Tips for Pursuing a Medical Degree in the UK


UK Medical School Applications: Overview

Medical school in the UK is highly competitive. While such programs are competitive most places, an additional element is introduced by the specific nature of the practice of medicine in the UK. As the vast majority of medical schools are state funded as part of the NHS (National Health Service), there are national quotas for the number of seats available in medicine. With 3,500 seats per year available at UK medical schools, and 2-3 times as many applicants as seats available, applying to medical school requires strong marks, competitive scores on standardized exams, a thorough and detailed record of service, and a knock-out personal statement.

In this blog, we’ll help you understand the main components of the UK medical school application process, as well as important considerations to bear in mind prior to submitting your application. Though working toward a job in a universal healthcare system, the course of study in UK medical schools can vary considerably from institution to institution, so reflection on your own strengths and learning needs is necessary for the most competitive medical school application possible.

UK Medical School Applications: Fundamentals

In the UK, medical school begins right after your secondary education, as opposed to the US and Canada, where a bachelor’s degree is often acquired prior to applying to medical school. This means that your performance in secondary school, along with the courses you take at that stage of your education, matter immensely in the evaluation of your application. There are options for those who have completed a bachelor’s degree and decide to pursue medicine after attaining that degree, and we’ll discuss those options momentarily (“Entry Options”, below). First, a few details about the degree program itself.

The length of a medical program will vary from school to school, but students can generally expect to spend 4-6 years in medical school – an average of 2 years doing pre-clinical work, 2-3 years of clinical experience at a teaching hospital or in the community, though these numbers differ slightly from school to school. So, on average, if you’re pursuing medicine in the UK, you can expect to spend 5 years on the initial degree, and this is followed by 2 years in a post-grad Foundation Programme, and then you either begin training as a GP (around 3 years) or taking on a specialty (which can take 5-8 years). This means that the length of time from beginning your education to finishing your specialization training can be upwards of 15-16 years for some specializations.

Intercalated Medical Degree

Additionally, if you choose to pursue and Intercalated Medical Degree (or if one is required by your school), there may be an additional year added to your education. With an Intercalated Medical Degree, you earn a BSc or near equivalent between your 3rd and 5th years of medical school. Again, at some schools this is mandatory; at others, it depends on your marks and your preference. So, it is crucial that you research the schools to which you’re considering applying, so that you know exactly what will be expected of you, and how long you can expect to spend on your education.

UK Medical School Applications: GCSE and Secondary School Performance

Upon completion of secondary school, you will receive your General Certificate of Secondary Education, or GCSE. It should go without saying that your grades must be high, with a minimum of a B in English and Maths. Your marks in the sciences must be in the top tier, and different schools have different requirements. You need to pay careful attention to the requirements for each school – while there are some commonalities, the specifics can vary considerably. As well, you need to keep in mind your overall scores, as well as the courses and scores for your A-Levels.

A-Levels

Most UK medical schools require A-Level Chemistry and Biology, and most also require A grades in these. The third science or subject for A-Levels varies – some school encourage students to take physics, others prefer students take mathematics, so you must check with each school to ensure you have taken the courses that make you most competitive. Again, this can vary, but Critical Thinking and General Studies are generally not acceptable A-Levels for most UK medical school applications. Each university has its own requirements, and these can vary considerably, so always double-check. There is an immense amount of pressure on students to excel at the secondary school level – a time when 20-30 years in the future seems a world away, and 10-16 years worth of education quite literally feels like an entire lifetime. But, if you’re serious about pursuing medicine, you must prove that you have the capacity and resilience necessary to do so, even as you’re finishing this early stage of your overall education.

UK Medical School Applications: Entry Options

There are several entry options for students, depending on your stage of education, your performance in secondary school, or your social or environmental context.

Standard Entry Medicine

The most common entry option is Standard Entry Medicine. This follows the general path articulated above. It often includes 5-6 years of education, prior to the Foundation Programme and training, and is sometimes called MBBS, MBChB, or other terms, but all of these ultimately led to a bachelor’s degree in medicine, which allows you to go on and train, according to your chosen specialization.

Graduate Entry Medicine

If you have completed a bachelor’s degree in a non-medical field, and decide to pursue medicine after this, you may be eligible for Graduate Entry Medicine. This is more akin to the process in places like Canada or the US, where a bachelor’s degree is usually secured prior to moving on to medical school, which occurs at the graduate level. In most cases, this will be a 4-year accelerated degree, followed by the Foundation Programme and training, but some schools may require 5 years of education. Note that this is sometimes also called a Graduate Entry Programme.

Medicine with a Preliminary Year

If you managed to get high marks in your A-Levels, but did not complete the required science courses, you might be able to pursue Medicine with a Preliminary Year. This is either a standard 5-year program with an additional year at the start, or a standalone one-year course. During this additional or standalone year, you are able to catch up on the science courses typically required prior to entry in a medicine programme. So, if you did well in your secondary education and A-Levels, but didn’t complete science pre-reqs, and are serious about a career in medicine, this option gives you some flexibility.

Medicine with a Gateway Year, or Contextual Admissions

Finally, as part of a programme often referred to as “Widening Participation” or “Widening Access”, students who are high achievers, but who experience significant barriers to learning, you may be eligible for Medicine with a Gateway Year. Also referred to as “Contextual Admissions”, this option helps promising students who have experienced situational and environmental factors that impacted their learning (e.g., social or economic disparity). This is a recently added entry option, designed to widen participation and access to medical education, including students from groups historically underrepresented in the field.

UK Medical School Applications: UCAS Medicine

All university and college applications in the UK are completed through the UCAS, or Universities and Colleges Admissions Service. Though the application format is standardized, there are a number of specifics unique to medical school application in the UK, and what schools do with the information entered into the application varies considerably, as well.

First, some notes on the application itself: Generally, students are able to enter 5 schools to which their applications will be sent. For medicine, only 4 applications per applicant are accepted; the 5th can either be left blank, or it can be used to apply to a discipline outside medicine.

The deadline for medical schools is also different from the standard application. Because of the large number of applicants, and the unique rigors of reviewing medical school applications, students applying to medical school in the UK must submit their completed UCAS no later than mid-October, usually October 15th.

Also, many schools and programmes outside medicine review applications via UCAS Tariff Points, a system whereby certain points are allocated based on an applicant’s courses, scores, experiences, and so on. Most medical schools do not use the Tariff system, though, and rely on the content of your UCAS for evaluating your suitability.

As with everything else, it’s best to look into the schools to which you’re considering applying, to understand their requirements and what they do with the information you provide, to ensure you application is as competitive as possible.

We’ll talk more about some specific aspects of the UCAS below (Work Experience and the Personal Statement), including tips to make these stand out. First, there are a few other considerations to bear in mind as you begin your application to UK medical schools, namely, the various course structures used in different schools and the entrance exams necessary for aspiring medical students in the UK.

UK Medical School Applications: Understanding Course Structures

There is a good deal of variety in the course structure of medical programs across the UK, and understanding these is crucial in determining your top schools before submitting your application. You need to have a deep understanding of your own learning needs and your level of self-motivation to determine which course structure is going to suit you, your needs, and your goals most effectively. Consider discussing your learning strengths with someone familiar with your academic achievements, such as a teacher or school official, who can often provide some insights into where you are most suited as a learner.

The different course structures can be delineated as follows: Traditional or Lecture-based, Integrated, Problem-Based Learning (PBL), and Case-Based Learning (CBL). That said, many schools will implement a mixture of these structures, so you’ll want to check with each university to understand the course structure they utilized.

Traditional or Lecture-Based Structure

As the name implies, traditional or lecture-based structures mean that most of your education will be comprised of lectures and tutorials, at leas for the first 2-3 years of your education. Lectures are often larger classes, with the professor doing the majority of the talking; tutorials are smaller break-out groups, with students from the same lecture meeting together, guided by an instructor or teaching assistant, for smaller group work and discussion of course materials.

Traditional learning often focuses on gaining a thorough understanding of medical science and its related disciplines, following modules on the specific scientific branches – e.g., biochemistry, anatomy, etc. This separation by discipline is unique to schools that follow an exclusively traditional model (as opposed to integrated models, where students learn by topic, rather than by discipline). After the first 2-3 years, the learning environment is moved to clinical settings and placements, where students learn to apply the theoretical knowledge they’ve developed.

The idea behind the traditional path is to allow students to gain a robust repertoire of specifically scientific knowledge, manifesting as a refined and extensive knowledge base. Students pursuing the traditional path can expect more essay writing than other approaches (which is useful for later research), and many traditional programs are less hands-on than other course types.

Integrated Structure

The integrated structure is the most common structure used by UK medical schools. It is similar to the traditional structure, but some measure of clinical work generally begins right away. This approach attempts to strike a balance between developing scientific knowledge and experiencing clinical training, where students will learn key concepts in lectures and seminars and then go on to apply them in a clinical setting.

As opposed to the traditional approach, which treats each scientific discipline separately, integrated programmes allow students to learn by topic, rather than by scientific discipline, exploring body systems (e.g., the respiratory system, circulatory system, digestive system, etc.) and the topics related to understanding their function and malfunction (e.g., the physiology, anatomy, biochemistry, etc., relevant to that system).

Students often learn well when they are able to quickly apply the theoretical knowledge they develop, so an integrated approach allows for some of this, while also emphasizing the scientific rigors of the traditional system. That said, some students may not be entirely comfortable with such early exposure to patients, prior to internalizing those scientific underpinnings. This is why understanding your own limits, strengths, and learning style is critical prior to deciding on which school(s) to choose.

Problem-Based Learning Structure

Problem-Based Learning, or PBL, emphasizes learning through problem-solving, and implements that emphasis through small group work and peer support, with larger lectures being supplementary to learning, rather than central to the educational experience.

In this kind of programme, small groups of students are given a problem or case to reflect on and brainstorm, determining what is needed to solve the problem. That information is then gathered through various means – sometimes independently, sometimes in lectures, and sometimes in clinical placements. The findings are then presented to the group for consideration and analysis, and finally submitted to the instructor.

The independent and self-directed nature of this course of study means that it is dependent on a student’s inquisitiveness, self-motivation, and self-reliance. It also requires students to be comfortable being proactive in their education and in working with groups of peers. A passion for open inquiry and a sense of tenacity in solving problems independently and with colleagues are requisites for success in this learning style.

Note that the extent of PBL structure use is dependent on each school. Some will teach entirely through PBL, others will implement it in sessions per week or per term.

Case-Based Learning Structure

Case-Based Learning, or CBL, is similar to PBL and is built around the same principles, but the education largely takes place in a clinical setting. This is a relatively new learning structure, which is also somewhat rare.

As with PBL, learning largely takes place through small group activities, often over shorter periods (2-3 weeks per period or case), where learning is triggered by real-life cases that highlight specific aspects of the curriculum. There is a concluding session for all students after the particular case has been explored and completed.

Where PBL is notable for its open inquiry, CBL tends to work more through guided inquiry, particularly because this learning structure is implemented in the clinical context. Some students find it easier to remember scientific principles when these are applied to real-life cases, and CBL aims to maximize this tendency. As with PBL, though, self-motivation, independence, inquisitiveness, and self-reliance are necessary in this particular learning structure, as is the ability to work well with others in small groups.

Course Structure Summary

As you can see, there is a lot of variation in the ways students are taught in the UK medical system, and self-reflection is necessary to understand where you will fit best. Again, we strongly encourage you to look carefully at the different options available to you at each medical school. It doesn’t make sense to enter a school that relies heavily on something like PBL, if you know that you tend to procrastinate, that you don’t work well in small groups, or that you aren’t comfortable applying knowledge without a comprehensive grasp of its foundations. As focused as you may be on getting schools to choose you, you need to focus on which schools will best suit you and your own learning needs and goals. Attending a school where your learning style isn’t a good fit will ultimately negatively impact your experience, and this can contribute to med student burnout.

UK Medical School Applications: Entrance Exams

There are a few entrance exams that aspiring med students in the UK may need to complete, depending on where they are, what their status is at the time of application, and the requirements of the schools to which they are applying.

UCAT

One of the primary admissions tests used in the UK (and in Australia and New Zealand) is the UCAT, or University Clinical Aptitude Test (formerly UKCAT), which is often used for both dental and medical programs in the UK. This test must be completed prior to submitting the UCAS application, and your score must be reported on the application. The UCAT is completed between early July and early October, and the UCAT score is generally taken into consideration as schools are deciding whom to interview.

The UCAT is not intended to test scholastic ability or academic achievement, but rather certain kinds of traits and reasoning. There are 5 sections to the UCAT:

  • Situational Judgement, which presents you with real-world scenarios, intended to help evaluate your integrity, resilience, collegiality, and ability to take on multiple perspectives. Situational Judgment Tests (or SJTs) like this can be compared to the CASPer test, so reviewing CASPer practice questions can help you prepare. You can also check this list of schools that use CASPer (which includes some UK schools), to see if you may have to take this particular SJT.
  • Abstract Reasoning, which is largely made of image or shape puzzles, asking you to find patterns and filter out irrelevancies.
  • Verbal Reasoning, wherein you’ll read passages of text and determine which conclusions can (or can’t) be reached through the information provided.
  • Quantitative Reasoning, or numerical problem-solving, where you use basic mathematics to work with percentages, proportionality, rates and averages to make conclusions.
  • Decision Making, where you demonstrate your logical abilities, evaluating arguments and complex information to work toward decisions or conclusions.

BMAT

The other main admissions test used by some medical schools in the UK is the BioMedical Admissions Test, or BMAT. Some UK medical schools require this test (as do many in various parts of Europe and Asia), but not all do, so you’ll need to check with the schools to which you are applying to determine if taking this test is necessary. If applying to schools that require it, you must be registered to take the BMAT prior to submitting your application, but the test itself is taken after the application has been submitted, usually around the beginning of November. Note that registration must be completed at least a month in advance of the test. After completing the BMAT, your score will be sent to the schools where you have applied.

There are 3 sections to the BMAT, which is intended to evaluate each applicant’s problem-solving skills, mathematic and scientific skills (Physics, Chemistry, Biology), and critical thinking and logic:

  • Aptitude and Skills, which includes multiple choice questions meant to evaluate your general problem-solving skills, as well as your ability to discern appropriate argument and argumentation, making informed decisions or conclusions based on compelling support.
  • Scientific Knowledge and Applications, a multiple choice section used to determine more traditional academic knowledge, specifically in the sciences and mathematics, as covered in secondary education.
  • Writing Task, where applicants will compose an essay based on three possible prompts or questions, as a way of demonstrating their ability to develop, organize, and effectively convey their ideas in writing.

GAMSAT

The Graduate Medical School Admissions Test, known as the GAMSAT, is an admissions tests some schools require of students entering medical school at the graduate level, having already completed a bachelor’s degree. Applicants must register to take the GAMSAT prior to submitting their medical school application (generally in the last or second-to-last year of their undergraduate degree), and the GAMSAT score and GPA/undergraduate degree performance are considered as medical schools with graduate entry programs consider whom to invite for interviews. As with the other tests above, it is meant as a test of reasoning ability more so than a test of knowledge, though some foundational knowledge in the sciences, humanities, and social sciences is necessary.

The GAMSAT is an 8-hour test with 3 sections:

  • Section I, which evaluates knowledge in humanities and social sciences
  • Section II, which assesses written communication through 2 essays
  • Section III, which is comprised of questions about the physical sciences (biology, chemistry, physics)

SJTace

The SJTace, or Situational Judgement Test for Admission to Clinical Education, is used for entry to the Scottish Graduate Entry Medical Programme (ScotGEM). The SJTace is essentially a standalone version of the Situational Judgement Test portion of the UCAT, and thus contains the same content for the same purposes of evaluation.

UK Medical School Applications: Work Experience (UCAS)

Now that we’ve reviewed the considerations and exams that must be considered prior to completing the UCAS, we can now draw our focus back to two key sections of this application: Work Experience and the Personal Statement essay.

For the purposes of applying to medical school, “Work Experience” refers to any work done, volunteer or paid, in the 2 years prior to applying to medical school. This experience can be gained through a hospital or in the community, and both healthcare-related service and general service positions are relevant to your application.

There are 2 categories of work experience in the UCAS:

  • Working with other people in a caring or service role
  • Direct observation of healthcare

Applicants are strongly advised to participate in a caring or service role, if possible, and in particular to work with people who are ill, disabled, or disadvantaged. While such experiences can take place in healthcare environment, this is not mandatory. Application reviewers want to see you putting yourself in the service of others, and they want to understand your collegiality, ability to work on a team, and how you work with others in general. In that sense, a job in customer service would be applicable, since all of these are required to be successful in such a position.

Direct observation of healthcare can come from volunteering or working in a healthcare environment, or by shadowing a physician. Shadowing does tend to be encouraged for aspiring medical school students, though it is not required, as it is understood that such experiences may be more accessible to some than others. If you are unable to shadow a physician, you can also simply speak to any doctors you know, to learn more about the day-in, day-out realities of such a career.

Applicants are encouraged to try to get a range of experiences, rather than repeating the same experience or kind of experience over and over. For example, hundreds of hours of shadowing multiple doctors, with no experiences that give you direct interactions with patients, or that demonstrate your work in a caring or service capacity, will likely not benefit your application.

Just as shadowing is not required for its potential inaccessibility, overseas work (paid or volunteer) is also not required, and will not necessarily help one’s application. In fact, clinical work overseas is expressly discouraged, as gaining knowledge of the unique UK health system is considered more relevant. That said, for international applicants, work experience in the UK or in the NHS is not expected, just as it is not required for domestic applicants.

Ultimately, what is most important about your experiences is how you draw on them in the personal statement and interview. Having specific caring roles in healthcare environments is great, but these are only as useful in terms of how much you grew as a person, how they helped you reflect on the needs of others, how they taught you compassion or resilience, or any of the other qualities sought in evaluating candidates for medical school in the UK. We’ll discuss this more thoroughly in the next section, but it bears emphasizing that medical school admissions are not reserved for those with the connections and access to particular healthcare experiences. Whatever you have done, whether it was paid or unpaid, take time to reflect on what you learned, how you grew, and why you’re better today for having gone through the experience. That sense of meaning and purpose – and your ability to convey these in a compelling way – is what ultimately matters.

UK Medical School Applications: Personal Statement (UCAS)

As with many medical applications around the world, UK medical school applications include a requisite personal statement (sometimes called the UCAS personal statement). The medical school personal statement is an essay of around 47 lines of text, or, roughly 500 words or 4000 characters (including spaces), meant to convey your motivations and suitability for a career in medicine. This is due as part of the overall UCAS application, and thus must be submitted by the mid-October deadline, along with the rest of the application materials.

Note that some schools will score the personal statement, but not all. However, even those who do not formally score the essay will still review it to understand who you are, how your experiences have shaped you, and which key qualities of the medical profession you have demonstrated through your experiences. According to the Medical Schools Council’s Statement on the Core Values and Attributes Needed to Study Medicine, those key qualities are as follows:

  • Motivation to study medicine and genuine interest in the medical profession
  • Insight into your own strengths and weaknesses
  • The ability to reflect on your own work
  • Personal organisation
  • Academic ability
  • Problem solving
  • Dealing with uncertainty
  • Manage risk and deal effectively with problems
  • Ability to take responsibility for your own actions
  • Conscientiousness
  • Insight into your own health
  • Effective communication, including reading, writing, listening and speaking
  • Teamwork
  • Ability to treat people with respect
  • Resilience and the ability to deal with difficult situations
  • Empathy and the ability to care for others
  • Honesty

No personal statement can convey every one of these qualities, of course, so you’ll need to do some introspection to reflect on those that you can most effectively demonstrate through your interests, experiences, and education so far. The personal statement should always be a narrative account that attempts to answer the core question, “Why do you want to be a doctor?” Your authentic response to this question, and the anecdotes or examples on which you draw to support it, should be the core of your response. This includes demonstrating what you have done to explore the realities of life as a physician – you want to highlight your motivations, and one of the best ways of doing this is to show the actions you’ve taken to support those motivations. Pondering and considering are important reflective tendencies, but they must be extended into reality by actions.

In composing your personal statement around such qualities and experiences, you should attempt to “show” some of the above qualities through your experiences (rather than just “telling” the reader that you have those qualities). That is, instead of simply stating that you work well with others in a team environment, recount a time when you operated as an effective team member, using description and narration to demonstrate what it means to you to be a team-player and how you lived up to those expectations. Remember, while your experiences are being evaluated, the personal statement is also a key place for application reviewers to determine your communication skills and your ability to make meaning of your experiences, so consider these under evaluation, as well.

“Show, Don’t Tell” is a golden piece of writing advice! Learn more about this technique in our video:

While much of your personal statement will likely recount your academic experiences, speaking to your work and life outside of school is useful, as well. The personal statement should be, at least in part, just that: Personal. If you didn’t do much group work in school, but you played a sport or participated in extra-curricular activities that made you part of a team, it’s fine to reflect on that. Likewise, if you have non-academic skills or hobbies, like art or music, these can also be useful to discuss, if they are directed toward demonstrating particular qualities and characteristics, or even just demonstrating that you have effective ways of handling stress (since medical school is inherently stressful!).

Finally, on top of the qualities above, it’s always a good idea to look at the mission statements, curricula, and selection criteria of the schools to which you are applying. These will help you understand what kinds of people and students those schools hope to attract, which can help you think about what you want to highlight in your personal statement. As well, such information will be immensely useful if you are invited to interview, since demonstrating that you are a “good fit” for the program is essential in that stage of the admissions process.

Check out our video on how to find inspiration when writing a personal statement or preparing for interviews and why demonstrating a “good fit” is so important!

You can follow this link to see our full Medical School Application video playlist!

UK Medical School Applications: Interviews

UK medical school interviews tend to be one of two types: the Traditional/Panel Interview and the Multiple Mini Interview (MMI).

Traditional/Panel Interview

The traditional/panel interview format consists of you, the interviewee, with either one interviewer (Traditional), or a group of interviewers (Panel), asking you specific questions over an extended period of time (generally, 20-30 minutes). The biggest difference between individual and panel is the number of interviewers, who can be from various academic backgrounds. If you’re sitting down for a one-on-one interview, the interviewer will generally be there on behalf of the admissions committee, and will likely have a background in the area. On a panel, you can often expect a wider range of interviewers – there will certainly be those with a background in medicine, and others may be educators, students, or members of the wider community. Essentially, whether comprised of a single interviewer or several, the traditional/panel interview format is what most of us think of when we hear the word, “interview”.

When thinking about interview prep for a Traditional/Panel Interview, think back to your personal statement first. This is a semi-personalized type of interview, so it is likely that interviewers will want to discuss elements of your experiences, via your personal statement. You want to ensure you have a good grasp of the events you recounted and be prepared to discuss them further. There will be other questions for them to ask, of course, but ideas from your personal statement will almost certainly make an appearance.

There are more general interview questions that commonly make appearances in medical school interviews. Here are some resources to help you prepare:

Multiple Mini Interview (MMI)

The Multiple Mini Interview, or MMI, is a relatively new interview format, developed at McMaster University in Canada. In this interview type, interviewees go through multiple timed interview stations, meeting briefly with several individual interviewers over the course of the day. Typically, MMI stations are between 6-8 minutes, with 6-12 total stations in the circuit, and interviewees are given a prompt or question to respond to at each station, within that limited span of time (if you’re applying to a school that uses the MMI, you’ll want to ask in advance how many stations they use, and how many minutes are allotted for reviewing and responding to the prompt/question at each station).

In terms of content, some of the common medical school interview questions noted above may arise. However, there are many different types of MMI question, and it’s beneficial to be aware of these (follow that link for 7 of the most challenging MMI question types!). Like situational judgment tests, MMI prompts can include scenarios to which you must respond, or policies you must evaluate. As well, some MMIs will use acting, or role-playing, stations, or collaborative/teamwork stations for you to navigate.

Here’s a video with three of the hardest multiple mini interview questions:


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Image Credit: David Jakab

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