Getting into Medical school without straight As

My name is Laura and I’m about to start my 3rd year on the Graduate Medicine course at Imperial College of London. I graduated from St. George’s UoL with a BSc (Hons) in Cardiac Physiology in 2017. I believe if being a doctor is really what you envision for yourself, no number of rejections will stop you – Take it from me! I’m enjoying this process and wish all medical students out there the courage and wisdom to finish the course and remember why you started in the first place.

It’s no secret that traditional education does not secure success. I have many friends who have gone from school to college to university only to practice in a career completely unrelated to their £30,000 worth degree. ‘Success’ itself has a different meaning to each individual: it could mean how much money you’re making, or how many lives you’re changing. Consistent happiness versus the number of cars you own. It’s all subjective. Unfortunately, to practice in the field of Medicine, good grades are a must. But for those of us who didn’t quite get there the first time, it’s not something to give up on.

Like many aspiring medics, I first realised I wanted to become a doctor as a teenager. I liked the sciences and knew I cared for people, so why not? Now I look back, I can recognise how terribly hard it is to decide what your life will look like from the mere age of 16.

Along with the priceless ability to save a person’s life, one has to sacrifice a great deal to practice medicine. When you enter the profession, you’re already accepting a good decade of studying at the minimum (if not for life). You’re embracing the fact that often the workload will not match up to the pay and sometimes, you’ll have to reject things which would have actually been a lot of fun. But does a 16-year old really consider the weight of any of that? Of course not. 

In the Summer of 2012 I receive my GCSEs: 2A*s, 6As and 2Bs. Now this is a set most likely above average for the country, but in the field of competitive medicine, this was not sufficient. I had predictions of 7A*s so perhaps understandably I spent that whole day in and out of tears and frustration. Nonetheless, my marks were sufficient to study at one of my top 3 sixth form choices. I remember being excited to start afresh and set my head down for what I expected to be a successful two years. I was a hard-worker but I’d just need to have a little more discipline. 

Fast forward to the Summer of 2013. I’d settled into the school nicely that year and despite the ‘jump’ talked about between GCSE and A-levels, I viewed myself as well prepared. I remember opening the sheet of paper seeing the letters ABCC in Art, Maths, Chemistry and Biology, respectively. Well. My father was mad, I was shocked and it didn’t at all add up in my head. Perhaps the bounce back was a little quicker than at GCSEs as I then began to set up a game plan; I knew these weren’t my standards. I was also very aware that to study Medicine at a London university, I’d barely get past an open day with these grades. 

The next year I dedicated practically all my hours to academia. Regardless of whether or not this was the right decision I also started going for Chemistry tuition and would attend lessons half an hour before they started to do extra questions. I didn’t go out to parties and made up the additional work experience I thought would look impressive on my application. With my grades from the year prior I wasn’t in a position to apply to any British universities for Medicine and so, opted to study an affiliated degree.

 Many applicants who chose to go into Biomedical Sciences (this is the popular one), Physiotherapy or Biology, to name but a few, then proceed to study Medicine as a graduate. Instead of the usual MBBS 6 year course, this would provide me a 3 year BSc and a further 4 year MBBS course (often shortened if you have covered sufficient concepts at the undergraduate level). One year extra wasn’t much and come January, I’d received conditional offers from King’s College of London and Queen Mary University of London to study Biomedical Sciences.

Results day Number 3. My conditional offers from the universities were AAB (KCL) and ABB (QML) – very reasonable offers and yet upon opening those final A level results, I achieved ACC in Art, Biology and Chemistry…respectively. To say I was disappointed would have been a wild understatement. I’m confident that throughout life we all go through periods where our hard work doesn’t quite result in the goal we had expected (and perhaps for good reason). My results left me little other option than to enter clearing and now I can gratefully say I received a place at St. George’s University of London to study Physiology. At the time I was incredibly disappointed but adjusted well once the course began. I received much more from the course in terms of intellectual challenges, interpersonal skill and clinical exposure than I’d initially expected and again, only in hindsight, do I see how valuable those 3 years really were.

School grades weren’t the only hurdle getting in between me and my place at medical school; the aptitude tests were next. These tests are a combination of problem solving and critical thinking (not to mention the ability to squeeze 15 seconds thinking time for several of the questions). I graduated with a 2.i from my BSc (Hons) in 2017 and still remember on the day of my last exam heading straight to the library to begin my UKCAT preparation. I had sat the exam the year before and scored an average of 650 after approximately 3 weeks of revision. In my mind going harder that year would give me the scores I needed which were looking like 700+ for medical schools such as Barts, Warwick and KCL. I dedicated my entire summer to that exam and one other (the GAMSAT). After a gruelling 6 weeks of intense revision, I scored an average of 685. I was devastated. The breakdown was 490, 700, 720, 770. The first section (verbal reasoning) had heightened my anxiety and whole heartedly messed me up. This exam confirmed two things in my mind: (1) Longer periods of revision could actually cause burnout, and (2) An individual’s mindset on the day has significant weight on performance. I think you’d see by now, however, how dedicated I was to getting into Medicine. Despite the value of my undergraduate degree, becoming a Cardiac Physiologist (as this is what I’d specialised in) wasn’t really what I wanted to do.

I spent just over four weeks studying for the BMAT. On average, interview-worthy BMAT scores tended to range between the 5s and 6s so when I received a 4.4, 4.5 and 3.5A, my results reconfirmed heavy doubt and disappointment.

February 21st 2018. I hear my phone buzz. An Interview. What a feeling! I was ecstatic. I was overwhelmed. I was in shock, really. This was an interview for Imperial College of London. A university placed 8th in the world rankings was inviting me to interview? Not for status and not for my ego but instead this opportunity demonstrated that all the times I’d questioned myself, been looked down on and underperformed had not gone to waste. It was over six weeks following the interview until I got response from Imperial: I had been accepted to study Medicine. 

I want to demonstrate that no matter how many times you fail, if you dedicate all your efforts to a single goal – it will happen. Whether you believe in divinity or religion or are a hardcore atheist and a realist, trying again and again and again knocks down doors. That medical interview was the only one I’d ever received. I’d had no prior practice and had been rejected from more universities than I’d wish to recall. Ultimately you have to take a bit of a tunnel-vision approach when a goal is so big to avoid people interfering with your vision. For those of you who wish to enter Medicine, or competitive careers alike, rejections do not equate to your competency for the field. Let me be proof of that.

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