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Choosing a medical school introduction

Does it matter where I go to study?

The application process can be a stressful, nerve-wracking time; so make sure you’ve thought clearly about your decision and which schools you are most suited to.

There are 33 medical schools in the UK, and they are fairly evenly spread throughout the country. They vary considerably in their approach to teaching medicine over the course of the 5 years, but each will award you with an MBBS (Bachelor of Medicine, Bachelor of Surgery) upon passing all years successfully. Many choose to undertake an extra year of intercalation too which provides a Bachelor of Science (BSc) or a Bachelor of Arts (BA) upon completion. It is worth noting that for Oxbridge, UCL and Imperial, this BSc/BA year is compulsory.

Choosing the right medical school is an important decision – it is where you will spend the next 5 or 6 years of your life and gain the skills needed to be a successful young doctor.

It is important to establish that all medical schools offer high quality teaching and produce excellent doctors. All medical schools teach slightly differently, but all must adhere to standards set by the General Medical Council (GMC), so that you meet minimum requirements when you graduate. Getting into a well known university certainly gives you more resources and opportunities. However, whether you wish to take advantage of what is available to you is entirely up to you. So while which medical school you choose may help your career path, the most important factor in determining what you do as a doctor is entirely up to you.

Does the medical school I go to/degree I get determine my future career in medicine?

Where you go to medical school will not affect your application for a junior doctor job when you finish your degree. The application for your first job as a doctor is an online process and depends upon four factors. These include:

  • your ranking within your medical school (classified in deciles amongst your peers)
  • your academic achievements which include points for additional degrees or publications
  • a reference from a tutor at your medical school
  • the scores of a Situational Judgment Test (SJT)

Therefore focus on applying to medical schools that you love and hope to thrive at, rather than making a selection based on how good you think one medical school is compared to another.

As a general example – a good student with the same knowledge base could get different decile rankings amongst their peers if they were graduating from two different universities. This could impact in their final scores which decide on their placement as foundation year doctors. However, even so rankings are not that important – in a less competitive region or placement, you could still get your first or second choice.

The different degree classifications from medical school (i.e. MB BChir/MBBS/MB ChB) are all equivalent.

What are the minimum grade requirements?

The first and most important thing to consider is the entry requirements that each medical requires you to meet. This may sound counter-intuitive but there is no point falling in love with a medical school whose requirements you simply do not meet. First of all establish your options and then thoroughly research which are the best choices for you.

Whilst entry to any medical school is tough, it is worth realizing that some are more focused on academics than others. Some heavily weight the results of admissions tests like the UKCAT, some the personal statement and the overall impression they have of you as a person.

It is very unlikely a medical school will make an exception for an application that fails to meet one of their minimum entry criteria regardless of how good the application may be in other ways.

An important part of medicine is knowing your own strengths and weakness and playing to these, starting from the application process. As it is competitive you have to be smart in order to succeed – this means doing your research and making logical decisions with your application choices.

Be ambitious – it is worth applying to your dream medical school as long as you meet their minimum requirements. However, ensure that you have other well-researched options which are places whose requirements and values well match your application.

Remember that there is no medical school that is universally easier to get into than others, but there may be some that you stand a higher chance of getting into based on your personal strengths.

Once you know where you meet the minimum requirements for, you can delve deeper into each course and its medical school. There are many factors for you to take into consideration. A good starting point is reading the online prospectuses or even better attending an open day.

The entry requirements for universities vary from year to year. Chemistry A-level is compulsory for most universities, along with a second science subject (Maths, Biology, Physics).

Factors to consider when choosing a medical school

Important factors to consider include location, competition ratios and offer types, year size, teaching hospitals, compulsory intercalated year and so on.

Different locations of medical schools

Would you like to live in a big city, in a small town, by the sea, in the countryside, in Wales, Scotland or London etc. It is not just the location of the medical school but also how you feel about the medical school when you visit. Try to go on an open day – look at where you’d have your lectures, the library, the hospitals where you’d be training and where you might be living. Consider if you can imagine yourself happy there. Importantly, do you like the vibe of the medical school and city/town? Your time at university will be a great time to meet new people and to explore the city/town where you’re studying. Ask questions when you meet current students and check out the area and facilities.

Different methods of teaching in medical schools

There has been a move in the last ten years by the GMC to diversify the way schools teach medicine; recognising that the traditional lecture based teaching may not best equip all students to be pragmatic doctors.

Roughly speaking, three main types of teaching are used at medical schools in the UK:

  • Traditional:
    There is a distinct separation of learning basic medical science subjects and clinical work on the wards. Typically this involves two to three years of learning the following: anatomy, physiology, biochemistry, pathology, microbiology, pharmacology, neuroscience, and human reproduction. These preclinical years are then followed by three years of hospital-based learning (clinical years).

The traditional method is similar to high-school but just bigger! Full body dissections, subject-based teaching, lecture based, distinction between preclinical and clinical based subjects, later patient contact, less self-directed learning, often intercalated degrees.

  • Integrated:
    Learning is in a clinical context of body systems right from the very beginning, this means that instead of learning a block of pharmacology, anatomy and then physiology you will instead learn all of these topics within a particular system – like the cardiovascular system (heart, lungs and circulation). This integrates the core teaching elements to the clinical systems that they are relevant to in practice. There is more involvement of students in the hospital setting, especially during the early years of medical school.
  • Problem Based Learning (PBL):
    This involves regular case-based discussions. Students work in groups on individual patient cases. Students work out what they need to find out in order to solve the problems presenting on the case. A facilitator helps coordinate these discussions to keep student discussions on the right track. Some argue it is the most memorable and practical way to learn information, others say it leaves students feeling lost by the expectation to understand theories and information without being formally taught it. The focus is on group-work and self-directed learning.

PBL is quite different to high-school and needs a lot of motivation! Anatomy are taught by pro-sections and virtual teaching, curriculum focuses on clinical context, systems based, self-taught via small groups.

Different doctors will tell you different things in regards to how well these different teaching methods work. Some say that knowing the basic sciences in depth is the most important foundation for doctors. Other say that case-based learning is the best way to learn how to treat a patient in all aspects of their care, not just a focus on the pathology, but also taking other factors such as social issues into account. Most medical schools offer PBL to some degree, so consider how much you think it would suit you. Could you drift off in a lecture but stay motivated by having to do your own research around a patient scenario? Or would you prefer formal teaching first followed by independent work to help to develop your understanding?

Peter – Barts and the London School of Medicine and Dentistry, QMUL
“When I applied to my four medical schools, I did not make teaching methods my main priority, instead choosing to focus on location and entry requirements. However, I was accepted to a medical school which focused heavily on PBLs which really suited my learning style. I am truly grateful for this as I don’t think I would have enjoyed a lecture-heavy course at all.”

The face of UK medical schools is continuously changing. The following questions may help determine what course is right for you:

  • Do you want to learn more about the overall approach to patient care and learn only the basic sciences needed for treating patients?
  • Would you be interested in learning in-depth science relating to disease pathology and drug mechanisms?
  • Do you wish to pursue a career in medical research and technology?

Such knowledge of the curricula of the medical schools you are applying to is essential, as you will be essentially signing up to a significant part of your life there, as well as trying to impress them in interviews!

Should I intercalate?

An intercalated degree allows a student to study an area of interest to a higher degree (i.e. Bachelors or Masters degree). Some courses offer compulsory intercalation including Oxbridge, Edinburgh, St. Andrews, UCL and Imperial. Every other UK medical school offers the option for intercalation which students can apply for after their second, third or fourth year.

The benefits of an intercalation are the time out from medicine to focus in on an area of interest, to develop your research, writing and studying skills and to explore avenues broader than medicine such as global health, journalism or art. Many students use their intercalated year to carry out research, which they hope to publish.

Some potential disadvantages are the cost of studying for an extra year, the loss of continuity in medical training or perhaps choosing a degree topic that you don’t find interesting and fulfilling (although this is unlikely).

For many, intercalating offers a great year out and an opportunity to gain extra points, which help with applications to junior doctor posts.

Anna – University of Exeter
“I was unsure about whether I wanted to intercalate, so I decided to apply to medical schools which gave me the option of doing it rather than making it compulsory. By involving myself in some research during first year, I quickly realised that I preferred the clinical side of medicine rather than the research side. This allowed me to make a more well-informed decision to not pursue an intercalated degree.

Callum – Imperial College London
“I knew I wanted to get involved in medical research during my time at medical school which is why I applied to medical schools which either made intercalation compulsory or provided it as an option. Knowing that I was planning to intercalate after third year allowed me to plan my time effectively to ensure that I spent my longer summer break well!”