Last reviewed 31 January 2014

Many Key Stage 4 and 5 students are aspiring medics, dentists or veterinary surgeons. Still more are interested in medically-related careers, such as physiotherapy or pharmacology.

This is the most competitive area in terms of achieving offers of a place. The result is that thousands of students are disappointed each year. Luci Boella explains how students can increase their chances of success.

Competition for places

In 2012, more than 4000 applicants for medicine alone did not receive an offer of a place, and the ratio of applicants to places was, on average, 10:1.

Every medical school in the UK, except Southampton, interviews students as part of its selection process, with the same being true for dentistry and veterinary sciences. However, after selection for interview, the ratio of applicants to places often drops to around 3:1. For this reason, the biggest hurdle is getting selected for interview and, as a result, applications require far more than minimum academic requirements and a well-written personal statement.

How to succeed

For students to have a chance of success, they need to start planning months ahead of the Universities and Colleges Admission Service (UCAS) deadlines. It is equally important that their teachers are ready to advise them on the steps they need to take to strengthen their application, while students still have the time to take those steps.

First and foremost, for a successful application, students need to do their research. All universities offering courses in medical sciences give advice on their websites of attributes they specifically desire, but generally require:

  • good communication skills

  • initiative

  • the ability to learn from experience and to be reflective

  • resilience and ability to show evidence of being able to cope with the demands of the course and the career.

Additionally, all universities have their own specific method of assessing selection criteria. Many score each application on the strength of evidence for each required attribute, and only those with an overall score above the decided cut-off will be invited for interview. Thus, students who lack evidence for one or more of the selection criteria will be disadvantaged.

Work experience

Apart from having the relevant personal attributes, work experience is essential for any strong application. However, it is extremely difficult to get work experience in a clinical setting, as many NHS trusts have confidentiality and health and safety policies that prevent it. There are fortunately several alternatives, some of which offer a far more enriching experience.

Most medically-related charities (eg local hospices or Age Concern) require volunteers to carry out simple tasks such as serving teas or lunches. Many NHS hospitals also recruit volunteers for similar purposes, and students can experience being part of a healthcare team and are allowed to interact with patients, which they rarely get with a “shadowing” experience. Alternatively, students may find medically-related, part-time work in a local pharmacy or even cleaning in a GP clinic.

Importantly, university admissions tutors are aware of the challenges of gaining clinical work experience and most do not expect vast amounts of experience, or any direct experience in a clinical environment. What admissions teams want is evidence that an applicant has learnt something about the challenges of his or her future career from his or her experience, whatever the nature of that experience. This could take the form of discussing one particular short experience, eg a single event where the applicant had difficulty communicating with a patient or colleague, and how this highlighted the importance of developing good communication skills.

Alternatively, the applicant may have observed a variety of tasks, aside from seeing patients, that a doctor, vet or dentist must undertake on a daily basis. Ideally, students should research what challenges professionals in their desired career face, and relate how their own experience has made them aware of those challenges.

Extra-curricular activities

Studying for a career in any medically-related field is, without doubt, intellectually and often emotionally demanding. Admissions tutors seek evidence that an applicant’s experience is not only rounded, but that he or she also has interests aside from academia that will allow relief from the stress of studying.

Tutors also want to know that a student has something that can be dropped to make time for extra study when required. It is not necessarily important what sport or hobby a student mentions for extra-curricular activities, but it can strengthen his or her application if this is linked to a personal attribute, eg team-working skills.

Clinical aptitude test

In addition to academic exams, for medicine, dentistry and some veterinary science courses, students must also sit a further exam. Most medicine and dentistry courses require the Clinical Aptitude Test (the UK CAT). There is no pass mark, and different universities place different weight on test scores. A few universities select candidates for interview based solely on UK CAT scores, and students are only likely to have a good chance of being selected for interview if they fall within the top 20–30% of scores for that year across the country. Information on how universities use the UK CAT is usually on their website.

The test covers reading comprehension, maths skills, pattern recognition, and decision-making skills. Students are not supposed to have to revise for the test, but they can (and definitely should) prepare for it. There are free practice materials online and plenty of “teach yourself” books. There are even weekend courses that can significantly improve the chances of scoring well.

Oxford, Cambridge, some London universities, and some veterinary science courses use the BioMedical Admissions Test (BMAT) instead of the UK CAT. It is similar to the UK CAT, but in addition to aptitude tests, it has a section on topics covered in science and maths GCSE, and an essay-writing task. It is important that students know which entrance test or tests they must take and also the deadlines for taking the tests.

Personal statement

If students have done research and preparation, writing their personal statement should be relatively easy. They may feel they need to write something that stands out from the hundreds of other personal statements, but unless the student has had a really profound life experience, then the admissions tutors will have read it all before.

The focus should be on writing a statement that is honest and a good reflection of who they are. It is also worth remembering that personal statements will probably be graded on the strength of evidence for each of the selection criteria, thus little credit will be given to being creative or original. Because of this, it is paramount that all statements on personal attributes, such as “I have good team-working skills”, are supported with strong evidence. Students should also take every opportunity to state what they have learned from their experiences.

Teacher reference

Many admissions processes place as much weight on the reference as on the personal statement. It is therefore extremely important that this is as strong as the personal statement. Students need to make the teacher writing the reference aware that it is for a medical degree. They should also list the attributes that the teacher needs to evidence, and provide the teacher with examples of how to do this. To make this as strong as possible, the examples should be different from those mentioned in the student’s personal statement.

Finally

To summarise, achieving a place on a medicine, dentistry or veterinary science degree is an involved and lengthy process. Most importantly, students need to have sought experiences that can demonstrate what they have learned about both themselves and the challenges they will face in their chosen career. It is this, along with their academic excellence that will give them the best chance of gaining a place.