My Journey into Medical School
This blog goes through my journey of why I chose to study medicine and the various different challenges I faced along the way when I was applying.
You might be able to relate to my journey and hopefully avoid some of the mistakes I made along the way.
Why am I writing this blog?
The reason I am writing this article is because I know applying to medical school was the most stressful time of my life. I had to balance writing my personal statement (which involved doing work experience, volunteering, etc.), the UCAT, the BMAT, the interview, the final year of school, A levels…looking back now I am quite amazed that I actually managed to do it, and receive offers from Cambridge, UCL, Kings’ and Queen Mary medical school. Whereas I feel I got quite lucky, I know that there must be thousands of other students right now in a similar position who can relate to my stress. Hopefully, hearing about my journey might give you a bit more confidence that applying to medical school is very much doable, especially if you avoid some of the mistakes that I made.
Why I Chose to Study Medicine?
It would be great whilst writing this article if I could say that I always wanted to study medicine – however, that is simply not true. Rather, my decision to study medicine was a long, and sometimes, tortuous process that I only came to at the end of Year 12 (good timing right?).
Up till that point, I had been the type of person who flipped from one career interest to the other. Sometimes, I thought I would like to go into the city (like over 50% of my colleagues), whereas other times I thought I would explore a lifelong interest in languages. Sometimes I thought to do something like geography because it opens many doors and means I could potentially do anything after. And occasionally, I considered taking a gap year to find myself – I thought delaying this choice by a year would give me some extra time to decide exactly what I wanted to do.
So how did I eventually end up in medicine? Probably not the most glamorous way, but one that I would definitely recommend to others. I got a sheet of A3 paper and I split it up into 8 columns, each labelled with a different profession. After that, I brainstormed the pros and cons of each career onto that single piece of paper. These included a mixture of objective reasons but most importantly subjective ones. For example, under finance, I wrote “not interested in economics,” pretty much ruling out that profession for me.
By the end, I was left with medicine and dentistry. From this point, I had to ask myself, “Do I really want to be looking at teeth my whole life?” and the answer was pretty clear. And so, after lots of deliberation, I had chosen medicine.
So, whilst not the most interesting method, this is definitely something I think works, especially if you are struggling to understand what you are drawn towards. In an ideal world, people would be interested in something from an early age and naturally study that at university. But that really isn’t the case for most people. Doing a task like this where you note down all your objective and subjective reasons onto a piece of paper can really help clear your mind. And when you come to a decision, at least you know it is yours and you have some genuine reasons for it. If you are unsure, the last thing I would do is take a gap year solely to delay the decision – trust me, making the decision will not get any easier next year.
The Personal Statement
As you can imagine, having chosen to go into medicine at the end of Year 12, I found myself in a mad rush where I had to write my personal statement, do my UCAT and prepare for the BMAT. For my personal statement, I had to provide evidence of reading, work experience and volunteering. Here are some important lessons I learnt whilst trying to write my personal statement:
– Write your first draft early –> For a couple of months, I had a mental block about writing the first draft of my personal statement. I was so scared that it was going to be useless (and indeed it was). It was only after 42 revisions that I finally submitted my statement to UCAS. But that initiative itself provides a lesson. The first draft will not be good, so get it written as soon as you can (even before you have finished all your work experience) so you can get over the nerves and start developing it much earlier than I did.
– The point of work experience is to experience life as a doctor, not to become a doctor –> I look back now and realise that there are many students like me who spent weeks in a hospital doing work experience. How much of that was actually needed? Being in medical school now, I realise how at that age, it simply isn’t possible to fully comprehend what is going on in a hospital. So, spending weeks in a hospital or GP surgery doing work experience is not really helping your application. Universities just want to see evidence that you have sampled life as a doctor and if you have, they will happily let you spend the next 5-6 years learning to become one.
– Recognise when your personal statement is ready –> In all honesty, no one should be writing 42 drafts of their personal statement. And frankly speaking, I doubt there was much difference between drafts 15-42. It’s important to know when your personal statement is ready. Of course, there is always more work that you can do on it, but at that point, you are taking time away from other parts of your application. So, once you feel you cannot add any more content and it flows well, take the leap of faith and mark it as complete.
The UCAT is one of the most unique exams I have ever done. It is so different from any test that I had experienced before – online, heavily time-pressured, weird question formats – credit must go to the people who developed such a bizarre test. I can say this now that I am in medical school, but at the time of my application, this test gave me a lot of stress. The best thing I did was to try the practice test on the UCAT website. After getting a really low score, I knew that I would need additional help for this test and so I enrolled in the Kaplan 2-day UCAT course in London. https://www.kaptest.co.uk/ucat/prep/classroom-course
Luckily, with a lot of practice, I performed quite well on this test scoring 2990, which works out to an average of 747.5 in each section. But, in order to get this score, there are some important things that I did during my preparation:
– Enrol on a UCAT preparation course –> There are a lot of students, who for pride reasons, do not want to enrol in a UCAT training course. I used to be one of them. But the best thing that you can do is swallow your ego and attend because all the other competitors will do so. It is a very difficult test with question formats that you will never have encountered. The people who have devised these tests have created timesaving strategies that actually work and could be the difference between you getting in or being rejected. Whereas the 2-day Kaplan course that I took was probably a bit excessive (and also £330), there are now so many different companies offering 1-day courses at much more affordable prices. You have to think of this as an investment.
– Set a date 6 weeks in advance –> The reason I would say 6 weeks is because you need about 6 weeks to revise. I had some friends who chose to do their UCAT right at the end of summer in September so they would have more time to revise. However this just worked against them – they lost motivation and actually ended up doing worse since they had peaked too early. Also, you don’t want to be thinking about your UCAT when you are at school, so I would definitely encourage you to do it before September.
– Work hard –> Although the UCAT is an aptitude test, with revision and hard work it is very possible to improve your score. You need to practice to get used to the timing, the format, even learning how to do it on the computer (you’ll be surprised how weird it is not doing a test on pen and paper). For those 6 weeks, I spent 3 hours Monday to Friday on the UCAT, working through sections and doing a mock test every 5 days. Clearly, it paid off.
There is a saying amongst my friends: if you found the UCAT hard, wait till you see the BMAT. The BioMedical Admissions Test, designed to differentiate between the so-called best applicants, was a huge challenge for me and one that I feel I did not do my best in. Interestingly enough, unlike the UCAT it was also the test for which I did not enrol on a preparation course – I thought “I know the science, I know how to write an essay”, and so “I’ll be fine.”
My scores for the BMAT (Section 1: 5.1, Section 2: 6.4, Section 3: 4A) turned out fairly low if you compare them to my fellow colleagues at my college. When I think why this way the case, a few reasons come to mind:
– Not enrolling on a preparation course –> This test is a bit more deceptive than the UCAT. When you look at the Abstract Reasoning Section (shapes) on the UCAT and all you see is a random array of shapes, it is quite obvious that you are going to require some help. But the BMAT sounds simple – recognising conclusions, doing GCSE science questions – bread and butter stuff! But trust me, the questions are much harder than you think. Again, lots of companies will have devised strategies to maximise efficiency and answer questions to boost your score, so if I had the chance again I would definitely enrol in one.
– Being terrified of the test –> The BMAT is the only exam in my life where I did not sleep the night before. In fact, I became so nervous that it spread to the rest of my family and even my dad did not sleep the night before. Going in overcharged really worked against me. After all, you know something is wrong when you are so nervous you hyperventilate and the numbers start looking blurry.
I was lucky enough to meet one of the people who originally devised the BMAT and told him, “Your test has given so many students grief over the years.” He replied with a smile, “Oh that test, it’s ok, isn’t it? Not the best test but it will do.” He explained that it is just designed to see if you know the science and have basic comprehension skills and that people are far more interested in seeing who you are at the interview. So, don’t stress about this exam, it is not the be-all and end-all of your lives.
Hopefully, some of my story has resonated with you. But the key point is that even if you are very nervous and stressed about your application (of course you will be), there are countless other students who were and are in the exact same situation as you (myself included). Once you have decided to study medicine, give the application your all – it really is a year that could change your life forever, and hopefully, you’ll avoid making the mistakes I made in your journey. Best of luck!
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