How do you decide which medical school to apply to?
Students in their AS year with good GCSE results, a love of science and a passion for caring for and working with others will be considering making an application to medical school. I tend to think that the passing of the October 15th UCAS deadline for the A2 students fires the starting gun for those in AS who want to apply the following year. 365 days to make a difference to their applications. UCAS reported recently that in 2013, for the 7,515 places offered to medical candidates last year, 84,395 applicants applied. That is roughly a 1:11 ratio. Competition is fierce.
Is a degree from one place the same as a degree from another?
One important consideration is deciding which medical school to apply to. But, how important a decision is this actually? Unlike most other degrees there is a national standard, set by the GMC (General Medical Council) and applied to medical school degrees. This ensures that as far as possible, all doctors educated in the UK are trained to the same standards (www.gmc-uk.org/education/undergraduate/tomorrows_doctors.asp). There are obvious reasons why this makes sense, a scenario whereby doctors in the UK are trained differently at different institutions would quickly lead to problems. However, were you to take almost any other degree you may find that your degree from one university is quite different to that you may have received at another – depending on the specialisms of the professors, location, resources and many other factors. A good example would be in biology, where many universities close to the coast will emphasise marine biology and ecology for obvious reasons whereas this is less practical in other places.
What type of candidate are the different schools looking for?
So a degree in medicine is the same wherever you go, right? Well to an extent, yes, but there are still some important factors to consider. First of all, your priority when applying is to get in somewhere and different universities emphasise different attributes when it comes to the application process. Some place the highest regard on academic performance; some will only interview candidates with a particular UKCAT (United Kingdom Clinical Aptitude Test) score; others prefer the BMAT (BioMedical Admissions Test) and make it their most important diagnostic; some need you to have secured a minimum number of hours of relevant work experience before you can be considered; for many the interview is key, others don’t even interview every candidate. It is therefore important to consider your own strengths and attributes, match those to the entrance criteria of the medical schools and apply to those that suit your strengths. There is no harm in contacting the admissions tutors at the medical schools to have a conversation about what they prefer to see in their applicants. In fact I recommend that you do this.
Know your competition
Another thing to consider is the competition. Most would-be doctors have a pragmatic approach to their applications – they don’t mind where they go, they just want to get in and begin training. However, some universities, rightly or wrongly, attract more applications than others. Oxford and Cambridge have a certain prestige attached and offer a particular lifestyle that appeals to many. UCL and Imperial College in London have world-renowned reputations and of course, along with King’s College, Queen Mary’s and St George’s have the attraction of being in London and the lifestyle associated with living in the capital. This increases the number of applicants and therefore the competition at these places. It doesn’t make them better medical schools necessarily, but it does mean they can set their bar very high.
How is the course delivered?
Although medical schools are required to meet the GMC standards, they vary in the way they deliver their courses. You will hear phrases like “problem-based learning,” “clinical training,” “pre-clinical training” and you should make sure you fully understand what they all mean. At some medical schools you will meet patients “on day one”; at others you may spend a long time studying physiology and anatomy before encountering your first patient or making your first diagnosis. There are pros and cons to each approach. Students with strong clinical skills may feel they lack some of the scientific rigour and understanding of their colleagues with stronger scientific backgrounds, who in turn lack some of the communication skills, ability to empathise and other crucial skills essential to become a good doctor.
Where do you want to live?
If you don’t want to live in London don’t apply to UCL! If you live in Newcastle and don’t want to be far from home, don’t apply to Plymouth University Peninsula! This sounds so obvious, but it is probably the most commonly ignored piece of advice I give to university applicants each year. People presume that they can sacrifice quality of life for (perceived) quality of degree. “I hate the idea of living in a big city like London, but UCL/King’s/Imperial has such a good reputation.” This makes no sense to me. It takes a long time to qualify as a doctor, that means you will be living in the town or city you choose now for five, six, maybe more, years. I’m all for taking risks – life is about experiences, any chose you make has an element of risk, but take a calculated risk. Go and visit, explore and picture yourself there. Decide on the criteria that are important to you and carefully select four universities that match those criteria. Of course criterion number one is likely to be “can I get in?” but what are numbers two, three and four?