I'm no expert at this whole process, I'm not an admissions tutor. But having just gained a place at medical school, I know something about it and my advice is here for you to take or leave. This is aimed mostly at Year 12s who are looking to apply in the next academic year, but there may be some useful bits for others too.
Take all advice from teachers with a pinch of salt. I was told that unless I got over 85% in every module I’d never get into medical school. And that basically if my work experience was anything less than single handedly saving the life of a car crash victim in A&E, then it wasn’t good enough. Don’t panic, remember people who've done this kind of thing already don’t need to go to medical school do they? ;) That was a bit of hyperbole of course, however the sentiment is correct. Don't be put off by what your teachers say. Medicine is one of the most difficult degrees to get into in the UK, but it is not impossible and if its what you want to go into then don't let anything hold you back.
For goodness sake start early! At a hospital near me there was an 18 month waiting list for work experience placements! Hospital experience is important, but it is definitely not the be all and end all for your medical application. Try general hospitals and small units as they are likely to be more accommodating. You NEED ‘caring’ experience, and if that means listening to old Doris in the local care home warbling about the good old days, then so be it. I worked with special needs children, and in my interviews I spoke more about that than my hospital experience. In general, variety is the spice of life. There is no ‘right’ amount of work experience, if you’ve enough to speak eloquently about it for 5-10 minutes then you’re good to go.
UKCAT and BMAT
With the UKCAT you have the golden opportunity to do it before you apply. Use it. That way not only is it £30 cheaper, but you don’t make the mistake of applying to 3 UKCAT worshipping unis then getting a low score. You can prepare for the UKCAT through regularly doing a bit of practice. However don’t pay for any courses, as they are such a waste of time. There's are practice papers floating about everywhere, including on the UKCAT website. Use them. On the contrary, the BMAT requires an awful lot of work to succeed in particular past paper practice . For this reason, if your first choice is a university that requires the BMAT, you should do the UKCAT as well. However, if your first choice is a university that requires the UKCAT then you won’t be motivated to work hard enough to do the BMAT justice - therefore don’t do it.
If you’re grade 8 piano, then well done you, by all means bring it up in your PS saying why that makes you a better candidate. But heed this: practically everyone does D of E/ plays an instrument/sport. Its not special unless you can say how it impacted on you as a person, and how it makes you a better candidate for a place at medical school - and ultimately why its going to make you a better Doctor.
Brief Description of the Application Cycle
Before the 15th of October deadline for applications you might think that once the 15th comes and your application has been sent off to UCAS then you will be able to forget all about it. This WONT happen - You will spend every free moment thinking about medicine, when you're not partying, at school/college or asleep at least. Once submitted it is best not to have high expectations of success, that way the disappointment of your first rejection will be less damaging to your confidence. At most Med Schools they get THOUSANDS of applications for a few hundred places. Even with stellar grades and a top PS, you will probably be rejected by at least one medical schools without even an interview unless you are in the top 1% of all applications, and that's about 20 people in the country.
First interviews are held in November and December, January will be a blank unless you're not in education. February, March and April are when the final batches of interviews take place. After that you can near enough assume you wont be interviewed. And if you don't get an offer before Easter, its unlikely you will get one at all. Just before the May deadline the Unis all punch in the final rejections - this can be really demoralising if you have had 3 interviews and are clinging onto the hope that just one, maybe, might make you an offer.
After this your only hope is the Reserve List. Unis contact a few very near misses who *are not holding an A100 place anywhere else*, and put them on a Reserve List so that if on Results Day in August they are a few short to fill places, they *might* phone you. If you aren't holding an offer or on the Reserve List anywhere as you go into Results Day, thats it, forget Medicine for this year. Start rewriting your PS and getting another whole load of work experience sorted out for re-applying in October.