Are you thinking of studying Medicine?
Medicine is notoriously one of the toughest, most competitive and most prestigious degree courses available.
Med students can have a workload that’s double that of some of their peers (yes, including independent study) for five or more years of being an undergraduate – plus further study after that to reach the point where they’re allowed to practise. Of course, at the end of all of that you get to enter one of the most socially valued and in-demand professions in the world – and one of the few remaining areas in which, if you don’t mess up very significantly, you’ll be guaranteed a job for life.
What kind of things can I expect to study?
In your undergraduate degree, you will learn all about the systems that make up the body, the science that underpins them, and what happens when any of those systems fail or come under attack. While the amount of theory versus the amount of time you spend face-to-face with patients will vary depending on where you study, no course is entirely theory-driven. Therefore, even at the very start of your degree, you will be expected to learn the interpersonal skills that are necessary for a functional doctor-patient relationship alongside the hard science that will enable you to treat those patients. You can expect to be in 20-25 hours of timetabled study per week, which will include lectures as well as practical classes such as dissections.
Later on in your undergraduate years, you will move from the general overview of how the body works and the science on which this understanding rests, to looking at specific areas of medicine, from paediatrics to oncology. You’ll also learn clinical skills. The vast majority of your time at this point will be spent in a teaching hospital, not in a lecture theatre. Different courses will have different structures (and vary really quite widely for a subject where every course has to cover the same fundamental subjects) and some universities – such as Cambridge – give you the chance to spend a year studying a subject that does not count towards your overall studies in Medicine.
What do I need for a Medicine degree?
Medicine is one of the most demanding degrees in terms of entry requirements. You’ll need to have top grades – the majority of your GCSEs should be A*s, and the rest should be As, and you should be expecting A*AA at A-level at the very, very least. The lowest-ranking medical school in the league tables still had an average entry tariff (i.e. the UCAS points that the average successful applicant has) of 488 points – or slightly better than A*A*A* at A-level and an A at AS. Don’t be misled by offers of AAA – all medical schools will routinely be turning down many candidates with better A-level results than that.
As for your subjects, you should have at least three sciences (Chemistry, Biology, and one of Physics and Maths), but having all four won’t do your application any harm at all.
But getting into Medicine requires more than just good A-levels. You’ll also need to take one or both of the BMAT and UKCAT, for which past paper practice is vital. Then you’ll need to demonstrate your commitment to Medicine through relevant work experience. The general rule of work experience is the more the better, and in general, less obviously exciting experiences impress admissions tutors more. While getting the chance to shadow a brain surgeon is a rare opportunity that few people will have, it’s also something that almost anyone would find fascinating. Conversely, six months of exhausting volunteering in a nursing home shows a remarkable commitment to patient care.
The final hurdle is the interview. Once you’ve impressed med schools with your academic talent through your A-level predictions and your BMAT/UKCAT score, and with your commitment through your work experience, the interview is your chance to show them that you also have the right personality to be a doctor, for instance through the discussion of medical ethics.
We’ve produced lots more advice to help you get accepted into med school – here’s an article by a successful Cambridge medical student, and here is our full archive of science and medicine-related articles.
What skills will I acquire?
You will acquire all the vocational skills required to practise as a doctor, from skills in diagnosis and treatment to the interpersonal skills that will lead patients to feel comfortable placing their trust in you. Furthermore, you’ll acquire many of the skills in data analysis and the scientific method that you would gain from any science degree.
You almost certainly won’t get to travel in the normal course of your degree. However, it’s becoming increasingly usual for UK medical students, even after only a couple of years of study, to travel to countries that have a shortage of medical professionals in the developing world during the summer and assist the doctors there. In this way, you can travel to parts of the world that most students don’t get to see, and be of real benefit to the people living there.
What careers are possible with a Medicine degree?
The range of careers available to graduates of Medicine may be greater than you realise. It’s not just a choice between working for the NHS as a GP or in a hospital, though these are the destinations that most graduates choose. But there are also roles for doctors in the armed forces, in aid agencies like Doctors Without Borders, in research institutes, with pharmaceutical companies and in universities. More than 99% of graduates of Medicine work in healthcare in some way, but if, for whatever reason, you decide at the end of your degree that healthcare isn’t for you, you should find it quite easy with your skillset and years of study to find a career in another area.
If you’re considering applying for Medicine, you might also want to consider:
- Subjects allied to Medicine – these include Nursing and Biomedical Sciences, which offer the same chance to make a positive contribution to society as Medicine does, but with (slightly) lower entry requirements and less pressure.
- Veterinary Medicine – if you have the skills and talent for Medicine but you would rather work with animals than people.
A word of advice: many people, when choosing their A-levels, are stuck between the paths of Law and Medicine. However, these are two very, very different degrees requiring very, very different skills and are suited to radically different personality types; being unable to decide between the two is usually a sign of having done insufficient research into what would actually suit you best.
A final thought on Medicine
Medicine isn’t just a degree; it’s a vocation. It’s not a course to attempt applying for if you’re in any way uncertain that it’s right for you – you’re exceedingly unlikely to get a place, and if you do, you probably won’t have the commitment to stick it out for the decade that it will take from starting your degree to becoming a fully qualified doctor. For the same reasons, it’s not a course to apply for if you’re only doing it to have an impressive job title, or because it’s what your family wants you to do. But if you are genuinely, enthusiastically committed to the idea of becoming a doctor (along with all the undignified and squeamish details that entails, not just the noble cause of ‘helping people’), then it’s one of the single most rewarding degrees and career paths available. Best of luck!