1. Varied Medical Experience
All medical schools in the UK, US and Canada value experience in a hospital, GP surgery, or an outpatient clinic setting. Taking the initiative to organise this experience, and investing substantial time (weeks/months) in it, is undeniably one of the strongest ways to show your motivation for medical school. Even the most average undergraduate applicant in the UK usually has a minimum of 1 week of healthcare shadowing, often organised by their school. Stronger applicants often have 2-4 weeks’ work experience over 2 summers, and even stronger applicants will have organised this themselves. Applicants to the very competitive graduate-entry Medicine programmes in the UK, the US or Canada, usually have much longer healthcare shadowing ranging from 1 month to 1 year in a voluntary or paid capacity (which may be part-time or full-time). Varying the type of experience you gain, is also a great way to show your motivation. You can highlight the efforts you have made to find out what a medical career really involves, from a number of different perspectives. This could be by dividing your experience between inpatient and outpatient settings; or by shadowing different specialties within Medicine and Surgery. Furthermore, it can be done by organising healthcare shadowing in both the Western world and in a developing country, and learning about the similarities and contrasts of the different systems. On top of helping you score in the "motivation" box of the application, a variety of work experience will also help you immensely in the writing of your personal statement, and in your preparation for medical school interviews.
If you want to go ‘above and beyond’ in your efforts to demonstrate your motivation for Medicine, spending a summer doing academic research will make this statement loud and clear. Undergraduates will not normally have had the time, or opportunity, to do academic research before entering medical school and very few applicants are able to include this in their list of accomplishments. If you are amongst those who are able to, then your application will immediately stand out to the top institutions. Graduate applicants have more time and options to achieve the above, but even then, it is by no means a requirement to get into medical school. It is however valued, particularly by medical schools in North America. It will also open doors to specific PhD/MD programs/programmes and Medical Scientist Training Programs (MSTP) that many medical schools offer. If training in the UK, it can open doors to academic training programmes which allow junior doctors to combine their clinical training with part-time research. Practising doctors, with skills and experience in research, are very competitive for jobs after graduating. Finding research opportunities is easier than you may think. Many labs are looking for volunteers to do repetitive work such as simple experimental tasks, or counting the growth of organism on plates. This may not sound very exciting, but think of it as your way in the door – you can learn a lot about how the lab works through both observation and participation. Laboratories value the time of their volunteers and if there are opportunities to get involved in more exciting projects, you will likely be the first to hear about them. There are also summer internships available for which you can obtain a grant or funding via private organisations. If you are currently doing an undergraduate degree, the best place to start would be to contact professors within your university.
3.Link your non-Medicine related activities in a smart way with Medicine
Medical schools value applicants that are well-rounded with a breadth of interests and experiences. This may involve music, sports, travelling, competitions, charity work etc. Most applicants know to mention their extracurricular activities in the application, but few effectively link them to Medicine. Every experience should be linked to one of the three general themes below to have an effective place in your application:
- What skills did you develop that will help you be a better doctor (e.g. communication, empathy, team-work, leadership, initiative etc.)?
- What have you learned about people/society, or Medicine/health, etc. that will help you be a better doctor?
- How has this experience furthered your desire to become a doctor?
I have never come across an experience that cannot be linked to either of these three themes but only a handful of applicants clearly make the link between their non-academic/ non-healthcare-related experiences and the above themes. If you have an experience, the link is there, and demonstrating that you are aware of it, brings a great advantage to your application. For example, are you an avid reader? Have you ever read a story about a character with an illness? Did this help you in any way to see things from the patient’s perspective? If you are a musician, have you ever played music in a care home or hospice? How did the music affect your listeners? I remember one of my teachers in school stating that the smartest students sometimes forget to mention the obvious, and lose marks as a result. So please, don’t lose potential marks in your application by forgetting to link all of your extra-curricular activities back to the above themes, even if you think it should be obvious.
4. Altruism/volunteer work
All the best applicants I have met have a significant amount of volunteer work they are involved with on a regular basis. Although there are many reasons to want to pursue a career in Medicine, compassion and a care for humanity are regarded as most noble reasons. As a result, medical schools and patients value this. It is not enough to simply state that you are a caring person, the points awarded to your application will be given only if you show evidence of this. Anything that you do that you do not get paid for can count as volunteer work, from caring for an elderly relative to regular visits to a ward in hospital or helping coach a football team. Most experiences should span over a long time (e.g. a year) and you should be aiming to increase your level of involvement and responsibility over time to show leadership and development. There are many ways in which to obtain volunteer work. You can approach hospitals, nursing homes, care homes, patient association groups, schools, or charities working with people with a disability. Local churches and community groups will also have volunteer opportunities. It is worth checking out your local volunteer centre or if you live in the UK, visit the ‘do-it’ website. You can also simply find an elderly person in your building or area, who is need of companionship or help with errands, and visit them regularly to play games or do their shopping. In this day and age, due to the need to ensure the safety of vulnerable adults and children, there is sometimes a long and bureaucratic process to becoming a volunteer, but getting through this demonstrates commitment, a quality that is necessary for all medical students and doctors.
5. Show that you understand the negatives of the profession
It is very inspiring as a medical admissions officer to see young motivated students who love the idea of becoming a doctor, and who will work hard to commit themselves to this career/life. However, Medicine does have a relatively high attrition rate during medical school and after qualification. As such, the admissions officers need to see evidence that you understand exactly what you are getting into, and that your motivation will last, despite the challenges of your future profession. Discussing experiences where you have been able to gain insight into why people quit Medicine, as well as showing understanding of the biggest challenges doctors face, will show your insight and maturity of thought. To gain these experiences and insight, you could start by reading relevant books, speaking to currently practising doctors, and those doctors who have stopped practising, and reading news articles about healthcare issues. The BBC news website has an excellent Health section, and the Student BMJ is well worth subscribing to, for news and articles related to doctors and healthcare. It is also important to be aware that the media will have their own set of biases when reporting on healthcare issues – think about the controversy around the introduction of Obamacare, and that around the junior doctors’ new contract in the UK. Being aware of relevant healthcare topics, and being able to see the arguments for all sides of an issue, will be particularly important in your medical school interview. It demonstrates that your motivation is backed up by a well-informed mind, and that you have insight into the challenges that you may face as a medical professional.