Sunday, 19 August 2012

Advice for Prospective Medical Students III

Personal Statements!

I'm writing this post a little later than I originally anticipated (sorry!) but I hope it will still be of use to medicine applicants. The reason that it's a little late is because you probably should have started writing your personal statement by now if you want to apply to 2013 (even if it isn't yet a full draft). This is because the personal statement is a very important part of the application and you should dedicate a fair amount of time to writing it. Especially if you are yet to sit the UKCAT and are trying to balance UKCAT practice and PS writing.

Here are some tips for writing/improving your PS:

1. Quality over quantity. The is perhaps to most useful piece of information I was given when I applied last year. Even if you have a huge amount of work experience in a number of medical settings you will gain very little if you do not reflect upon your experiences adequately in your PS. It is very, very important to tell the admissions team what you learned for the experience and how it will help you at medical school/as a doctor. If you shadowed a doctor during work experience, try and remember how s/he behaved; how did they communicate with patients? Did they work effectively in a team? Was s/he understanding and empathetic? How did they cope when they were faced with a number of different tasks? The next step would then be to identify whether these traits are key parts of your own personality or how you have gained these important skills through your past experiences. You could then tie this in with your extra-curricular work. For example sports teams or orchestras can help you understand how to work in a team, working in a charity shop can improve your communication skills and confidence through dealing with the public and can also display long-term commitments. These are just two quick examples but, whatever your extra-curriculars happen to be, try to illustrate how they have been valuable to you. There is not point saying "I played in the schools football team for 5 years and won a number of trophies." if you aren't going to elaborate on it at all. 

Back to the quality vs. quantity part, don't worry too much is you are somewhat lacking in work experience. The admissions department tend to understand that it is difficult to gain a lot of work experience. As long as you reflect well on the experience that you do have, your PS statement will be better than one that simply lists various placements without reflection.

2. Don't neglect extra-curriculars! With the tight UCAS limit, it can sometimes be tempting to miss out aspects of your experiences completely. Apart from the points I described above, extra-curriculars can also be a great way to show that you have a life outside academia. This is very important in medicine, in particular, as the job of a doctor is very demanding and often stressful. Therefore, it is important that you recognise this and say that playing an instrument (or whatever your activity is) helps you to relax and deal with stress.

3. Don't be cocky! The PS is the place where you are to show-off your skills and positive attributes. You do, after all, want the university to take you on. However, for some people it can be difficult to draw the line between self-confidence and arrogance. One way that helps to avoid this is to say things like "My teachers have often regarded me as..." rather than "I am...". Another thing could be to get a wide range of people to read over your PS as they may be able to point out parts that make you seem arrogant. This leads me to my next point...

4. Get as many people as possible to read over your PS. Guidance teachers and career's advisors, if available, are very useful as they should have a good knowledge of what medical schools look for. Sometimes class teachers, such as English, can be useful as well to check the layout and give an "outsider's" opinion. It can be a little embarrassing, but family members can also give you advice. They may even remind you to put somethings in that you forgot about.

5. Try not to be cheesy or use cliches. You should write about why you want to do medicine but try not to exaggerate. Phrases such as "a burning desire to help people" or "my fiery passion for human biology" will probably make admissions workers laugh at you. 

6. This one goes without saying but BE HONEST! Does this really need an explanation? If you lie, the chances are that the experienced admissions team will see right through it. Also, if you are asked to elaborate (or even provide evidence!) during an interview, you will find yourself in a very sticky situation!

This has been a fairly quick post, so I may have missed a couple of things out. If you want further information, don't be scared to leave a comment below. I will try my best to answer!

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Advice for Prospective Medical Students II

When I applied to medical school in October 2011, my university choices were limited to the five medical schools in Scotland. This meant that it was pretty easy for me to decide which 4 medical schools to apply to. However, I understand that it is a lot harder to decide which universities to apply to when you have to consider every medical school in the UK. So, hopefully this post will help answer a question for you: which medical schools should I apply to?

Entry to medical schools in the UK is very competitive, I have heard that approximately 60% of all applicants receive four rejections. I don't have a source for this figure but, judging by the sheer number of unsuccessful applicants that I know myself or have read about, I wouldn't be at all surprised if it was accurate. Therefore, I believe it is very important to apply to medical schools that you have a greater chance of being accepted into. That isn't to say that certain medical schools are easier to get into, but different medical schools put more weighting on different parts of your application (personal statement, BMAT, UKCAT etc.). Thus, it is important that you apply strategically to schools which highly regard the strengths of you application or put less weighting on your weaknesses. 

For example, the UKCAT can be a big deciding factor. If you happen to score below average in the UKCAT (e.g. <600avg) it would be foolish to apply to schools such as Glasgow who don't consider applicants with a UKCAT score lower than a certain cut-off, usually around 650avg. A better choice would be to apply to schools that put less emphasis on the UKCAT or those that don't use it at all to decide between applicants (e.g. Liverpool). 

I remember reading an interesting article on "The Student Room" not long ago in which the writer addresses some of the points I have mentioned. I think it has some quite useful information so I will post a segment here:

"As I began my university application process last year, I couldn't for the life of me figure out where I should apply. Having zero experience in the UK, I was a complete layperson and pretty much lost. Going through all the schools and checking out their pros/cons seemed like a logical first step, so that's where I began. I made a giant list of potential schools to apply to and everyday I would cut a few out of that list to arrive at a master list of 4-6 possible candidates.

Then I wrote my UKCAT. Everything changed. I realized that all but one of the schools I had selected placed heavy emphasis on that useless test. I was in panic mode, and the realization that I had just wasted a bunch of weeks researching stuff only to have it destroyed completely freaked me out. 

It was then that I decided on a different approach; one that many applicants easily miss.

Applying to strengths versus applying to preference.

So far in my search, the schools I had compiled were those where I felt I'd be most comfortable, most successful. They included heavyweights like Edinburgh, Sheffield, Newcastle and Manchester. Well established, easily recognizable institutions with great teaching styles, in nice cities, etc. It was all great, but I had forgotten to consider a very important aspect: these schools were great for me...but how great was I for them?

What possible reasons did these schools have for accepting me? What was I offering them? This perspective of me being an ideal to the school as opposed to the schools being ideals to me, was a very important realization.

From that point on, selecting schools was easy. Main criteria became: my suitability for their teaching style, my academic/ukcat scores meeting requirements, how they look at my experience/extracurriculars/etc, what parts of my application do they focus on.

Before this, I had focused more on how great these schools were for me and I keep searching for the benefits they could provide me. However, applying to super competitive programs like medicine requires a reversal in thinking, you have to start seeing things from the opposing perspective.

Hope this has been helpful. It's especially intended for new applicants from high school/internationals who don't necessarily have an idea where to begin. Good luck on your apps!"

The full article can be found here, some of the comments may be of use to you too.

Another important thing to consider is this: no matter which medical school you go to in the UK, the medical teaching is always of a very high standard. Even though some schools have better reputation and, arguably, better teaching methods, at the end of the day they have all been approved by the GMC. Even after graduation when you have to apply for jobs as a foundation doctor, it doesn't matter which medical school you attended. There isn't even a space on the application form to disclose this information. Having said that, there is no harm in aiming high and applying to more "prestigious" universities as long as you are sensible about it. It may have been your life-long ambition to study medicine at Oxford or Cambridge, but make sure you read their entry requirements closely to determine whether you have a realistic chance of being accepted.

And that brings me to my final point–research each university that you are thinking of applying to and find out exactly what they are looking for from their applicants. This website, created by the same people that wrote the "600 Questions" UKCAT book, offers a quick overview of each universities entry requirements. Clicking each university gives more in depth information. TSR Medicine Wiki is also very helpful and should provide a lot of information about different aspects of the application. However, the best way to get the most up-to-date information is to check each medical schools website individually. If you have any additional questions, emailing/phoning the medical schools' admissions department will get you the most accurate information.

Saturday, 21 July 2012

Colombian Men

It's almost two weeks since I've returned from my trip to Colombia and I have become accustomed to living in the UK again. My sleeping pattern has returned to normal and it's no longer a surprise when it's still daylight after 9pm. However, when I first arrived in the UK (or Europe, for that matter) there were a few things that struck me as very different. The most obvious thing to me was that people no longer stared at me! Now, I am in no way a particularly attractive young person but my pale skin, freckles and uncommon hair colour attracted a lot of attention in Colombia. I quickly got used to people looking at me in the street, making comments or asking questions (is your hair natural, where are you from? etc.).

If you are curious about these "comments" that were made, I will share a story with you. One afternoon, I was walking around the town of Pasto by myself. I was walking towards two men outside a bakery. One of them caught sight of me and muttered "Que bonita. Gringuitano?" to the other man. I ignored them and walked on quickly, only for him to shout "¡DELICIOSA!" after me. That was one of many similar comments that were made by strangers during my trip and I'm sure any other British travellers have has similar experiences! It was, however, the first time I have ever been called "delicious" which creeps me out a little bit.

Here are some other things that I remember being said to me across the country (translated into English):

"You are so precious, I will marry you."
"You have the face of a doll."
"Oh no, I have come to the wrong table, maybe because I am in love!"
"How lovely is that girl."

Looking back, I find this pretty funny. I'm sure the men that made these comments were completely harmless. It's also quite interesting because if a man in Glasgow wanted a woman in the street to know that he found her attractive, my guess is he wouldn't use words like "precious" or "lovely". His words are likely to be more blunt or possibly a little vulgar. However, I never get that kind of attention here in the UK anyway because I am pretty average looking and blend into crowds. I stood out significantly in Colombia though! I'm sure that other white British travellers to South America will have similar stories to tell. And if you are planning to travel there yourself, it's something to be wary of!

Thursday, 12 July 2012

I'm back!

Yesterday, after a journey that took place over three days, I returned home from Colombia. I had such a great time! I'm going to miss the country and the people I met but it still feels so good to be home!

I should probably start off by saying that things didn't quite go according to plan. It turns out that I didn't get very much hospital exposure at all. The problem was that I don't have the required insurance because I am not yet at medical school. I was still able to meet a few doctors, and was shown around a hospital, but I was not able to observe the work of any doctors. To be completely honest, I wasn't too disappointed as I know I will get plenty of experience in hospitals come September! It also meant that I had more time to get to know Colombia, which really is a beautiful country! Below are some photos that I took in different parts of the country. 
The top row is from Bogota, the second from Medellin and the third from Pasto and Narino.

I was very close to missing out on Las Lajas (bottom-centre) but luckily I managed to go on my last day in Pasto. Phew! I would have been devastated if I hadn't because it was truly amazing. Another exciting thing that happened in Pasto was that I ate the popular dish called "cuy". Here's a picture:
Can you guess what animal it is? I'm not ashamed to say that it's a guinea pig and it was delicious! I don't quite know how I'll react the next time I'm see somebody's pet guinea pig though.

Despite feeling pretty nervous before my trip, I feel I got so much out of it. I still have a long way to go but my Spanish has improved immensely. I'm surprised by how much I picked up just by hearing the language everyday. Also, it's strange because I believe it has made me more confident as a person. Maybe it's just because I can be a little shy and nervous at times but after speaking a foreign language everyday for the past month, it has made me realise just how easy it is to speak English again. It's hard to explain but I definitely think I will have less problems in certain social situations now.

I do miss Colombia, and hope I can return one day (there is still so much of the country I would like to see), but I think one month was just enough time. I didn't feel homesick but as a 17/18 year old travelling alone for the first time I was satisfied with a month. It feels so good to be back in my own bed again and I'm relieved to say that my cat hasn't forgotten me. Embarrassingly, that was one of my biggest worries as I do love my cat!

One another note, I wasn't entirely sure where I would go with this blog when I first started, but it's already clear that it won't be solely dedicated to medicine. I plan to write more advice posts to hopeful medical students but aside from that you'll have to put up with these personal posts until I'm actually at medical school. After reading some other blogs though, that's not necessarily a bad thing though, right?

P.S. Paris-Orly airport is bloody horrible!

Sunday, 3 June 2012

El Verano

A week from today, I leave for London to begin a long journey to Colombia. I have become used to look of concern that crosses people's faces when I tell them about my plans. I can almost visualise the word "cocaine" buzzing around inside their heads. They appear even more worried when I tell them I'm travelling alone. 

The thing is, a very generous friend-of-the-family has offered me the chance to stay with her family in her home country of Colombia. I will be working with one of her relatives who is a doctor, I won't have to worry about paying for accommodation and a member of her family will always be close by. There's no way I would turn down an opportunity like that. Despite all my anxiety and worries, I'm starting to look forward to my trip more and more as the leaving date approaches. It's still a bit of a mystery as to what I'll actually be able to see and do in the hospitals over there but I hope I can offer as much assistance as I can and learn lots of new things. Also, during the weekends I will have the opportunity to explore the country. From my own research I have found that Colombia is a beautiful, diverse country with everything from cloud forests to active volcanoes. This will be a entirely new experience for me and I'm very excited!
"Santuario de las Lajas" would be an incredible place to visit!

However, my biggest worry is definitely the language barrier. I have been learning Spanish for about two years and still have a long way to go. A fair number of people in the bigger cities will speak English, including professional workers such as doctors, but I will also be travelling to a much smaller city. It is unlikely that many of the staff in the local hospital will speak English. Yikes. One thing I'll need to get used to very quickly is stepping out of my comfort zone and really trying to improve my Spanish while I'm over there. I was, however, comforted when I heard that these hospitals are used to accepting medical students that want to do work experience during their summer holidays or who decided to do their elective in Colombia. So hopefully being shadowed by a young person that speaks only basic Spanish will not be a new experience for the staff!

I'm so grateful that I have been given this amazing opportunity by such a kind family friend so I intend to make the very most out of this trip. It's also taken a hefty chunk out of my bank account! It's unlikely that I'll post again before I leave but when  return I will type up some of my experiences and share them here.

¡Hasta luego! 

Saturday, 19 May 2012

Advice for Prospective Medical Students I

In my last post I said that I would start giving some advice to those of you that are hoping to apply to Medicine in the future. Since I finished the application process not long ago, I hope this advice will be at least some use to you. In this post, I'm going to start with the UKCAT as it won't be long before testing begins. I will hopefully cover other aspects of the admissions process at a later date.

This post assumes you have a basic knowledge of what the UKCAT entails. If you haven't done so already, read through their website here. It's important stuff!

1. When is the best time to sit the test?

Now, this is a question that I've seen bouncing around quite a lot recently and there are quite a few things to consider whilst deciding when to sit the UKCAT. I think it is mainly up to personal preference; some people like to get it over and done with early whereas others prefer to do it later to ensure they get enough time to practise. The best option for me was to wait until I had received my exam results and knew for sure that I was going to apply for Medicine. I ended up sitting mine at the end of September, a week or two before the deadline. The only problem I had with sitting it so late was that I had to work on my personal statement at the same time as I was practising for the UKCAT. This was by no means a major problem but, if you prefer to work on one thing at a time, I would suggest you sit the test earlier and then spent the three months or so before October 15th (UCAS deadline for medicine applicants) focussing solely on your personal statement.  There are also some other benefits of sitting the test earlier. An obvious one is that if you sit it before the end of August, it will cost you less money! Saving money is always a good thing. Also, if you feel that the UKCAT will be an important factor in deciding which universities you want to apply to, it would probably be a good idea to sit it earlier to ensure that you have enough time to make the best decisions. It is worth noting that some universities have UKCAT "cut-off" scores i.e. if you do not meet a certain score set by the university, you will not be invited for an interview. Therefore, it is important that apply strategically to maximise your chances of getting an interview. Overall, whether you sit the test early or late, the most important thing is to ensure you leave yourself enough time to do sufficient practise. Which leads me to the next section:

2. How long should I spend practising for the UKCAT?

Although you can't really revise for the UKCAT, it's very important that you familiarise yourself with the layout of the questions. The only way to achieve this is through practise! Since the questions just about bored me to death, I would recommend that you do a small amount of practise each day for a couple of weeks before you sit the test. I would say a month is just enough time to become competent with each section. You can then use the week leading up to your test to do some more "intense" practise and complete any mock exams that you may have access to.

I know that some people like to start practising much earlier but there is one thing to be wary of: make sure you don't use up all your practise materials too early. It's best to keep practising right up to your test date so that your own methods for working out each type of question will be fresh in your mind. If you do find that you have exhausted your supply of practise questions, you could always try going over the ones that you have already completed. The chances are you will have forgotten all of the answers anyway. However, none of this will be a problem if you have mountains of practise questions to get through. Your only risk then is dying of boredom. 

3. What are the best practise materials?

If you ask any medical student for advice about the UKCAT, the chances are they will recommend this book:

And I have to agree with them, it was incredibly useful. If you are serious about the UKCAT, you really must get your hands on a copy. It's a great place to start as the explanations are really clear and helpful. The only criticism I would give (and it's not necessarily a bad thing) is that the Quantitative Reasoning and Abstract Reasoning questions were significantly more difficult than the actual test. I found it just about impossible to complete the QR questions in the recommended time limit and some of the solutions for AR were just really absurd. So don't get too frustrated if you are really struggling with these sections, the chances are it will prepare you better for the real exam.  This book alone would probably be enough in order for you to get a decent score but I felt I needed some additional practise. I had a copy of this book which I also worked through. Despite the somewhat awkward layout of the questions, forcing you to constantly flick back between pages, all-in-all I found it was a very good book. It covers each section of the test well and I would say the difficulty is as close to the actual test as you can get. The Verbal Reasoning section was it's only downside really as all the passages were related to medicine and this is not what you should expect to see in the actual exam. However, I was grateful for the extra practise nonetheless. 

There are a whole range of other books you can buy that I can't give my opinion on. Visiting book shops and having a quick flick through some books or reading reviews on could help you decide which ones to buy. Some websites also offer banks of practise questions that you can buy. It's worth looking into if you really want to keep yourself busy but I wouldn't say you need to spend a huge amount of money to get a good score. So don't go out and buy every book you can find!

Lastly, once you are confident with the nature of the UKCAT, you could complete the official practise exams that are given on the UKCAT website. I can't say how useful these tests are as I couldn't download then last year (Windows only) but it seems they have been made Mac-friendly this year. I assume they will be as close as you can get to the real thing so they should be pretty helpful.

How should I practise for the UKCAT?

Everybody is different and will have their own ways of solving problems. Hopefully, once you have started practising, you will begin to think up your own strategies for working out each question. I'm now going to share with you some little tips that I believe helped me to get an above-average score (662.5 if you are interested).

Once you are used to the layout of the test, my advice would be that you start practising under timed conditions as soon as you can. The time constraints in the actual test is probably what makes it so evil challenging so make sure you prepare for this.

Verbal Reasoning: This will be the first section that you sit so try to make sure you are nice and calm before you go in (easier said than done-I know!). Again, it depends on personal preference but I think it would help to quickly skim over the whole passage before reading the questions. VR ended being the section that I performed worst in and I think I could have improved my score if I didn't dive straight into the questions before reading the passage completely. Hopefully, with practise, you will get used to picking up information from the text after a quick skim read. This is something I wasn't very good at so I think it's very important that you don't neglect any sections during your practise. I spent a lot of time going over QR and AR as I found them particularly difficult but perhaps I should have dedicated more time VR. The same goes for any section, if you are struggling with any of them, don't ignore it. Keep practising or else it will drag your average score down.

Quantitative Reasoning: The good thing about this section is that if you are rubbish at maths like me, you are allowed to use a simple calculator. The bad thing? It's an on-screen calculator. It makes things a whole lot more awkward, but that's just something that everybody who sits the test has to cope with. My advice would be that you practise at home as if you were sitting the test. By this I mean don't get used to your own fancy calculator with its "store answer" button and such. The best way to do this would be to practise using the calculator on your own computer. It's uncomfortable at first clicking the keys with your mouse cursor, but it does get easier. You may also want to use the number pad on your keyboard as this works when you sit the real test (provided the computers at your testing centre actually have keyboards).

As for the questions themselves, make sure you are up to scratch with your basic maths e.g. finding areas, calculating percentages etc. Also, try to improve your mental maths so that you don't have to rely on the dodgy calculator as much. This will help you to save time. If you do find yourself running out of time towards the end make sure you answer every question. Even a guess has a 20% of being correct!

Abstract Reasoning: Different books will tell you different ways to approach these questions using mnemonics and other techniques. If these methods work for you, brilliant, keep at it!  However, I found the best way to approach these questions was to just look at the shapes and see what caught my attention first. It may not be the best method but it was the one I found most comfortable doing. If I found myself concentrating too hard on one detail and making no progress, I would close my eyes for a second, start over, and look for something else. Be careful that you don't spend too much time on each question though. If you really aren't getting anywhere guess and answer, flag it and move on. You may have time to return to it at the end.

Decision Analysis: When I was practising for this section, I would keep all the information in my head. However, when I actually sat the test, I found I had a substantial amount of time left at the end. After realising this, I began the write all the code "translations" down to check my answers. It really helped! If timing isn't an issue, you may want to try this while you are practising as it prevents all the words getting jumbled in your head. I find this makes it easier to determine the correct answer.

To conclude, my last piece of advice I will give you is: don't panic! 
Yes, the UKCAT is daunting and some of the questions are horrible. But really, it isn't that bad when you are sitting it. The time flies by and you should receive your score as soon as you finish.

I tried to cover everything in this monster of a post but if you have any other questions, just ask!

I wish you the best of luck! And keep practising!

Monday, 7 May 2012

School's Out

So it's been a while since I last posted. The reason for that is because not many significant things have happened. My first exam (Chemistry) is a week today so, naturally, I'm doing everything other than studying. Yesterday I impulsively baked and decorated a cake and began to construct a collage out of pictures of David Bowie. It was enjoyable, but it won't help me do well in my exams.

Last Tuesday, however, was my last day at secondary school. As expected, a lot of people were crying but I could tell that others, like myself, were quietly celebrating. It's not that I won't miss these people, because I will, it's just that I'm really fed up with being at school. I'll probably have a celebration after my last exam because I will never have to involuntarily return to that building, with it's noisy corridors permanently swamped by a sea of brown (yes, my uniform is brown; it's horrific). Also, to make things worse, I was ill on the last day. And I'm never ill. I felt rotten the whole time and when people were approaching me for goodbye-hugs (teachers included), I had to desperately try and stop myself from coughing all over their hair.

One last thing, I have already encountered some rather excited hopeful applicants for 2013 entry Medicine so I may type up some advice posts in the next couple of months about the UKCAT, work experience, personal statements etc. I was very grateful for additional help last year so I might as well do my bit this year. I might also tell you a little bit about my trip to Colombia this summer which I am really excited and bloody terrified about!

To those of you who are sitting exams soon, good luck!