Factors to Consider When Choosing a Medical School

Important factors to consider include location, course structure, competition ratios and offer types, year size, cost, quality of research, the teaching hospitals available and whether there is a compulsory intercalated year. Some of these are discussed in more depth on this page.

Medical school location

Would you like to live in a big city, in a small town, by the sea, in the countryside, or Wales, Scotland or London? It is not just the location of a medical school that you should consider but also how you feel about the school itself when you visit. Go on an open day: look at where you’d have your lectures, the library, the hospitals where you will train and where you might be living. Imagine whether you could be happy there. Importantly, do you like the vibe of the medical school and its city or town? Your years at university will be a great time to meet new people and to explore the place where you’re studying. Talk to current students and check out the area and the facilities.

Teaching methods in medical schools

There has been a move by the GMC in the last 10 years to diversify the way schools teach medicine, recognising that traditional lecture-based teaching is not the best way to equip all students to be pragmatic doctors.

Roughly speaking, three main types of teaching are used at medical schools in the UK which are discussed below.

  • Traditional: in traditional medical schools there is a distinct separation between learning basic medical science subjects and clinical work on the wards. Typically this involves 2–3 years of learning the following: anatomy, physiology, biochemistry, pathology, microbiology, pharmacology, neuroscience and human reproduction. These preclinical years are then followed by 3 years of hospital-based learning (clinical years).

The traditional method is similar to secondary school, just bigger! Features include: full-body dissections, subject-based teaching, lectures, a distinction between preclinical and clinical subjects, patient contact occurs later, less self-directed learning and often degrees are intercalated.

  • Integrated: with an integrated approach learning is in the clinical context of body systems right from the very beginning. This means that instead of learning a block of pharmacology, then anatomy and then physiology you will instead learn all of these topics for a particular system, such as 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): PBL involves regular case-based discussions. Students work in groups on individual patient cases. Students decide what they need to find out to solve the problems presenting on each 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 whereas others say it leaves students feeling lost by the expectation of understanding theories and information without being formally taught those subjects. The focus is on group work and self-directed learning.

PBL is quite different to secondary school and requires a lot of student motivation! Anatomy is taught by prosections and virtual teaching, the curriculum focuses on clinical context, teaching is systems based and students are self-taught in small groups.

Different doctors will tell you different things with regard to how well these different teaching methods work. Some say that knowing the basic sciences in depth is the most important foundation for doctors. Others say that case-based learning is the best way to learn how to treat a patient in all aspects of their care: not just focusing on the pathology but 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.’

UK medical schools are changing continuously. 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 are essentially signing up to spend a significant part of your life there, as well as trying to impress the university in interviews!

Should I intercalate?

An intercalated degree allows a student to study an area of interest to a higher degree (i.e. Bachelor’s or Master’s degree). Some courses offer compulsory intercalation, including those at Oxford, Cambridge, Edinburgh, St Andrews, University College London and Imperial College London. 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 intercalation are the time out from medicine to focus 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 that either made intercalation compulsory or provided it as an option. Knowing that I was planning to intercalate after my third year allowed me to plan my time effectively to ensure that I spent my longer summer break well!’

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