- The University of Oxford's medical school is ranked as one of the top 10 best medical programs globally.
- Students who've been accepted told Business Insider that you need to stand out academically but also show that you can think on your feet.
- The admissions board also rewards work experience in medicine, so 2020 graduate Gerald Roseman recommended keeping a diary logging what you've done in the past.
- "They are weighted heavily toward academic and scientific aptitude, so students looking to replicate their applications from other universities can put too much emphasis on soft skills such as communication and teamwork. If you want to go to Oxford, you first need to connect on the scientific and academic level," said one med school consultant.
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The University of Oxford's medical sciences division is ranked second globally by education specialists QS Quacquarelli Symonds for medical schools and seventh globally for clinical medicine by US News & World Report.
The school has notoriously rigorous academic requirements, with British students needing to have achieved A* in at least three A-levels in one academic year (excluding critical thinking and general studies), and an A or above in both chemistry and at least one other category, including biology, physics, and mathematics.
All applicants are also required to take the BioMedical Admissions Test (BMAT) as part of their application.
Further complicating things is the fact that only 14 international students are accepted each year to the program, and they must have an International Baccalaureate level of 766 or higher, or an equivalent in their home country.
In addition to academic potential, the school states on its website that it looks for personal characteristics that make students suitable for medicine, including empathy, motivation, communication, an ability to work with others, and a capacity for sustained and intense work.
Over the last three years, the admissions committee has interviewed some 26% of applicants, with only 9% of applicants, or 154 students, ultimately landing a spot in the program.
Business Insider spoke to current students, recent graduates, and admissions consultants familiar with the program to gather their top tips for getting accepted into this prestigious institution.
Take studying for the BMAT seriously
Gerald Roseman graduated from Oxford in 2020 with a bachelor of medicine and bachelor of surgery, and is a contributing author at "The Unofficial Guide to Medicine." He said that with the academic standards so high, students need to begin with a strategy to get through their exams.
"The real skill to it was learning how to apply the knowledge rather than simply learning all the facts. In my experience, it was a matter of doing as many of the official practice questions that I could," he told Business Insider.
After taking practice tests from the book "700 BMAT Practice Questions: With Contributions from Official BMAT Examiners and Past BMAT Candidates," he dissected whether he got questions right for the right reasons — and if he got them wrong, what he needed to do better.
"The exam itself is quite time pressured. I found that practicing under timed conditions was really helpful," he said. "In the essay section, you have a set amount of space to fill, so it was also about learning how to use that space beforehand so that when you sit the test, you know roughly how many words you can fit in that space."
Keep a diary of your medical work experience to call upon
Roseman also believes that being able to draw from direct experience working in healthcare is critical.
"It could be volunteering in a care home, working in a hospital, or shadowing a GP. This can be difficult for high school students, as you often need to be over 18 to see patients. Some hospitals do have schemes in place to facilitate this experience," he said.
One of the best pieces of advice he was given was to keep an ePortfolio, such as this resource funded by the US Department of Education, where you can write reflections from experiences working at a hospital and what you learn from them.
"It's quite structured," he said. "It prompts you to say what happened, what you learned from it, what would you do differently in the future, and the action points that you intend to take away and follow up on."
By completing this throughout his work experience in a hospital, Roseman said that it was fascinating to read back on what he had learned.
"I made notes of things from my work experience, such as how teams work effectively, so that when I was discussing teamwork in my interviews, I had specific instances that I could call upon," he said.
Emphasize passions and experiences different from the standard requirements in your personal statement
Triya Chakravorty is in her fourth year of pursuing the six-year degree at Oxford. After she was admitted, she said that she received feedback from her college that having taken A-levels in physics is unusual for someone looking to study medicine.
"People who have eventually become my teachers in uni said that having something like that made my application stand out because they value academic achievement highly. I was asked a lot of questions about physics in my interview," she said.
Chakravorty applied that ethos in her personal statement, where most candidates traditionally write about a book or story that's affected them.
"I decided to write about what exactly it was in the sciences that interested me in a philosophical way," she said. "I wrote about how I find biological pathways really interesting, and I related that to something I was learning in my school A-level syllabus. It sparked the attention of my interviewers, and they questioned me on it further."
Ultimately, she believes that the key to her success was illustrating her interest in fundamental scientific concepts, as it showed that she had academic interests beyond what she was required to learn at school.
Be prepared to answer out-of-the-box questions in your interview, but focus on authentic responses
Affan Saibudeen, currently in his fifth year of med school at Oxford, said that interviewers like to ask "out of the box" questions in the interview.
"The most unexpected question was in regards to my hobby of hiking. I got asked what the average speed of a human walking is. I didn't know the answer because I never expected to be asked, so I admitted that I didn't know the answer. I then thought out loud and tried to calculate the answer based on the distance between two locations that I know and the time it took me to get from one to the other. In the end, I came to a figure close to the answer," he said.
An admissions tutor told Saibudeen that the best applicants were those who engaged with unexpected questions and entered into a back-and-forth conversation, rather than those who were confused and pushed back along the lines of, "This is not about medicine."
Preparing for this kind of experiential questioning can also be helpful for students who might not have a strong personal story to address the perennial question of, "Why medicine, why you?
"I didn't really have a story about overcoming massive difficulties in my life, or this one pinpoint moment that made me decide to be a doctor," Saibudeen said. "If it happened organically then that is great, but it will be quite obvious if you're trying to plug these moments into your application."
Saibudeen said that he tried to compensate for not having a "stand out" story by showing the interviewers that he knew more than most of his peers what he was getting into — and not only the rewarding or emotionally taxing parts.
"I spoke about the menial day to day things, heavily leaning on my experience as a ward clerk at my local hospital and bringing forward anecdotes. My goal from doing this was to show that even after seeing the realities of working in a hospital, I was still excited about it and certain it was what I wanted to do," he said.
Demonstrate an understanding of the resilience required to work in medicine
Saibudeen believes that if there's one common trait he can identify in his fellow students, it's not only resilience but understanding how that resilience will be needed in a medical career. He demonstrated this in his interview by telling them about a situation he witnessed when working in a hospital's pediatric unit.
"There wasn't agreement between doctors and parents about what the right course of action should be," he said.
He told the tutors interviewing him how he saw first hand that emotions are flying much higher when children are involved, and the parents' right to decide can trump a doctor's opinion.
"With the help of other professionals, the doctor walked through the scenarios to show their conviction that a certain course of action was the best way to treat the patient," he said. "I was able to talk to the interviewers that I had seen another side of medicine you don't usually hear a lot about."
Display the scientific mindset that's prized at Oxford
As cofounder of The Medic Portal, an online community for those who want to pursue a career in medicine in the UK, Chris Nordstrom is committed to widening access into medicine for young students.
He said that a common misapprehension among academically bright students applying to Oxford is that there's always a correct answer.
"They are picking out inquisitive and scientifically-minded individuals to interview and see how they stand up," he said.
In other words, being a straight-A student isn't enough — you need to showcase academic abilities above and beyond fellow high-achievers.
"You can demonstrate this by entering — and hopefully winning — essay prizes," Nordstrom said. "Many institutions, such as the Royal Society of Medicine, offer student essay prizes on a range of medical and scientific topics. Other competitions, such as the Biology Olympiad, show that you have the ability that Oxford is looking for."
Oxford's interview process mirrors their famous tutorial system — where instead of lectures, some courses see groups of two or three students undertake an hour of personalized learning with their tutor — to see if the candidate is the kind of person who will fit in with the intense style of teaching.
"They take the approach of looking for that scientific mind," Nordstrom said. "It doesn't matter where you have come from — are you the kind of person who will form a very logical structure, but at the same time be able to think about all of the variables?"
One of the challenges he finds with students applying to multiple universities is that Oxford and Cambridge medical schools have a different emphasis than most other schools in the UK.
"They are weighted heavily toward academic and scientific aptitude, so students looking to replicate their applications from other universities can put too much emphasis on soft skills such as communication and teamwork. If you want to go to Oxford, you first need to connect on the scientific and academic level," he said.
Graduate-entry students need to especially articulate their reasons for pursuing medicine
Admissions consultant and Oxford graduate Sunny Jain said that those seeking entry to the graduate-entry/accelerated medicine degree should be aware that it's more rigorous than standard undergraduate admission.
"Applicants for grad entry need three referees instead of one, and every applicant needs to ensure that the referees really push for their candidate. Those references are vital and they need to explain why X is a worthy candidate and why he or she changed their mind and decided to become a doctor," he said.
The degree is an intensive four-year medical course that's been designed for graduates who are trained in applied or experimental sciences. He believes that admissions wants to see these students demonstrating absolute commitment to medicine and proving that they're not taking it on lightly.
"They will particularly want to see how your prior degree and experiences can contribute to you making better decisions as a doctor," he said. "If you can use language such as, 'From studying X I have seen Y, and I believe this is analogous to this problem in Z way,' it will demonstrate that the student has made a considered decision."
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