Am I Good Enough for Medicine? How to Assess If You’re Suited to Your Preferred Course Choice

by Emma Bates
Image shows a young woman looking out over a canyon.When you’re deciding which university course to apply for, there are a whole range of factors to consider.

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You may have hit on what you think is the perfect course for you – but then you look at typical entry requirements and they’re a grade or two above what you think you’re likely to get. Or you go to an Open Day and you realise you have nothing whatsoever in common with the current students of that subject and can’t imagine yourself fitting into their number at all. Here’s a no-holds-barred assessment of what’s really required for a range of popular subjects – both in terms of grades and in terms of personality – beyond what any prospectus will tell you.

Medicine

Image shows graffiti of a doctor listening intently to a crudely drawn heart.
Medicine is hard.

Medicine is the archetypal hard-to-access university course. Not only do medics need top grades, they also need to demonstrate work experience above and beyond that which is required for any other university course (except perhaps Medicine’s zoological equivalent, Veterinary Science) and give the impression at the compulsory interview that they have the people skills that will convert into a good bedside manner. It’s no easy brief to fulfil.
So how can you tell if you would make a good medicine student – and, presumably, a good doctor in future? Most importantly, there are the grades. If you aren’t used to being the creme de la creme at the very least in all of your science subjects, and preferably across the board, reconsider your options. Keele University has one of the lowest average UCAS points for entry for Medicine, but that’s still 470 points – or more than you would get from 3 A*s at A-level. The “easier” alternatives to Medicine – Biomedical Sciences and Nursing – are still highly competitive, but at least the grades required aren’t quite so phenomenally high.

Then there’s the work experience. This is how you demonstrate that you really want to study Medicine rather than simply going for what sounds like the most prestigious and challenging course.

Image shows someone playing a game on an Xbox.
Med students get very competitive.

The kind of person who succeeds at this is inevitably competitive. Playing video games with Medicine students can be a frightening experience. Med students are used to not doing things by halves – whether that’s studying or partying – and with a lifestyle that doesn’t involve a huge amount of sleep, can often be somewhat isolated from other students at the same university. The fact that med schools are frequently separate from the rest of a university’s campus (so that they can be adjacent to a hospital, for instance) does nothing to help with that. If you’re studying Medicine, you’ll have to be prepared to breathe, sleep and dream nothing but Medicine for the next five years. Part of that period, though it may seem a long way away now, will be when your contemporaries at school have already graduated and are earning healthy salaries while you’re still slogging away as a penniless student.

The question to ask yourself:

When you read that last sentence, did you think “that’s fine, because I’ll be slogging away studying the best subject in the world?”

Oxford and Cambridge

Image shows Trinity College, Oxford.
At least 6* grades at GCSE are required for a chance at Oxford.

We’ve written before about the joys and peculiarities of studying at Oxford, and discussed how you can tell whether or not one of the UK’s top two universities would really suit you. The trouble is, when you’re used to A-level study, it’s easy to say that you could handle writing one or two essays a week – that seems like a perfectly reasonable amount during study leave, and that’s with two or three other subjects besides.
The crucial thing is to realise what this level of workload actually means. General consensus among Oxbridge students is that it isn’t writing the essay that’s the scary part, but the part that comes after you hand it in – when you have to defend your thoughts to one of the leading experts in the field. That will sound terrifying to almost anyone, at least before you’ve done it for 24 weeks of the year. The question is whether it’s the exciting kind of terrifying, like mustering up the courage to dive from the 5m board or going on the rollercoaster that’s not suitable for pregnant women or anyone under the age of 12, or if it’s just plain run-away-and-hide terrifying. After all, you can learn the majority of the skills and all of the information that would be imparted to you at Oxbridge at any one of the UK’s other top universities. Oxford and Cambridge inculcate very particular personality traits (specifically a distinctive type of respectful but resolute self-confidence) in a very particular environment.

Image shows Emmanuel College, Cambridge.
Cambridge asks to see individual module scores at AS-level, which should all be above 90%.

Outside the academic realm, Oxbridge students seem to enjoy fancy dress far more than any university I know of otherwise. Like everything else at Oxbridge, from the architecture to the May Balls, this is not done by halves – the Mean Girls tactic of taking an attractive outfit and adding cat ears will not cut the mustard at Oxford or Cambridge. Having said that, if you’re a shy, introverted type feeling terrified of the social pressure, it’s worth taking note of the fact that a significant percentage of the folks at Oxbridge were that introverted nerd-type who kept their hand down in the lessons at school because they didn’t want to be sniggered at for volunteering every single answer. Secondary schools can be hard on bright pupils. The library nerds of the sixth form are surrounded by their own kind at Oxbridge; socialising becomes a lot easier when you know that a digression into the effect of Verner’s Law on the Gothic language will be appreciated, not mocked.

The question to ask yourself:

Were you curious enough to google “Verner’s law in Gothic”?

Humanities subjects

Image shows a university library.
Humanities students should expect to spend a lot of time in the library.

While some of the sciences will have you in lectures and practicals for more hours than you previously thought existed in a day, humanities subjects at most universities are at the opposite end of the spectrum. For a subject like History or English, it’s not unusual to have fewer than ten contact hours in any given week; fewer than five is not unheard of. The first thought of many students on hearing this is to wonder what exactly it is that they’re contemplating paying £9,000 a year in tuition fees for, if not direct contact with experts in their field? The more mathematically-minded among us may go so far as to figure out how much that works out at per hour – and then to sob silently into their overdraft.
But this is to miss the point of studying the humanities. You go to university to learn, not to be taught; in the sciences, this may seem like a distinction without a difference, but in the humanities, those who fail to see the difference will find themselves left behind. You may not be timetabled from 9-5, but you ought to be spending similar hours working (even if, as for many students, those hours are as likely to be from 7pm to 3am as any other, more conventional working pattern).
A-levels might give you a taste of this during study leave, but there’s a great difference between trying to motivate yourself to study when your exams feel like they’re mere minutes away and when it’s mid-November and you’ve no formal assessment until June (and if you’re a first year, chances are that assessment will only be pass/fail anyway). Extreme procrastination is a feature of studying humanities because, at least at the start, most students don’t have any experience of the self-discipline required to succeed in this kind of course. It’s all too easy to think that if you have 6 hours of lectures and you’ve done all your assigned reading that you’ve done all your work – but that’s a road that leads to nowhere but a third-class degree.

The question to ask yourself:

Have I ever done my homework on the night that I got it?

Law

Image shows graffiti of Lady Justice, with the phrase "all shall be equal before the law."
Law attracts an odd combination of pedants and idealists.

Law is a funny subject to study. The things that lead people to claim you’d make a good Law student when you’re still at school – typically an interest in public speaking and debate – bear very little relation to the experience of studying Law at university, which in turn bears very little relation to the day-to-day work of a practising lawyer (which entails more timesheets than any fancy recruitment event will suggest). Luckily, if you find out that you love being a Law student but hate the idea of being a lawyer, job prospects for Law students in other fields are very healthy indeed.
So what does it take, specifically, to study it? Like Medicine, be prepared to eat, sleep and breathe Law. This is not a requirement of the course – a reasonably disciplined person can keep the amount of work required for a Law degree confined to the hours 9 to 6, if they so wish – but it does seem invariably to be the case among Law students nonetheless. Grumble about a mutual friend and you’ll get chapter and verse on the requirements for a successful defamation suit. Throw a cushion at them and be prepared to learn all there is to know about the distinction between assault and battery. Watch a detective drama with them – on second thoughts, just don’t.
In many cases, this obsessiveness doesn’t come pre-loaded, but appears somewhere halfway through the first term, between the third criminal law lecture and the first extravagant Law Society social. The optimistic human rights law crusaders slowly get sucked into the discussion of the finer points of 17th century land law. The mindset is the same as the people who, when they see a sign reading “Oxfords premier travel agent”, itch to get out a marker pen.

Image shows a pile of law books with students chatting in the background.
The amount of reading you could do for Law is virtually unending.

Additionally, be prepared for a whole lot of reading. Law students have more assigned reading than English students – and are usually required to do more optional reading than English students as well. If the idea of being required to do optional reading doesn’t seem to make sense, well, it will make more sense after a term or two of Law.
Every course has its stereotypes, but Law students tend to conform to the stereotypes in reality more often than students of other courses do. Those stereotypes include a keen interest in debating, spending all hours of the day and night in the library, being furiously competitive and making endless in-jokes about Lord Denning. Most people think they can hold a conversation with an English or History student about their subject – it’s just talking about Shakespeare or about the Tudors; we did that in school! Law 101, by contrast, is much less accessible – the jargon starts to mount from the very first lecture. Studying Law can start to feel a little like being given the secret key to the way our society works, and once you have it, it’s hard to stop talking about it.

The question to ask yourself:

If you see an internet news article with a factual error, can you stop yourself from pointing it out in the comments?

Image shows a student lying back, reading.
Take the time to become better-informed about the course you’re considering.

If you don’t fit into the types outlined by this list, don’t despair. There are a few medical students who’ve heard of the concept of a work-life balance. There are Oxford students who would resist being called nerds. There are humanities students who are sufficiently brilliant to manage on last-minute essay writing and furious cramming and still come out with a healthy degree classification. There may even be law students who aren’t obsessive pedants – though I’ve yet to meet one. The important thing to remember is that choosing a course that you’re suited for isn’t just a matter of getting your offer to turn from conditional to confirmed. Go to open days, talk to current students and figure out if the atmosphere and approach to learning is right for you as well – and then you can be sure of embarking on three or more years of education that is not only attainable but enjoyable.


Image credits: banner; Medicine; Xbox; Oxford; Cambridge; library; Lady Justice; law books; reading