Oxford Demystified - Medicine from a parent's point of viewWatch
For the purpose of this book, A = my elder son, M = my younger son
Context: A has just got into Oxford for German
M will be contributing his own chapter about medicine soon.
“You need luck – lots of luck”
Oxford Medical Don
So now A… had finally won his place at Oxford. I remember visiting his college soon afterwards, and admiring the grounds with M…. M… said wistfully “I’m so jealous”, and from that moment on, I knew he had the best motivation possible to aim for Oxford too. Every weekend he stayed on A…’s couch, ate in the magnificent hall and sneaked into the Union, his ambition was being stoked up. But unfortunately, we were not talking about German this time. This was the big one. Medicine.
As luck would have it, there was a medical symposium at the college, to celebrate its anniversary. Many alumni were speaking about their ground-breaking medical research and current tutors, including the professor, were to address the students. As a student’s brother, M… could attend, and I hoped the lectures would inspire him. The talks amazed him and even better, we had the chance to speak to the tutors afterwards.
As head medical honcho, the professor was surrounded by admiring students, hanging on his every utterance. You could almost see his halo shining from the other side of the room. It took about twenty minutes until a student turned away from him, allowing me to sneak in beside him, with M… in tow.
“Hello, professor”, I ventured. “This is M…, A….’s brother. He would like to read medicine at your college. Do you have any advice for him?”
He paused for a moment and I held my breath, ready for a stream of recommended books, suggested work experience and other general inspiration. Instead, he turned away slightly and chuckled, like a twinkly Father Christmas.
“You need luck,” he replied. “Lots of luck.”
So…. that was that. End of advice. I felt like this actually was Christmas Day, but all that we had got was an orange, an apple and a bag of nuts, like the contents of my Grandad’s yuletide stocking.
At that moment, a medical place for M… seemed as likely as flying to the moon on an elastic band.
But go for it he did, and although the interview may involve a bit of luck (if you happened to have read a book containing the answer to a medical question), I still maintain it has a lot more to do with hard work and academic staying power.
The most obvious thing about Oxford Medicine is that it’s extremely hard to get in. As the world number one in the Times Higher Education’s rankings, this is the sizzling hot ticket for an already mega popular course.
Before you apply, be honest with yourself and think. Have you got around 9 or 10 A*s, or grades 8 or 9 in your GCSEs? Do you have enough stamina to keep at your studies and do your extra reading and activities as well? Can you keep going when others falter? These are the GCSE statistics for Oxford Medicine applicants
Admissions statistics for the Oxford Medicine course
If you are an international student, the dream is even more distant. The quotation below is taken from the Oxford University medicine website:
“Competition for places on the Medicine course at Oxford University for international students is very strong as the Medical School is required by the government to restrict the number of students who are classified as international students for fees purposes to a maximum of fourteen each year, across both the standard (A100) and Graduate Entry (A101) courses.”
The course itself is not everybody’s idea of academic paradise. You will not set foot in a hospital until year 4. There will be at least twice as many essays as at other universities (and medicine is tough going there as well). Some find the pressure and expectations hard to get used to at first. However if you are determined and expect life to be this way, you will cope. Instead of interacting from day one with patients, you will, for example, spend ages just learning about cells.
Here is the medicine course structure
and here is a first year medic’s impression of the course
After the Michaelmas and Hilary terms there are collections (exams), which are no walk in the park. There is so much material to learn, you will sometimes feel it is pointless, or you shouldn’t be having that week off at Christmas they advised you to have.
But all this happens for a reason. The Oxford course, with its full on thoroughness, provides an excellent theoretical preparation for the clinical years. When you step on the wards, you want to know as much as possible about anatomy, disease and why the body fails. Knowledge is power. Without this knowledge, how can you assess the problems you will be faced with, and find a solution?
The Oxford course is designed to fill its students with confidence. Everyone has studied with the greatest and toughest of tutors, on a one in three or four (at most) basis. They have been forced to continuously question their views and develop their own thoughts, sometimes in a field where there are no answers. This is what I find most exciting about the Oxford course. You are being trained not just to be doctors (all medical courses do this) but to become innovators.
See the Oriel website:
Atul Gawande, the famous popular medical writer, had a son who was gravely ill. He was told there was no cure for his boy’s condition, and if that was still the case by the time he reached adolescence, he would die. But Gawande trusted doctors to keep pushing the medical boundaries, so that by that critical time, a cure would be found. Sure enough, he was right, and the son is now, I am glad to say, in fine health
Oxford medicine is mostly aimed at such ground breaking researchers and consultants.
You also need to consider whether you prefer to apply to problem based learning courses.
If you prefer the PBL approach, Oxford medicine will not be for you.
The Oxford course provides a more traditional route.
The labs, of course, are sublime, as a result of generous funding and donations. Research firms are anxious to re-locate to Oxford, because of all the exciting, world class talent available there. As a first year student, you are encouraged to apply for a research post in a
The term at the end of the second year is an opportunity to carry out medical research in the labs. Some people enjoy the research element so much they don’t even complete the clinical years, but graduate straight to the labs and spend a lifetime there. One of M…’s tutors is a case in point.
Another massive plus is the sheer quality of teaching. One lecturer told his students not to mention a theory he was telling them about, as it had not been published yet. He then added that he hoped his idea would win the Nobel prize. In fact, he is not the only medical Nobel prize hopeful at Oxford. Even the students are encouraged to aim just as high. I am sure you will agree, this is operating at the very highest level.
Do you have a favourite medical author? Chances are you may get to hear them speak in person. During the first year, both Ben Goldacre (Bad Science and Bad Pharma)
and Henry Marsh (Do No Harm)
addressed the lucky members of Medsoc.
A Doctor’s Life – perception vs Reality
Are you really applying for medicine because it sounds posh and glamorous? Do you think that, as a doctor, you will be earning pots of money, and earn the automatic respect and adoration of your forelock tugging patients? This may have been the case many decades ago, as hilariously illustrated by Sir Lancelot Spratt, played by James Robertson Justice.
Good luck nowadays spotting a Rolls Royce in the doctors’ car park! Also the patients would be showering Sir Lancelot in lawsuits, like confetti, if he were practising nowadays. A lack of empathy is another no-no, and the issue of empathy may well be raised at your Oxford interview, and during other interviews elsewhere as well.
The same goes for Holby City, where the doctors seem to spend more time solving their own personal problems than actually treating patients.
There’s a lot to do and read, so the earlier you can start, the better.
Why not join St John Ambulance
St John Ambulance is about so much more than learning first aid. You get to meet other people of different ages, backgrounds and schools in your local area. Once you have your first aid certificate, you can attend marathons, shows and pop concerts for free, treat casualties and work alongside real doctors and nurses. You will also discover how much red tape there is to medicine. Even fitting a child with a plaster means filling in several forms. Also you learn confidentiality from a very early age. M… was not allowed to discuss cases he had seen, even with me.
Like scouting, you can work towards certificates in subjects such as photography as well as medical topics. This can lead to the Grand Prior Award.
By far the best plus for prospective medics is the peer educator course.
In other words, you are trained to teach other cadets about different aspects of medicine. One week you may give a talk about strokes, another on skin injuries. One interviewer at East Anglia medical school said this was “UCAS gold”. Or you could go yet further, and take the skills you have learned to your own school. M…’s school set up a first aid course for first years only and it was the best attended lunch time club they had (25 at each session). St Johns volunteers have told me that sixth formers sometimes only join for a few weeks, just to say they were members. How they have missed out!
May I point out that only some of M…’s colleagues were members of St John Ambulance. It is not a prerequisite to a place at Oxford, however it does provide you with a useful introduction to medicine.
The very first book any budding doctor should acquire is the BMA Illustrated Medical Dictionary by Dorling Kindersley.
Also, read St John Ambulance First Aid Manual by Dorling Kindersley.
These are some favourite books we had at home:
Nuland, S How We Live, Vintage, 1998
crid=2ZFBSKAGBB4H4&keywords=how+ we+live+nuland&qid=1560004913&s= gateway&sprefix=How+We+Live%2Cap s%2C139&sr=8-2
Nuland, S How We Die, Vintage, 1995
Gawande, A The Checklist Manifesto: How to get things right, Profile Books, 2010
Anything by Atul Gawande is fantastic, and my son has a full set of his books
Goldacre, B Bad Science, Harper Perennial, 2009
Jones, S The Language of the Genes, Harper Collins, 2000
Marsh, H Do No Harm, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2014
Kalanithi, P When Breath Becomes Air, Vintage, 2016
(Poignant, as the author died young, and great for inspiring quotes)
The above books are a mixture of the Oxford and Cambridge medical reading lists for candidates, and others we just acquired and enjoyed.
Please see the Oxford University full medical reading list for prospective candidates:
Also see further reading suggestions, plus 1,000 practice medical interview questions, from Cambridge
They are not textbooks and can be appreciated by scientists and laymen alike. The serious reader will read a few of these, but start going off piste eventually.
The smart thing to do with your later reading is to specialise, with one eye on your EPQ. The EPQ is your one chance to shine, and focus on one, rather narrow topic, the more unusual and in depth, the better. May I stress that you do not have to have an EPQ under your belt to get into Oxford medicine.
In order to choose a topic, you need inspiration, and this will only come if you expose yourself to as much medical information as possible. The thunderbolt may strike you as you are listening to Radio 4 (great for new medical innovations), reading the Student BMJ,
watching a documentary, attending the medical day at the Cambridge Science Festival or a Cambridge masterclass, entering an essay competition or working in a lab.
To rewind, the Cambridge Science Festival usually takes place in February/March every year for one day, at the medical school. There are exciting hands on exhibits, medical supply companies, tours of Glaxo Smithkline (on the Addenbrookes hospital site), and sometimes you can even visit an operating theatre.
The talks are free, but make sure you reserve your place one month in advance.
Cambridge organise several medical essay competitions for sixth formers.
The Peterhouse 2017 question was “Why isn’t there a cure for cancer yet?” and “How can a doctor know whether they are doing their job properly?”
Here is a Robinson college 2017 question: “If you could take one item, which must fit in your pocket, back in time with the goal of advancing science or medicine, what would it be, where would you go, and what would you do with it?”
Winners receive a cash prize of several hundred pounds, a certificate and enjoy a grand day out at the college to collect their prize. Even if you are not a winner, it is worthwhile entering just to practise researching and finding the correct literary resources. If you are, the kudos you acquire will be priceless. Although a win will not guarantee you an Oxford place, it cannot do you any harm on your personal statement.
Cambridge masterclasses, according to their website “are subject-specific events that offer students a flavour of undergraduate study”. They are for academically able students in year 12.
The lectures are delivered by Cambridge fellows and address topics not covered by the science curriculum (just the kind of thing you would be considering for your EPQ). Attending one of these sessions will open your mind to the possibility of exploring and researching new medical realms you may not have considered. There will also be an introduction to the Cambridge admissions process (which will be very similar to Oxford). The cost is surprisingly reasonable (only £20). The sessions take place on the main Sidgwick site, opposite Newnham College. You will have to fund your lunch, but there is a decent hot dog stand just a few yards away on the bridge. Of course the medical talks tend to get booked up very quickly, but I was told I could create an alert just before the latest release. Just email the masterclass team. Thus I was able to get tickets not just for my son, but for his friends as well.
May I stress that the above suggestions are not mandatory. Select the ones that appeal to you most and have fun researching.
Not everyone can find work shadowing experience in hospitals, and tutors are aware of this (therefore it is not essential).
Nursing homes are a great place to start (if you can find one which accepts you), and just because this is not a directly medical environment, it does not mean it is not a very valuable experience. For a start, you can begin at age 16 (for hospitals it is often 17). You will not be able to administer drugs or treat people like the nurses do, but you can watch them at work and learn from their patience and soft skills with the residents.
In nursing homes you have the luxury of time, which in hospitals you will lack. You can really talk to the residents and get to know them. This will teach you to be a better listener and to appreciate the benefits of your own good health and the freedom to have control of your life. It will surprise you that the old gentleman in the corner used to fly fighter aircraft in the war, or the cheerful old lady has a grandson who plays professional football. They may have impaired short term memory, but their long term memory is crystal clear. The most moving sound I ever heard was a group singing “There’ll be bluebirds over the white cliffs of Dover” (a Vera Lynn wartime song). M… used to help with the activities. This could be the creative arts or bingo calling. Somehow I can’t imagine M… doing bingo calling!
An unexpected bonus of this work experience was that M… finally got his thunderbolt moment. His favourite resident (I think the fighter pilot one) used to keep coming up to him and playing practical jokes on him. Then M… went back to the nursing home to the sad news that he had died. Even worse, he had died a nasty death from an awful brain condition. As M… was so fond of him, he hoped he had not suffered too much, and set about finding out whether or not he had actually been in much pain at the end. This unleashed an EPQ of mammoth proportions, all about consciousness. My house was virtually being invaded by consciousness books, but when you’re driven, you’re driven.
M… had a great idea, which probably helped him to get his Oxford place. If you are a scientist, you need the most up to date research. In the fast paced world of medicine, sometimes books are out of date relatively quickly. Therefore it would be handy to have access to medical papers/articles.
One way to do this is to join your local medical school library (not sure if you can manage this where you live, but it’s worth trying). All you need is ID and a letter from your parents giving you permission. Although you cannot take out the books, you are able to download as many papers as you like. There were even articles dating back to 1939, along with cutting edge studies which had only just been published.
Hospital placements are not always easy to find, but have you considered doing a two week placement in a laboratory? Sometimes you can be part of the scientist’s research, and even holding a pipette can sometimes earn you a mention in a published paper. Just go to your local medical school website and look up research projects.
If you are applying for GP work experience, don’t bank on a guaranteed placement. Unfortunately some previous students have broken confidentiality, and as a result practices are reluctant to take the risk of admitting newcomers. However others will welcome applications, so it’s worth the price of a stamp.
Hospitals may also permit you to work shadow, or even volunteer. The best age to apply is 17 and you will need to complete forms and sometimes have a high degree of patience, politeness and persistence whilst you wait for them to get back to you. However it is worth it, as M… met and worked alongside many dedicated, inspirational doctors, and enjoyed the camaraderie of being in a tight knit team.
The worst aspect of the medical applications is that everything seems to happen at the same time. It is tough juggling A Levels, personal statement, work experience and reading all at the same time. And just when you thought you could cope, you remember the dreaded tests, the UCAT and the BMAT.
Ace the UCAT
This may be a strange thing to say, as Oxford uses the BMAT. However the UCAT is seen as the easier test of the two. You are allowed four medical choices on your UCAS form, and to put down three BMAT choices would seem risky. The UCAT is a multiple-choice test you take entirely on the computer at an allocated test centre. There is little time, so you have to work quickly.
You can either use a book to prepare
or attend a course (in M…’s case, the Medic Portal)
Whether you choose the course, or the book, it’s up to you. The course comes with a free book, however the course can be quite expensive.
However, immediately after you have finished your preparations, you need to crack on with some practice questions.
My son used Medify.
Not only does it have practice questions, but there are also handy articles about personal statements etc. These questions are not free of charge. Please see the website for details.
This is a pen and paper test (which Oxford uses as a medical admissions test), divided into multiple choice maths and science questions, plus an essay writing task. Past essay questions have included:
“Science has been a process of continuous advancement towards objective truth”.
“There is money to be made from not curing disease”.
Past BMAT papers
Again, you can buy a book,
Or go on a course
The Medic Portal courses come with free books. After the course, again you need to practice immediately.
However my son used BMAT Ninja
Both the UCAT and the BMAT need to be paid for. You sit the BMAT at school, alongside other Oxbridge test candidates.
To make your misery complete, you will also be struggling with your personal statement at about the same time.
As a guide, you can always look at the medical personal statements stored on the Student Room
Some of the statements are critiqued, and it also reveals which university rejected and accepted each candidate. Interestingly, hardly any were accepted at each of their four choices, even if the personal statement was amazing. See how successful Oxford statements differ from those at other medical schools.
Just a word of warning, though. This is a personal statement, so do not be tempted to plagiarise. Own that statement. Be true to yourself, and you can’t go wrong.
Do not be afraid. Do not imagine that your medical rivals are more high flying than you and have perfect personal statements. They do not. Sometimes they even make technical errors when describing an aspect of medicine, so check your facts. Just take a deep breath and put your heart on the line. You love medicine, so let it show. Impress the admissions officers with your keenness and back this up with examples.
There are no hard and fast rules. You may begin by saying what attracts you to medicine, but even that is not compulsory. What you do need to showcase is empathy (this was seized on at M..’s interview, as it helps to show how caring you are). Also talk about what you learned in hospital/the nursing home/the GP surgery. You may have admired how patients have coped with adversity, or how hospital staff have shown special insight. For example, when M… was much younger, he had his first operation. He was having several teeth removed, and was really worried. One of the nurses on the ward had made a scrapbook about what was going to happen, complete with photos. One he had leafed through the scrapbook, he realised things weren’t going to be as terrifying as he thought, and they weren’t.
Finally, you need to demonstrate briefly that you understand that medicine is not all plain sailing, by any means! You could, for instance, mention overcrowding in A&E, the messiness, the human suffering, the tiredness you will feel as a doctor etc. Then end with what you could bring to the course.
Do not tailor your entire personal statement to Oxford. The other medical schools you have applied to will be reading this as well!
After everything is finally completed, there follows an anxious wait for interviews. Oxford uses a complicated algorithm to decide who will attend for interview. If you have an interview, well done, as to get this far with medicine is quite an achievement. You will now stand as much chance (about 1 in 3) as German or philosophy candidates.
Here are some further sample medical interview questions
and examples of Oxford medical school interviews
One difference is that medics always have interviews at two colleges, to give them a better chance. M.. had interviews at his chosen college and two at his allocated college, Somerville.
The interviews at M..’s chosen college were a nightmare. He dubbed them “the hardest bl**dy interviews in Oxford”. M.. was eased into the interview with a question about empathy, taken from something he had put on his personal statement. However, he said after the first five minutes “I proceeded to make a fool of myself”. The bottom line in an Oxford medical interview is “can you answer the science/medical questions, or at least make a good stab at them”. When I asked what the questions were about, he said “you wouldn’t understand”,
By the end, they were firing medical questions at him in rapid succession. When this happens, you know you are in the final strait, fighting for your place.
M.. met some very nice prospective medical students at the interviews. Most had not done much reading around the subject. He never saw those particular people again.
The wait that followed seemed to go on forever. It was a very anxious time in our little household. When D-Day finally arrived, I was more prepared than last time. For a start, I had taken the day off work and as I had sneakily scheduled a visit to the dentist the same day, M… was also not in school.
All morning I was glued to the Student Room. My stomach was doing nervous somersaults as students appeared, posting “Yay, I got into Somerville for medicine”. Still no email (from Somerville) or letter (from Oriel). Lunchtime came and went. Still nothing. I wondered if they notified the rejects later.
A friend phoned and asked me if I was okay. “No, I’m not” I cried. “Everyone’s hearing but M…”.
I will never forget my kind friend’s reply. “The best is yet to come. I know he’s got into his first choice.”
M’s college was quite traditional, and sent its decisions by post (now it’s all done via track update). One o’clock came and went. Time seemed to be going so slowly, and the postman slower still.
M… was sitting watching TV, right next to the letterbox and I was still stressing over the comments on the Student Room. Then there came the sound we were waiting for. Something had just come through the letterbox.
“Is that what I think it is?” he cried, jumping up. Meanwhile, I was sprinting into the next room with all the speed of Usain Bolt. M.. was trying to pause the TV and because the remote was not working properly, he was just pressing it again and again, with no success. That left me beating him to the envelope and picking it up.
Immediately I had a feeling of sweet elation. A thick envelope!
“You’ve got in!” I screamed, chucking it at him. He was so excited, he tore at the envelope, almost ripping the acceptance letter. All he found at first were lots of forms, asking him to undergo various medical tests and complete health questionnaires. I remember after he found the letter he collapsed into the armchair, in a gesture of pure relief and joy.
My final protege did get in for law (senior status) and has promised me a chapter. However he is an undergraduate at UCL and needs to get a first in his degree to qualify. His exams don't finish until August, and he works very hard. Will let him know of your interest, however I don't wish to disturb him too much at this stage.
Will send him a quick message.
Don't want to break the rhythm of the book, @Oxford Mum but I was wondering if you had any similar chapters for Law or humanities courses. Your sons are lucky to have a parent this supportive and involved!
Would love to chat with you more on there.
Don't want to break the rhythm of the book, @Oxford Mum but I was wondering if you had any similar chapters for Law or humanities courses. Your sons are lucky to have a parent this supportive and involved!