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Studying Medicine Abroad – the changing landscape of medical school application (March 2021)

Each year, hundreds of Hong Kong students enroll in overseas medical schools. With the recent government proposal to change Hong Kong’s requirements for its medical licensing exam, making it more straightforward for overseas trained Hong Kong doctors to return to practice, this trend of studying medicine abroad will continue to rise.

UK and the Brexit Impact

Studying in UK medical schools has always been a popular choice among Hong Kong students. The United Kingdom (UK) formally left the European Union (EU) on 31 January 2020. This has numerous economic and social implications – including medical school application for international students. Each UK medical school has an annual quota for international students; post Brexit (starting with 2021 entry), EU applicants (previously classified as "home" or "EU status") are now competing for international spaces. What this means is that competition for medical school places for international applicants will become more fierce going forward.

How to increase your chance of admission into medical schools in the UK

1) Early planning and preparation – start preparing your application 18-24 months in advance.

  • Choose suitable sixth form subjects
  • Undertake medicine related work experience and/or voluntary work
  • Prepare for medical school entrance exams (UCAT and BMAT)
  • Draft Personal statement
  • Choose the right medical schools to maximise your chance of interviews

2) Interview preparation

Once the applicants pass the first stage of the admissions process (commonly, it is academic screening based on predicted grades, entrance exam scores, and the quality of one’s personal statement) they will receive an invite to a Medicine interview.

Most medical schools either use multiple mini interviews (MMIs) or Traditional (panel) interviews during their selection process. An interview is the final and last hurdle of securing a medical school offer. Therefore, it is essential that students obtain interview training and go through mock interviews prior to their interview to ensure they perform to their best abilities.

3) Apply for UK private medical schools in addition to traditional UK medical schools

Generally speaking, each applicant could apply to a maximum of four UK medical schools via the UCAS system (the UK University application portal). In addition, international applicants could also apply to a few UK private medical schools through direct application; in doing so, they increase their chance of acceptance.

The price of private and traditional medical school courses are similar for international students. However, while traditional medical schools have a fixed quota for international students, private UK medical schools do not.

The application process and requirement for UK private medical schools are straightforward and worth exploring.

Other overseas locations for studying medicine

Apart from UK medical schools, students may also consider Hong Kong, US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, especially if they are permanent residents/ hold passports of those countries. For US and Canada, there is no undergraduate entry route to medicine; applicants are required to complete a 3-4 year undergraduate degree before they apply via the graduate route. While for Australia and New Zealand, there are both undergraduate and postgraduate entry routes to medicine.

Understanding the importance of medical school Entrance Exams (UCAT and BMAT)

In addition to academic grades, personal statements, and interviews, many medical schools will use entrance exams such as BMAT and UCAT (previously known as UKCAT) or UCAT ANZ as part of their selection process.

With increasing numbers of medicine/dentistry applicants with competitive academic grades and amazing personal statements, UCAT and BMAT scores are more important than ever before.

Most Universities will either set a cut-off score that you need to beat, rank candidates by score, or use it alongside the Personal Statement when shortlisting candidates for an interview.

Therefore, attaining a good UCAT / BMAT score is key for the success of your Medical School application. Below are a series of short blogs on preparation tips and FAQ on BMAT and UCAT. Below are FAQs and tips for UCAT that you might find helpful for your application.

Commonly asked questions for UCAT

5 Top tips for UCAT (previously known as UKCAT) success

Which universities require BMAT/UCAT?

What is BMAT?

The BioMedical Admissions Test (BMAT) is an aptitude test used as part of the admissions process for medicine, biomedical sciences and dentistry in some universities in the United Kingdom, Singapore, Spain, Malaysia, Thailand, Hungary, Croatia and the Netherlands.

The test takes 120 minutes and consists of three parts:

  • An aptitude test with critical thinking and problem-solving questions.
  • An knowledge test in biology, chemistry and physics
  • An essay writing section

How long is the BMAT and how is it formatted and scored?

BMAT is a two-hour admissions test that assesses a combination of aptitude and knowledge, with no calculator or dictionary allowed. The BMAT tests a broad range of skills across three sections:

Section Questions (Timing) Scoring
Section 1 tests your skills in problem-solving, understanding arguments, and data analysis and inference 32 Questions (1 hour) 1-9
Section 2 tests your ability to apply scientific knowledge typically covered in school science and mathematics by the age of 16 27 Questions (30 min) 1-9
Section 3 tests your ability to select, develop and organise ideas, and to communicate them in writing concisely and effectively. You’ll write an essay on one of three questions that you choose 1 essay (30 min) 1-5
A-E
  • Sections 1 and 2 are scored on a scale of 1 (low) to 9 (high).
  • Questions in Sections 1 and 2 are worth 1 mark each. Total raw marks for each section are converted to BMAT's scale. The raw marks to score conversion varies each year.
  • Section 3 is scored on two scales: one for quality of content (on a scale of 0–5), and one for quality of written English (on the scale A, C, E).

The BMAT results help admissions officers identify candidates who possess the reasoning and communication skills required to succeed in a medical schools’ rigorous courses. . While each medical school uses the BMAT score differently, in general, a high score on the BMAT will determine if you will move on to the interview stage at your chosen medical school/s, while also significantly increasing your chance of an offer. It is therefore worth spending time familiarizing yourself with the test format, practising past papers, as well as learning test-taking strategies.

Our BMAT course is designed to provide a concise but thorough guide and training for students who will be taking the BMAT in 2021.

How do universities use BMAT scores?

There are various ways universities use BMAT scores to decide which candidates proceed to the interview stage.

Some universities may set a BMAT cut-off score, with only those passing a certain number able to progress to the interview stage. This figure would be based on the number of expected interviews. As a result, the BMAT cut-off score changes each year. However, the BMAT cut-off point from previous admissions cycles may be used as a guide.

Sometimes universities prioritise certain elements of the BMAT over others. For example, if you think that you are good at writing essays, you could apply to a university that places more emphasis on the Section 3’s score. You should take the time to research how the medical or dental schools you wish to apply to make use of your BMAT score and apply to those who favour sections of the test you excel at.

Understanding how to optimise your BMAT score increases your chances of securing an offer.

What is a “good” BMAT score?

Universities use the BMAT score in different ways to decide who proceeds to the interview stage.

There is no pass/fail threshold for BMAT.

For sections 1 and 2, average BMAT candidates will score around a 5.0, getting roughly half the questions correct. Better candidates will score around 6.0, and a few, exceptional candidates will score higher than 7.0.

Historical BMAT statistics: https://www.admissionstesting.org/Images/601560-bmat-explanation-of-results-2020.pdf

How long should I spend preparing for the BMAT?

Unlike UCAT, BMAT is knowledge based, especially section 2, and requires candidates to problem-solve, analyse and organise ideas, seen mostly in sections 1 and 3. As such, the BMAT requires ample preparation time.

Ideally, you should begin revising 1½ to 2 months before the test; add more time if you feel unsure about specific topics in the sciences, such as Physics.. It must be emphasised that ‘cramming’ for the BMAT is not recommended.

5 Top tips for BMAT success

Choosing the right medical schools (UK)

When planning to study at medical schools in the UK, keep in mind you can only apply to a maximum of four medicine courses and one non-medicine course through UCAS. There are currently over 40 medical schools in the UK; choosing the right Med Schools tailored to your strengths could boost your chances of getting shortlisted for an interview, and consequently increase your odds of securing an offer.

The below highlights some important points to consider when choosing a medical school.

Compare Academic Entry Requirements + English Requirements

A key factor in choosing a Medical School is understanding its entry requirements. While academic requirements are consistently high across all medical schools, there are slight differences in which areas they prioritise.

For example, some universities place more importance on GCSE grades while others closely examine A-level or IB grades (or equivalent). Some will not consider your grade for a subject like General Studies, and others will completely reject your application if you have ever had to resit any of your A-levels.

Therefore, it is important you do thorough research before applying. If you do not meet a school’s minimum requirements, your application will not be considered, so there is little point in wasting your time applying.

BMAT vs UCAT medical schools

It is also vital to understand admissions tests, as these are often the most important poart of your application. For most UK med schools, you will either have to sit the UCAT or BMAT, and you should also be aware of how these scores will be used by each university when it comes to shortlisting applicants (e.g. cut-off scores for UCAT or BMAT).

Note: UK private medical schools do not require BMAT or UCAT, and you can apply to them directly outside the UCAS system. Please see below for more information.

Research the interview shortlisting formula of each medical school

You should research how Med Schools will shortlist applications and their selection policy, so you will know what they’re looking for and increase your chance of being shortlisted for interviews.

Once you have met their minimum entry requirements, they will shortlist applicants for interviews in a number of ways. For instance, they may rank solely by UCAT or BMAT scores, or give applicants points based on a few areas, such as UCAT/BMAT, academic grades, personal statement, and other factors, and then invite the ones with the highest points to an interview.

Your research should allow you to apply to schools that focus on your areas of strength.. The good news is that both entry requirements and shortlisting information are publicly available. You can get this information from each medical school’s website and review them in detail.

The style of the medical school interviews (MMI vs. Panel- style interviews)

Depending on the medical school, either traditional panel-style or MMI-style interviews are used to select candidates. MMI’s and traditional interviews both have their pros and cons, and as a result some will prefer one style and others the other. When choosing which medical schools to apply for, you may want to take into consideration their interview format, so you can prepare accordingly for an interview format you are comfortable with.

Consider your personal preferences and other factors

Last but not least, consider your personal preference to ensure you have a good experience while studying. Some factors to consider include:

  • Location
  • Course structure
  • Competition ratio - Applicants to offers ratio
  • Number of international places - Most UK medical schools have an annual quota for international students; this ranges from 2 to 28 depending on the school.
  • Course duration - Most UK medical schools offer either a 5-year or 6-year undergraduate medical programme. Generally speaking, the 5-year medical course consists of 2 pre-clinical years and 3 clinical years, and you will graduate with a MBBS or MBChB medicine degree. The 6-year courses (also known as Intercalated Courses) will let you take a year out to gain a BSc in a related subject, so you will graduate with two degrees: a MBBS or MBChB medicine degree and a BSci degree.

Work experience for applying to medicine

Why is work experience needed?

All medical schools require applicants to have an understanding of what a career in medicine involves. It is therefore essential that you gain medicine/healthcare related and people-focused experiences of providing care or service before you apply. You will be expected to discuss these experiences in your personal statement and your interviews.

Did you know

  • Most medical schools do not set a minimum number of hours of work experience a candidate needs to complete, but they expect you to reflect on what you have learnt.
  • The most important elements to focus on in your work experience are what you have learnt about yourself, what you have demonstrated about your commitment to caring for other people, and what understanding you have gained of how effective care is delivered.
  • For overseas applicants: while UK Medical schools appreciate that it is difficult for you to undertake clinical work experiences in the UK, they do expect you to have an understanding of the UK health service and the NHS.

What do medical schools want to see?

They want to see how your work experience has given you

  • experience of giving care, support, or help to others, demonstrating how you understand the realities of working in a caring profession.
  • some of the attitudes and behaviours essential to being a doctor, such as conscientiousness, good communication skills, and the ability to interact with people from all kinds of backgrounds and cultures.
  • a realistic understanding of medicine and in particular, the physical, organisational, and emotional demands of a career in medicine.

What type of work experiences do I need?

You should begin your work experience 1-2 years prior to applying to medical schools. There are two basic types of experience that you can have:

  1. Working with other people in a caring or service role, in particular with people who are ill, disabled or disadvantaged (strongly recommended).
  2. Direct observation of healthcare, i.e. work shadowing.

While shadowing a doctor or healthcare professionals can be useful, medical schools recognise that this is not attainable for everyone (especially during the COVID-19 pandemic). You can gain care experience in care homes for the elderly, hospitals, hospices, nurseries, special schools, community-based settings, or by volunteering to provide first aid or other support services.

Paid employment or voluntary work in areas outside of healthcare can also help you demonstrate the attributes and behaviours required for medicine, such as working with people, teamwork and communication skills.

Making the most out of your work experience...

Reflect on your experiences and make sure you can express what you have learnt about yourself and medicine. Keep a diary during your work experience where you can reflect on your observations and the knowledge you have gained.

How to gain relevant work experience during the COVID-19 pandemic?

During the COVID-19 pandemic, many medicine outreach programmes have been put on hold or cancelled, making it difficult for students to gain relevant in-person healthcare experience.

Do not worry, you are not alone; most medicine applicants are in a similar situation, and medical schools are aware of this and will adapt their expectations to an applicant’s specific situation.

Remember: while in-person medicine work experience is not an absolute requirement during the COVID-19 pandemic, it does not mean that you can relax and skip this part.

Students are expected to be resourceful and use online media or other means to explore medicine, as discussed below.

Practical ways to gain experience and understand medicine as a career:

  • Keep a reflective diary of what is happening in the news and online on healthcare related issues: Many healthcare professionals are posting online about their experience of working during the pandemic. Listen to what they have to say and reflect on this.
  • Make use of online resources: There are some free online courses that have been recognised by medical schools as a suitable element of relevant experience to help prepare an application to medicine.
  • Volunteer in your spare time: All forms of voluntary work can provide helpful work experience. While volunteering in a healthcare setting or working in a caring or service role (in particular with people who are ill, disabled or disadvantaged) is preferable, such roles are limited during the pandemic. At the same time, other volunteering schemes may still be in operation and worth exploring. Voluntary commitments to your local community and/or online community support groups may also provide valuable experience of taking on responsibility, developing your people and communication skills effectively. It is likely that these sorts of volunteering opportunities will start to run again before healthcare related opportunities are available.)

Maximizing your chances of acceptance: UK private medical schools

UK medical degrees are internationally-recognised qualifications and UK medical graduates are desirable and employable, both in the UK and internationally. Unsurprisingly, over the past decade, there has been an increasing demand to study medicine amongst both local UK and international students, and they are willing to pay higher fees at private institutions.

With the HK government’s recent proposal to change Hong Kong’s requirements for its medical licensing exam, making it more straightforward for overseas trained Hong Kong doctors to return to practice, this trend of studying medicine in the UK will continue to rise.

There are pros and cons of UK private medical schools for overseas students:

Pros
  • Similar costs to publicly funded medical schools for overseas students
  • No caps on overseas student places
  • UCAT and BMAT are not required at some schools
  • Not needing to apply through UCAS at some schools (i.e. you could apply to these private medical schools in addition to your four medical school applications via UCAS)
  • Newer facilities, small class sizes and lower staff-to-student ratios
Cons
  • Some of the newer private medical schools are not yet entitled to award UK medical degrees
  • Not all UK private medical schools can guarantee its graduates can work in the UK after graduation




Remember - all applicants should do thorough research on the medical schools and courses that interest them before applying.

For overseas students, private medical school fees are similar to that of publicly-funded medical schools. While publicly-funded medical schools have a “fixed” quota for international students, UK private medical schools (as they are an independent body) have no caps on overseas student places. Therefore, in addition to applying to up to a maximum of four UK medical schools via the UCAS system, international applicants could also apply to UK private medical schools through direct application; in doing so, they increase their chances of acceptance.

Furthermore, private UK medical schools can offer unique advantages for students.For example, there is no requirement for additional entrance exams (UCAT and BMAT), with prospectuses typically promising small class sizes and lower staff-to-student ratios in comparison with publicly-funded medical schools.

However, some of the new private UK medical schools are not yet entitled to award UK medical degrees, as their medical courses have not yet earned accreditation from the General Medical Council (GMC). GMC has a tight protocol when considering applications to create new medical schools. Generally, all new medical schools will be monitored by a review team from the GMC for the first few years after they open. If all goes to plan, approval will be gained before the first cohorts graduate.

As of April 2021, there are two private medical schools in the UK that have obtained GMC accreditation to award UK medical degrees and their graduates will be eligible to compete for places in the UK’s Foundation Programme post graduation:

  • University of Buckingham
  • University of Central Lancashire

Reference: List of UK medical schools approved by GMC that could award UK medical degrees

In conclusion, the demand to study medicine continues to increase, and UK private medical schools deliver a model that offers a supply helping to meet this demand. For overseas students with the financial means, UK private medical schools can provide a unique and viable alternative to the UK’s publicly funded medical schools.

While it is tempting for international applicants to study medicine in the UK, they should research medical courses from both UK publicly funded and private medical schools carefully before applying.

How to ace the medicine interview?

The majority of medical school interviews now use the MMI format, while a handful still use traditional panel interviews (e.g. Oxbridge). Regardless of the format, the interviews are designed to explore the student’s personal qualities and attributes which are vital to becoming a good doctor in the future.

You can expect to be asked about your interest in medicine (or your chosen field), your knowledge of healthcare as well as questions on ethics, current issues, teamwork and communication. Manual dexterity (dentistry), ethical scenarios and patient communication (medicine) are common MMI stations.

Medicine Interview Workshop

Your interview performance will directly impact your chance of securing an offer. Most students may find the idea of an interview daunting. If you are nervous, interview coaching and mock interviews go a long way to prepare you for the type of questions you will be asked, and ultimately increase your chance of securing an offer.

Each mock session will last 45 minutes to 1 hour which includes feedback. At the end of the mock interview, the interviewer will discuss the student’s performance, highlighting areas for improvement.



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