What Are Medical Schools Looking For?
Applying to study medicine at university can be an understandably stressful time. On top of being expected to have top grades throughout school, completing extra entrance exams, and a reasonable amount of relevant work experience, interviewers and admissions staff will be looking for more. More about you, your personality, and the type of person you will become. So what are they expecting on top of your interest in science and work experience? And how can you show them you have those qualities?
House, the enigmatic, bold and adventurous M.D. that thrills TV screens around the world, is perhaps my favourite doctor. I can’t help but be amazed at his encyclopaedic knowledge, as episode after episode, against all odds he always gets the diagnosis. Unfortunately, I will never be House. And that’s because medicine of today and the future does not rely on super men and women, but super teams of talented individuals, in order to deliver the best possible healthcare. When you embark on your career in medicine, you will always have to be part of a team: sharing your cadaver in dissection classes, working with your firm on clinical rotations, and, further down the road, working with nurses, physiotherapists, and doctors from other specialties, all to make sure your patient gets the best care.
This said, a leaderless team is often an ineffective team, and leadership is an important aspect of working as a team. Doctors are the managers and leaders of their clinical teams, and have to ensure everyone in the team is working for the patient, that no aspect of the patient’s care is being overlooked, and ultimately that they are able to make the hard decision. This trait of leadership would appear to come more naturally to some than others, but it is a skill that can be worked on and improved.
Leaders aren’t born; they are made. And they are made just like anything else, through hard work. And that’s the price we’ll have to pay to achieve that goal, or any goal. —Vince Lombardi
From here on in, timekeeping and making the most of your time is vital. At university, your timetable will likely be the busiest, you will likely be set the most work outside of lectures, and yet you will still want to make the most of university and what it offers. Looking even further ahead, doctors are given long hours, unfavourable shifts and on-call work, and are expected to organise that around their family and social lives. For many people, including me, organisation is not a skill that comes naturally, but organising your time effectively is paramount to succeeding in such a busy and demanding career path.
It goes without saying that applying to study medicine is a huge commitment on your part. Not only are you committing to a degree that lasts 2 or 3 years longer than most other courses, you’re committing to a career that demands lifelong studying and working in potentially stressful conditions, whether you’re doing night shifts or having to explain to someone that they or their loved one is not going to survive. You never arrive at an end point; every successful consultant and surgeon needs to constantly keep up to date with new developments and strive to improve their skills. It’s a big decision to be making so early on in life, but if you’re serious, you have to be able to show it.
- Communication and empathy
Lastly, and I think most importantly, is communication. Communication and empathy, for me, are the most critical skills a doctor needs. It underpins many of the skills already covered – you cannot expect to have good team-working or leadership skills unless you can communicate – and is the central aspect of patient care. You can order as many MRIs as you like, or be the best in the world at picking up murmurs with your stethoscope, but it means nothing if you can’t effectively communicate with and understand your patient. This is probably most obvious when you’re doing your work experience, but examples of using your communication skills and empathy crops up throughout life: think of times when you’ve had a difficult conversation, and why, or when someone has misunderstood you, and why that might have been.
So how do you go about showing you have these attributes? Thankfully, this is the easy part. You will already have had experience of using these skills in lessons at school, in extracurricular activities such as sports teams or work experience, and in other aspects of day-to-day life. When writing a personal statement or thinking how to address questions in interviews, make sure to effuse about these experiences, and how they have shaped you, and how they show you to be the best candidate.
And the best thing is: it’s never too late to start developing these skills. Take the opportunity to contribute more often in class, take responsibility of reading the map in Duke of Edinburgh, or take on a new hobby or activity. The NHS nowadays wants to foster a culture of learning throughout the organisation, making it clear there is always room for improvement. No one interviewing or assessing you will expect you to be ready to be dropped into a ward and start treating patients, but they will look for people who can adapt and have a keenness to learn and develop the key skills every doctor needs. Medicine is demanding and difficult, but at the same time an exciting and rewarding career!