Samantha is a medical admissions officer at a top UK medical school. Her name has been changed for this article. All answers are specific to the university at which she works and are intended to give a general overview only.
Tell us a little about your job.
I'm a medical admissions officer, which means that I’m responsible for overseeing all applications for our undergraduate medicine course from the point of submission up until matriculation.
We also deal with many pre-application enquiries, primarily questions about our admissions policies such as qualifications, work experience, personal statements and the UKCAT.
What’s your typical day like?
That depends on the time of year. In the run up to the UCAS deadline in October we deal with hundreds of enquiries, often from people who have just had their results, and advise people on the possibility of a successful application.
From then on we are scoring applications academically and ranking them in order of achievement. Then we are preparing for interviews. After those, we assess the interview results with a view to sending out decisions in March. That involves essentially ranking people on their scores, and taking into account contextual factors like adversity and widening access programmes.
What’s your role during interviews?
Making sure everything goes smoothly. I check that everything is set up properly, and that the applicants have all their documents uploaded before the interview, and bring their ID and qualifications. We then check that the correct applicants and correct number of applicants are invited and present. We also check that all the interview questions have been screened for potential discrimination and for how well they work.
What does that kind of test involve?
We take a test group of staff from different backgrounds to make sure there is no bias in favour or against any particular group.
So you’re not involved in interviewing people?
No. Largely, it’s medical tutors who carry out the interviews - academics, supported by senior medical students who act in role-playing scenarios.
Say an applicant called up, in the middle of their National 5 or GCSE year, and wanted to know what they should be doing to prepare for applying. What would you tell them?
First thing they have to do is get their grades. Ideally, you need As in the correct subjects - whatever the university you’re applying to asks for. The competition is so fierce.
In this year you should also be thinking ahead - entry to medical school depends on a lot more than grades. You should be reading widely, thinking about preparing for a medical career, and thinking about the type of work experience that it’s possible for you to get. You should also be choosing your highers very carefully. It changes depending on the university, but most will need chemistry and another science.
What if the same applicant called during their A level/higher year?
Similar things apply, in that you need the grades in the right subjects. You should also be practicing for the UKCAT. By now you should have started building your personal statement. This isn’t just work experience. Universities are all looking for well-rounded individuals with non-academic skills and hobbies, and volunteering. We like to see that people have had a position of some responsibility , for example as a school captain or scout leader. Everyone’s been a prefect.
What if an applicant doesn’t get the grades? What should they do?
We don’t consider resits at my university, unless there are significant mitigating circumstances such as serious illness (not just “I felt sick on the day”) or close bereavement in the run up to exams. That might be different at other institutions.
If this person didn’t have that?
It is possible, depending on admissions criteria, to overcome less-than-stellar grades with a strong UKCAT score. It all depends on how much weighting the university gives to each. If this isn’t possible, my advice would be to consider doing a life sciences degree and applying as a graduate.
Does it matter if an applicant went to a private or state school?
Not a jot. We do have Widening Access criteria, which is for people whose circumstances might have affected their ability to fulfil their potential (for example, having been in care). This will not apply to most state school pupils, and can apply to some private school pupils.
How much work experience should people get?
We recommend up to a fortnight, but this doesn’t have to be consecutive or even two separate weeks. It could be an afternoon a week over the course of several weeks.
What if someone has more than two weeks?
It wouldn’t give them any advantage with us.
What if someone has less than two weeks, say only one?
We might question their commitment and motivation, but this can also be shown with research and discussions with healthcare professionals in a variety of fields.
What if they don’t have work experience in a hospital or GP practice?
We recognise that it can be difficult, particularly for people in rural areas where confidentiality issues are more likely. What we’re more interested in are the skills that applicants have developed from their experience. Experience in a care home would be fine, or a pharmacy. Even if it’s a paid Saturday job, that’s okay. In a pharmacy they’d be engaging with members of the public about healthcare and learning about medicines, for example.
How much do references matter?
Well, at my university, very little. As long as it’s not appalling, it won’t make a difference - we don’t give it a formal score. Other universities might.
How do you use personal statements?
We use them primarily in the interview. They aren’t scored, but again, this is specific to my university. Other institutions will actively score the personal statement. Also, our policies are evolving all the time.
How should applicants prepare for interview?
The essential skill that we are looking for is communication - that’s the most important one, and it’s tested at every part of the interview. Applicants should read widely and be aware of issues facing the medical profession. They should know their personal statement inside out and be prepared to back it up when questioned. They should give some thought to ethical issues which may come up, and that may depend on what’s in the news.
Do you have any advice for applicants on the day of interview?
Make sure that you’re there in good time; that you look professional (don’t leave your interview suit on the bus, for example); don’t bring your mum; make sure you’ve done your homework. It’s all the obvious stuff that applies in any interview situation.
How does the experience of applying differ for overseas applicants?
Not hugely. They still have to apply through UCAS and sit the UKCAT. They also still have to be interviewed, but they have the option of coming to our university for the the interview or attending an interview in East Asia. Essentially, the process is the same.
What’s your biggest pet peeve about medical applicants?
Applicants who don’t put all of their qualifications on their UCAS form. This can lead to them being summarily rejected. If they then tell us they do have the qualification, we have to reinstate them, and go through the whole process again. That, and applicants who don’t read our website before calling up. The information is there!
Do you have any top tips for applicants?
Think ahead and don’t leave it all to the last minute. An application to medical school needs a lot of time and preparation. It shouldn’t be dashed off.
What would you say, finally, to 2019 applicants?