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How to choose a medical school

Feeling confused? You’re not alone… Applying to medical school is like asking someone to marry you. This might seem like an exaggeration, however over your lifetime you will spend more hours working than you will spend awake with your life partner. Like marriage, being a doctor will change who you are, influence where you live, and affect what you can do. For the right person this can be a wonderful, life-affirming experience. Otherwise, divorce from a medical career can be messy, painful and upsetting.

Think you might have what it takes? Once you have decided to become a doctor, the next big decision is where to study. The years spent at medical school will be some of the most important of your life, as you acquire the necessary skills and knowledge, as well as developing professionally. The choice of medical school also greatly affects your chances of receiving an offer. So you’ll need to select medical schools that match your individual academic and non-academic skills.

Applicants commonly ask, “what is the best medical school?” To be honest, your choice will not make a huge difference to your professional career. Your knowledge, skills, and attitudes will depend much more on the amount of time you invest in the course than the institution you attend. Regardless of your school, you’ll be as free as anyone else to pursue the specialty of your choice. Choose institutions because *you* would thrive there, not because of preconceived notions of quality or status.

So how can you narrow down your options?

Here is a flow chart that, admittedly, grossly simplifies a complex thought process. But it should help to highlight some of the most important factors and the types of courses that embrace them. Medical schools have many subtle distinguishing factors though, so read up on them, and try to visit a few.

Image credit: Figure 7.1, An algorithm for choosing a type of medical school, from 'So You Want to be a Doctor?' p. 95
An algorithm for choosing a type of medical school, from ‘So You Want to be a Doctor?‘ p. 95. Used with permission.

The choices

Each medical school has its own character, and artificially grouping them inevitably leads to generalizations. For example, traditional Red Brick universities may sometimes teach a more modern ‘problem based learning’ (PBL) type of course. Others may lack a traditional course style – but adopt a classic collegiate structure. With this in mind, use the groupings as a guide to focusing on similar medical schools – but do make sure to visit, and find out more for yourself.

Image Credit, Clockwise: 'Carbon Fiber' by ATM Depot, 'Building' by LenaSevcikova, 'Wall' by GregMontani, 'Structure' by Nebenbei. All CCO Public Domain via Pixabay.
Image Credit, Clockwise: ‘Carbon Fiber’ by ATM Depot. ‘Building’ by LenaSevcikova. ‘Wall’ by GregMontani. ‘Structure’ by Nebenbei. All CC0 Public Domain via Pixabay.

Carbon fibre

Ultramodern problem-based learning courses. These are the marmite of medical schools – you either love them or hate them.

Plate glass

New, sensible, and made for the city, if somewhat commonplace. Campus- or city-based courses with a mixture of PBL and lectures.

Red bricks

These traditional tried and tested courses are likely to feature in your application. Lecture-based city courses with early clinical exposure and minimal PBL.


Established but a little stuffy; old academic (occasionally collegiate) courses with an emphasis on science.

So you’ve decided?

The next hurdle is, unfortunately – admissions tests. Most medical schools require an admission test to help identify the best candidates. You only get one chance to take each test each year, but with careful preparation it is possible to maximize your score.

The tests are very different from A-levels and appreciating this difference is the key to doing well. They do not test what you know; rather they test how well you can think under time pressure. To succeed, you must focus on answering lots of questions well rather than a few questions perfectly. Being familiar with the tests and refining your technique can make all the difference.

There are two main tests used by medical schools in the United Kingdom: the UK Clinical Aptitude Test (UKCAT) and the Biomedical Admissions Test (BMAT). The UKCAT has five sections: Verbal Reasoning, Quantitative Reasoning, Abstract Reasoning, Decision Analysis, and Non-Cognitive Analysis. The BMAT consists of three sections: Aptitude and Skills, Scientific Knowledge and Applications, and the Writing Task.

Feeling Nervous? Don’t be. Applying to medical school can be daunting, but doing your research, asking questions, and immersing yourself (as far as possible) in the culture of your profession will help endlessly. Blogs, books, periodicals, and TV shows will all aid a better understanding of the world you are going in to. Whichever medical school you end up at, like a good marriage – it’s not about finding the ‘perfect’ school – but finding the perfect imperfections for you!

Featured Image Credit: ‘Computer, Business, Typing’ by Unsplash. CCO Public Domain via Pixabay.

Recent Comments

  1. mark david

    How to choose a medical school very helpful.

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