1. Plan and rewrite your personal statement at least 20 times
Over the last 8 years I have provided expert advice to students hoping to gain a place at medical school. From my experience, I can say that planning your personal statement is by far one of the most important factors which will affect your likelihood of admission. Many schools have stopped scoring the personal statement in their selection for interview, following guidance published by the Medical School Council a few years ago. They have instead switched to using the personal statement during the interview stage of the application process. This means that most interviewers (i.e. those who make the final decision about your acceptance), read your personal statement just prior to your interview. It is only human to feel impressed or unimpressed by someone, even before having met them, based on their writing. Content, tone and style can demonstrate a lot about a person – have they gained appropriate experience and insight into Medicine as a career? Do they sound enthusiastic or arrogant? Does their personal statement reflect an organised approach to tasks? Many universities such as Imperial College London or Cambridge will “grill” you on your personal statement. This is actually one of the easiest part of the interview to prepare for.
No matter how skilled you are at writing, the more time you have had to look over your personal statement (usually after leaving it for a few days to see it with fresh eyes), the more critical feedback you can obtain, and the better your personal statement will be. When you are not under time pressure with an imminent deadline, you are in a much better position to arrange time with career advisers and experienced reviewers to give you this critical feedback. The quality of the personal statement is much more dependent on your efforts than on your natural ability; after all you are only given 40 lines or so to stand out from the other applicants – use them well! Medical schools will value reading a well-written, concise, original and reflective personal statement, more than just a list of your attributes and experiences.
2. Take a course for UKCAT/GAMSAT/BMAT preparation
I have no conflict of interest in recommending these courses to all my applicants. I do not offer courses for these exams and I have no partnership with any company that does. I specialise in helping applicants get into medical school via consulting services, personal statement advice and interview coaching. Many of the people who contact me are re-applicants who tried to get in the first time, but because of an unsuccessful application, they are now looking for further help. One key difference between first time applicants and re-applicants is in their preparation for these standardised examinations. First-time applicants often feel they ‘can do it all themselves’. They will most often buy a book with practice questions and do an hour or two of practice every day for the two weeks preceding the exam as well as maybe one full mock exam. On the other hand, most re-applicants attend a course where are ‘forced’ to focus for 1 to 2 days (15 hours of tuition) on the subject matter and examination technique; sometimes much longer. They also tend to prepare daily for a couple of months before the exam, as opposed to merely a couple of weeks. Moreover, they usually do at least 3 to 5 full mock exams before taking the real one. They invariably score much higher the second year around once they realised that they had underestimated the preparation required the first time. Think of it in this way – standardised admissions exams are often weighted as highly as GCSEs (and sometimes more highly). Even if you are naturally very smart, you are unlikely to achieve excellent results by ‘winging’ your GCSEs. As preparation and revision is important for your school subjects, so is it important for your medical school admissions examination.
3. Do not overdo the volunteering and work experience
Medical schools required a fair amount of healthcare shadowing as well as evidence of long term commitment to regular volunteer work. Most applicants I meet already know this. The common mistake I do see, however, is applicants having too many extracurricular commitments. Roughly speaking, a good application will show 2 weeks of healthcare shadowing and an excellent application will show 3 to 4 weeks of the same. It is a good idea to vary the type of experience between outpatient and inpatient specialties, and between primary care and secondary care settings. You are trying to show that you have a realistic idea of what the profession has to offer and what you are getting yourself into. Regarding volunteer work, one regular commitment of about an hour or two per week for long term is normally sufficient. One additional commitment may help you be outstanding but any more than that is not going to help your application further. However, it will take time away from sleep, studying, preparing your personal statement, preparing your standardised exam tests, etc.
4. Be strategic in your choice of medical school
If you have ever heard me give a talk, this is one of the first things I say: “Medical School Admission is not intuitive or logical”. One applicant may get an automatic rejection from a place and the same applicant may have a guaranteed interview from another medical school. This is because medical schools have extremely different selection processes from one another. For the same reasons, do not assume 4-year programmes are harder to get into than 5-year programmes for graduate applicants or that Oxbridge are the hardest medical schools to get into. These assumptions are simply not true and this ‘gut feeling’ is one of the biggest causes of people not getting into medical school: because they didn’t apply to where they had the best chances. My team and I have put together a free resource on our website http://themsag.com/ that shows the requirements and selection processes of each medical school (in a standardised format so that you can compare schools easily). Use this as a first step to ensuring you are shortlisting medical schools using the strengths in your application. For those who are very busy and would prefer the assessment of your chances done for you, we offer a consulting report service to help you choose exactly which medical schools to apply to. It is a written consulting report where we analyse your personal and academic profile against all 33 medical schools in the UK and send you a detailed report highlighting the schools where you would have the best chance of admission. For each school we will tell you how they select applicants and why we recommend it for you or not. We will help you narrow down a shortlist and make our best recommendation within that, with a clear explanation for our advice regarding each medical school. Whether you use our professional service, or do it yourself using all the free information we provide online, do make sure that you have been strategic about where to apply, to maximise your chances of getting into medical school.
5. Practise mock interview to an extent you think is INSANE!
Just like preparing for the personal statement and preparing for the standardised exams, most applicants underestimate the preparation required for their mock interviews. Still to this day, the majority of applicants that contact me for interview preparation do so after receiving an interview offer and by this point only have a few days left to prepare. It is not difficult to improve your interview skills with the correct guidance. We have helped hundreds of applicants excel in their interview, even if this was not their natural strength. Nothing will help you more than practice. A reasonable amount to practise in my opinion would be daily for at least a month before a potential interview, and a minimum of 3 times per week anytime between 15th October and a potential offer for an interview. This may sound like a lot to most of you, but I can assure you that the applicants who excel will practise even more than that. The amount you practise matters but the way you practise matters just as much. Here is a small guide to help you practise as effectively as possible:
For the two weeks preceding your interview, do at least one mock interview per day. I have detailed below how you should do so to gain maximum benefit.
1. Use strangers
Have at least 3 to 5 mock interviews in total with people who do not know you well before your real interview. Their manner of interviewing you and their feedback will be completely different to that of someone who knows you well. People to ask could be parents of your friends, uncles and aunts, parents' colleagues, school tutors, medical school interview coaches, careers advisers, school teachers, etc.
2. Daily interview format
A mock interview should last between 10 to 20 minutes and should be followed every time by a feedback session lasting at least 30 minutes but sometime 1 to 2 hours. During this feedback session you should go through each question one by one and discuss them together.
3. Your feedback first
Firstly, you should say what you think you did well and then what you could improve. I cannot emphasise strongly enough that you should always feedback on yourself before hearing from the interviewer, and you should always find a positive in what you did. This may sound unnecessary at first, but actually being able to see what you do well and not well on your own is the first step to delivering the best answers
4. Then listen to the feedback from the interviewer
for each point they make, they should try to illustrate it with an example so that you can properly understand the feedback and use it to make adjustments as necessary. The last step is really important. Together discuss what you feel would be an ideal answer if this question was asked in the real interview and then take the time to prepare that information into a structured answer as discussed above.
5. Repeat mock right away
Once the feedback session is completed, you should do a repeat mock interview with exactly the same questions (at a later time if you wish to take a break to do more preparation and consolidate the feedback given), followed by a brief 10 minutes feedback session to note points that still need improving.
6. Use new questions daily
The next day, repeat questions that are considered essential but still did not sound good. However, at least 80% of questions your interviewer asks you daily in your mock should be new to you and never practised previously. When you practise the same questions you are refining your content, but you are not getting used to delivering an effective answer to an unknown, unprepared question - which is likely to come up in your actual interview. The questions you choose to practise are almost irrelevant. The aim of mock interviews is to develop and practise the skill of answering unexpected questions. There are plenty of medical school interview question banks online and you can make up your own as well; I would suggest regularly checking the BBC News Health section on their website and also consider subscribing to the Student BMJ (or alternatively find out if your school or library has access to their articles).
If you do choose to do a mock interview with a professional medical school interview coach, ask them if the person helping you at home can attend the session too. If the person who helps you the most can hear all the feedback you get on that day, it will help them give you the right feedback during your daily sessions at home.