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Applying to medical school is like starting a new relationship

London medical student Katie takes a personal approach to applying to medical school.

  • Admissions
Katie Hodgkinson's avatar

Katie Hodgkinson

February 18 2016
Doctor holding hands with patient


Applying for medical school is like starting a new relationship. There’s the all-encompassing love, the enthusiasm, the feeling that finally life is slotting into place; and also the terror, the second-guessing yourself, the endless waiting for something dramatic to happen. Suddenly everything you do comes under the microscope – is this good enough to go on my personal statement? How can I spin this to my advantage? Do I know enough about this to mention it and then potentially discuss it at interview? (Don’t write anything you wouldn’t want to talk about at interview. You shouldn’t have to revise what you’ve said in your statement to be able to talk about it.)

My biggest piece of advice is to stay true to you. Nothing is better than talking to someone about something they really love, so put that across in your statement. Don’t put something in there if it doesn’t make you smile, if it doesn’t make you proud, if it doesn’t make your stomach flutter with excitement. If you’ve been swimming for years but never made it to national level, it doesn’t matter; medical school can teach you to be extraordinary, but it can’t teach you passion. Show everyone who reads your work that you have the attributes that make a great doctor, but show them the ones you can’t be taught. Patience, kindness, humility, dedication – anyone can read and interpret a book, but not everyone takes genuine delight in meeting people.

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Be aware that admissions tutors will be sceptical about grand statements. Have you really wanted to do medicine all your life? I haven’t. I wanted to be an author. Was there really a life-changing moment when you realised that medicine was your life’s calling? Be honest. Don’t just throw in that you did months of work experience – tell them what you learned. Anyone can go and stand on a ward all day, but not everyone can listen and learn and really understand what it means to be a doctor. Maybe there were things you saw that actually made you consider whether medicine really was the career for you – include those, too. Tutors want to know that you have thought long and hard about all aspects of medical school life and a career as a doctor; they don’t want someone for whom ward work is a shock that then leads them to drop out halfway through third year.

Maybe you only had three days of work experience. That’s fine, too. Not everyone lives near a massive hospital or has the opportunities necessary to get loads of experience. What did those few days show you? Maybe you didn’t shadow a doctor, but you saw how important it was for the whole healthcare team to communicate effectively and work together. Maybe you gained a new-found respect for the angels who are NHS nurses. Maybe you saw an absolutely horrific example of clinical practice and now you know what not to do. Healthcare is definitely not all sunshine and roses – maybe you have experience with this. Being well informed doesn’t just mean you’ve considered the realities of becoming a doctor; it means you anticipate challenges facing the workforce, that you appreciate the hours medics put in not only for working, but for training.

Writing your statement doesn’t have to be hard. It doesn’t require you to read six medical-related books, doesn’t need you to have done years of work experience, and won’t suddenly be easier to write if you’re an award-winning scientist. Every year, forums are full of prospective medical students all reading the same books – in my year, it was The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat. Maybe there was a book that suddenly made medicine seem like a good option for you – that’s great, talk about that – but it doesn’t have to be anything to do with health or clinical practice in any way. It was Thirteen Reasons Why for me – a fictional tale of a girl who committed suicide – that showed me I wanted to make a difference, that even the smallest of things could change the world for someone.

Medical schools will often have a list of traits they wish to see in their students. Don’t go out of your way to make a really obscure link to something you have done, but if you think something you’ve written about shows one of those traits, put it in there. It’s like a little buzzword shoutout to that university that you’ve researched them and know what they want. Universities should have admissions statements or policies on their websites that you can use to tailor your application, adding a few little tweaks to personalise it for the universities you’re applying for. On the other hand, don’t lie: you will be caught out.

Use social media. There are thousands of sites for applicants comparing statements, and you can use these for ideas, for seeing what everyone else is doing, to make yourself stand out by not submitting a carbon copy of the statement before yours. There are also medical students hanging around who would love to help you out; they’ve been through it, they know what a heartache it can be, and they’re more than willing to spare you that agony.

In looking at other statements, don’t be disheartened if the person seems way better than you. Everyone is trying to put their best self on paper. Just because they’re a national champion and have got amazing grades doesn’t mean that they’d be any good at talking to people. If they’ve got masses of work experience, that might be great; but it might just be that Mum is a neurologist and they haven’t actually paid any attention to what’s going on. You’re just as special as everyone else, but in different ways. They might be jealous of your helpful nature, your dedication to voluntary work, your enthusiasm.

You do not have to be everything to everyone. Perhaps you actually really dislike science, but find its applications to humans much more exciting. If seeing patients is what gets you out of bed in the morning, write that down. If you’re not the most empathetic, don’t claim to be. If you don’t like reading medical novels, you don’t have to pretend you do. Every medical student, every doctor, every applicant is different, and that’s what makes medicine great – so show that. They don’t want an application from a person who seems great on paper, but whose statement is just a clone of the one before it. Everyone is great – but what makes you different? 

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