In which a Chemistry teacher encourages you not to think “doctor” when your kids achieves a string of A grade GCSEs…
**Throughout this post, where I say “doctor” I mean a person with a medical degree, rather than a PhD**
We find it easy to tell an 18 year old they won’t be a professional footballer or singer but find it difficult to tell them that they aren’t destined to be a medical doctor. I’d say during the first week of teaching AS Chem around 50% of my new students (approx 80 16 year olds) say that they wish to study medicine; by the beginning of the second year of the course I end up with around 12 candidates who will apply via the UCAS system. So where do the others disappear to?
The Work Experience
Students need to be proactive in getting work experience, especially if Careers provision at their school isn’t so good. Ideally, they should be doing some long-term volunteering (retirement homes are a favourite), speaking to a doctor in their preferred area of medicine, do a week’s work experience in a hospital. If a student isn’t willing to seek this out for themselves (and keep up with it), they won’t be offered a place.
Many students realise at this point they don’t really want to work directly with the public, or find any area related to medicine that is of more interest to them. There’s nothing quite like being around bodily fluids to realise that the only reason you wanted to be a doctor was the prestige of the title…
Minimum A level grades for direct entry to Year 1 of a medical degree are AAA. Some universities stipulate minimum GCSE grades. If after the AS results come out, students do not have at least AAB they are recommended (by schools) to apply for other courses.
Parents quite reasonably expect that if their child got an A at GCSE Chemistry, they should be capable of an A at A level. One of my hardest jobs in the first 6 months is helping both parent and student to realise that the skill set is totally different – it’s still possible to cram in the last week before the exam for their GCSE; at A level this will never work as most marks are scored for the application of knowledge in novel contexts. Many students do not realise this until it is far too late.
Many universities offer summer schools (one-week residential course in the summer after Year 12) in Medicine, either as part of their own programme or as part of the Sutton Trust programme for widening access to students from non-traditional backgrounds. I recommend all of my students interested in medicine apply for these as they give them a flavour of the life of a medical school and lets at least one medical school get to know them as a potential applicant.
The Aptitude Tests
Most universities want their applicants to have taken one of the UKCAT or BMAT aptitude tests before applying. Most schools and colleges will put on some sort of practise / coaching for this but if a student won’t give up an hour a week to train, it is likely they’ll be spooked by the questions and won’t perform well. As universities have applicants all expected to achieved AAA, these tests are often the deciding factor and to ignore their importance is to shoot oneself in the foot.
These tests are arranged privately by the candidate and sat at an external test centre. They also incur a fee (but if students are eligible for a bursary from their school under the old terms of EMA, the fee can often be at least partially covered).
The UCAS form
UCAS is the standard application method for undergraduate entry to university. Applications for medicine must be in earlier than standard applications (typically mid-October as opposed to mid-January) and students can apply for up to 4 medicine degrees and an additional non-medicine degree. As well as listing their academic qualifications thus far and predicted A level grades, students write a personal statement to show their interest in the subject and how they have proven medicine is for them. Their school will also write a reference – medicine references tend to be given over to staff who are experienced in writing these references in order for students to give the student the best chance; if students haven’t done much in the way of extracurricular work pertaining to their application, it is very hard for both teacher and student to write decent statements.
Should a student have all the requisite skills on their UCAS application, they will be interviewed by interested universities. Some interviews are traditional panel-type interviews, others are a circus of short interviews but all will include assessing the candidates’ knowledge and understanding of both their science, ethical concerns in medicine, and the latest research in medicine – in other words, the old “reading around the subject” chestnut. If the candidate doesn’t show sufficient interest and awareness of current themes in medicine, and empathy towards case studies it doesn’t matter how good their grades and UKCAT scores are, they won’t be offered a place.
So all in all, the application to medical school is incredibly intensive – even for students who breezed through their GCSEs, it’s very labour-intensive and good grades alone are not enough. Hopefully you can see by my descriptions of the various steps for post-16 students to get medicine-ready, there are many points along the way where students may falter. For students who, based on mock grades, are unlikely to achieve 3 A grades there is little guidance towards other medicine-related degrees. I do a lot of work promoting careers such as pharmacy, physiotherapy, nursing, midwifery, diagnostic and therapeutic radiography, occupational therapy, podiatry, optometry, audiology… The degrees / training courses for these careers require considerable work experience and/or work shadowing from their applicants and by the time that the student has realised their grades are unsuitable for medicine, they have no time to get this experience before the UCAS application is due in. Others have very little interest in the human body or dislike working with others – by directing them toward medicine, they’re closing their minds to other degree courses which may suit them down to the ground.
My advice to parents and other teachers is to try and find out why a child has expressed an interest in medicine and assess whether they have the potential to achieve the entry requirements and the determination and temperament to do the additional work required to help their application. If they’re only interested in being called “doctor”, there are several types of doctor. If they want to work with people but are unlikely to make the grades, investigate some of the other careers available on the NHS Careers website. If they like the problem-solving aspect but dislike working with the public, there are many biomedical science and medical research careers which may suit them better. If they are insistent on being a doctor, then support them all you can but remember: you can’t do it for them.