There’s a lot of stereotypes about medical school applicants, and I’m a bit embarrassed to say that as a 17 year old, I fit most of them. Nonetheless, if you somehow have it in you to read about yet another one of ‘those’, hopefully I can shed some light on my personal experience of the ‘traditional’ route into medical school. Looking back, I struggle to identify a big pivotal moment in my childhood or adolescence that led me to where I am today. I have had the good fortune that neither myself nor anyone whom I am close to has had extensive or inspiring journeys in healthcare. I didn’t undertake long (and excruciatingly expensive) volunteering or work experience placements abroad which led to enlightening me that medicine is my one true calling. Instead, it was a lot of small choices and moments which in turn had a butterfly effect. Simple things, which when added up, managed to pave the way.
I would say that my work experience and volunteering led to me having a pretty realistic idea of medicine. It isn’t as glamorous as Ellen Pompeo would perhaps lead you to believe. It’s not always an exciting emotional rollercoaster as an episode of 24 hours in A&E seems to suggest. It can be messy, manic and there can be never-ending mundane paperwork. Despite all this, there can be incredible highs – the satisfaction of making a real difference in someone’s life, no matter how big or small, can make it all worthwhile.
Medicine was something which I had been aiming towards from an early age. When I was 15, I started applying for work experience with the intention of spending the summer between year 11 and sixth form working on my CV and building it up for my application. However, regardless of how many times I assured people that I would be 16 by the summer, many places were reluctant to take me. Many said that I needed to be 17, 18 or even 19 (really helpful…). I was then turned away for reasons including my address and my school, with even the local hospital where I was born refusing me for their hospital shadowing scheme. I sent out countless emails, with rejections flooding in every single morning. Even now, at the more resilient and slightly hardened age of 20, I would find that difficult to deal with and also incredibly demotivating. Somehow however, I managed to pick myself up and keep searching.
I ended up getting accepted to a 20 week volunteering scheme at a hospital near me, which also included some surgical shadowing at the end of it. At the time, it was the high-adrenaline surgery that appealed to me, with friends (and boastful Student Room members) sharing their stories of emotional caesareans and exhilarating Whipples. Meanwhile, I spent my Sunday mornings handing out tea and coffee, tidying the ward’s kitchen and chatting with patients. It was only after I had finished my time as a volunteer that I realised how much of an insight into healthcare it had given me. I learnt about dealing with patients, saw how a ward worked and learnt more about nurses and other auxiliary healthcare workers that I perhaps wouldn’t have come in contact with had I spent a week standing at the back of an operating theatre.
My A levels were pretty much the same as any other medical applicant – Biology, Chemistry, Maths and Geography (and Physics AS). The reality is that although all these subjects are helpful for medicine in their own ways, none of them are anything like medicine at university – I was so scared that preclinical medicine was going to be like one long painful Chemistry lesson, but that was (fortunately) far from the reality. Aside from Biology, Geography actually proved itself to be one of the most helpful subjects I did, teaching me about populations and demographics, and not mention maintaining essay writing skills. So my advice would be that if you are torn between subjects which aren’t essential for medicine (i.e. Biology and Chemistry), pick subjects which you enjoy because they all teach you helpful skills, and if you enjoy something, you’re more likely to work for it and get the grades you need.
When UCAS came around, after numerous summer open days, I ended up applying to quite a range of different universities. I did reasonably well in the UCAT so ended up applying to 2 which used it, as well as one BMAT university and one which didn’t use either. I applied to a fifth university for Biomedical Sciences because I wasn’t sure if I would take a gap year if I didn’t get into medicine, so it was definitely reassuring to have that option. It worked out well, and although I completely flopped the BMAT, I came out with 3 offers for medicine which I was delighted with. One of my offers came in relatively late, and at the time I was completely torn as to which I would accept. Sometimes, it’s easy to get caught up in the hype of the reputation of a certain university or where you feel you ‘should’ accept for a whole range of reasons. In the end I went with my gut instinct and that’s how I arrived here – now, I can’t imagine what it would’ve been like to have gone anywhere else.
Above all, it’s important to remember that medicine isn’t a destination. So whether you’re about to start your journey or you’re already on the road, enjoy it, because setting off I couldn’t have imagined all the things I would learn or the people I would meet along the way.