Applying smart to medical school: university choices

June 21, 2017 - Faiz Jabbar

Where should I apply? The question every would-be medical student asks themselves. It is a tough one and is the most important decision you will make on your UCAS form. Where you apply really does make or break your application and the chances of getting an interview. You already have it harder than others, by only being allowed to apply to four medical schools, it is therefore vital that you are well informed of every medical school so that you find the one that is perfect for you.

So, you know you want to study medicine, but which university? And do you focus on location or course? Students consider everything from historical and political origins to accommodation and nightlife. This guide will cover everything from academic and non-academic requirements to location and course structure.

Before you start looking at the different medical schools, first have a think about what you want from your time in there. You will be living in the same city for at least five years, unless you chose a select few Medical Schools where you transfer for clinical years – more on that later – so be completely sure about not only the university but the location as well. However, do not be fooled into thinking one medical school is any better than the rest, they all meet the very high standards of academic and clinical rigor set by the General Medical Council and once you have graduated hospitals will not be able to see where you have studied from for foundation school jobs.

Initial shortlisting, eligible universities

When shortlisting Medical Schools you need to ensure that you meet the eligibility criteria of each university otherwise you will be sifted out of the application process, it doesn’t matter if you have a great personal statement (PS) or think you are perfect for that university. After this, the next step to make is to evaluate the strengths in your own application. This means understanding that having high GCSE grades is a strength, so is the ability to learn a great deal from your work experience and communicate this in the PS, high predicted grades, a high UCAT score or a high UCAS tariff amongst others. Every student has different strengths. Once you understand what yours are you can now use them to selectively shortlist the medical schools that weight the application process in favour of your strengths. The medical school council has a great guide on how each medical school processes and selects applicants for interview. While this guide is super helpful as a starting point, the website of each medical school contains more specific information about their requirements. If you do this you can maximise your chances of getting an interview.

What do I like?

Another consideration you need to make is the type of course you want to study. There are many different methods used to teach medicine in the UK and you should pick the ones that appeal to you the most. Some people prefer to learn via lectures, others prefer to be more active with more clinical placements and small group work, however the latter tends to be more student-led and so requires a certain maturity and drive that learning from lectures does not require.

Not sure what method of teaching you would like? Here are the approaches to teaching the medical school curriculum:

A traditional pre-clinical and clinical course – two years of lectures, then three years of clinical placements this is seen at namely Oxford, Cambridge, UCL and Imperial

An integrated/systems based course – aims to provide a seamless course by combining the arts of physiology, anatomy, pharmacology, pathology and biochemistry into bodily systems.

Problem based learning (PBL) - students learn from solving weekly medical cases. Learning is focused through group work with a tutor, self-directed learning, on top of academic lectures and clinical placements. PBL is usually integrated into the main curriculum, PBL is seen at Liverpool, Manchester, Glasgow, Queen Mary, Peninsula, Sheffield, Keele, Hull and York, Barts and East Anglia

Case based learning (CBL) – Similar to PBL, but a virtual 'trigger' case is used to initiate learning in an area of medicine. Again, students work in small groups over a short period, and in the process students identify and learn the knowledge and skills required to successfully solve the case. Liverpool, Cardiff and Glasgow are the universities who implement CBL in their course.

Enquiry based learning (EBL) – Birmingham has started to introduce EBL, here the student really is the heart of their own learning. A facilitator poses a scenario with several problems; the students identify and research them and then feedback to the small group. This type of learning is chiefly used in investigations and research projects.

Multi or inter-professional learning course – this is where the same content is learnt by students from different professions. The aim of this method is to show students’ how different practitioners’ work together – a skill that is vital in the real world and in the successful treatment of patients.

Ultimately, I personally believe that the type of course you chose is of minor significance. Usually applicants are innately ‘intimidated’ by a PBL type course because it is unknown, more independent but also requires teamwork. Students tend to prefer a structured presentation from a lecturer. I would advise not to cross off a medical school because of the method of learning. When you start university, everything is new and unfamiliar, this includes the way you learn. No one knows how to learn from lectures, it takes time to learn how to learn from lectures, just as it will take time to adjust to the method of learning via PBL/CBL.

All types of learning have their advantages and disadvantages, for example a group of researchers recently studied graduated students who learnt via PBL during medical school and another group who learnt from lectures. They found that lecture-based students could recall more information immediately after graduation. However, PBL-based students could retain more information as time went on. PBL mimics how you will learn as a doctor so it is great practice for the future.

Academic Opportunities in Medical School

Another important factor you must consider when choosing a medical school is whether you want to intercalate or not. This is when you take a year away from medicine to complete a bachelor’s degree or masters. Manchester Medical School is the only one that offers the opportunity to complete a masters in research, which can be of great benefit to your career. Medical schools such as UCL, Oxford, Cambridge, Imperial and Birmingham make this a compulsory aspect of the course and they all also offer MBPHD programmes so you can study for a PHD in addition to an MMBS degree. Most other medical schools have the option for students to take a year out.

Intercalating can help you climb the career ladder after medical school; with many students finding that an extra degree can help you get the job you want in the location you want i.e. a competitive hospital place in London. Other advantages of intercalating include taking a break from a stressful medical course, the opportunity to pursue an area of science you are genuinely interested in and the opportunity to present or even publish your own research. Some disadvantages are that it is another year of an already long course and more fees.

Universities with unique intercalating (iBSc) options include:

Manchester - only university where you are allowed to do a masters in research

UCL - Broadest range of iBSc options in the country ranging from hard core science (Neuroscience and Immunology) to the highly popular Paediatrics iBSc to global health and politics.

Imperial - iBSc is done in fourth year after one year of clinical studies – many other universities offer this option also

Cambridge - Huge variety of iBSc options available

My favourite city is...

A big factor for a lot of students is Location. You need to decide whether you would like to live for a minimum of five years in a big metropolitan city like London or Manchester or whether you would prefer the peace and quiet of a smaller more rural city like Exeter or St Andrews which may have a more student-like feel. Hand in hand with this comes whether you would like to go to a campus university and so you would be in that university ‘bubble’ students love. Money is what most students worry about; London comes with the promise of world-class hospitals, academic rigor, a bustling social scene and notorious nightlife. However, with this there is a price; housing and travel costs are high as are the various social commitments of which there are many.

Some medical schools allow you to change medical schools for your clinical years; such ones are St Andrews where you can transfer to Manchester. Traditionally from Oxford and Cambridge you can transfer to London for your clinical years however recently Cambridge have stopped this transfer scheme, Oxford continue it. Some universities also accept students from other medical schools for intercalation, this gives you the opportunity to change scenery for a year and gain a degree from a different university.

Take home message

From Entry requirements to location and extra degrees there are many factors you will need to consider when choosing where to apply, if you get it right these choices can dramatically increase your chance of getting an interview. Applying to a university you are passionate about is vital. That genuine intrigue and interest will impress the interviewers and allow you to perform at your best during interview, increasing your hopes of getting that offer.

For more guidance on choices, medical school application and interviews Kaplan has put together the how to get into medical school guide. They have also recently introduced a Medical School Interview preparation course.

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