How I Got Into Medicine (UK) | Complete Journey
Written by Husein Essaji, currently a medical student at Barts and the London School of Medicine and Dentistry and founder of Revising Rubies.
When I started my journey in Year 11 (GCSE), I couldn’t imagine it would lead to where I am today. I was filled with doubt and uncertainty about where I was heading.
Doing medicine was simply a dream with what seemed like an unsurpassable mountain along the way.
Yet, despite the challenges, I am in a fortunate position today, to share my journey.
I hope I can shed some light into what’s required to reach a London medical school and show that it does not take extraordinary levels of cleverness and money.
Ultimately, all medical students are humans, with the same flaws (yes, even laziness) as everyone else.
This post aims to provide an insight into what I had to do to get into medicine and provide some of the most useful advice where relevant.
With all that preamble out of the way, let’s get started.
GCSEs were not my strong point at school.
I was a science and maths nerd and never excelled at English and other essay-based subjects. This was a downward spiral: their difficulty meant that I never wanted to revise them, this resulted in bad exam results, making me want to revise for them even less.
Luckily, you don’t need to be perfect to get a place at medical school. You are allowed to have weak points. This is something that I didn’t fully internalise or understand when my results were released on 21st August 2014, making me feel rather sad at the time.
What Did I Get?
For those curious, (as most people always are – I certainly would be) below are my GCSE results. For me, they were neither incredibly good nor bad. In the end, they were enough, and that’s all that matters.
My GCSEs: 5A* 3As and 2Bs
Note: One of my Bs was in English language which was not ideal, however that met the minimum requirements for most medical schools.
I did not do anything specifically medicine-related other than try and partake in semi-useful opportunities like the Coca Cola Business Challenge and complete the Duke of Edinburgh Bronze Award.
I did ensure to keep up with the requirements for medical schools by reading and watching YouTube videos (e.g. Ali Abdaal, Ryhan Hussain and That Medic). As well as, this I made use of other websites/blog posts (e.g theMSAG) and sought the advice of people who had gotten into medical school.
In the summer between Year 11 and Year 12, my parents bought me a place on a Debate Chamber course. Although by no means necessary (especially considering the prices of some courses), it can prove as evidence that you have an interest in medicine and can provide valuable opportunities for networking with medical students.
If you are in financial difficulty then some courses do provide bursaries which may enable you to attend depending on your household income. As with everything, do you research before you buy.
Year 12 is important because at the end of the year you sit the AS exams which determine your predicted grades and so are looked at closely by universities.
This means that you should try and do the best you can do and not get distracted by too many things, even if some of your friends might be going out for parties every other day (try not to be friends with people who you know will distract you and bring you away from your goals).
At the beginning of Year 12, I tried to arrange my work experience.
I found and emailed 20 or 30 consultants, about one or two replied. Another way to get work experience is to look at hospital websites as some (but not all), have specific sections for people who want work experience. I did this too.
I was able to arrange 5 days in the hospital working alongside consultants.
Work experience is vital for strengthening your personal statement.
The quantity matters much less than quality. What this means is that it is much more important to learn and be engaged in your work experience.
Ask lots of questions, make notes and talk to people.
This will allow you to write about something that you found interesting and reflected on during your experience. See my personal statement below for examples of how I used this.
How Much Did I Revise?
I didn’t do many extracurricular activities and just revised for most of the year.
This does not mean that I studied for 6 hours a day; it just meant that whenever there was an end of topic tests and school assessments, I would try as hard as I could to beat my friends.
Having academic friends was probably the best decision I ever (unconsciously) made and meant that studying for exams felt the same as trying to beat my friends in a 200m race – it is hard work, but there is a lot of healthy competition which is incredibly fun and rewarding.
People like to ask me how many hours I revised per day. This is always a difficult one to answer because it varied day-by-day and week-by-week.
If I had to answer, it was probably between 60-90 mins per day although I have included homework in this number (e.g. a page of exam-style questions due in for the next lesson is very much revision).
Year 13 is challenging. Lots of things are going on at the same time.
You come out of the summer holidays starting out needing to focus on your personal statement and UCAT which are both vital for every medical school applicant. Then there is the BMAT and interviews to start worrying about.
I go into more detail below as to what each of these obstacles involved.
Trying to juggle all of these things is difficult and can require a lot of time management. However, the good thing for me was that I was mentally prepared to do all of this stuff as our teachers had all informed us at the beginning of Year 12 of how difficult Year 13 is.
My predictions at the beginning of Year 13: 4A*s
Note: You may think these predictions quite high, however, my school had the rule that is you achieved an 85% average in your Year 12 exams (halfway between an A and A*) then they would predict an A*.
My A-levels: 2A*2As
Note: My A-levels were in Maths, Biology, Chemistry, and Physics
I started writing my personal statement at the end of year 12. This was earlier than most but I wanted to get ahead of everyone else and give myself plenty of time. This was especially important because I knew writing was not my strong point.
What Did I Do?
Initially, I asked my mum to help with the basic editing of it. This helped make it readable so that I could give it to my teachers at school without fear of embarrassment. This first stage of writing took just over a month.
After this, I had the whole of summer.
I tried working on it every once in a while but if I’m honest I didn’t do much with it.
The work really started when I came back from the summer holidays. I gave it to whoever would read it and developed it continually based on their feedback. I even gave it to one of my consultants who said it was good and didn’t provide much advice on how to improve it. This was a good sign.
Once people started to advise about changing things other people had said was good, I knew my personal statement was where I wanted it to be.
You cannot make everyone happy, but as long as you try and take the advice from everyone, you will end up with a solid piece of writing that interviewers will be happy with.
Cutting It Down
The most difficult aspect for me was trying to cut down the word count to 4000 characters.
It was easy enough getting down to 4600, but after this, I felt that everything I had included was important and needed to remain. In the end, with the advice of the people around me, I cut out the less important things.
If you find yourself in a similar position, my advice would be to copy and paste what you have into a new word document and cut out on random things that are not “core” to your statement (e.g. long descriptions on your amazing team leadership skills or random achievements you had 5 years ago unrelated to medicine).
Once you’ve done this you can give it to a couple of people who have already read it and see if they can notice a difference.
If they think it is just as good as before, then you can be assured that those lines and descriptions were less important than you thought.
My Personal Statement
To help give you some insight, I have linked my personal statement below. Use it for inspiration but of course do not copy it as it will be flagged for plagiarism by the UCAS system. That would be a sure-fire way of failing before you get started.
What is the UCAT?
The UCAT (or UKCAT as it was called back in my day) is composed of several different sections:
- Verbal Reasoning (22 minutes, score between 300-900)
- Decision Making (32 minutes, score between 300-900)
- Quantitative Reasoning (25 minutes, score between 300-900)
- Abstract Reasoning (14 minutes, score between 300-900)
- Situational Judgement (27 minutes, score from band 1- 4)
Personally, the UCAT is something I found difficult. I didn’t particularly enjoy revising for it, especially the verbal reasoning section, which probably resulted in me not revising enough for it. This resulted in a very slightly above average UCAT score as you can see below.
The average UCAT score from my year was 633.
My UCAT: 655 (Taken in August 2015)
Key information for the UCAT:
- It is 2 hours long
- Taken in summer between Year 12 and Year 13
- Costs £65 (depending on when taken)
- Is needed to apply to most Universities in the UK
The website that everyone uses to prepare is Medify. The website is a great resource for videos, questions and practise papers for the UCAT exam.
Having used it myself, I can say that it was very useful. It has a good interface and although it is slightly easier than the real thing, it provides a good amount of similarity that is incredibly important for these sort of tests.
Can You Revise for the UCAT?
People always say that the UCAT is an exam that you cannot revise for, however, this is just a blatant lie.
You can train your brain to do almost an infinite number of things, so what is so different with the UCAT? The reason that people say this is because it is such a different and unique exam. Of course, it is difficult to revise for, but so are GCSEs and A-levels. Most people (myself included) just don’t put in the effort that is needed.
One thing that I can accept is that the exam can be much more difficult if you have never done anything like it before.
Luckily the 11+ exam that is required to get into a Grammar School has somewhat similar questions (and parents take their children for 11+ tuition courses that can improve the child’s grade hugely) and so if don’t have this background you may find it harder to adjust to the style of questions that the UCAT tests. However, this does not mean you cannot do well.
What is the BMAT?
The BMAT is composed of several different sections:
- Aptitude & Skills (60 minutes, score between 1-9)
- Scientific Knowledge & Application (30 minutes, score between 1-9)
- Writing – from a choice of 4 questions (30 minutes, scored from 0-5 and A-E)
I found the BMAT slightly easier due to my strong background in the sciences. The main thing that concerned me was the essay portion of the assessment.
Key Information for the BMAT:
- It is 2 hours long
- Taken in at the beginning of Year 13
- Costs £48
- Is needed to apply to Oxford, Cambridge, Imperial and UCL among other Universities
I attended a BMAT course which was very useful and would recommend to those who don’t mind spending a bit of money. Many courses exist (e.g. 6Med and Kaplan) and you should talk to your friends and do your research before going on one.
I ended up receiving 3 medical school interviews out of my 4 choices. These were from St. Georges, UCL and QMUL (Barts).
The interviews were stressful but interesting. The QMUL had the most “standard” interview out of all of them, consisting of questions like “Why medicine?”, “What makes a good doctor?” and “Why QMUL?”.
The St. Georges interview had a Multiple Mini Interview (MMI) format and had some strange stations that included helping someone put on a jacket and others that required you to talk for 5 minutes straight answering a single question.
UCL was more difficult than I expected and a lot of questions came up that I had no idea about. My personal statement mentioned Alzheimer’s and they asked what I knew of it I, of course, had no idea.
In the end, St.Georges and QMUL decided to give me offers.
MBBS Years 1 & 2
My first two years at medical school were difficult. I struggled with adjusting to the lectures, commuting from my home and learning the incredible amount of “necessary” knowledge.
I can’t remember the number of times that some lecturer said ‘you have to learn this because it might come up in exams’.
Unfortunately for me, I believed them.
The thing with medical school is that even though you are technically supposed to learn a lot, you could get away with not learning anywhere near as much as you are supposed to.
MBBS Years 3 & 4
Getting to the here and now. These last couple of years have been my favourite years of university because we are finally learning how to be a doctor, not just what a doctor knows. Things that in the future we will have to know. Things that will actually help people.
I am currently juggling several activities like Friday football, religious commitments, tutoring GCSE and going out with friends, all while going into hospital 5 times a week (or supposed to be going into hospital five times week) and studying for famously difficult medical school exams.
From an outsider, all of this may seem impossible. However, it is just an accumulation of good habits over the last 21 years of my life.
Here are my top three general pieces of advice that any medicine applicant must know:
- Make use of the people around you.
- If feasible, get together with everyone in your year who’s applying to medicine and help each other out. The advice others can lend you may prove pivotal.
- Get feedback from friends, teachers and doctors you know to perfect your personal statement.
- Treat all preparation like the real thing.
- Make sure when you practice with your friends for the interview make it seem as real as possible. Don’t casually answer the questions. Take the practice questions seriously. Maybe you could practice with teachers to make the situation feel as if it’s the real deal. Sit opposite a group of friends in a quiet space and answer all the questions you can predict will come up. It will reduce your nerves on the day while also helping you to think under pressure.
- Don’t stress.
- If the basics are all covered to a sufficient level then you will stand a good chance.
- Long and stressful but worth it in the end
- Apply for Unis using your strengths
- You can do it!