How to choose a medical school
8 months ago by Stan
Choosing a medical school is a really important decision. It is where you will study for the next 4, 5 or 6 years, and may also influence where you practice medicine in future. The decision on where to study will eventually come down to where you are offered a place and then your personal preferences. Deciding on where you wish to study is a very personal decision.
However, deciding on the four schools to put down on your UCAS form can be a very difficult decision, especially when there are over 35 UK medical schools, and even more outside of the UK! So, here is a list of things you should consider when deciding which medical school is for you:
At which universities is your application likely to be more successful?
Each university has different requirements, and places different emphasis on the various entry criteria. You should apply to the universities where you have the best chance of gaining entry, in order to secure your place in medical school. Preference those universities that offer places based on your strengths.
When applying, ensure you meet the minimum entry requirements needed for that university. Research how each medical school invites students to interview and apply where you have the best chance of obtaining an offer. You can find detailed information in the MedEntry UCAT Handbook.
Here are some factors to consider:
Medical schools all have high academic entry requirements. However, some universities require you to achieve specific grades. Most require AAA while some, like Kings College London, Plymouth, Barts, UCL and Oxford, need A*AA. Cambridge needs A*A*A.
Some universities require you to study certain subjects. For example, at Newcastle, you can take any A levels whereas most medical schools require two A level sciences or equivalent.
The test required
UK medical schools use the UCAT (or occasionally the BMAT) as part of their application process. You can sit just the UCAT, just the BMAT or both. It can be an easy way to rule out some universities (if you do not want to take the BMAT). You should also consider your UCAT score when deciding which universities to apply to. Some universities have higher UCAT score requirements than others. Our blog series provides some advice.
At some universities such as Keele, a significant part of the application involves the volunteering you have undertaken, whether that is in a care home, online or in a charity shop.
Where do you prefer to live?
There are many universities offering medicine across various cities and towns in the UK. Where you study in terms of both distance from your home and environment is important in deciding where to apply. Here are some factors to consider:
- Distance from home.
You need to decide whether you want to live at home or if not, how far you are willing to be from home. Do you want to study within an hour of your home? Or do you prefer being many miles away? After finishing secondary school, you might feel like you want to be as far away from home as possible but sometimes studying medicine can be stressful, and all you want to do is get home for the weekend. You may want to have your family and friends nearby to support you. Alternatively, it can be nice to move away from home and explore somewhere new, especially if you do not want to accidently bump into your parents!
- Size of the town/city.
The environment can also be important: do you want to study in a big city where there is a lot going on, or a smaller city? This can be difficult to decide, so make sure you go to university open days and get a feel of the university and its location.
- Cost of living.
Going to university can be expensive. If you are a UK student, you will be eligible for student finance: this is split into the tuition loan and the maintenance loan. The tuition loan pays for the £9250 course fee. This money is paid directly, and you do not see it. The maintenance loan covers your accommodation, your food, and all other expenses. This loan changes depending on your household income, so it is important to consider how much money you will obtain from your student finance (and possibly from your parents), then see how this compares to the cost of living of a given university. For example, the cost of living in bigger cities is generally higher than smaller towns. Note that if you apply to a London based medical school you do get some extra finance for being in London.
- The nightlife/things to do outside of university.
Medical school is not all about the studying, it is also about having fun! Certain universities are known for certain things. For example, if you like exploring the outdoors maybe a London based university is not for you, or if you are into a good nightlife then maybe it is.
Are there certain factors about the university that appeal to you?
Universities promote themselves in various ways to students, suggesting that their courses, teaching styles or campus environments are superior. However, the reality is that most universities and medical courses are similar. All medical schools teach, for the most part, the same material. Therefore, university specific factors should be less important considerations than those that have been outlined above.
However, here are some factors that you could consider:
- The university type.
Campus-based universities often have all amenities in one place and give a more community sense of living. Some examples include Keele, Lancaster, UEA and Nottingham. City-based campuses tend to be more intertwined and spread across the city. Some examples include Manchester, Newcastle and any of the London based medical schools. Note that this consideration is only relevant to the pre-clinical years. In clinical years you will be based in hospitals which are generally separate to the university.
- University life.
If you have a passion or interest in a particular activity (for example, sporting or music), you can do some research into your preferred universities to see if you will be able to continue your activity while in medical school. You can consider factors such as sporting facilities, clubs and societies. Remember however that you will only be on campus for the first couple of years, after which you will be based in hospitals.
- The teaching style.
Finding a teaching style that works for you can help you learn more easily, work to the best of your ability and make the process of learning as enjoyable as possible. There are three main teaching styles used at medical schools, though most tend to be a bit of a blend of all the three. The most prominent style is often advertised on university prospectuses. Note that the style of teaching is usually only important in the pre-clinical years (first 2-3 years), as teaching in clinical years is placement and lecture based in hospitals and clinics.
- Problem Based Learning (PBL): In this style, teaching is based around a clinical scenario. Each week you and your colleagues research various aspects of the scenario. Your learning is based around the topic, and as the approach is usually team-based, you also learn from your peers. This is a good option if you consider yourself both a self-directed and group learner, and like to learn by discovery. Some examples of universities that use PBL include Keele, UEA, Liverpool and Hull-York medical schools.
- Integrated/Systems Based Learning: this is the most common style of teaching. The integrated systems approach encompasses teaching in body systems (e.g., cardiovascular, gastrointestinal, respiratory). The teaching is a mix of lectures, group work, seminars and laboratory or dissection sessions. This learning style is suitable for those that work logically and enjoy a variety of teaching methods. Examples of universities that use this style of teaching include Leicester, Nottingham, Exeter and Newcastle
- Traditional style: This is only used at a few universities, with many moving away from it towards integrated or PBL. The traditional approach is where topics are taught in terms of the disciplines (e.g., pathology, anatomy, physiology) with a heavy emphasis on lectures. This sort of learning style is suited to those who enjoy the basic sciences and would strive in piecing together information from the different disciplines into one. Examples of universities using this teaching style include Oxford and Cambridge.
- Option to intercalate.
During a medicine degree you have the option to intercalate. This is where you take a year out to study another degree, either a masters or bachelors. At some medical schools it is compulsory, making the course 6 years long, and at some it is optional, and the course can be 5 or 6 years. Alternatively at Nottingham, you can do an intercalated degree in a 5-year course.
What about rankings and what other people think?
- Opinions of senior students.
Many people base their decisions on where to study on opinions from students who are senior to them. While this may be helpful, it is also important to keep in mind that this is not a representative sample of students, and that what appeals to one person may not appeal to you. Choosing a university is a personal decision, and you need to do what is right for you. Therefore, while seeking the opinion of senior students is useful, you should avoid being unduly swayed by their opinions.
- University rankings.
Universities love to promote their rankings, however, for medicine, the ranking of the university makes no difference to your prospects after university. Furthermore, rankings are based on factors which are largely irrelevant to your experience at medical school, such as research output. Furthermore, often the difference in score between the top and bottom ranked medical school is very small. Therefore, despite what universities may say, you should not place importance on this factor when deciding where to study.
- Student satisfaction ratings.
Student satisfaction ratings can be a useful consideration. Do students while they are at the university, feel supported? Does the course offer what they want in terms of their learning? Are they overall satisfied with the course? You may wish to do some research in this area when deciding on your preferred university.
It is also important to be organised. Make sure you have open days scheduled in your calendar, research the respective medical school’s website and have a record of where you are thinking of applying with a pros and cons list.
It can all seem like a lot deciding which medical school to go to. But remember, wherever you go to medical school in the UK, you will come out as a GMC registered doctor and will be able to practice as a doctor. Hopefully you will also enjoy the journey!
If you need help deciding where to apply, check out our free universities admissions guide.