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6 Ways to know which medical school is best for you
With hundreds of medical schools around the UK, plus hundreds more overseas – each with their own glossy prospectus and colourful website showing the same smiling faces reading textbooks in sunny campus grounds – it can be confusing knowing where to start looking and how to narrow down your choices Well, I’m here to shed some light on the topic and hopefully have you singing your own rendition of Jimmy Cliff’s “I can see clearly now” by the end!
1. Inner-City or Outer-City
First of all, you need to think of environments that appeal to you. After all, it’s where you’ll be spending the next five to six years of your life, so being able to enjoy the location and everything it offers is an absolute must. Ask yourself, “do I like the hustle and noise of an inner-city university?” like the universities of Leeds and Manchester and most London universities, to name but some; Or “do I prefer the option to get away from the mayhem and enjoy the solitude of an outer-city university?”, such as Keele University and Hull-York Medical School. There’s no right or wrong answer; it completely depends on your personality and preferences.
Inner-city universities tend to be surrounded with busier streets, denser traffic and more polluted air – not great for the cyclists amongst us – but there are usually better shops on the high streets, a greater range of eating places, great stadiums for the football fans, and a more enjoyable nightlife. You’ll never be bored as there are always new places to discover, visit and explore, and plentiful activities to do for fun.
If you have any experience with London, you’ll know that there’s just no escaping the rush hour traffic and the stampedes of people on the underground trains; but hey, that’s the price you pay for living in a city that supposedly never sleeps and has some of the most famous landmarks and iconic sights of the world.
In Manchester you’re sure to have come across the great “Curry Mile”, formerly known as Wilmslow Road, meaning you’ll never go hungry. On the contrary, one could argue that outer-city universities miss out on the fun, but with the nearest city usually within a driveable distance, you have the best of both worlds! You can enjoy the excitement of the city and return to your more peaceful and calmer university surroundings with its greenery and friendly faces where everyone knows each other.
2. Campus vs Non-Campus
There are pros and cons to living on a university campus compared to travelling between scattered university buildings, and it’s once again completely down to personal preference.
A campus university is one where all university buildings are located at one site, within short walking distance of one another, and all within university grounds with its own gated entrances and security. Within these grounds you will find student accommodation, restaurants, the student union, a pub and club, the library, a gym, a launderette, a bank, and maybe even a hairdresser, along with all your lecture theatres and classrooms.
As you can imagine, that’s not a bad life! That means you can roll out of bed ten minutes before a lecture and still not be late (which is more normal than you can probably imagine), it means no taxis needed after a night out, and no qualms about studying late at the library and walking home alone at 1am. It means a safe and social environment, where everything you need is a short walk away, and it couldn’t be easier to make new friends throughout your time at university. Living on campus certainly does give you the true student experience. However, what is the down-side, you ask? Well, you rarely, if ever, need to leave. Not only can a repetitive routine get boring, but you can begin to feel restricted in your options for where to go and what to eat and what to do. This can be solved if you’re pro-active in getting out of campus and exploring elsewhere!
On the other hand, with non-campus universities where the city is yours; you are one student commuting to your lecture amongst people of all ages, careers and backgrounds rubbing shoulders with you on the bus. You may have a 9am lecture at one end of the city, followed by an afternoon lab session in a building 30 minutes away, and then it might take you longer than that to get home. But it means you can live the true city life, with all the above-mentioned places to explore and experiences to be had.
3. Teaching & Learning Style
Medical schools teach medicine in different ways and it’s important that you gain an understanding of the different teaching styles and curriculums of the universities that interest you, and make an informed choice based on how you learn best.
The first little phrase that you’ll hear often (and that you may be asked about at university interviews!) is “problem-based learning”, or PBL. This is a teaching style which consists of small group seminars, usually consisting of 8-10 students and a tutor, in which a case study on a particular medical condition is discussed and analysed until a diagnosis is reached; learning objectives are constructed and then students must individually research the learning objectives and return in the next session to present back to the group. This is a medical knowledge-building exercise and is designed to make students think more clinically rather than from a textbook-perspective.
PBLs require excellent teamwork as well as good communication and presentation skills. They build your confidence in addressing a group of people and also facilitate meeting fellow medical students outside of your friendship circles.
Next up is the “traditional” curriculum, followed by Oxford, Cambridge and Imperial College London, amongst other universities. This is where medical school is divided into three pre-clinical years, consisting solely of theory-based learning, followed by three clinical years, almost completely based in hospital and community medical settings. There are pros and cons to this system. It means that you develop a thorough foundation of scientific and medical knowledge, and a sound understanding of how the human body works and every medical condition that can affect it, before ever encountering a single patient. In other words, you know your stuff!
The downside is that it can be overwhelming to then suddenly be thrown into the deep-end by being cast into the busy, noisy, sometimes smelly, and completely new-to-you hospital wards, for the remaining three years. Clinical teaching and experience is limited if not non-existent for the first three years of university life. After that, you are then immediately required to put everything you learnt to practice, as well as grasp all the skills and examinations needed to make a doctor, such as using a stethoscope, taking blood, and communicating with patients. Personally, I couldn’t imagine three years of non-clinical, theory-only learning, consisting of lectures and tutorials and no patient contact; it just wouldn’t feel like medical school! Which leads me nicely into teaching-style number three… “Integrated”!
Integrated curriculums allow early patient contact. You truly feel like you are learning how to be a doctor, because you get to see them at work and get your hands dirty from year one! Alongside your lectures and tutorials, you have the opportunity to attend a GP clinic or hospital placement, starting at once per week and then at increasing frequency thereafter. Some say you’re learning on the job, and that’s not far from the truth and nor is it necessarily a bad thing. In the words of Sir William Osler, “to study the phenomenon of disease without books is to sail an uncharted sea, while to study books without patients is not to go to sea at all”; nothing sums up integrated curriculums much better than that. The integrated system does, however, mean more of those dreaded OSCE exams (the practical clinical exam where you have to do doctory stuff whilst an examiner watches your every move with a steely, unflinching, piercing stare which makes your blood run cold but, hey, don’t worry about that yet!).
4. Medical Research
This one is fairly simple. Are you keen on getting involved in research whilst at medical school, or not? Or, do you simply not know yet? Most students will carry out some form of medical research, project, literature and/or publishing during their time at university, and most medical schools can facilitate this with research facilities on-site. But some universities are more research-focused than others, take Barts and the London for example which is at the forefront of pioneering medical research, leading the way in cancer discoveries and recently hosting the first ever surgery live-broadcasted in virtual reality. There is much to be explored, so explore your options and see if a particular area of research peaks your interest!
Do you want to stay close to home, free food, mum-hugs and household comforts? Or would you rather move far, far away to live that independent life with no curfews and your own space? Do you want to be in a particular city, by the seaside, up north or down south? Do you want to take part in a particular sport that a certain university excels at, or create a new society that a university currently doesn’t have? Do you have family members or friends at a university and you wish to join them? Did your mum or grandpa go to a particular university and you want to follow in their footsteps? With these points plus more, there is SO MUCH you can take into consideration when making your choice.
6. Backup Options & Overseas
My last point of advice is about overseas medical schools, as there are some great options available, whether you fancy the sunny skies of Malta or Cyprus, or the slightly colder weather but nevertheless still high-standard teaching of Czech Republic medical schools. Ireland and Europe have a strong history of medical education and run prestigious medical degree programmes, some of whom are affiliated with UK universities. Not only can overseas be a viable first choice and main option, these medical schools also make for good backup plans as they are applied to separately from your UCAS application, meaning more applications and a greater chance of scoring that ever so yearned-for place at medical school.
Just remember, if English is your first language, and if the UK is where you want to work in future, ensure that you only apply to those med-schools which teach in English; it might seem like common sense, but it is an easily-ignored point! Secondly, be prepared to face the additional challenge of learning the native language of the country you are in; whilst the teaching may be in English, the patient interactions may well not be. And finally, be aware that financial aid is much scarcer; you’ll be an international student and will likely need to independently fund your six years of university life; so calculate and plan your finances well!
And there you have it. Six ways to know which med-school is best for you. Now go ahead and get researching! Good luck! …… *walks away whistling* “It’s gonna be a bright, bright, sunshiny day”!