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How to Get into a Medical School in the UK: The Ultimate Guide

11 Nov, 2021
How to Get into a Medical School in the UK: The Ultimate Guide

A career in medicine is one of the most rewarding, important and challenging that you can choose. It is also, understandably, the most rigorous to become qualified in; little surprise given the vast amount of knowledge and expertise that it requires, and the weight of responsibility that it carries.

There are endless reasons why so many people are attracted to a medical career. Of course, number one is the ability to make a positive and tangible difference to peoples lives, all around the world if you so wish, but also the fact that it's a future proofed profession — there will never be a time where doctors aren't in demand, no matter how advanced technology gets. Medicine is always evolving, so it's also a career that offers genuine lifelong learning and which also offers variety through a whole array of specialisms.

The profession has the added benefit of also potentially being a very financially rewarding one too.

The medical school application process

With around 8,000 applicants for medical places each year but only about 600 places available for international applicants, medical degrees are certainly among the most competitive out there, and the application process among the most demanding. Training to be a doctor is a long process and requires tenacity, dedication and strong will.

In this guide, we'll explore:

  • the process of preparing for, and applying to, medical school
  • the top UK medical schools, and how to make your final choice of universities
  • how to ensure you have the best chance of winning a place at your dream medical school

At Kings we offer special training for medical related degrees, including specialist preparation for demanding entrance criteria.

We are experienced in helping students intent on studying Medicine get on the path to success, and our programmes are specially designed to prepare medical students for the challenges ahead, encompassing UCAT, BMAT, practice interviews, Medical School open days, and advice on writing powerful and effective personal statements.

Table of Contents

Step #1: Get relevant medical experience as a volunteer or intern

Step #2: Establish the right academic path for Medical School

Step #3: Choose the best and most suitable UK Medical School

Step #4: Take examinations for UK Medical School entrance

Step #5: Write a compelling Personal Statement

Step #6: Prepare for the Interview

Step #1: Get relevant medical experience as a volunteer or intern

Given the dedication and rigour required to embark on medical training, it is vital that anyone interested in applying to study medicine, or a related subject, is confident that it's the right path for them before applying to university. One of the best ways to establish this is to get relevant experience as a volunteer or intern within the medical field, either in local hospitals or within settings such as care homes.

Shadowing qualified medical professionals will help you decide whether you're really interested in medicine, and whether you have the aptitude and personal characteristics required to succeed in a demanding and all-consuming career like this. It will also give you valuable insights which you can use when writing your personal statement, as well as preparing for the medical schools interviews.

Universities will most likely want to see a history of your commitment to the subject area, and at Kings each student will work with our voluntary work advisor to find suitable placements.

Read an interview with Kings student Yuya about his work experience at the Royal Sussex Hospital

Step #2: Establish the right academic path for Medical School

If you have decided that your plans for higher education involve training as a medical professional, it's important to ensure your high school education will cover all the elements necessary for applying to medical school.

Each medical school has slightly different entry requirements but there are some subjects that would be considered a necessity to have, even at GCSE level.

Again, it's worth noting that at Kings, every prospective medical school student will work with a dedicated mentor to research the differing medical schools with their varying requirements.

UK Students

Most medical schools expect both Biology and Chemistry at A-level, though some may only want Chemistry and others may even prefer three sciences (or Maths). The grades expected vary from AAA to A*A*A.

The competition for entry into medical schools is very high, therefore, it is crucial that you aim to achieve the best academic outcomes, even when it comes to GCSE grades, A-levels will always be considered first, but this does not mean that your GCSEs are not important as most medical schools tend to look at the wider picture when it comes to assessing prospective students. A strong academic history will most likely give you a better overall chance of acceptance.

In order to study medicine at most universities in the UK applicants are generally required to have at least five A* or A grade GCSEs in subjects including Maths and English. You may also need to have at least a Grade B in Biology, Chemistry, or Physics or Biology - which of the three is not always significant, unless your chosen medical school has stipulated this in its entry requirements.

International Students

A-levels are generally considered the ‘Gold Standard’ qualification for top universities in the UK, and the rest of the world. The very best universities, including Oxford and Cambridge and most medical schools, only accept students with outstanding A-level grades.

As an international student, you have the same access to A-level courses as any domestic student, however there are also alternative routes available such as the Kings Medical Foundation course.

The Kings Medical Foundation is based on A-level syllabuses and is taught by A-level teachers. It is a one-year pathway to Medical School specifically for international students, and by working closely with our partner Medical Schools, including the University of Bristol, and Keele University (both currently ranked in the Top 10 for Medicine by the Times and Sunday Times Good University Guide), as well as universities in other English-speaking countries such as the University of Auckland and St George's University in Grenada. We have developed specific modules and specialised support for students who want to access Medical degrees in the UK.

Medical Foundation students take Biology, Chemistry and Maths (strong students are allowed to take an extra module of Further Maths), and also benefit from:

  • Academic development
  • Senior mentor to lead you through the application process
  • Language skills
  • Assistance in researching the most suitable medical school for you
  • Medical School visits
  • Ability test practice (UCAT, BMAT)
  • Work experience
  • Extracurricular and enrichment
  • Personal statement
  • Interview practice

In addition to this, students will also benefit from the Kings Medical Summer Programme.

Alongside subject-specific academic studies, It's also important for international students to work hard on their English standard and understanding: interviews, aptitude tests and university offers all rely on an advanced level English.

Step #3: Choose the best and most suitable UK Medical School

As already referenced, medical school admissions are highly competitive, which is why medicine applicants are allowed to make four choices of medical school on their UCAS applications with a fifth choice allowed for another course too.

The institutions that can award medical degrees are governed by the General Medical Council (GMC) and accredited honours are listed as UK Primary Medical Qualifications (PMQs). There are over 30 different institutions which are GMC certified in the UK, and many of these are considered to be some of the top areas of study for medicine worldwide. All medical schools teach slightly differently, but all must adhere to standards set by the General Medical Council (GMC), so that students meet minimum requirements when they graduate.

Some of the most important things for you to consider when deciding which medical school to aim for include the following:

Entry specifications
It's vital to research the entry specifications of each institution offering a relevant qualification — there is no point in choosing a medical school whose requirements you are unlikely to meet. Although entry to any medical school is difficult, some are more focused on academic achievement than others. Some place weight on the results of admissions tests like the UCAT, some take more account of the personal statement and others consider the overall impression they have of you as a person.

Learning environment
You should also think carefully about your optimum learning environment when deciding on your ideal medical school, including the amount of tutor interaction. Most university ranking tables include details of 'student to staff ratio', and if you feel you would benefit from being in close contact with tutors, you should aim fo a ratio that's as low as possible.

Teaching style
Medical school teaching styles are typically classified into three different categories: traditional, problem-based or integrated teaching. Traditional medical courses are offered at universities such as Oxford and Cambridge. Most medical schools currently adopt the integrated style, which is also recommended by the GMC.

  • Traditional courses: 2 years pre-clinical (biomedical science) then 3 years clinical (in the hospital wards). They involve lectures and clinical learning.
  • Integrated courses: Pre-clinical and clinical stages are integrated so students do clinical work from the start. They involve lectures/tutorials and self-directed learning.
  • Problem-based courses: This is a patient-oriented approach, with students doing clinical work from the start. They involve tutor-guided group work and self-directed learning.

Location
With many medical courses lasting up to six years, it's important to consider the type of place your prospective university is based. For example, whilst campus-based universities often offer more close knit communities and a safer environment (particularly when coming and going after long and antisocial shifts), big city universities can mean access to more extensive facilities and cultural options.

In terms of location within the UK, cost of living can vary substantially, which - particularly when students can sometimes study for up to 6 years - can be an important factor. For example, cities in London and the south east tend to be far more expensive in terms of accommodation and transport than some of their northern counterparts.

Below is a short description of ten of the universities which are often cited as the UK's best in university rankings such as those compiled by the Times and Sunday Times and the Complete University Guide. As just discussed, there are many factors other than rankings to consider when making your final choice, but these are among the most frequently hailed the UK's 'best'.

1. University of Dundee

A screenshot of University of Dundee homepage

The University of Dundee became an independent University in 1967 following a 70 year relationship with the University of St Andrews. The University’s teaching is gold rated in the Teaching Excellence Framework 2017 and it ranks highly for success in both the graduate jobs market and for student satisfaction. Dundee is a friendly, attractive city, and offers some of the lowest costs of living of any UK university city.

Based on the University of Dundee's Ninewells campus, with Ninewells Hospital (one of the largest teaching hospitals in the UK), the University of Dundee enrols around 160 undergraduate medical students in each academic study year. Dundee’s five year curriculum 'prepares doctors for the greatly increased pace of change in medical knowledge and practice'. From early in first year students get to meet patients - on wards, in outpatient clinics, and in general practice.

Location: Dundee, Scotland

Website: School of Medicine

2. University of Oxford

A screenshot of University of Oxford homepage

Dating back to the 12th century, the University of Oxford is the oldest university in the English-speaking world. Its academic excellence is renowned the world over, and it was recently ranked number one in the world for medicine and among the top ten universities globally for life sciences, physical sciences, social sciences.

The Medicine course at the University of Oxford provides a well-rounded intellectual training with particular emphasis on the basic science research that underpins medicine. A distinct three-year pre-clinical stage includes studying towards a BA Honours degree in Medical Sciences, followed by a three-year clinical stage.

The School of Medical and Biomedical Sciences at Oxford is relatively small, meaning students and staff benefit from a relaxed and friendly atmosphere.

Location: Oxford, England

Website: Medical Sciences Division

3. University of Aberdeen

A screenshot of University of Aberdeen homepage

The University of Aberdeen is Scotland’s third oldest university, and the UK’s fifth. Aberdeen was the Times and Sunday Times’ Scottish University of the Year in 2019 and is recognised in particular for its pioneering research which is transforming healthcare across the world.

Aberdeen's thriving medical school is co-located on one of the largest clinical sites in Europe, with superb teaching and extensive research facilities. On site facilities include a large teaching hospital, paediatric and maternity hospitals, which means students are taught by experienced clinicians who are at the forefront of modern clinical practice.

The university's MBChB (Bachelor of Medicine and Surgery) uses a systems-based, integrated approach.

Location: Aberdeen, Scotland

Website: The School of Medicine, Medical Sciences and Nutrition

4. University of Edinburgh

 A screenshot of University of Edinburgh homepage

The University of Edinburgh is a member of the prestigious Russell Group of universities, and the sixth oldest university in the English-speaking world. It is made up of three colleges: Humanities and Social Science, Science and Engineering, and Medicine and Veterinary Medicine – which is regarded as a world leader within its field.

Medical students at the University of Edinburgh receive clinical training from the earliest stages and throughout their studies. This training takes place in the city’s three teaching hospitals and others across Scotland, in community general practices and in state-of-the-art clinical skills and simulation suites.

The medical programme includes an academic year of research-based study in a biomedical or related subject of every student's individual choosing. This means students will graduate with two qualifications – a BMedSci (Hons) and an MBChB – and will have the opportunity to gain hands-on experience of laboratory-based scientific research in addition to their clinical studies.

Location: Edinburgh, Scotland

Website: Edinburgh Medical School

5. University of Cambridge

A screenshot of University of Cambridge homepage

The University of Cambridge is the second-oldest university in the UK and one of the most prestigious educational establishments in the world.

Studying medicine at Cambridge, undergraduates study the medical sciences first, before learning to apply that knowledge to medical practice as a clinical student.

The first three years (pre-clinical studies) involve lectures, practical classes (including dissections) and supervisions, with typically 20-25 timetabled teaching hours each week. The emphasis during the clinical studies (Years 4, 5 and 6) is on learning in clinical settings: at the bedside, in outpatient clinics and in GP surgeries, which is supported by seminars, tutorials and discussion groups.

Successful completion of the first three years leads to a BA degree and on successful completion of the clinical studies in Cambridge students are awarded two degrees, the Bachelor of Medicine and the Bachelor of Surgery (MB, BChir).

Location: Cambridge, England

Website: School of Clinical Medicine

6. Imperial College London

A screenshot of Imperial College London's homepage

Imperial College London is a science-based university and member of the Russell Group, and consistently ranked in the UK Top 10. Its outstanding international reputation for both teaching and research attracts the world’s best scientists, engineers and medics, including recipients of both the Fields medal and the Kavli Prize.

Imperial’s Faculty of Medicine is one of the largest in Europe, with medical campuses across north and west London and partnerships with a wide range of NHS Trusts, hospitals and clinics. Teaching is enriched by internationally competitive research and clinical expertise, so students can be sure of learning at the very cutting edge of the subject. The course is delivered through a range of innovative and traditional teaching methods, including lectures, small group teaching, computer workshops, laboratory classes and problem-based learning.

The emphasis of Imperial's new MBBS programme is on the development of Professional Values and Behaviours, Professional skills, and Professional Knowledge. The redeveloped spiral curriculum is delivered in three phases. Phase 1, focuses both on the scientific basis of health and disease and the foundations of clinical practice, including early clinical exposure. On Phase 2, students work towards their BSc by completing a series of modules and a supervised research project in a scientific/medical subject of their choice. In Phase 3 students build on the knowledge, skills and behaviours developed in the first four years of the MBBS. In hospital and community settings, students will experience how clinical teams work together to deliver patient care from beginning to the end of life. Throughout Phase 3, significant emphasis will be placed on preparing students for clinical practice.

Location: London, England

Website: Faculty of Medicine

7. University of Glasgow

A screenshot of the University of Glasgow homepage

Another Russell Group university, the University of Glasgow is renowned globally for the quality of its teaching and research, in particular relating to the medical professions. Whilst it is the fourth oldest university in the UK and boasts over 100 listed buildings within its campus, it offers a very modern learning environment within one of the world’s most vibrant, and affordable, student cities.

Medical students at the University of Glasgow gain experience in clinical environments throughout the West of Scotland, including the newly refurbished medical teaching centre at the Glasgow Royal Infirmary and the Queen Elizabeth University Hospital, which boasts a purpose-built learning and teaching facility, teaching laboratories and a state-of-the-art clinical skills suite.

The programme's innovative curriculum is delivered through a range of teaching styles which include small-group teaching, problem-based learning, lectures, Vocational and Clinical Studies, labs and e-learning. Students gain experience of a clinical environment from year 1. The MBChB follows a “spiral curriculum” where subject material is revisited at different stages of the curriculum with increasing depth and clinical focus.

Location: Glasgow, Scotland

Website: School of Medicine, Dentistry & Nursing

8. Queen Mary University of London

A screenshot of the Queen Mary University of London homepage

Queen Mary University of London is a public research university and member of the Russell Group that is based in London's vibrant East End. It dates back to the foundation of London Hospital Medical College in 1785 and in fact Queen Mary University of London's Faculty of Medicine and Dentistry is one of the oldest medical schools in the UK.

Our strong core curriculum will equip you with clinical, communication, observation, teamwork and management skills. The curriculum is underpinned by research, linking your learning to the work of the faculty, from the laboratory bench to new drugs to public health interventions.

With less emphasis on traditional lectures, problem-based learning in small groups encourages students to take an independent approach to clinical scenarios. Students begin seeing patients from their very first term, and progress to hospital and community placements.

They are able to follow their own interests by choosing student-selected components, from basic sciences to clinical specialities, community and public health, medical ethics and law.

Location: London, England

Website: Barts and The London School of Medicine and Dentistry

9. University of Bristol

A screenshot of the University of Bristol homepage

The University of Bristol is a member of the prestigious Russell Group of universities and consistently ranked in the UK Top 20. The main campus is located in the centre of the historic and vibrant city of Bristol, just 100 miles from London.

The MB ChB Medicine at Bristol is the primary medical qualification awarded by the University and recognised by the General Medical Council.

Students on the programme will learn about the art, science and craft of medicine through early clinical exposure in hospital, community and primary care settings and a blend of lectures, case-based learning and practical work. Other benefits include state-of-the-art anatomy facilities, inter-professional working with students of nursing, pharmacy and physiotherapy and integration of basic science and clinical learning throughout the course.

Location: Bristol, South West England

Website: School of Medicine

10. Keele University

A screenshot of the Keele University homepage

Keele University's friendly, safe 600-acre parkland campus is located in the heart of England, near Stoke-on-Trent. The self-contained campus has all the amenities of a small town, yet is within an hour’s drive of Manchester and Birmingham. It has a particular reputation for excellence in the medical and health studies, and the Faculty of Medicine & Health Sciences is one of the UK’s leading centres of applied research in primary care.

The Keele curriculum is a modern, spiral, highly-integrated medical curriculum. From Year 1 it combines a range of learning strategies, including early clinical experience, integrated communication and clinical skills teaching, practical sessions including dissection, problem-based learning, lectures and seminars. Students will experience clinical placements in primary and secondary care settings and in the community sector.

Keele University School of Medicine is spread across various sites in Staffordshire and Shropshire, and the principal buildings are located at the University main campus and at the University Hospitals of North Midlands NHS Trust (UHNM) Royal Stoke University Hospital campus three miles away.

Location: Stoke on Trent, Midlands of England

Website: Keele University Medical School

Other universities that are not featured in depth here but which also regularly feature in rankings of the best UK medical schools include Swansea University in Wales, St. Andrews University in Scotland.

Step #4: Take examinations for UK Medical School entrance

Once students have conducted their research into the various medical schools in the UK, and begun their decision-making process about which to apply to, it's time to start thinking about preparing for and taking examinations such as UCAT and BMAT.

The UCAT (University Clinical Aptitude Test) and BMAT (BioMedical Admissions Test) are two standardised tests that are common requirements for United Kingdom institutions' entry criteria onto a medical qualification. Some will accept either, others just one and not the other, for this reason many students take both examinations so they have a greater choice of universities to apply to.

UCAT (formerly UKCAT)

The University Clinical Aptitude Test is the aptitude test that most universities use. Students receive their results straight after the test, which means they can use the score to decide if certain universities are more suitable for them – some medical schools have higher UCAT requirements than others.

The UCAT is digital test and focuses on candidates answering questions of varying difficulty in short spaces of time and is composed of five test categories: Abstract Reasoning, a Situational Judgement Test, Verbal Reasoning, Quantitative Reasoning and Decision Making.

The onus is on students to book their examinations of their own accord prior to university. The tests can only be taken once, and are only valid for one registration period.

Find out more

BMAT

The BioMedical Admissions Test ascertains students' critical and logical thinking skills alongside knowledge they should have retained from school. The BMAT is required by Oxbridge and amongst some of the UK’s other top med-schools. Whilst it does present plenty of the more abstract or ‘IQ-like’ questions, it has been designed to rigorously test intellect, skills and knowledge and does so via 3 test areas: Aptitude and Skills, Scientific Knowledge and Applications and Writing Task.

Find out more

The best advice for doing well in the UCAT and the BMAT is practice, practice and practice again. At Kings, we will make sure any prospective medical student has the required knowledge to succeed, and gets plenty of practice with past tests in test environment and with interview scenarios. We will also organise sessions with experts other than tutors, who will share their knowledge and will allow students to test their confidence with people they don't know.

Step #5: Write a compelling Personal Statement

Aside from a very strong academic ability, students need to display strong supporting qualities. Together, this builds the kind of profile that universities look for in successful candidates. Some medical schools use personal statements as a key part of the selection process; they want to see your experience, skills and attributes relevant to medicine.

Kings students are extensively counselled on how to make themselves the outstanding candidate that they need to be to gain entry to a medical degree, with the starting point always to ensure that students are clear as to why they want to be a doctor; What have they done that would lead their chosen medical school to believe that this is a genuine interest and concern not just in the science but in caring and concern for others in need?

Focus on what you have learned about working in the healthcare profession from your work or voluntary experience, and include information on any areas of medicine that interest you too. Medical schools admissions teams will also want to learn about what you like to do in your spare time, and as extracurricular activities, and how they how they have developed you within the personal statement.

Finally, double-check your punctuation, spelling and grammar.

Step #6: Prepare for the medical school interview

Interviews are often considered the most nerve-wracking component of any degree application, but with plenty of practice and preparation they won't be as daunting.

During the interview, it's important for you to speak clearly, to stay composed and to show that you are prepared. Interviews are seen by admissions staff as a great way of getting undergraduates to expand on their qualifications and personal statement while looking into their communicative skills and aptitude.

It's a really good idea to keep up to date on current news stories surrounding medicine, med schools and the NHS, as it's likely you'll be asked a question surrounding a controversial news item such as obesity costs to the NHS, for example.

You should make sure you carefully read your invitation for an interview, as it can reveal a lot about the format that it will take. While traditional interviews will take the form of an informative conversation between one or two members of staff and yourself, the notion of the Multiple Mini Interview is beginning to gain popularity in education today.

Med school interviews take one of three forms:

  • Traditional
  • Oxbridge
  • MMI

Traditional Interviews

These resemble job interviews and will most likely involve questions about your background, personal interests and goals - including why you want to study medicine. The interviewer will want to discuss medicine itself including medical ethics, advancements and current affairs about the NHS. You’ll also be asked about ways in which you’ve applied problem-solving techniques to work through challenges.

It’s best to prepare by writing down some notes about key moments that occurred during your work experience or school/college life and also key moments in your personal life. Anything which shows you are someone who possesses empathy and care is particularly important as these are considered essential attributes for working within healthcare.

Oxbridge

Oxbridge medical courses tend to have a more distinct focus on research. This means that their interviews are far more focussed on assessing your cognitive abilities. That said, they’ll want to get an idea of how you approach tricky ethical subjects and more general areas of medicine, so some of the interview questions will be along these lines.

MMI

The MMI (multiple mini interviews) approach is a contemporary method of interviewing in which students face a number of interviewers in relatively quick succession. Each one will either give you a task or ask you questions. These different 'stations' are designed to assess your skills in areas such as: communication, self-awareness, maturity, critical thinking, and empathy. The MMI also measures teamwork and oral communication skills.

Students literally move from one room or space in a room to another. In some stations there will actually be actors and a student has to step into that scenario and act as if they are a doctor.

Each part of the interview is designed to last for less than ten minutes, but the overall interview process may take up to two hours to complete.

Find out more

Next steps

We hope that this article has helped you understand more about the processes involved with applying to medical school, and to learn about some of the best universities for Medicine and related subjects in the UK. You can find more detailed information about studying Medicine and a career as a doctor in the Subjects/Career Guides section of the Kings website.

You can also find detailed profiles of the top UK universities.

If you would like receive more detailed information about the Kings and our programmes, please get in touch with us at enquiries@kingseducation.com.