Medicine: Not What Can You Do, What Have You Done…
Recently I had the honour of being asked to help out at an open day for UCL. With almost two years passed, I was both reminded and amazed of how I actually managed to make the transition from being one of the many thousands of medical hopefuls to now having completed my first year of medical school. I found the whole process extremely reminiscent of my own experiences. The eager Year 12 students running around from table to table with their notepad and pen, scribbling down every last golden nugget of information they believe will help them achieve their dreams. The even more eager parents that come with their own hoard of questions, making it hard to differentiate between whether the teenager or the adult is applying to university. Then there are those that insist on coming in their school uniform, despite the informality of the day and the high probability that the admission tutors will neither remember them nor their school. I now relished the opportunity to be looked up to like a shining beacon. Finally, on the other side of the table answering the questions instead of asking them. However despite my purpose being to inform and help them on their quest to gaining a place to medical school, I found myself learning a lot about the process that I was not aware of at the time.
When I was applying to medicine I can vividly remember certain things. Although prospective applicants love to talk about their passion for the subject and their ambitions, in other ways they are quite reticent in the midst of each other with their real concerns and worries. Therefore when given the opportunity to advise them, I saw many open up about their genuine concerns and perceptions of the application process. The most frequent questions I heard myself being asked were along the lines of “how much work experience did you do?”, “where did you do your work experience to make sure you stood out?” or “what things did you do specifically to help strengthen your application?”. At first, it was quite understandable that many applicant thought these things and with good reason. No medical school would realistically consider an applicant without any work experience, as it wouldn’t inspire confidence in the university that the student has fully made an effort to understand the intricacies of a career and a degree in medicine. Not only this, but it would be a great disservice to even the most academically gifted of students, as the student may easily realise down the line that it’s not what they initially envisaged due to a lack of awareness.
Although as any medical hopeful will know, work experience is not easy to come by. Unless one has nepotistic advantages, gaining work experience is usually an arduous process that involves endless calls and a long list of sent emails with very few replies. Therefore I completely sympathised with the prospective applicants when they told me of how they had tried to no avail and how Mike’s dad is an anaesthetist who arranges work experience for Mike (who also wants to study medicine) at the drop of a hat. I could remember those slight feelings of jealousy, but I could also recall how it didn’t make me despondent but instead only further reinforced the notion that I had to think up different ways to show my dedication to the subject. Therefore my first work experience placement was in a local dentist’s clinic after asking during the middle of a check-up. I told myself, I’ve got not medical work experience, so this is better than nothing! I found it a new and insightful experience; and also enjoyed playing the torn student who couldn’t decide between applying for medicine or dentistry (despite having no interest in becoming a dentist whatsoever). However, I took this experience and said that having explored other avenues in a healthcare setting, that’s how I had come to be sure that a degree in Medicine is ultimately what I wanted.
On this thread, I begun to assess all my extracurricular activities and saw how best I could apply them to my chosen career path. Having played rugby, I spoke of how this showed my ability to work within a team. Having played it for 10 years, I showed my ability to commit to things that I enjoyed and was passionate about. My involvement in the Combined Cadet Force supported my claims that I possessed excellent leadership qualities and was able to delegate efficiently to complete any given task. My current part-time job as a lifeguard even lent itself to a degree in medicine, as I drew parallels between my legal responsibilities for those in the pool to a doctor’s duty of care to their patients. Even helping out at Scouts, which was something I did purely out of my own enjoyment could easily be linked back to a career in medicine as it demonstrated an inclination to care for children who are vulnerable people. For me, I found this the best way to go about constructing my personal statement and my own personal advertisement for my right to a place in every medical school that I applied to. Instead of going down the predictable route of “I did a week’s shadowing there and another over here”, I hoped that it would be something refreshing and personal for admission tutors to cast their eyes over. Like I said to both applicants and their parents, admissions tutors read through piles of these personal statements every year. Every student applying has work experience, so much so that it is more a requirement for consideration opposed to being an actual advantage. Therefore to those fretting that they only have a one week’s work placement at their GP, never fear! By all means, go out and look for more. But more importantly look to yourself; the extracurricular activities and hobbies that you already love to do and see how they relate to your mutual love of medicine. Hopefully this will guard you from the trap of creating a monotonous and lacklustre application, and instead give the medical schools a true reflection of you, your interests and why you deserve the place you’re applying for!