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A Current Student’s Guide to Choosing UK Medical Schools

A Current Student’s Guide to Choosing UK Medical Schools

by Kiran Raju, with Cian O’Carroll


It’s your move – but where to go? The choice is both a strategic and a personal one.

Success at university is dependent upon many factors, including whether that particular university is the right fit for the student. Therefore, when applying to university, choosing the right medical schools is crucial. The UK’s UCAS application portal only allows you to apply to four Medicine or Dentistry courses. There are several factors to consider when choosing which four universities to apply to, and furthermore, should you receive multiple offers, deciding on which to accept. We will explore these factors: 

  1. Academic requirements
  2. Standardized testing requirements
  3. Interview style
  4. Course Length & Style
  5. International student acceptance rate
  6. Tuition fees
  7. Location


1) Academic requirements

Use the university website to identify its academic requirements, which will include the subject choice requirements, minimum/accepted score needed at the A-level or equivalent exam level, as well as the requirements for O-Level transcripts. Different schools place different levels of importance (e.g. on predicted A-Level grades versus your old O-Levels) and have different standards for this component of the application, so it is important that your grades match with or supersede the requirements of the school, to give yourself the best chance of having a successful application.  It should be noted that almost all medical schools (even outside the UK) refuse to accept scores from repeat examinations unless there is evidence of serious extenuating circumstances.


2) Standardized testing requirements

There are two standardized entrance tests for the UK medical schools – UKCAT and BMAT. UK Medicine Schools require one or the other, with most requiring the UKCAT.The two tests are very different in their format and the content they examine, so it is important to understand them when deciding which schools to apply to, so you can play to your strengths. For both tests it is not a matter of passing or failing, but scoring competitively against other applicants. Only scores from the academic year of application are valid in either test, so it is advised to prepare carefully in advance as you cannot repeat until the following year. Our partners ICON+ are experienced at preparing students for these high-stakes tests.

The UKCAT is a two-hour computer based test that consists of five sections – Verbal Reasoning, Decision Making, Quantitative Reasoning, Abstract Reasoning, and Situational Judgement. Each section uses multiple choice questions. It is more like an aptitude test than a test of your scientific ability or medical knowledge, as it tests skills rather than a particular syllabus. The UKCAT requires you to practice the different sections to improve your understanding of the format and practice the skills and timing required to answer them correctly. Different universities use the scores from this test differently (e.g. some use UKCAT alone to rank interviewees, others factor it into their final offers), so it is good to find out this information from their websites when applying. This exam is taken before the UCAS applications are sent out and results are immediate, so you can factor your score when deciding which medical schools to apply to.

The BMAT is a two-hour written exam that consists of three sections – Aptitude and Skills, Scientific Knowledge and Applications, and the Writing Task (essay). The Aptitude and Skills section bears some similarities to elements of the UKCAT. The Science section typically tests knowledge you should have from O-Level Maths, Biology, Chemistry and Physics. These sections have the highest possible scores. The Writing Task essay is separately graded for content and writing quality of your reasoned argumentative response to a quote or statement. In all sections timing is critically important and careful revision is particularly advised for Scientific Knowledge. The test is designed so that “applicants…who are…academically very able” will receive only a middling score. It is important to note that this exam can only be taken in November, after your applications have already been sent out, so you cannot base your application decisions on your score.


3) Interview style

The nature and weighting of the interview varies from school to school. Some small portion of schools do not (yet) conduct interviews, which may be attractive to those with concerns about interviewing. Panel interviews were once common, but the system of using “multiple mini-interviews” where there are several stations, has grown popular and requires dedicated preparation. While this format can integrate traditional interview elements, role-play situations, puzzles, team-based tasks, calculations and more can feature, so it is critical to learn to think on your feet and be adaptable. Interview practice is popular with Aureus Consulting students both as a standalone and in the integrated UK Medicine package.


4) Course Structure

Each medical school structures their courses quite differently. That said, they typically conform to the below styles, some of which may suit you better than others. This is an important factor for school selection.

Most schools have five-year courses, but there are some, such as Edinburgh, that have six-year courses with a compulsory intercalated year. Furthermore, different medical schools practice different styles of teaching – the more popular ones are Traditional, PBL and Integrated. Students learn differently so it’s important that you choose a teaching environment that you can thrive in.

  • Traditional – Usually two-three years of pre-clinical studies followed by three years of clinical studies. Pre-clinical years largely involve the study of basic medical sciences, and are often largely theoretical and lecture-based with minimal patient contact. The clinical years involve working in hospital wards under the supervision of consultants, along with lectures.
  • PBL – Problem-based Learning. This is a very patient oriented course right from the beginning, so students learn by working through medical cases, guided by group work with a tutor as well as self-directed learning. They also get early patient exposure to aid in their learning.
  • Integrated – This is the system implemented by most medical schools now, and is like a combination of the traditional and PBL teaching styles. Typically, medical topics are explored in lectures system by system (from varied scientific perspectives) contrasted with hands-on clinical learning.


5) International student acceptance rate

Different medical schools vary in the number of places reserved for international students, so this is an important factor to consider when choosing medical schools in order to increase chances of acceptance, although the proportion is always small. Some, but not all, schools will also publish acceptance rate statistics.


6) Tuition fees

The fees for international students differs between medical schools, and may be an important financial factor to consider. Not only fees but course length and living expenses are major factors to consider when judging the total expense. This is especially true for international students as they are typically given neither financial aid nor scholarships for most medical courses.


7) Location

The location of a university or medical school can have a significant impact on a student’s life. Some schools such as UCL or University of Birmingham are located in big cities, and are therefore close to the city-centre and happening areas, tending to have smaller urban facilities. However, some schools such as Sheffield have a small town or rural location and expansive green campuses. The location of the school also affects the weather, which can be a deciding factor in the case of some international students. While academics are important, student life at the university is also very important and should be given consideration when deciding on medical schools.

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