Choosing your university

Choosing your university is both a pivotal moment and not that important. Sound like an absolute contradiction? Well, I’ll explain…. many doctors would agree with me when I say that the hardest part about getting through medicine is getting a university offer. Whilst various challenges will face you after that including doing the degree, completing your foundation years and then specialising, the biggest hurdle to get over is often getting in in the first place because it is just so competitive. On average there are at least 10 applicants to 1 place in medical school which means a massive number of applicants who meet the minimum entry requirements and could’ve made good doctors are rejected even so due to the sheer number of applicants. But once you’re in, you’re in. Medicine is unique in that, as a course that is directly linked to a vocation, graduates are almost always guaranteed employment. This is the exact opposite for the majority of other courses in which it is relatively pain-free getting a university place, but finding a job at the end of the degree can be considerably harder. So you can see why choosing a university which suits you is so important, because the right university for you is more likely to see you as the right candidate for them thus making your journey into medicine that much easier. There are several different factors to consider when choosing your university but this can be broken down into two main themes; the course and the place. Whilst the basics of medical teaching is always the same as all doctors have to know certain things there are differences in the methods of teaching, the course structure and the teaching resources used. One of the most important of these differences is the teaching style.

 

There are 3 main teaching styles: traditional, integrated and PBL. Traditional, as the name suggests, is based on the tried-and-tested formula of 2 years of lectures, essays and theory-based learning followed by 3 years of clinical development. It is becoming less and less common and is nowadays used only in Oxbridge and a few other top universities. Generally, traditional teaching is heavier on the science and academia than the other teaching styles and often there is an opportunity to intercalate for a year amongst the other 5 years (which I’ll cover later). This can be either a pro or con depending on your personal preferences. Given the lack of clinical placements in the first few years I wouldn’t recommend this style to anyone who is desperate to see patients ASAP, or anyone who isn’t especially interested in the science behind medicine.

PBL stands for ‘problem based learning’ and let’s just say that it does what it says on the tin. Students are often given a case study and then asked to go away and work through every aspect of learning associated to the case as part of a small group of students. This is becoming increasingly popular with universities, as it simulates in part how a doctor might work whilst covering the theory at the same time, but few universities rely solely on PBL- most use a mixture of PBL with the usual forms of teaching. Often PBL universities also offer early clinical exposure. PBL relies quite a bit on independent learning, more so than other courses although all courses will have an element of independent learning, and can really help develop those all important problem-solving skills that doctors require. However, again, it’s not for everyone and really depends on your strengths.

Finally we have integrated. Integrated is a nice middle ground between PBL and traditional, as it teaches using lectures but provides clinical placements throughout the course, not just at the end. This means you do get a bit of ‘doctor experience’ alongside your teaching which allows students to start developing their communication skills with patients right from the outset. Often a little bit of PBL is sprinkled in, especially in the later years of the course where you already have some of the knowledge required to apply to the case given. That’s the basic outline of what you can choose from, but it’s not exactly that simple. Each university has a slightly different version of their chosen teaching style, with many universities dipping into all three styles by varying degrees. This means it’s important to look at each university’s specific course structure when deciding which teaching style or balance of teaching styles you prefer. Do you want a little, all or no PBL? Do you want many or few lectures? Do you like writing essays?

Another difference you can look for between universities is the teaching resources used. By this, I mean how they teach anatomy and technology use. The big question surrounding anatomy is: prosection or dissection? All universities use imaging and models but not all use dissection, or some use it as well as prosection. You’ll probably already have heard of dissection, where students are given a cadaver from which to study anatomy with, but prosection is less understood. Prosection is where an experienced teacher dissects the cadaver for the students to learn from. It can be better than dissection in that a lot of time is saved as students don’t need to spend hours working through fat to get to ‘the good stuff’ and prosection can be much easier to analyse as the body is dissected expertly. On the other hand, many people prefer dissection as it’s a more involved way of learning anatomy and can be a very good experience for people interested in surgery. Whether you prefer dissection or prosection, it is good to know what your chosen university uses before you apply.

The university’s use of technology is less important than other factors like teaching style but can make a real difference during your course. Many universities are now adopting a more technology-based approach with learning resources provided on student portals, lectures being recorded and available to watch at any time and the option to email your lecturers questions rather than having to chase them up at the end of a lecture in person. I personally found the whole ‘recorded lectures’ idea very appealing, but not for the obvious reason. Some students would take advantage of the recorded lectures by not showing up to their 9am lectures in the knowledge that they can access the lecture later in the day after their lie-in but that is not really the purpose of recorded lectures. The real reason they’re such a good idea is because you will soon find out that lectures are entirely different to lessons during A levels. In a lecture an entire year group might be being taught at once rather than the 30-odd people you are used to, meaning there’s less opportunity for teachers to slow down so you can finish the sentence you’re writing, not to mention the sheer volume of learning material that is covered in a relatively short space of time. With recorded lectures you can go back after you’ve watched the lecture in person and learn at your own pace, skip forward to parts of lecture you didn’t understand and listen to a particularly difficult concept being explained as many times as you’d like. It’s a great provision that universities have only recently introduced, and whilst I wouldn’t recommend it be the #1 factor determining your university choices I would say it’s a good thing to look at if you’re trying to tip the balance between two close calls.

Next up, intercalation. Intercalation usually means taking a year during your course to do something more research-based and independent. I would liken it to a scaled-up EPQ, and it definitely should be a big factor to consider when choosing your university. Now I realise that the idea of adding another year onto a course which is already 5 years long may not be hugely attractive, and if I’m being honest the majority of people who did an EPQ in my year group discovered research really wasn’t for them. But if, like me, you think you’d like to take a break and do something a little different from the science-packed medical course and really delve deep into an area of medicine you personally are interested about then intercalation is right up your alley. What’s more, it’s another qualification under your belt which can get you extra points when you are ranked for foundation jobs at the end of the course, meaning you have a competitive advantage in national rankings to those who haven’t intercalated. Not all universities offer intercalation and some of the ones that do only allow a portion of the year group to intercalate. If you know for definite you want to intercalate, then obviously you’ll need to check all the universities you apply to offer it to at least some students, but one thing you might want to consider is: would you prefer that the whole year group intercalated? For one thing, this would mean you wouldn’t have to compete for the few intercalation places available like you would with universities that don’t offer intercalation to everybody. What’s more, universities that make the whole year intercalate will probably have a wider range of intercalation options and better resources/opportunities available for intercalation students given that so many of their students intercalate every year. The final thing to consider is that it might be nice for you to stay with the same year group throughout your course, which wouldn’t happen if you intercalated in a university when only a select group of students intercalate. In that scenario, you would stay back a year as the rest of your peers would move onto their clinical years and eventually graduate a year earlier than you. This wouldn’t necessarily be a big deal, as no doubt you would still be very much a part of your year group whilst at the same time you could befriend people in the year group below you, but it’s something to think about… Meanwhile, if you are not entirely sure how you feel about intercalation it might be better for you to choose a university that offers it, but doesn’t make it compulsory so that you can decide how you feel about intercalating a couple years into the medical degree. And obviously, intercalation isn’t for everyone. It tends to suit the more ‘academic’ medical student so if you are really excited to get onto clinical work and are less interested in the science part of medicine then intercalation might not be for you. In that case, steer clear of those medical schools who make intercalation mandatory!

 

The other side of choosing your university is about choosing the right place for you to live and study. As a medical student you will be spending at least 5 years at whatever university you choose, so it’s important that you like the place as much as the course, and every university has its own ‘personality’. Being happy and healthy as a student is an important aspect to how successful you are in your course, as medicine is a very intense and jam-packed course which requires you to be at your optimum not only academically but in terms of focus and ability to cope with pressure. Being in a place that makes you happy and having an active student life is an important way of stress relieving and making sure you’ll make the most of your course as well as having a bit of fun.

So let’s talk London. Of the 34 universities teaching medicine in England, Scotland and Wales 5 of those are in London, 3 of which are ranked in the top 10 of UK medical schools according to The Medic Portal. As well as London being well populated with medical school it is, of course, our capital city and as such is huge, busy, vibrant and characteristic of any other major city of the world. But another characteristic of major cities like London is the marmite complex; you either love it or hate it. So that’s the first thing to decide, would you want to live in London or not? On a similar theme, you also need to decide if quiet and secluded is your thing, or if big city would suit you better. There are of course medical schools in all the big cities in the UK but there are some slightly more green and rural ones too so have a think about what you’d prefer.

The other decision which will help rule out some universities is how far from home do you want to be? How important this distance from home is to a person does vary, personally I didn’t take it much into account except for the fact that I knew I didn’t want to stay living at home. But it’s different for different people; some may prefer to stay in their home city, others specifically want to travel as far as humanly possible and others might want to live away from home but still live close enough to have their parents do their laundry! It’s all up to personal preference.

Another place-related factor that does start to slip back into the course-related side a bit is about the hospitals in the area your university is in. I’m sure you’ve heard that many people choose to stay in the city they studied in after graduating, and so it might be worth you considering how good the hospital placements in the area you are studying in are. And this isn’t just in terms of where you have your foundation jobs, it’s also about how good the clinical placements during the course area. Ideally, you want a hospital which will have a good variety of different cases and patient situations for you to learn from during your clinical years as well as during your foundation years.

Now student life is often pretty much the same across all universities as every university will have societies where you can geek out, sports societies and arts societies. There are of course some universities/cities known for having bad or good nightlife but I wouldn’t recommend you make decisions on universities based off of that. Furthermore, the number 1 rule for choosing your university is not to choose it on the basis of what your friends choose. It seems obvious, but the notion of starting new can be truly scary for some people and to those people this is what I would say: medicine is full of change. Your first 2 years as a foundation doctor will be made up of rotations which may or may not be in the same hospital, and no doubt you will move from place to place as you specialise too. So it’s best that you come to terms with starting fresh and try to use university as a practice run for the future changes you’ll be faced with, rather than holding on to the norm and staying in your comfort zone. Not to mention, change isn’t actually a bad thing! I personally found the fact that medicine was such a ranging and constantly changing job appealing, and it was part of why I chose to pursue medicine in the first place.

 

And there you have it, everything I have to say about choosing your university. But here’s where the ‘not that important’ bit comes into play: regardless of where you study you will come out of medical school with the same medical degree and should have pretty much the same opportunities in your career as any other student from any other university would have. So don’t worry too much about where you get into, just focus on getting in and doing well wherever you are!

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