To medicine, or not to medicine? That is the question

University presents the perfect opportunity to explore interests, shape futures and land a job of interest. For many, it is the perfect way to decide the age-old question of “what do I want to do?” However, for medical school, it is often indicated this decision needs cementing years before the application process begins. Whilst there remains a debate on this topic, I strongly believe that one does not need to be a doctor from infancy to study medicine. I made the decision comparatively late, in the first year of my IB qualification (A-level equivalent). Now six years on, I am studying medicine at Imperial College London with an academic scholarship. I have been an international tutor for six years and am a dual business owner. But I’m still unsure of what medicine holds for me in the future. 

What exactly does one need to decide? In this blog I aim to provide a brief overview of my opinions, cultivated from my years working as a medical school consultant for students applying to countless universities across the UK.

Why medicine? If you cannot answer this, you cannot pass a university interview. Do you need to know the answer to this before your interview? No. Do you need to carefully workshop an answer that sells your interest, even if these reasons do not convince you? Yes. The specifics of the interview technique are too elaborate to include here. However, the fundamental point is that you should have some interest in science. Studying medicine requires lots of content and lots of exams, and this requires hard work. You will not finish a medicine degree without at least a small interest in science.

Contrary to what one might find on forums, one does not need to live, eat, breathe and sleep science and the image of being a doctor. Often those posting on such sites, be those parents or prospective students, will not make the best doctors. I avoided such websites like the plague; fear-mongering and Chinese whispers bring limited benefit. At the end of the day if you can communicate with people, work well in a team, understand your weaknesses and have a slight interest in science, you will be a better doctor than any walking textbook. Whilst many of those characteristics may seem daunting, they are developed during a medical degree. The only one that cannot be learnt is an interest in science. So, bringing it together, if you like science and can face hard work when necessary, medicine is right for you. Do not let anyone tell you otherwise.

What is medicine? Medicine is not hard. Medicine is tough. You will hear nerdy, tricky, depressing and impossible scattered about the internet, but those testimonies will mostly result from a lack of organisation. To this date, the work for my degrees has been easier than my IB diploma. However, medicine has required a lot more work. If you are organised, studying medicine is a shift in your lifestyle, not your mental stability. I have tutored over 1,000h alongside my 3¾ years of university, whilst participating in club committees and running several external projects. I attribute this solely to my organisation. I like to keep my plate overflowing. If the aim is solely to study medicine, one can initially achieve this with minimal organisation. The skill will be learnt throughout the degree.

In retrospect, I have found medical school exactly as I expected; lots of science to learn and weeks in a hospital putting it all into practice. No-one, no matter how keen, likes waking up at 7am to travel one hour across London to shadow a senior doctor who assumes your medical knowledge would be trumped by an ape with a crayon. However, if you enjoy what you are learning, you will stick with it. It all comes back to the initial interest, albeit the reasons for which do not matter!

What is essential? Although I believe that no-one should be put off medical school, there are a few select things you must do before applying for the degree. If you do not do them, you might as well not try. Studying Chemistry is a must (there are a few unique exceptions to this rule). Biology and Maths are often unquoted essentials. You need to achieve high grades; this remains the sole barrier for applying to medicine. If your grades are not sufficient, the rest of this advice is irrelevant.

Choosing sixth form subjects is an obvious first on this list; second should be work experience. Not only will this provide an invaluable insight into your compatibility for medicine, but it is also fundamental to a successful application. Hospital or GP exposure may be considered “cool” – but it is not necessary. This being said, I recommend that you contact hospitals and ask if they will give you a few days of work shadowing. After this comes volunteering in a medical context; I helped in the day centre for a care home for one week each summer. It is what you learn from the experience, not the length. The next essential is sport or music, ideally up to a respectable level. Positions of responsibility such as team captain, tutor or society position can substitute here. However, treat such titles as books – no matter how impressive the title is, if the content is rubbish you won’t read much further, and neither will your interviewer. A well-refined personal statement is paramount, as is a respectable admissions test score. Get coaching for both of these as they carry more weight than your entire educational profile to date; it will cost a fraction of the total cost of that too! If you are successful enough to receive an offer for an interview you are down to circa 50% odds of receiving a place. Even brief interview coaching can significantly raise this percentage. My advice on sourcing tuition is amplified here.

I have intentionally avoided discussing university choice, the application process, course structure, admissions tests, interview preparation, pay (or lack thereof) and ultimately career choice – but these do remain important queries to be addressed once the decision to study medicine is made. 

So, in conclusion, is medicine the right career path for me? The short answer is yes. Remember, ‘medicine’ is not synonymous with ‘doctor’, and there is a whole world outside the emergency room. My opinion remains that although the degree will shape you as an individual, medicine is what you make of it.

Words by Oliver Kidd

University Consultant for Medicine and IB Tutor