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Applying to medical school in the UK

Guidance on applying to medical school in the UK from representatives from the Brighton and Sussex Medical School

Cialfo Community
August 16, 2021
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7 min read
  • Why medicine?
  • About the degree
  • The journey to becoming a full-fledged doctor
  • What admission officers are looking for
  • Deciding where to study
  • The application process
  • In conclusion

Why medicine?

First and foremost, prospective medical students need to be clear on why they want to study medicine. Whether this is due to a desire to help others, a genuine interest in medicine, or wanting to work in a team-centered environment, being clear on this will enable students to power through the long hours and stressful work that comes with studying and practicing medicine.

About the degree

Generally, a medical degree takes five years to complete, with some schools offering a six-year option for an intercalated degree.

Intercalated degrees consist of an initial three years studying medicine, followed by a year of studying another course, before completing the medicine degree. Graduate entry into medicine is a four-year course.

Unsurprisingly, entry into medicine is highly competitive, with application numbers in the United Kingdom (UK) increasing year-on-year. In line with this, the UK government has pledged increased funding to support more training programmes for medical school. 

Application season UK/EU applications Overseas applications
October 2020 deadline 20,180 3,530
October 2019 deadline 19,210 3,220
October 2019 deadline 17,420 3,310

The journey to becoming a full-fledged doctor

All in all, the shortest training pathway to become a particular type of doctor is 10 years, for a General Practitioner (GP). One of the longest pathways to become a particular type of consultant is between 17-19 years (a maxillofacial surgeon). This is why determination, commitment and passion are so crucial to becoming a doctor.

What admissions officers are looking for

The Medical Schools Council is the representative body for UK medical schools, and produces guidance for aspiring medics on the key things medical schools are looking for. 

Values and skills

According to the Medical Schools Council, these are the core values and attributes medical schools are looking for and integrate within their admissions processes:

  • Ability to reflect
  • Resilience 
  • Problem-solving
  • Personal organisation
  • Empathy
  • Dealing with uncertainty
  • Ability to treat people with respect
  • Honesty
  • Teamwork

It’s important that medicine applicants are able to identify and explain how and where these skills are used in medicine, and also demonstrate that they have these skills from their experience. 

Admissions officers are also looking for:

  • An understanding of medicine
  • The insight into what it’s really like to be a junior doctor
  • An appreciation of the National Health Service (NHS) and its current challenges 
  • A broad scientific knowledge and demonstration of individual research, above and beyond the school curriculum
  • An up-to-date knowledge of current affairs

It’s also important to be aware of and able to speak to your understanding and experience of the NHS values. Being aware of these and being able to refer to them in your interview answers will greatly help.

The NHS values
Image from the NHS

Demonstrating your understanding of medicine

Medical schools are aware that the pandemic means that there are limited opportunities for candidates to gain work experience in hospitals. However, it is a myth that in-person clinical work experience is necessary to successfully applying for medicine.

Schools want to see two things from your work experience:

  • A realistic understanding of medicine in the UK
  • Demonstrating the relevant skills, no matter your work experience, and how this translates into medicine

Other ways to demonstrate your understanding of medicine include volunteering (e.g. care homes, hospices, youth clubs), reading (e.g. BBC Health, New Scientist, relevant books and novels), and extracurricular activities.

It’s important to remember that your experience and extracurricular activities should always be linked back to your understanding of medicine and your ability to apply the relevant skills.

Deciding where to study

There are many ways to decide which medical school you should study at. Attending open days, looking at websites and speaking to admissions officers all help.

Lots of aspiring medics tend to be overly focused on league tables, but it is more important to pick a medical school that best suits you. Every medical school is very very different, and as you’ll be there for such a long time, it’s very important that you feel that you will thrive at the medical school you’ll be attending. Some students may thrive in a smaller cohort, while others may prefer a bigger cohort; some may prefer a city campus, while others may prefer working in a more rural setting. 

There are generally three styles of teaching medicine:

  • Traditional: Two years of learning science, three years of clinical work
  • Integrated: Scientific knowledge and learning is integrated with clinical practice
  • Problem-based learning: Involves case studies and peer teaching

Other things to consider include:

  • How anatomy is taught (e.g. dissection, ultrasound, etc.)
  • Intercalation
  • Electives
  • Student-selected component (ssc)
  • Patients (level of interaction, etc.)
  • Selection 

The application process

All applications in the UK go through the University and College Admissions System (UCAS), which is the national portal for applying to university. Each student has five choices, but can only apply for four medical schools due to how highly competitive it is. A teacher reference will be needed. 

It is important to note that there is an earlier deadline for medical school.

The MSC’s new website called Studying medicine contains all their advice and guidance for future medical professionals. There are lots of useful webinars, events and talks that applicants can check out.

Personal statement

Your personal statement should demonstrate that you have the skills, values and attributes required to study medicine and be a doctor. It should also convey that you have a realistic understanding of what a career in medicine entails and how the healthcare system works.

Admissions tests

Biomedical Admissions Test (BMAT)

The BMAT consists of three sections: the thinking skill section, the Science section and the essay section. The science Section contains Biology, Chemistry and Physics at the GCSE level. 

University Clinical Aptitude Test (UCAT)

This is more like an IQ test with multiple-choice questions covering different skills. 

To prepare for the admissions tests, students should utilize the free resources available on the admissions websites. It is a good idea to explore the different question types, attempt practice questions, and complete mock tests under timed conditions. UCAT recommends 25-30 hours of preparation. 

Interviews

Multiple mini interviews (MMI)

The interviewee will move around different stations and be interviewed for a specified time by the different interviewers. 

Panel-based interviews

A more traditional interview style, this involves a few members from the medical school faculty or other healthcare professionals. This usually takes 20-30 minutes.

To prepare for your interviews, it is a good idea to check out the Medic Portal and MSC websites. Review the NHS values and be sure to research the medical schools you’re applying to, as failing to have a good understanding of the school you're interviewing for shows a lack of passion and research.

In conclusion

It’s important for students to understand that applying to medical school in the UK is a challenging and highly competitive process with low acceptance rates. The most you can do is to present yourself at your best for the personal statement, admissions tests and interviews. Many applicants won’t get in the first time, so don’t be disheartened if this happens! Don’t be afraid to try again, and even use your previous application experience to inform and strengthen your next application.

A big thank you to Charlotte Smyrk, Widening Participation, Outreach and Recruitment Officer, and Matt Kowdock, Student Recruitment Coordinator, both from the Brighton and Sussex Medical School, for their invaluable insights and expert advice that made this webinar and article possible.

Image credits: RF Studio and Luis Melendez

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