answers ahead of the interviews (when I knew I would have limited thinking time). As I understand it, my personal statement was not used at all by Newcastle. Birmingham only read it to make sure I had some relevant experience. It’s important to know if your interviewer has seen your personal statement. If they haven’t, find ways of including the content from your personal statement at their interview station.

READING

I divided my reading into categories and would recommend all of the following publications:

Essential

British Medical Association – the trade union and professional association for doctors and medical students across the UK.

General Medical Council – help protect patients and improve UK medical education and practice by supporting students, doctors, educators and healthcare providers.

Medical Schools Council – Guiding principles for the admission of medical students and statement on the core values and attributes needed to study medicine.L

Life as a Doctor

Rachel Clarke – Your Life in my Hands

Henry Marsh – Do No Harm

Adam Kay – This is Going to Hurt

Max Pemberton – The Doctor Will See You Now

Science

Richard Dawkins – The Selfish Gene

Nessa Carey – The Epigenetics Revolution

I also got into the habit (on journeys to and from school) of reading articles about healthcare/NHS. Subscribe to www.bbc.co.uk/news/health for this; www.student.bmj.com is another respected source. Current issues will come up at interview. A couple of weeks before any interview, find a few topical articles and think about what you could say you learnt/were surprised about/found interesting. It’s always impactful if you can then tie the article back to your work experience or volunteering.

Reflect on everything you read. How does what you learn tie into what you have seen for yourself? How does it give you an insight into medicine?

WATCHING

Programmes such as ‘Hospital’ and ‘24 Hours in A&E’ give you some insight into life in hospitals – particularly the variety of work and the challenges you might face. There were also lots of documentaries which I found fascinating, such as a Channel 4 program presented by Mark Austin about eating disorders. Panorama is another source of relevant quality material. Get the TV guide and download the programmes to watch at a time when you can make notes. There will be something really memorable in most programmes. One thing that horrified me was how far teenagers with eating disorders have to travel for treatment (if they can access treatment at all). For everything you watch, keep a record of what you learnt and link it to your work experience/volunteering.

COURSES/TALKS

Look out for courses/talks relating to medicine. The website www.futurelearn.com offers loads of free and relevant online courses you can sign up to. The most useful one I completed was on ‘Social Determinants of Health’, which helped me better understand the steps being taken to reduce health inequalities. Google ‘WAMS Leeds’ (www.wanttobeadoctor.co.uk) as they run courses to help with personal statements and interviews. YouTube also has plenty of interesting material. I’d recommend the TED talk ‘Creating Change in the Shadows’ by Sonia Joseph, and Sam Cohen’s talks on Alzheimer’s. Once again (you are probably bored of reading this, but…) reflect on what you learn on these courses. And, even if courses/talks say they are aimed at widening participation, there are often spare places if you don’t meet all the criteria. So, do apply. I wasn’t turned down for anything I asked to attend.

INTERVIEWS

Most medical schools will explain to you (almost exactly) what you will be expected to do/know/competencies they are looking for, etc, at interview. Use all the information that they send you/you can find on the website to prepare. Newcastle, for example, want you to know where the base units during clinical years are so find them on a map and know a bit about the hospitals in those areas. I got the impression that a big part of what they are testing at interview is whether you have bothered to make the most of all the help that is there if you want it.

The questions in the books below and on The Medic Portal will help you prepare thoroughly. Discuss your answers with your family over dinner each night (yes, it’s weird, but it helps a lot) or on car journeys. Ask your family to give you honest feedback about how you structure your answers, as well as the content.

Lots of companies run interview courses. I thought 
The Medic Portal ‘MMI Circuits’ course and the 6med ‘Interview Crash Course’ were money well spent. A very kind doctor connected to my school gave me two mock interviews: one traditional for Oxford and a mock MMI for the others. I also attended a WAMS interview course. Practising gets rid of a lot of nerves you might otherwise have at your first real interview. The feedback I received from all these experiences was invaluable.

It is never too early to start creating a log of examples to use at interview:

  • What you have done to explore medicine
  • Your strengths and weaknesses
  • Your ability to reflect on your own work
  • Personal organisation
  • Taking responsibility
  • Effective communication, including reading, writing, listening and speaking
  • Teamwork
  • Resilience and the ability to deal effectively with difficult situations/problems
  • Empathy and ability to care for others

For each example, record:

  1. what you did;
  2. what skills you developed as a result;
  3. how these skills might be useful for a career in medicine.

Interviews are the time to connect your work experience with your volunteering. For example…

During my work experience on the Surgical Assessment Unit, I witnessed the importance of asking focussed, clear questions to extract the precise information needed during the limited time available to triage patients. Similarly, while helping disadvantaged students in a local primary school with maths, I had to gauge quickly their understanding by asking pertinent questions and listening attentively.”

As with personal statements, if you mention something, be prepared to talk about it in detail. When I mentioned a book by Rachel Clarke – ‘Your Life in my Hands’ – I was asked what her profession was before she became a doctor. Luckily, I could remember she was a journalist in war zones. I also mentioned CAR T-cell therapy and the interviewer asked me if it had been approved by the FDA. Luckily (again), I knew that, in August 2017, it had been approved by the FDA for treating acute lymphoblastic leukaemia in children.

By preparing thoroughly, you can often steer the conversation in the direction you want and get the examples out that you know will tick the boxes that the medical school have told you they are looking to tick. All of my interviews were positive experiences and I felt that the interviewers wanted me to do well.

Smile and enjoy showing the medical schools how much you want to be a doctor.

TOP RECOMMENDED WEBSITES

….but, there are loads, and loads, and loads… as you may, already, have discovered!

AND FINALLY…

Getting into Medical School demands two years of hard work but you will know it’s worth it when that UCAS email pops up in August to confirm your place.

Good luck with exploring Medicine and with your applications. However, reflection and preparation will be a lot more important than luck! LS

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