An Introduction to Applying to UK Medical Schools

Last updated: 10/04/2021

In 2015, UCAS recorded more than 10 applicants per place for medicine, compared to a higher education average of five. Despite this, thousands of students succeed in their applications every year, and you can too. Stay focused, plan ahead and make sure you do your homework. The first and most important stage is deciding whether medicine is the right choice for you.

Who gets into medical school?

A huge variety of people get into and excel at medical school. Consider the huge variation in personality and background of doctors, and it is clear that no one stereotypical candidate will succeed. The best advice is to demonstrate your research and realistic understanding of modern medicine and of life as a medical student and doctor. Demonstrate how your personality is suited to developing into a great young doctor, and show your enthusiasm and commitment to succeeding at this goal.

One topic that is highly likely to come up in interviews is your best qualities and your flaws. Consider how you could improve or better yourself. Be prepared to do some self-analysis and take time to consider how you could grow and develop features of your personality such as a caring nature or a perfectionist attitude, which may at times make life as a doctor a challenge. An example is when you may not be able to help someone any further or are not able to fully relieve someone of their pain. These limitations are not true ‘flaws’ in your personality but reflecting on them highlights an ability to self-analyse and show an awareness of the reality of being a modern doctor.

A mature, committed and realistic candidate is the one who is most likely to succeed. Remember that interviewers are not looking for a superhero, but they do need to see enthusiasm, understanding and analytical intelligence.

Anne – Cardiff University
‘I found that my work experience was the most useful in allowing me to get to know myself; how I respond to novel situations and whether my personality was suited to a career in medicine, by observing the ups and downs in a doctor’s day at work.’
James – University of Bristol
‘However much or little you understand during your work experience, it is worth remembering that just being in that environment and observing health professionals communicate and face medical challenges is immensely useful. Try to get a variety of work experience in hospitals, in the community and through volunteering. You will then be in the best position to think carefully about whether it is the best choice for you.’

How will I know if medicine is for me?

We all have an impression of what being a medical student or doctor is like. No matter how well informed your impression, there is always more research that you can do to confirm that you are making the right choice.

  • Open Days: Speak to current students. Make sure your reasons are sensible, honest and specific to a medical career.
  • Work Experience: Spend time with clinical staff. Observe them and ask questions that will give you insight into their day-to-day roles. Can you imagine yourself in their position? What is your motivation to pursue a career in medicine?

If you are finding it tricky to get enough work experience then have a look at the Work Experience section of this Admissions Guide. You need not just apply to hospitals or GPs; think about volunteering with the St John Ambulance service, local charities or nursing homes. If you cannot get any contact time with a doctor, then ask your local GP to meet with you for 15 minutes to talk about their job. Preparing a list of questions will help you have a focused discussion and get a lot of insight in a short time.

Ollie – Economics Student, University College London
‘I always thought I wanted to do medicine, since my parents were doctors themselves. However, I did a 2 week shadowing placement with several different doctors, and I soon realised that the sight of blood was a no go. From then on – I didn’t look back, and am now a student in economics.’
Tom – Medical Student, University of Leicester
‘I was one of those people who had been exposed to medicine from a young age, as my father is a doctor. I spent many hours shadowing him in his GP practice which made me realise it was the career path that would suit me best, with its unique blend of science and people skills.’

Medicine is a challenging career path and there may be times when you question whether you want to remain a doctor or medical student. However, medical schools have to be able to satisfy themselves that you understand the pros and cons of being a doctor. They need to see that you are capable not only of succeeding as a medical student but as a doctor, and can cope with the realities of being a doctor.

The Positives of Being a Doctor:

  • Respect: Doctors are well respected among all professions.
  • Satisfaction: The use of your knowledge to directly help people and be responsible for their care.
  • Knowledge: The understanding the workings of the human body.
  • Salary: The potential to earn a reasonable salary.
  • Job Security: Opportunities to change specialities or work abroad.

The Negatives of Being a Doctor:

  • Exams: The stress of examinations, which can be non-stop until you are a consultant.
  • Stress: The responsibilities can be overwhelming, especially when there are lots of them, some of which can potentially involve life-threatening outcomes for your patients.
  • Workload: It is hard work, with long, unsociable hours.
  • Transfer: The requirement to move around to different hospitals during training.

Would I make a good doctor?

‘Doctors have the enormous privilege of changing lives. Through all the changes driven by research and public expectations, some of the art and science of medicine has endured down the ages and defines medicine as a profession.’
Sir Peter Rubin, Chair of the General Medical Council, 2009–2014

Medicine is a wide-ranging field that requires a diverse skillset and huge knowledge base of its practitioners. Almost anyone can fit into a particular branch of medicine, no matter their background. However, there are characteristics common to all good doctors.

A Good Doctor is:

  • Caring: The skill of being approachable and treating patients as human beings rather than solely as a symptom or collection of symptoms.
  • An Effective Communicator: The willingness to take time to listen and communicate honestly and effectively with patients, relatives and staff teams; managers and peers, while pitching at the appropriate level while putting everyone at ease.
  • A Teamplayer: Respects everyone’s capabilities and their contribution to the team.
  • Academic: Posseses technical skills, is competent and knowledgeable and uses evidence-based practice.
  • A Leader: Inspires others, is confident about standards and stands firm to uphold their own and their team’s values and beliefs.
  • A Teacher: Learns and teaches without fear of humiliation; leads and trains a group as a team.

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