Getting in - more than being book smart

July 18, 2017 - Faiz Jabbar

Grades. Grades. Grades. If I get them then every Medical School will offer me a place. Wrong. The medical student possesses many qualities that make them successful, grades being just one of them, and when applying to medical school you want to make sure you have all the right qualities. Now, this may seem to be a daunting and impossible task, but what applicants need to realise is that you do not need to have every quality immediately and you do not need to show them all at once. The application process is a series of hurdles you need to pass, with each hurdle assessing a different quality that medical school believes a doctor should have. So, do not be overwhelmed by the process, take each hurdle as it comes devoting all your efforts into mastering the quality being tested.

The first hurdle

This is where most people fall, grades. You need to be predicted the minimum, meet and then exceed the entry requirements to have any hope of putting forward a competitive application across. Grades are the essential foundations of your application. This make sense, a doctor’s scientific knowledge is extensive and communicable. Without this rigor in the medical sciences, the doctor’s foundation is gone and bread and butter medicine could not be practised. This knowledge gives a doctor confidence in his medicine and treatment of patients. Therefore, the entry requirements are so high for medicine. Other reasons for the high requirements are to filter out the huge number of applicants and to make sure that students can deal with the high workload in medical school.

So, you have the predicted grades, what next?

Having a strong personal statement is the next hurdle. This is the only insight a university will get of you before interview, therefore it is important to allow your personality to shine through, with this it should be apparent that you possess the qualities the medical schools are looking for (leadership, team working, compassion, empathy, commitment and understanding of the profession to name a few). A key part of the statement is explaining your work experience. This is where quality trumps quantity every time, listing the places you have been will get you nowhere. The quality tested here is reflection, a skill all doctors need, the ability to reflect on your experiences, learn what went well, what could be improved and the issues faced. In addition, many medical schools will outline what skills they are looking for in the personal statement on their websites, and you should ensure that your personal statement meets these skills. At the end of the day, you can determine how important you want your personal statement to be, many universities do not score the personal statement whilst others use it heavily in the selection process.

Entrance tests

You have written a mind-blowing statement, now you need to perform well on the entrance tests, whether that be the UCAT (UKCAT), BMAT or both. I recommend taking the UCAT as late as possible, giving you the most time to prepare for the test. Many applicants believe the myth that is sold to them that these tests are ones you cannot revise for. This is not true. These tests are different from school exams; memorising information in a book will not help you here. The UCAT is about three things, practice, practice and more practice.

The BMAT is about this in section 1, section 2 (the science) is about learning shortcuts to the science, section 3 (the essay) is about planning. This is the stage where Kaplan’s UCAT and BMAT courses can come in to prepare you perfectly for test day, with exclusive test-like practice papers and innovative teaching methods. Ideally, you should not apply to more than two BMAT schools since you do not have any indication of your score when you apply, unless you take the September BMAT test. If you have a strong UCAT score, use that to your advantage when you apply. Personally, I was always wary of schools with no entrance test since these ones will have an extraordinary number of applicants.

The Interview Offer

It is December. You check your email. OMG. An interview. Congratulations you have made it so far, now only one more hurdle until you get your well-deserved offer, but it is a big one. The interview stage is where you must piece together all the qualities a doctor should have and communicate them to the interviewer. Before you do this, you need to understand the profession. This means that you need to understand the career progression of a doctor from graduation to consultant level. In addition, understanding the structure of NHS and the role of specific health groups is a fundamental aspect of an applicant’s arsenal, knowing this will allow you to form your own opinions on how to tackle issues of health and not fluster when given seemingly obscure scenarios.

Medical Industry Knowledge

The NHS is a big topic you need to be literate on since a whole number of NHS related interview questions could come up. Awareness and appreciation of the past, present and future issues facing the NHS is vital, this means understanding; privatisation of the NHS, the social care structure (it’s highly relevant bearing in mind the Conservative Party’s plans to possibly revamp this), the challenges an elderly population brings, NHS funding and budgets, mental health, the politics of the NHS (i.e. changes to the NHS and specific examples of whistle-blowing), and many others. Keep up to date with medical news websites such as BBC Health, The Guardian and The Kings Fund to help you accumulate the knowledge of the above topics; 10 minutes every day for a couple months but ideally for a year should be sufficient. The student BMJ has great resources for applicants, here you can learn about medical school training, possible changes to it, and the General Medical Council (GMC).

A useful exercise to do whilst preparing for an interview is to look at the major medical advancements made in the last 10/50/100/250 years and to single out a couple you think are the most important and then prepare reasons to back up your argument. This will help you achieve a broad understanding of how medicine has developed throughout the ages and prepare you if such a question were to come up.

Understanding the qualities of a doctor

The next step is to be able to show that you have the values and qualities the GMC want in a doctor. Looking at the GMC website and Good Medical Practice, which outlines what is expected from doctors is a good foundation. The main points in the document are:

  • Knowledge, skills and performance
  • Safety and Quality
  • Communication, partnership and teamwork
  • Maintaining trust

These qualities do not come overnight, they come through:

  • Work experience in hospitals which give you an understanding of the stressful but rewarding nature of medicine, allowing you to develop methods of relieving stress so you can safely perform at your best.
  • Volunteering – in care homes and other social setting to help you develop the communication and teamwork skills all doctors must have. This can help to develop your empathetic side and deal with scenarios/role plays an interviewer may throw at you.

Attending your interview

The penultimate hurdle is the interview. The best advice anyone can give you is, be yourself. No matter the university, try to avoid changing who you are because you think that the interviewer will like you more, this will only make you more stressed than you already are and hinder your ability to perform at your best. Before you go into the interview room you need to find a method that allows you to keep a calm body but a focused mind, there are many calming techniques people use and the Kaplan Medical School Interview course can help you to effectively manage the pressures of these settings. Once you are in the interview you need to ensure your body language is perfect. Remember the saying, 7% of the interview is verbal, 93% is non-verbal i.e. body language. So ensure that you:

  • Do not slouch on your seat
  • Lean slightly forward to show interest
  • Uncross your arms
  • Use hand gestures to emphasise your point
  • Give a firm handshake
  • Keep eye contact – many prefer to look in-between the interviewers eyebrows as it gives the same effect
  • Speak clearly to portray your confidence
  • Make sure you bring water into the room as your mouth can go very dry when speaking

Now, breathe. You have got the experience, you have the qualities, allowing yourself an extra second to breathe and plan your answer will help you to give a coherent and concise answer which should impress the interviewer.


You cannot believe it, you got THE offer! Now it is the last step, getting the A level grades. All the hard work has been worth it, well done. In simple terms, the application process can be thought of as a cycle with good grades i.e. being book smart, the two ends of the cycle and the backbone which can make or break your chances of getting in. However, I hope I have shown you that it is not just about having the best grades; you need to show that you are a well-rounded person who can show they have the qualities that a doctor needs and pass the aptitude and writing stages of the application process as well.


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