The Difficulties of Getting Into Medical School

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Medical Schools are not looking for why they should accept you; they are looking for why they shouldn’t. That may sound cynical but it’s an irrefutable fact that many candidates exceed the entry requirements, yet not all of them can gain an interview or offer of a place. So how do the Universities differentiate between one candidate and another?

Work experience

Are you well informed about the actual demands or pros and cons of being a Doctor? Can you prove it in your UCAS application and talk about it at Interview? Regardless of your age or educational level, work experience is often the thing which differentiates one candidate from another. It demonstrates a hands-on desire to learn about your intended career path, and that you are entering Medicine for the right reasons; because you are aware of what it means to be a Doctor, what the job entails, not because you saw something on Grey’s Anatomy and thought it might be “cool”.

You do not have to have traveled to Kenya to help blind children see again, or have found a cure to cancer, but it often seems that a lot of candidates who are accepted to Medical School have volunteered abroad. What of those who cannot afford to do so? Is it not good enough to have volunteered weekly at a soup-kitchen or been a dedicated fundraiser for your favourite charity? There is a lot one can do without leaving the country and Medical Schools are aware of this.

This is not to detract from the hard work and help many applicants have given to other countries, or to suggest their journey was for the sole purpose of making their personal statements more exciting. But unfortunately this misperception does exist in some form, with some applicants feeling they must pay to go abroad, or be the next Mozart with a musical instrument, and otherwise risk their application being less competitive.

GCSE

Medical Schools must establish how good you look on paper. Some institutions apply significance to GCSE’s; the University of Liverpool School of Medicine states that you must have 9 GCSE’s at grade C and above. You could have gone on to achieve a First Class degree in Biochemical Engineering, but if even one of your 9 GCSE grades is below a C you can forget about applying to Liverpool. It is arguably fair that mature or graduate applicants should meet the same requirements as school-leavers, but with exam retakes being frowned upon by Medical Schools, and even recent academic excellence not compensating for prior GCSE grades, what hope is there for older applicants?

A-Level

Some establishments focus more on A-Levels. Typically grades AAA in Biology, Chemistry and a third subject (for example Physics or Mathematics) are expected, though A*A*A*A*(a) would undoubtedly make an applicant stand out from the rest. If any applicant, be they school-leaver or mature/graduate, does not meet this requirement then this limits their choice of Medical Schools. As an example let us consider an applicant who achieved grades ABC in non-scientific A-Level subjects, then later went on to achieve A*A*A* in science based A-Levels, even then this candidate would not be suitable for UCL Medical School, whom only acknowledge the first set of A-Levels undertaken by the applicant and ignores any later A-Level grades, regardless of academic excellence or the fact they are not retakes. In many ways this is demonstrative of the dreaded feeling that ‘you only get once chance’ with education and pursuing your dream, and leaves many mature/graduate applicants feeling regret over past grades, or not choosing medicine sooner, and that it is ‘too late’ to improve or compensate. This is why Access Medicine courses such as the one at The College of West Anglia can offer a way for mature students to prove their academic ability and suitability to Medicine.

Graduate and Mature Students

I have heard many successful graduates with 2:1 or 1st class degrees say they wish they had never taken a degree, simply because they feel it makes applying to Medical School all the more difficult. Graduates are typically judged more harshly than school-leaver applicants, as if it is a flaw they did not choose or enter Medicine sooner. This is not true for all establishments, some of which are more ‘Graduate friendly’, and realise that applicants who have already succeeded at a degree are often mature, experienced, and able to work hard at a higher academic level, offering a fresh perspective from their chosen subject.

If you are a graduate with a non-scientific degree, this is where selecting medical schools to apply to becomes difficult. Every Medical School is drastically different in their attitudes to mature applicants, ranging from hostility and disapproval to respectful acceptance; some only accept graduates with a science degree, and in general any lower than a 2:1 grade is unacceptable regardless of whether the applicant is entering a Traditional 5 year programme, or accelerated 4-year Graduate entry.

Mature applicants are usually expected to have everything a school-leaver has and more. What can you offer to the Medical School, academically and personally, that a younger applicant might not? This is where you must ‘sell yourself’ in your UCAS Personal Statement, and prove that you have a more in-depth feel for the demands of a career in Medicine, or sophisticated methods for dealing with stress and pressure (which can be backed up by your C.V).

Admissions Tests

The UKCAT (the UK Clinical Aptitude Test): dreaded by many, a walk in the park for others (regardless of their academic ability) invites polar opinions from applicants and Medical professionals alike. Many Doctors agree that the UKCAT does not determine who will or will not make a good Doctor, and that the test should be abolished. Others argue its merit in objectively seeking stronger applicants using a score system, and claim that it is fair because it cannot be revised for; it is not about a candidate’s knowledge, only their ability to think rationally and logically under the pressure of time constraints. Some Medical Schools automatically reject applicants who score below a certain threshold, regardless of their academics or work experience, and invite anyone scoring above a certain amount to interview.

Made up of four sections: Verbal Reasoning, Quantitative Reasoning, Abstract Reasoning and Decision Analysis, none of which refer to or contain anything ‘clinical’, this test can play a large role in an applicant’s chances of securing a place at Medical School, so even if you wonder how seeing a pattern in a load of jumbled Abstract shapes relates to your ability to learn Medicine and care for patients, this will most likely be the test you undertake.

Other admissions tests include the GAMSAT (Graduate Medical Schools Admissions Test) which is over five hours long, and based around a candidate’s scientific knowledge, as well as their literate ability, the BMAT (BioMedical Admissions Test), testing aptitude and skills, scientific knowledge and writing ability. For more information on admissions tests see: wanttobeadoctor.co.uk.

Re-applicants

If you are unsuccessful in securing an interview or place at Medical School, should you try again? This depends on your ambition, whether or not you have at least considered alternative careers, what your financial or family situation is, and whether or not you can improve upon your application. Think from an admissions perspective; they have to reject those that do not meet the requirements, and even many who exceed them, there simply are not enough places to go around. There are applicants who have been unsuccessful for four academic cycles then gained a place on their ‘last try’. There is always hope, but the applicant must be willing to improve.

The harsh truth about Medical School is that it can be subjective, and the line between one applicant who exceeds the entry requirements and is rejected, and another in the same position who is accepted, can be blurry. An applicant can meet the academic/personal requirements yet be rejected without even an interview from one Medical School, yet gain an offer from a Medical School typically deemed to be even more competitive.

The best advice any applicant can follow is to research and select their medical school choices very carefully, contact the admissions teams directly, and be aware that there is no easy way into Medical School just as there is no easy way to complete a Medical degree. If you do not like a challenge, or can find no ways to self-improve, then perhaps Medicine is not the right career choice.

Note: Aspects of this post are opinion based and tongue-in-cheek, but any references to a specific Medical School’s entry requirements are accurate at the time of writing.

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5 responses

  1. It is worth pointing out that although many medical schools do have minimum A-level requirements for graduate entry students, these are typically lower than the minimum requirements for school leavers. UCL, for example, requires ABB from graduate entrants rather than the AAA plus a passing grade in a fourth subject that it requires from school leavers. They also quite often waive the A-level requirements if the degree is in a science subject. It is also worth pointing out that some universities will accept students with a 2:2 if they also have an MSc, and that St George’s and Nottingham’s minimum requirements for graduate are a 2:2 plus the GAMSAT.

    As in everything, it is all highly individual and depends very much on the specific medical school in question.

    Beth
    (a graduate entry medical student)

    • I agree, it is all very individual, no two medical schools are the same. I was careful about saying ‘generally’ or ‘typically’ for that reason, because it cannot be claimed that a 2.2 degree is never accepted, or that AAA grade A-Levels are the only acceptable grades….many universities accept other qualifications in lieu of these, or make additional requirements specific to candidates in that position.

      I shall probably write a follow-up post to specify the differences between various universitys’ entry requirements, though these are easily accessible online and through books, the university websites, and by taking the time to email each medical school (I have personally emailed every medical school in the UK before, and it’s amazing how much each differs in what ask from applicants).

      Thank you for your comment, it’s very true!

  2. You forgot the not wanting to pass out when you see blood portion of getting into medical school. I thought about being a doctor, but I’m terrible at seeing other people sick and making myself feel sick.

    • Aw you would have made a great Doctor Nate! But this is true, many people are cut out for the role but not for the blood/bodily fluids, I know someone who wanted to be a Nurse but fainted on the first day of work experience at the very mention of a needle not even the sight of blood!

      Perhaps one can train themselves to desensitise? I’m not sure as I’ve never been sqeuamish in the least bit….more sort of fascinated, which is why I’m good at dissection I guess (some would also argue would make for a good serial killer)

  3. Pingback: Your Instructional Method to Being a DoctorRDB

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