Extracurriculars

In this next section, I’ll be covering the value of extracurricular activities, work and volunteering and explaining how you can use them in your personal statement.

Extracurricular activities, work or volunteering can be used to strengthen your application to study medicine and can help prepare you for the course and job ahead. Almost every extracurricular you do can be used to display some sort of skills or personal quality pertinent to studying and practicing medicine. Having paid work shows a level of independence, responsibility and teamwork whilst volunteering shows compassion and can be linked to your medicinal aspirations. For example, if you are interested in working in elderly care it may be useful to have experience in such a role thus volunteering at a care home may be useful. Universities also like to see commitment to your chosen volunteering so I would recommend a minimum of 6 months volunteering in one place. It doesn’t have to be full-on during those 6 months, but little and often is seen to show more commitment than once for a longer period of time. 

As for extracurricular, the sky is the limit for what you have learnt from them! There’s all the usual suspects; commitment, teamwork, patience, communication, organisational skills but I’d encourage you to think more outside the box (whilst still citing the above skills). For example, sport-related activities might improve your physical endurance. Anyone who has done work experience will know that doctors spend a hell of a lot of time on their feet, so mentioning that you could cope with the long hours without faltering or tiring is actually very relevant. As for learning an instrument, this might help with your coordination and dexterity which would come in handy if you’re interested in becoming a surgeon. At my school, some future surgeons even learnt to knit to acquire that very same skill! 

Let’s not forget how important leadership and independence are as skills for making a good doctor/medical student. As a doctor you will spend much of your time as part of a team, but you will also spend a lot of it as a leader. It is therefore important that you are adept in both teamwork and leadership skills as both are put to the test during a medical career. Independence is also a biggie as university is very different from A levels. The university will not be metaphorically holding your hand throughout the course the way sixth form schools/colleges often do and an awful lot of time will be spent working through those masses of content in the medicine course alone. So it’d be a good idea to indicate that you will be able to work independently; I found a good example of this was in conducting my EPQ which is hugely left up to the student to plan and execute. 

Now, I would personally recommend doing as many extracurricular as you want or can. I know some universities like Oxbridge have expressed in the past that they do not require lots of extracurricular as part of our medicine applications so will not really take mentions of extracurriculars into account, but many other universities are the exact opposite. As you will be applying to 4 universities to study medicine, the chances are at least one will not be interested in extracurriculars and one will be. Therefore, its best to hedge your bets and be sure to include them anyway in your personal statement. What’s more, extracurricular activities aren’t only used in your personal statement- it’s important to look at the bigger picture. The extracurricular could either indirectly help you get into uni, by giving you skills which can be used in your interview, or those skills you gain could be how you actually stay in uni. Remember, universities are looking for these skills for a good reason: because the medicine course and career is extremely tough. So whether or not they specifically ask for them, you should have those skills either way if you really want to succeed.

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!

Work Experience

First things first, you need to know if medicine is the job for you. Work experience can be essential in helping you make that decision so I would suggest doing some as soon as you can- don’t leave it until you start applying! Work experience is such a useful way to find out what working as a doctor is truly like, how doctors work within the all-important multi-disciplinary team and can support your will to study medicine. It can also be a scary eye-opener, as you realise the responsibility that doctors have, what an absolutely exhausting job it can be and how even modern medicine can’t save everyone. I remember after my first day of work experience, I crawled through my front door at home because my feet hurt so much! It is important that you do get to see both the good and the bad factors of working as a doctor because medicine is a 5-6 year university course and you don’t want to be finding out at the end of the course that actually, medicine isn’t the job for you.

As well as using it to check that you’d like working as a doctor, it is essential that you can draw from your work experience when talking about medicine in your personal statement and interview. Similar to what I said above, admissions teams want to see that you have realistic insight into what the course and job are like to ensure that you won’t drop out during the course or not want to practice medicine at the end of it. So from examples in work experience you can show that you know about the difficulties that doctors face, but you can also suggest how you might overcome such issues should you become a doctor. This would help to convince admissions teams that you would be able to ‘hack it’ as a doctor. What’s more, giving examples from work experience of certain elements that you have noticed during your time around doctors can demonstrate the qualities in doctors that you value and would aspire to. That’s because depending on the aspects of work experience that you focus on, you’ll learn and therefore speak about different things in an interview. For example, I spent the majority of my work experience really focusing on communication and the way that doctors interact with their patients. So when it came to interviews, it was clear that I was someone who really cared about making the patient feel safe, respected and heard through good communication. Others that I know focused on the procedures that they encountered and the science they learnt during their work experience, which translated to their passion for science and learning when they spoke about it in their interviews.

What you get out of work experience very much depends on you and what you make of it. It’s important that you take any opportunity you can to learn from not only the doctors around you but also from other healthcare professionals. Quite often during my work experience the doctor I was shadowing would warn me that the next hour would be spent with them writing out discharge letters which could be boring for me, and so I would ask nurses if I could shadow them or indeed if there was anything I could do to help them out as I shadowed. A question that universities sometimes ask at interview is “Why do you want to be a doctor and not a nurse?”. In order for you to be able to answer that question well, you need to actually know what the role of a nurse is so that you can accurately compare it to the role of a doctor. As well as trying to learn from lots of different healthcare professionals, you should also be taking every opportunity you can to ask who you are shadowing questions. If you don’t understand something about a case, ask them! So often work experience students are totally bamboozled about things they hear the doctors talking about but are too shy to say something- don’t be! As long as you are sensible about when you ask the questions (i.e: not in front of patients or interrupting the doctors) doctors are often happy to explain it to you, especially foundation doctors fresh out of med school and excited to share their knowledge.

Finally, how do you get work experience and how long for? Some people spend weeks and weeks doing work experience, others can spend 3 days at the same place to glean the same amount of insight. Most universities do not specify how long they want you to do work experience (although there are some exceptions, so make sure you check the university’s website) so it’s up to you to decide how much you want to do. I personally did about 3 weeks, broken up into 4 different placements spread across 2 years. The first week (2 placements) was all about checking out the job and deciding on medicine. The other 2 weeks were at two different hospitals in the summer before applying but honestly, I think just 1 week would’ve been more than enough. I have to warn you, it can be difficult to get work experience if you don’t have contacts in healthcare to use but just persevere and it’ll be worth it! Some ideas for how to secure work experience would be to visit local hospitals and ask receptionists if they can help, or if they know who you should contact regarding work experience or you could look online as some departments in certain hospitals require you to apply online for a work experience placement.

Applying to Medicine

I’m sure many of the people who read this blog will be considering applying to study medicine at university, and from experience I know it can be a long and arduous process, so I thought it was time that I impart whatever wisdom I might have about the application process with you readers.

That said, disclaimer! Everyone’s experience of applying to medicine is different as we all apply to different universities, have different timelines and approaches to things and are just different and unique people! That means what worked for me might not work for you, so only take advice which is applicable to your situation and that you really would find useful.

What’s more, having started this as a single post but since realising that I had a hell of a lot to say about each stage of the application process, I have decided to split this topic into several different posts. I’m sort of doing it chronologically, starting with work experience so here goes…