Your UCAS application only allows you to select 4 medicine options out of your 5 choices (and only one of Oxford or Cambridge). With such a diverse range of medical schools, how do you choose which ones will be best for you? What factors should you consider?
It is unlikely you will find all the things you want in one place, and if you do, their entry requirements may not best fit your application strengths. If you have to compromise, then you should think about what factors are most important to you, whether it be the style of teaching, location, or whatever. Ultimately, your determination to be a doctor is the key driving factor, so while you may want to include your ‘dream’ medical school in your UCAS choices, you may also want to be realistic and ensure you include at least one choice where your profile best meets their requirements.
A large medical school may offer more rotation choices, have more resources, and more diversity, but a smaller department might mean you build closer ties with fellow students and your teachers. A larger school may have more available places but you will need to check the applications to places ratio to confirm this.
Structure of the course #
There are three possible types:
- Traditional: where you study theory for 2 years, then move to clinical studies for the final 3 years
- Integrated: where theory and clinical practice are combined right from the start. There are different teaching methods within this type, explained in the next section.
- Intercalated: where you take a year out to study for a BSc or MSc in a related subject. Not offered by all schools, but some make it optional and some compulsory.
Oxford and Cambridge are the only medical schools teaching the traditionally structured course. The integrated approach encompasses problem-based learning (PBL), case-based learning (CBL), and enquiry based learning (EBL). These are explored below, and you can see which method appeals most to you.
If you decide to choose a 6-year intercalated degree, you might gain more career flexibility, but you will incur an extra year’s fees and living expenses.
Style of teaching #
No one method of teaching is any better than another, but everyone learns in different ways. You may find you are more comfortable with one method than another, so explore each one, and if you can, talk to students on each type of course.
- Problem based learning This is a very patient-oriented approach where students learn from cases, guided by group work and tutors. The aim is to develop the skills of teamwork, communication, and problem-solving which you will need as a doctor.
- Case based learning This uses ‘trigger’ cases to stimulate interest in areas of the curriculum. The cases prompt exploration of the knowledge and skills which might be needed. It is supported by other learning resources such as lectures, seminars, dissection, clinical skills practice etc
- Enquiry based learning Questions, problems or scenarios are presented to the student who is in charge of their own learning experience. The emphasis is on learning rather than being taught.
A really good explanation of the three different styles of teaching can be found on the BMA website along with which universities teach each style. Click here to view.
There are lots of things to consider when choosing an ideal location to study. Again, this is a very personal choice. You may have lived in a city all your life, so would be happiest in a university+ in the middle of a busy urban area, or you may be more comfortable in the more rural setting of a campus – or you may want a complete change! It is really important to visit your main choices. If face to face open days aren’t being offered, then at least go and walk around the area to get a feel for the atmosphere. It will be well worth the journey; you will be spending the next 5 or 6 years of your life there.
Think carefully about how far you want to be away from your home. For some, the opportunity to strike out on their own and be independent is great, but for others, the chance to visit home or have family visit them is important, so look at a map, and see what the transport links are like.
Have a look at what accommodation is offered by the university. Medicine is a demanding course, and it may help to be guaranteed university accommodation, at least for the first couple of years while you are getting to know the area. If it’s not offered, then explore the local area to see if you would be happy renting there.
Think about cost. Living costs in London and major cities are going to be much higher, when you consider rent and transport costs. If finance is a big factor for you, and you have a local medical school, you could save a lot of money by living at home.
Look at where your placements might be. A medical school with an on-site hospital could offer local placements, which would be cheaper and more convenient. But if you want to work in the community, then a medical school which places you around the county might be more appealing.
Student experience #
Wherever the medical school is and whatever it offers, every student experience is going to be personal. What suits one person perfectly may be totally wrong for another, and it’s well worth listening to what current students are saying to get an idea of what life in their medical school might be like. Whether you like what they say or feel it doesn’t apply to you, it’s still valuable information.
There are two main rankings of student satisfaction, the Complete University Guide, and The Guardian University Guide. Each looks at different factors, but again, you may feel differently, so don’t lean too heavily on this, do your own research. If you are able to attend an open day (not always possible under COVID restrictions), make sure you get to talk to any students there and go prepared with a list of questions about things that are important to you, whether it be related to the course, or how good the student hockey team is. This is your chance to dig beneath the glossy departmental brochure, so use it well. If you can’t actually visit, then most medical schools have set up virtual chat sessions with some of their students. The students you get to talk to will have been chosen as ambassadors for their medical school, so their comments are likely to be more positive than negative, but they may well mention things in conversation that you had not even considered, so listen carefully, and follow up with any questions you feel you need answers to.
How likely are you to get in? #
Your first aim should be to ensure you get an interview. Each medical school uses different criteria to select their interview candidates, so study them to see if your application matches what they are looking for. Many have basic entry requirements in terms of GCSE grades and UCAT scores, and a fixed policy regarding resits. If you cannot meet the requirements, then selecting them as one of your choices is pointless.
If your UCAT or BMAT scores are good across the board, this will widen your choices. If some sections are weaker, then check how different medical schools will view this. Some will give added weight, for example, to the verbal reasoning section of the UCAT, so if this isn’t your strength, then think about whether to avoid these. Many will automatically reject a low score in the Situational Judgement Test, so if yours is low, look for a school that does not consider this aspect in their selection process.
If you are successful in being called for an interview, consider how you will perform. Are you happy to sit before a traditional interview panel or would you prefer the more varied stations of the MMI. If you are worried about thinking on your feet under pressure, being faced with role-play situations or timed mental challenges, then you might be happier going into a more predictable interview environment for which you can prepare. If you feel you would be daunted by a panel of questioners and would perform better in practical tasks, then go for medical schools that use MMI.
Study statistics. Including a medical school with a good offer to applications, ratio will improve your chances if you meet their entry criteria.
Where do you start? #
You should be thinking about your choices many months before you have to submit your UCAS application. The first thing you can do is to reduce your number of choices by looking carefully at each medical school’s entrance criteria. If you don’t meet them, ask yourself if there is anything you can do. If you have the wrong grades at GCSE, the wrong subjects at A level, or the wrong scores on your admissions test, these are things you can’t change. If you can improve on your work experience or other non-academic achievements to meet their requirements, then decide if it is worth the time and effort to keep them in the mix.
Explore medical school websites and find out all you can about them. Attend open days if you can, or visit the area, and try to talk to current students. This will help you to narrow your selection.
Think really hard about what is important to you. To ensure you get that place to study medicine, you will almost certainly have to make compromises, so if you have thought in depth about which factors really matter to you, then it will help you make your decision on which offer to accept,
Plan B #
If you don’t get any offers from your first choice of medical schools, there are still options. If you haven’t put in a non-medicine option as your fifth selection, then you can apply to another medical school if they still have places available. If you did select an alternative, but either did not get an offer or decide to reject it, then you can apply for UCAS Extra, where you can apply, one institution at a time, for any available places. Full details of how this works are on the UCAS website but remember medical schools may not have vacancies this late in the application cycle, and places on medicine are infrequent in clearing.
If you don’t have an offer from any medical school, you can:
- Wait a year and reapply. You can use the time to get the best exam results you can and to strengthen your application with relevant work experience.
- Accept a place on a non-medical degree, in a subject that you will enjoy studying, which may or may not be medically related, and plan for graduate entry (GEM).
- Explore non-UK medical schools.
Options 1 and 2 give no guarantee of medical school entry in the future, and option 2 will take much longer, and consequently be more expensive overall. Non-UK medical schools will often have different entry requirements, which may suit what you have to offer, and many teach in English if this is your first language. It could get you a place straight away, but the financial cost may be higher than in the UK, and you have to look at the personal cost of going overseas. The challenge and excitement will appeal to some but maybe a step too far for others.