Welcome back to another blog post in our Oxbridge Resources series! Following our mammoth blog post on the academic entry requirements, we will now be addressing the various non-academic activities you could be doing to strengthen your application to Oxbridge. This will include work experience, volunteering, extra-curriculars, wider reading, super-curriculars, and summer schools.
Work experience is incredibly important in providing a realistic, first-hand insight into Medicine as a rewarding profession as well as showing its associated challenges. Although work experience is not compulsory, it is often a great talking point at interview at most medical schools, as it allows you to demonstrate your understanding of the key skills and qualities healthcare workers are expected to have. As we’ve mentioned before, however, Oxbridge has a more academic, science-based interview, which aims to assess your academic ability and potential. Therefore, work experience is not often discussed in detail at Oxbridge interviews. However, it is still a great point to link back to if possible, when answering ethical questions and when showing your insight into the profession.
There are many types of work experience you could engage in, such as at a hospital, GP practice, and even at a laboratory. All of them provide an insight into different areas within Medicine. Students are sometimes concerned that they have not secured a placement in research. Don’t worry as these placements can be hard to come by, and you can still experience what research is like in a myriad of other ways, which we will discuss in the super-curricular section. It is important to note, however, that most medical schools prefer if you mention work experience that you have undertaken within the UK rather than abroad. This is because most UK medical students go on to work as part of the NHS when they graduate from a UK medical school; therefore, exposure to this healthcare setting provides you with the best insight into what you will most likely deal with in the future.
Reflecting upon your experiences is very important, as this will allow you to learn as much as possible from your work experience placements. We would definitely recommend that you make a note of what you have witnessed from your work experience following it, as it is easy to forget what you’ve seen after a couple of months. The Gibbs reflective cycle is a commonly used reflective structure, which can help organise your reflections such that you can expand more on them and link them back to the qualities and skills of a doctor. You can get an insight into these qualities and skills by reading the Good Medical Practice (GMP) guidelines released by the General Medical Council (GMC). The link to this is as follows: https://www.gmc-uk.org/ethical-guidance/ethical-guidance-for-doctors/good-medical-practice
To get you started, we have compiled a list of a few virtual work experience opportunities we know that are currently running and may help provide you with an insight even in these difficult times.
Brighton and Sussex Medical School Virtual Work Experience: https://bsmsoutreach.thinkific.com/courses/VWE
NHS Virtual Work Experience:
(Note: The programme is only open to students aged 15-18 years old who attend schools or colleges within the following local authorities: Hammersmith and Fulham, Camden, Hillingdon, Ealing, Westminster, Richmond-upon-Thames, Harrow, Barnet, Hounslow, Kensington and Chelsea, Hampshire, Wokingham, Surrey, Windsor and Maidenhead, Oxfordshire, Bracknell Forest, West Berkshire, Berkshire, Reading or Slough.)
Observe GP – an alternative to work experience for aspiring medics, which provides insights into the role of a GP and the wider primary care team through a free interactive video platform.
Many more opportunities are discussed in the following link, and we would definitely advise you to make the most of them if you can: https://www.theaspiringmedics.co.uk/online-work-experience
Volunteering is a great way to get involved in your community and can help you develop transferable skills and gain experience in a caring environment. It does not necessarily need to be Medicine-related as you can still develop skills used by healthcare workers in various other settings. Volunteering long-term can help show your commitment, and it would be advisable to do at least one volunteering activity for an extended period (6 months or more) rather than do many for a short period (a couple of weeks). This is effective in showing your dedication and can also allow you to learn something and have a positive impact on the lives of others.
Although work experience is not compulsory, volunteering is. This is because of the vast array of transferable skills you can develop and the greater ease of arranging it. It is a great talking point at interview and in your personal statement and has helped both of us massively as we’ve detailed briefly below.
Volunteering at a care home for nine months on the weekends as well as helping out at an education centre for a brief period of time allowed me to notice and develop the skills that are fundamental in the medical profession. This includes communicating with people who I previously didn’t know and listening to the concerns of the care home resident and students at the education centre to gauge how I could help them. On top of working effectively as part of the care team, what was most striking for me was how I’ve developed my ability to adapt to different scenarios and improve my lateral thinking to problems as the residents who I was dealing with had dementia and hence sometimes methods such as explaining something once wouldn’t be effective. Therefore, instead, I would write rules to a game on a piece of paper and try out various different strategies and the ability to quickly make decisions to find solutions to problems has definitely helped me show my suitability for Medicine at interview.
Volunteering at a care home for a year every Saturday, where I engaged with people with a range of physical and mental issues, helped me develop various skills, including communication. There was a particular resident who had dementia and became distressed at times, so I looked into the Alzheimer’s Society website for guidance on how to support her. I found applying what I learned rewarding as it helped me connect with her more easily, helping me understand the importance of empathy when working with patients. Additionally, volunteering at Science and Spanish clubs at school, and later setting up a dance club allowed me to build a rapport with the students and watch them gain self-confidence. These experiences gave me a flavour for teaching and motivating others, which I am looking forward to continuing doing in the future.
What extracurriculars you undertake do not matter to Oxbridge as much as it does to the other medical schools. Oxbridge tutors are interested in your academic ability and potential, and will only look at your extracurriculars if they in some way link back to Medicine and the selection criteria. The links from the websites regarding the selection criteria are as follows:
That being said, having extracurricular activities that you are passionate about and enjoy doing is incredibly useful, as you can learn a lot of transferable skills from them which you will later need as a doctor. Having hobbies also helps show that you have some tools to cope with the work-load as a medical student and as a doctor, will be able to maintain a ‘work-life balance’. Below is advice from both of us with examples of the extracurricular activities we did. We hope this shows that there is no set list of activities you have to do, but instead, you should do what you enjoy and reflect on the skills you can learn from those activities.
Personally, as well as the academic side of things, I feel as though my experiences and learning from my extracurricular activities played a big part in me getting offers from all the medical schools I applied to, including Cambridge. The skills I’ve learnt through playing chess over the past nine years at an international level not only show my commitment and willingness to life-long learning but have also helped me develop key skills such as time management, decision making and problem-solving. I’ve also further developed helpful skills such as teamwork and leadership by being part of my school choirs and leading the orchestra. I’ve seen the importance of being able to work well within a team whilst shadowing a multidisciplinary team meeting.
You don’t need to do a certain type of extracurricular activity but what I’ve realised over the past year is the importance of reflecting upon what you’ve done and learnt and being able to explain how you will be looking to transfer skills from various experiences whether it be through work experience, volunteering or extracurriculars to your medical careers. Being able to link back your experiences to why that will make you a better doctor in the future is what your interviewers are ultimately looking for alongside a desire and passion for pursuing Medicine!
Throughout Year 12 and 13, I took part in extracurricular activities such as swimming, playing the piano, and singing in the school choir. As a swimming club captain, I developed many skills, such as teamwork and leadership, as I needed to be a role model for my teammates and make sure to motivate them throughout the training sessions. Playing the piano and singing in the school choir helped me relax, making me realise the importance of keeping a good work-life balance during my time at sixth-form. I reflected on these experiences, which then allowed me to draw from them to answer questions at interview.
An important piece of advice is that you don’t have to do an unusual extracurricular activity to stand out. It’s not so much about what you do, but what you learn from them, so it is vital that you make a note of key experiences as this will help you reflect upon them and not forget them by the time you start writing your personal statement or preparing for your interviews.
Wider reading can help you find out more about Medicine and deepen your interest in a particular subject beyond the A-Level curriculum. It can also help you gain insight into research, something that Oxbridge is very passionate about and will be useful to demonstrate an understanding of at interview as it is a means of showing your passion for studying Medicine.
There are many sources where you will be able to find articles and papers to read. For example, we would recommend you to have a read of the BBC Health section daily as well as having a look at New Scientist, student BMJ and journal articles. If you are looking to read a healthcare-related or science-based book, the Oxford reading list is a great starting point you can find at the following website: https://www.medsci.ox.ac.uk/study/Medicine/pre-clinical/applying/reading.
On top of this, we have a very exciting announcement that Dr Poignton-Smith, one of the Vice-Presidents of Medic Mentor, is starting up a Book Club, including a myriad of amazing healthcare-related books. This is a great opportunity to help focus your wider reading, so we would recommend you to keep your eyes peeled for updates regarding this which will come out on the Medic Mentor website.
On top of this, below there is another helpful link with more wider reading opportunities that we would definitely recommend you to make the most of!
Nevertheless, it is essential to point out that you don’t have to fixate in reading a ton of books. Still, instead, you should focus on learning in-depth from a smaller number, especially from books regarding a topic within Medicine that interests you. You want to make sure to take note of key points from your wider reading, do some further research and reflect on what you learnt. This is so that you don’t forget all of your hard work by the time you start writing your personal statement and preparing for your interviews. You can reflect on your wider reading in a similar manner as we have explained in the work experience section, using the Gibbs reflective cycle.
Super-curriculars take the subjects you study at school beyond the curriculum. They are an excellent way for you to deepen your understanding of Medicine, show your passion for the sciences at interview, and they go hand in hand with the wider reading you may have completed.
Examples of super-curricular opportunities you can undertake include an EPQ, online courses – on websites such as EdX and FutureLearn, MOOCs, essay competitions, Medic Mentor Awards Programme, Medical Leadership Programme, attending healthcare-related lectures etc.
You can learn many skills from undertaking super-curricular activities which will not only help you with your application to medical school but also in the future when you become a medical student and ultimately a doctor.
Completing an EPQ or another research-related project can help you develop the ability to critically appraise information, which is an essential part of evidence-based Medicine and allows you to understand the differences between reliable and unreliable sources of information as well helping develop your presentation skills as you need to evaluate the evidence you have ascertained and come to a conclusion. Also, by writing a dissertation such as part of an essay competition or for a magazine, you can develop your written communication skills.
Online courses can also be beneficial in developing your understanding of a specific topic you might be interested in as well as allowing you to learn information in a different way to just reading books. There are plenty of them out there, so you shouldn’t get too bogged down on trying all of them out, but learning from a few in more depth. The same concept that we discussed for wider reading follows – you should aim for quality rather than quantity of courses you complete. Two popular online course websites are Futurelearn, and EdX and the links to their websites are as follows:
Another helpful method to learn can also be through listening to podcasts. If you don’t know already (i.e. you’ve been living under a rock!) Lucy and Ciara – two fantastic Medic Mentor scholars and medical students – have been creating a really informative and helpful podcast series called the Becoming a Doctor podcast series that we have put a link to down below. We have also put a link to a website which can direct you to various other helpful podcasts.
Becoming a Doctor podcast series:
Other helpful healthcare-related podcasts:
The Medical Leadership Programme is an incredible opportunity that we would recommend you to be a part of if you’re not already! It not allows you to develop key soft skills such as communication and teamwork amongst other like-minded students, but can also help strengthen other areas that you may not necessarily come across in books such as helping improve your ethical understanding. The link to where you can join the Medical Leadership Programme is as follows: https://medicmentor.co.uk/school-ambassador-leadership-programme/
Finally, a great super-curricular opportunity that can almost act as a tickbox for your medical application and something that we definitely made the most of was the Medic Mentor awards programme. This is a fantastic way in developing various key skills by making the most of opportunities such as presenting at a get into medicine conference, developing your reflection skills and many more, under the supervision of an experienced Chief Mentor whilst being awarded for it. It is a great programme that can help you stand out and the link for more information regarding the programme is as follows: https://medicmentor.co.uk/medic-mentor-awards-programme/
Summer Schools can be a great way to strengthen your medical school application, as they can help you nail down key aspects of your preparation with the help of experienced doctors in far less time than you would have spent otherwise, allowing you to take on more opportunities during the summer.
It is important to bear in mind that not all summer schools with ‘Oxford’ or ‘Cambridge’ in their names are supported by Oxbridge, and sometimes, they do not focus on the academic side of applying to medical school. This means that you should do your research before applying to them, as they could lead you to unnecessarily using up your time and resources.
Summer schools that are supported by Oxbridge include: UNIQ and Sutton Trust. We discuss them in more depth below.
UNIQ is a free residential summer school programme for year 12 students in UK state schools and colleges. The UNIQ programme is designed to raise the aspirations of those who attend the programme, increase their confidence in applying to top universities in the UK, especially Oxford, and break down myths and barriers which sometimes prevent high performing students from certain backgrounds and schools from making an application.
Students who take part and decide to apply to the University of Oxford do not receive any preferential treatment at the application stage. That being said, it might be a useful opportunity to provide you with an insight into what staying at the university would be like as you are accommodated at the University of Oxford for a week.
Additionally, Oxford also runs UNIQ Digital – an online mentoring platform available for both students who managed to secure a place at the summer school, and some who don’t (those who successfully apply and get a place on the online course). This provides the resources and information that can help you strengthen your application, and feel more confident about applying. This programme involves giving you an insight into life at Oxford, some academic modules which will help you develop skills such as essay writing and critical thinking, and advice on the admissions process itself (i.e. writing your personal statement, preparing for the BMAT and your interview, etc.)
For more information on the UNIQ programme, feel free to visit the following website:
The Sutton Trust is an educational charity in the United Kingdom which aims to improve social mobility and address educational disadvantage. Attending the Sutton Trust summer school held at the University of Cambridge can allow you to experience world-class teaching, life as a Cambridge medical student, and enjoy exciting activities. The summer school is a free residential programme for year 12 students in UK state schools and colleges.
Through this summer school, you can also meet like-minded students from different backgrounds, which can help you see through some myths about Oxbridge, as admissions tutors select the best students for their academic potential and ability, as well as other skills and qualities, and not where they come from or their background.
For more information, check out the website using the link that follows: https://summerschools.suttontrust.com/university-partners/university-of-cambridge/ . Although we personally did not attend the Sutton Trust summer school, it is a very similar initiative to the UNIQ summer school but is instead tailored towards Cambridge, and has a good reputation so we would definitely recommend checking it out.
Attending these summer schools is a fantastic opportunity. However, you should not worry if you cannot obtain a place at one of them, as you can still put your best foot forward and be successful in getting offers from the medical schools you applied to through various other means. These are just opportunities that can help you build an insight into the application process, but this can also be done through the multiple opportunities we have mentioned above, alongside the Medic Mentor summer school which we will now talk about and have both been on and found incredibly useful as it focused solely on strengthening our application as much as possible.
Although the UNIQ and Sutton Trust summer schools help provide you with an insight into the teaching provided and environment of the Universities of Cambridge and Oxford alongside other top universities, as well as the looking into the application processes, the Medic Mentor summer school is incredibly helpful in providing you with personalised tips on how to write an amazing personal statement as well as fantastic BMAT, UCAT and interview preparation.
Koby wrote the following as part of his success story article for the Medic Mentor website, and we felt it was an accurate representation of what the Medic Mentor summer school is like for most of those who come out of it: “…What really has been the cherry on the top though, was my experience at summer school – it was fantastic! Coming out of it with a completed personal statement as well as a hoard of UCAT, BMAT and interview tips, was in itself amazing but also making great friends who I’m still in contact with 6 months on is incredible! Although my brief shot as a rapper at summer school didn’t quite hit the mark, Medic Mentor certainly has (beyond expectation!), and has truly been a second family for me.
If you haven’t already, we would definitely recommend you to sign up for it as it was a big part of helping strengthen our application in the areas mentioned above as well as the continued mentoring we received following our time at the summer school. Having the guidance of medical students and doctors who are so knowledgeable about the process has definitely helped, and a link to where you can sign up for the Medic Mentor summer school is below: https://medicmentor.co.uk/8251-2/
In conclusion, there are a range of activities you could be getting involved in to help you strengthen your application to Oxbridge, which we have discussed in depth in this blog. As we’ve mentioned before, this is a buffet of opportunities from which you can pick and choose from, as you don’t need to take on every single opportunity that we have shown you to obtain an offer from medical school. The bottom line is that you should aim to further research whatever topic within Medicine you are most passionate about as this is what the interviewers are looking for and if you can do this effectively, and subsequently develop skills that will help you as a healthcare professional you will be well prepared for your medical school interviews.
As always feel free to comment down below and we will make sure to get back to you as soon as possible! We are also having weekly Q&A sessions on Friday at 7pm BST so please feel free to join us there and check out our previous Q&As on the Medic Mentor youtube channel. The link to the Medic Mentor youtube channel is as follows: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCErb9u7YsaHRqsb0FDlGyng.
Finally, make sure to look for our next blog post, which will come out sometime next week on the all-important topic of the personal statement! We hope this blog has helped! 🙂
Koby Kalavannan and Laura Stirling