Hi, I’m Dawid and I’m a student at UCL Medical School. I didn’t consider studying medicine until I was about sixteen. And the realisation that it was something that I might want to do wasn’t very romantic at all – I didn’t have a near-death experience in a hospital or watch a loved one be cared for by doctors, spurring on a moral awakening – I was watching a medical drama I enjoyed at the time and it just got me thinking. I watched the way the doctors spoke to the patients, the way they had to carry themselves, be professional, display immense knowledge, carrying out procedures, making difficult ethical decisions – I thought they were so cool. I liked science and I always knew I wanted a job where I could constantly interact with others – medicine seemed appropriate. I remember borrowing two books from the library – one an anatomy and physiology textbook and the other a photographic guide to the most common surgeries. I churned and churned over the idea and in a snowball-like effect it grew greater and greater in my mind. Soon it expanded beyond a simple pursuit of coolness but an opportunity for lifelong learning, variety and involvement in the community.
It was quite useful to have medicine as an aim before I sat the bulk of my GCSE exams. I had a chance to realise the somewhat harsh reality of entry requirements, so I knew to definitely study hard amidst the popular notion that GCSEs don’t really matter further down the line. That may be the case with other career paths but not quite medicine, unfortunately.
On the other hand, medicine wasn’t the aim back when I selected my GCSE options – you know, the non-core subjects you can choose for yourself. I chose History, German, Drama and Music, since back then I thought I would eventually go into arts/humanities. Once I started eyeing up medicine as my goal, I thought that maybe my chances would be higher if I’d picked Sports, so that I could study the body and more in-depth physiology. It was silly – as long as you have your core subjects, your options don’t matter at all. Simply do what you enjoy and do well in it.
Choosing my A Level subjects was probably the first hurdle on my road to applying for medicine. I read through entry requirement pages on med school websites and browsed through student forums such The Student Room (you can imagine which one is a more reliable source). I knew I would definitely take Biology and Chemistry – it was Maths and/or Physics that I was unsure about. It all boiled down to the fact I didn’t particularly enjoy them in school, but from what I was reading on The Student Room and hearing from other med school applicants, it seemed like I had to take at least one of them to improve my chances.
I liked a wide range of subjects. When I applied to my local college I decided to put myself down for five subjects: Biology, Chemistry, German, Classics – and lo and behold – Maths. I even attended AS Level prep classes at my school towards the end of the year. As you can imagine, my heart wasn’t in it.
Soon enough though, I decided to stop listening to others for one moment and just read what the entry requirements said. Other than Imperial and Cambridge, no medical school required Physics or Maths. There simply wasn’t word of it. I decided that two years of a subject I didn’t even enjoy wasn’t worth the chance to apply to two medical schools out of thirty three. A few weeks before starting college I changed Maths to English Literature and it’s a decision I’m extremely glad I made. (Funnily enough, by the time I actually applied Imperial dropped the requirement and I ended up applying there also, but more on that later.)
In my second year I dropped German and Classics, deciding to continue with Biology, Chemistry and English Literature only. Reflecting now, the popularity of the standard A Level route into medicine was a big advantage since as it means you can find a lot of advice online. On the other hand, the study itself was really quite difficult at times, especially working to achieve the top grades required. Exam boards seem to be coming up with ever more tricky papers – balancing learning the science with mastering exam technique (and watching a new season of Hannibal) isn’t an easy task. In all seriousness, it can be very frustrating, even de-motivating at times. At those times I found trying to stay organised and keep the end goal in mind the most driving.
I chose to allow myself the pricy luxury of sitting both the UCAT and BMAT – greedy of me, I know. In all honesty, both were equally stressful and time-consuming, but as you’re probably well aware, a very necessary part of the application. I decided to sit the UCAT in September prior to my application rather than earlier in the summer which in retrospect wasn’t the best of decisions – preparing while beginning the new academic year wasn’t ideal. Interestingly, while a lot of people tend to more stressed for the BMAT, I found it to be somehow more approachable. UCAT questions always seemed like a stroke of luck in its entirety, while it was only the first section of BMAT that gave me this vibe. I felt like I could revise the science for the second section – and essay writing was something I enjoyed (mainly in English Literature), so the third section didn’t seem so scary at all. Unsurprisingly, the third section was my best section.
From what I remember, the experience people have with entrance exams is very wide-ranging. Some seem to be able to do it just like that, while others sweat over the questions, wondering where their brain has disappeared to. I highly recommend the popular UCAT and BMAT question books – they formed the basis of my preparation – just do question after question after question in the days leading up to your exam. That is the only advice I can offer. However some say these exams can’t really be revised for, so maybe that’s the reason why despite the work I put in, I didn’t do all that well on either of them. I was so displeased with my UCAT score, in fact, that I didn’t apply to any UCAT universities. What a better way to spend your time and money, eh?
In my first year I got in touch with the Volunteer Services Coordinator at my college. It was through her that I applied as a volunteer to my local hospital, although I know that I could’ve also done this independently. This resulted in my helping out on a gastrointestinal ward every Sunday for 12 weeks. Besides this, I applied for summer school at the same hospital. It was a three-day course with workshops, mock interviews and integrated shadowing.
Like many others, I also had some part-time jobs during my time at school and college: by the time I came to university, I’d been a waiter, cashier and bartender. I chose not to exclude these experiences from my personal statement and I urge you to do the same. Both social awareness and many transferable skills can be developed in part-time jobs not at all related to medicine and it’s not worth leaving them unmentioned in my view.
When the time for UCAS application came in mid-October, I chose to apply for medicine at UCL, Imperial, Bristol and Birmingham as well as anatomy and developmental biology at King’s. I’m not entirely sure why I didn’t go for the classical fifth choice that is biomedicine – maybe I simply wanted to do something less conventional – or maybe because it’s often seen by people as a medicine reject’s degree. Either way, I knew I wanted to move to London – and if I was going to study a fifth choice, it would be at a university offering also medicine. I felt like maybe I’d have more chances of staying on that way – but I have no clue if there’s any truth in it.
I got an offer for the non-medical degree at King’s fairly quickly. Truth be told, I knew medicine was what I wanted most, however deciding to use my fifth choice and apply for a back-up plan proved to be very reassuring throughout the entire process. I didn’t particularly want to take a gap year – I wanted to go straight to university – so now I knew I could definitely do that if all of my remaining applications came back as rejections.
And two of them did: Imperial and Bristol. I remember Imperial leaving a lasting impression on me during open day and I couldn’t shake off the thought that my top choice was gone. I felt quite down about it for a while… I’d never visited UCL before my interview though – and when I finally did, that idea went away completely. I realised that UCL was my new goal – it was where I wanted to be most – so if I could go back and speak to my past self, I’d definitely advise not getting so dead-set on specific targets. A medical school application requires a fair bit of adaptability and changing of plans.
Looking back I’ve probably followed the most standard UK student route to medicine – as a school-leaver with A Levels, medicine being my first degree. It felt like following quite a secure, well-trodden path. This security however is slightly off-set by the fast pace of it all – A level study, entrance exams, work experience, writing a personal statement, interviews – everything seems to be happening at once, meaning something like a year of your life leading up to the application is kind of consumed by this single thing. Thankfully, through organisation and some hobbies to promote stress relief, it’s not unmanageable. Hence good time management, a healthy work-life balance and flexibility are the key approaches I’d recommend to anyone following a similar road to medicine.