What did you study and tell us about your experience?
During my time at Oxford as a Biomedical Sciences undergraduate, I was able to learn a wide breadth of scientific knowledge and skills, from cell biology to neuroscience, and from immunology to psychology. The environment fostered was both challenging but equally extremely rewarding, and I loved my three years in the programme. The course is set up in such a way that allows you to become more specialised in certain areas as you go through the years – for example, I specialised in neuroscience, whilst others specialised in topics such as endocrinology and cardiac physiology. For me, a typical day involved between two and four lectures during the day, often in the morning, then I would had to the library in the afternoon to either do reading, or write up an essay or problem sheet. Depending on how busy the week was, I would either carry on with this after dinner, see my friends, or relax. On top of this, I would also have two tutorials per week, on average, but this decreased as I neared the end of my degree and became a more independent learner.
How was your inteview and how did you prepare?
In terms of my interview, I went up the evening before and tried to chat to a few people and chill out in the night. It was hard to focus on much else but I tried my best not to cram information right beforehand. Instead, I looked over my personal statement once more and got an early night. Before I had arrived, I was able to have a couple of mock interviews, which, whilst not necessarily as stimulating as a true Oxbridge interview, gave me experience under pressure. In addition to this, I read up on topics I was interested in – being passionate about a subject is what Oxbridge want, so reading up on my interests gave me the opportunity to talk about areas I liked to talk about, and I’m sure my passion came across. On the day, I had four interviews, the first of which went terribly and I came out thinking that I had already blown it. From then on, I was less stressed and began to enjoy having discussions with academics about biology – something I’d not really had the chance to do before very often.
So my overall advice would be – find what you’re interested in and enjoy learning about it. Your love of a certain topic will come across to your interviewer. Oxford is a hard and challenging place to be, but, with a passion for your subject, you will succeed!
STEP is a better predictor of success in the Mathematical Tripos than A-levels, partly because
the questions are less standard and less structured, which helps to distinguish between ability (or
potential) and good teaching.
2. Preparation for STEP also serves as useful preparation for our course.
3. The STEP marks and the scripts themselves are available for inspection by college staﬀ. This
means that it is possible to make allowances for a near miss and to make judgements on the actual
work rather than on just the marks or grades.
4. The meaning of A-level grades may diﬀer signiﬁcantly between the diﬀerent boards, so STEP
provides a fairer across-the-board comparison.
If you live in the UK, you should be able to sit the STEP examinations in your school. If you live
abroad, then it is still possible for you to sit STEP at your own school providing your examinations
oﬃcer is happy to administer the test. This may involve setting up the school as a CIE (Cambridge
International Examinations) examination centre; further information can be obtained from the STEP
e-mail help line (see above). Alternatively, you can sit the examination at a British Council oﬃce, but
the British Council may apply a signiﬁcant additional fee; or the STEP help line may be able to advise
you of a nearby school in which candidates are taking STEP papers.
Here are two important pieces of advice:
• Do not worry if your school is not able to provide much help with STEP.
There is plenty of material with which you can help yourself. The best preparation for STEP is to
work through past papers. Full solutions (and much more) are available to guide you if you get stuck
from the Meiklriggs mathematics site http://meikleriggs.org.uk/ and other help for some papers is available from the Cambridge Assessment STEP website (http://www.stepmathematics.org.uk)
in the same zip ﬁle as the examination papers.
You will ﬁnd the following booklets useful. Both are down-loadable from
– Advanced Problems in Core Mathematics; this would be a good starting point for your STEP
– Advanced Problems in Mathematics; this consists of 43 STEP-like problems with discussion,
hints and full solutions.
You can get tuition and much more from the Further Mathematics Support programme:
You can get online help (including a discussion forum) from the NRICH
NRICH is a free website produced at the University of Cambridge, with thousands of mathematical
resources designed to develop your problem-solving skills, mathematical conﬁdence and mathematical thinking. As well as AskNRICH which as mentioned above, you might like to look at the more
general NRICH site (http://nrich.maths.org/university) which is intended to help students
to prepare for studying mathematics at university.
Finally, if you are from a non-selective UK state school that oﬀers no help with STEP preparation,
and you hold a conditional oﬀer to read mathematics, you may qualify for the Easter STEP Study
School, which is held over four days in Cambridge. The college to which you apply is responsible
for nominating you, and this happens in January after you receive a conditional oﬀer; no need for
you to apply yourself.
3• Do not worry if the STEP questions seem very diﬃcult.
STEP is supposed to be diﬃcult: it is aimed at the top 2% or so of all A-level candidates. It is
therefore important to adjust your sights when tackling a STEP paper. The questions are much
longer and more demanding than A-level questions (they are intended to take about 45 minutes,
rather than the 10 or so minutes for an A-level question). They therefore look daunting; but you
should not be daunted. In most years, good answers to four questions are suﬃcient for a grade 1.
You may be interested to know the exact borderlines in terms of marks. They vary from year to
year, since the marks are not scaled to ﬁt pre-stated borderlines (such as UMS marks at A-level).
Here are some examples (questions marked out of 20); more information can be found on the
Cambridge Assessment STEP web site.
2009 S/1 1/2 2/3
Paper 1 95 72 58
Paper 2 98 71 61
Paper 3 95 67 55
2003 S/1 1/2 2/3
Paper 1 94 73 55
Paper 2 95 70 55
Paper 3 77 56 43
Hi, I’m Harry and I’ve just finished my first year as a mathematics student (or a ‘mathmo’ as we are called here) at St Catharine’s College, Cambridge. In my blog I’m going to write a few short paragraphs on why I chose maths, my college and ultimately, what the application process itself was like and how I successfully prepared for it.
At school maths had always been something I really enjoyed and found I had a ‘natural’ ability for so applying to study it at university seemed like a natural progression. My Cambridge application seemed like a daunting prospect with so many things to think about. What college do I choose? How do I prepare for my interview? Are the interviewers going to ask me some really wacky questions I’ll have no chance in hell of answering? When I got down to it these things were a lot less stressful than I had imagined.
Firstly choosing a college. It turns out that college choice really doesn’t have much bearing on whether you get in or not. A system called pooling means that the colleges talk to each other to make sure that the applicants who will get an offer do get an offer. I suppose trinity has the strongest reputation for maths in Cambridge but ultimately it won’t matter because if they don’t have space then they will hopefully find a college that does.
Something unique to maths is the number of offers they give out to applicants. They give out double the number of offers they have to places for because you have the added hurdle of the STEP exams, the only advice I can give for this is start early (like now!) as practice really does make perfect.
The interview itself is also quite unique to maths, forget questions like ‘why cambridge’, ‘why x college’ or your interests outside of maths. The interview itself will most likely just focus on maths and how you approach problems. The key is being able to show your interviewer how you think. They want to get inside your head to see how you tick so make sure you express all your (mathematical) thoughts aloud. This helps when you have no idea what they are talking about because you can try and explain the bits you do understand. Some colleges require a test before hand which you will discuss and go over the questions in the interview itself so make sure you look at that before you apply to a certain college (do you enjoy explaining things aloud or doing them quietly in an exam setting?).
Do not stress out after the interview. You will never know how it went (well usually never). If it was easy, then you might just be a genius! If it was hard then they might have pushed you to your limit. You can just never tell. The point is to challenge you and move you out of your comfort zone.
You can, however, prepare a little for the application process by reading some books. I personally read some of the Olympiad primer books, which seemed to help me think a little more abstractly even though I’m hopeless at the maths challenge. Algebra and geometry is also rather interesting and incredibly useful for the first year if you want to have a look at some more advanced material as well as making you think a little more deeply about the subject. The best way to prepare is probably to do some STEP I questions as these are set up in a way they try and make you think in interview and you will be getting ahead for if you do get an offer.
Good luck with your applications! I shall be writing another post shortly about STEP and how to start preparing for it early.
Harry is a Mathmo at Cambridge and representative of Oxbridge Maths.
It’s not too late! Here are some top recommendations for fun and study:
And a few more, courtesy of a generous American college:
Sex Sleep Eat Drink Dream: A Day in the Life of Your Body. 2007. Jennifer Ackerman. The author explains the findings of recent research on how daily rhythms affect the way our body works. Why are some people early risers and others are night owls? How does this change with age? What is the best time of day to learn and remember? What has science learned about the interactions of time of day and sex, sleep, eating, drinking, and dreaming?
A Naturalist and Other Beasts: Tales from a Life in the Field. 2007. George B. Schaller. George Schaller has had a long and important career as a field biologist and conservationist. In this book, he shares his stories about his work to understand the biology and conservation of animals across the world. He may be best known for his work with gorillas and lions in Africa, but he also tells of his work with caribou in the arctic, tigers and pandas in Asia and many others.
Why Beautiful People Have More Daughters: From Dating, Shopping, and Praying to Going to War and Becoming a Billionaire– Two Evolutionary Psychologists Explain Why We Do What We Do. 2007. Alan S. Miller and Satoshi Kanazawa. This book differs from my usual choices because the authors are psychologists, not biologists. Their topic is about what we have learned from recent research that uses the biological principles of evolution to explain human psychology. Before jumping into this book to find the answer to questions like “Why are almost all violent criminals men?” and “Why are diamonds a girl’s best friend?” DO NOT skip the introduction. In the introduction and throughout the book, the authors remind us to be aware of two important mistakes in thinking. Read the introduction to see what they have to say about the “Moralistic Fallacy” and the “Naturalistic Fallacy.” Then, take the authors’ invitation to jump around and read the sections of the book that interest you in any order.
Condor: To the Brink and Back- The Life and Times of One Giant Bird. 2006. John Nielsen. The California Condor has been the focus of expensive and controversial efforts to prevent it’s extinction. Is this bird worth it? What are the causes of it’s population decline? Who has worked to preserve this species, and what have they done? These are the questions that Nielsen addresses. By the end of the book, the reader should learn important lessons that may be applied to similar efforts for other endangered species.
Twilight of the Mammoths: Ice Age Extinctions and the Rewilding of America. 2005. Paul S. Martin. When did humans arrive to North America? How did they interact with Mammoths, American Lions, Giant Sloths, Camels and other “Megafauna?” What caused the extinction of this megafauna? In this book, Martin evaluates three competing hypotheses: “overkill, overchill and over-ill.” Perhaps most controversially, Martin discusses the proposal to “rewild” North America by returning megafauna to the ecosystem.
Why Do Men have Nipples, Hundreds of Questions You’d Only Ask a Doctor After Your Third Martini. 2005. Mark Leyner and Billy Goldberg, M.D. Well, the title says it all for this one. The authors give scientific answers, when available, to many biological questions. Topics range from digestion, to body parts, to sex, drugs and the accuracy of medicine in the movies. This book is aimed for a popular audience and uses a lot of humor, references to alcohol and sex and a bit of vulgar language. I decided that it was still a worthwhile read, with one caveat. The authors frequently refer to a scientific paper in medical and scientific journals, but this book contains no bibliography. So, if you choose to read this book, there is one additional requirement for your review. Find and read one original scientific article referred to in the book (I can help.) Compare the results of this article to the author’s response in your review.
The Earth Moved: On the remarkable achievements of Earthworms. 2004. Amy Stewart. Each year, I try to choose a book that praises the virtues of some of the world’s least sexy critters. Stewart does a great job of showcasing the work of those rare worm biologists that have helped us to marvel at the powers of the lowly earthworm. You may never look at a fishing worm in the same way.
Pandora’s Baby: How the first test tube babies sparked the reproductive revolution. 2004. Robin Marantz Henig. Did you know that the first human case of artificial insemination occurred in 1884? What was the reaction to the first “test-tube baby” born in 1978 in Great Britain? In this book, the author traces the history of reproductive technologies and the ethical debates that have surrounded them. She relates these to the present debates over stem-cell research and human cloning.
The Red Queen : Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature. 2003. Matt Ridley. Sex is not necessary for reproduction in many organisms. Not all organisms that reproduce sexually have males and females. This book is about the evolution of sex and the evolution of traits in sexually reproducing species. Ridley examines what we have learned about the evolution of sex in other species and considers how this may have shaped our own evolution.
Nature Via Nurture: Genes, Experience and What Makes Us Human. 2003. Matt Ridley. In this book, Ridley relates our emerging understanding of the ways that the environment affects our genes. Instead of the usual argument over whether human behavior is the result of nature versus nurture, he shows how behavior is the result of the interaction of the two.
Dr. Tatiana’s Sex Advice to All Creation. 2002. Olivia Judson. This book is about the many, many variations in bizarre mating habits of animals. She takes the approach of writing as a sex-columnist in response to questions from animals. This makes the book interesting and funny to read, but be careful. She is giving “advice” to the animals, NOT to the human readers.
The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s –Eye View of the World. 2002. Michael Pollan. This book is mostly about the process of artificial selection of plants. The author often takes the view that the plants have manipulated humans into growing and caring for them. The book takes an interesting look at four very different plants: apples, tulips, marijuana, and potatoes.
The Secret Life of Dust. 2001. Hannah Holmes. Like dust, this book is all over the place. By studying dust, the author takes us through topics from the origin of the universe, to global climate to microscopic organisms. Maybe your expectation for a book on dust is not very high, but this book should surprise you.
Wild Solutions: How Biodiversity is Money in the Bank. 2001. Andrew Beattie & Paul R. Ehrlich. In this book, two prominent ecologists explain how little of the earth’s biodiversity is understood. Chapters explore lesser known examples of great biodiversity. Most importantly, the authors point out the great value of biological diversity.
Parasite Rex: Inside the bizarre world of nature’s most dangerous creatures. 2000. Carl Zimmer. According to Zimmer, parasites may outnumber free-living species 4 to 1. In this book, he relates examples of parasites from Costa Rica to Sudan. He explains how these creatures can change their host’s behavior and DNA.
Viruses, Plagues, and History. 2000 Michael B. A. Oldstone. Smallpox, HIV, Ebola, Hanta virus… This book talks about what viruses are and how they work. The author also discusses how viruses have affected history and speculates on how present viruses may affect the future.
The Invisible Enemy: A Natural History of Viruses. 2000 Dorothy Crawford. Smallpox, HIV, Ebola, Hanta virus… What, exactly, are viruses? Where do they come from? Why are they here? How can we fight them? This is a great little book about our most up to date understanding of viruses. The author also discusses the link between viruses and cancer and briefly discusses using viruses for genetic engineering and disease treatment.
Promiscuity: An Evolutionary History of Sperm Competition. 2000. Tim Birkhead. This is a fascinating book about the evolution of animal mating behaviors. Relatively new DNA technologies have led to big changes in biologists understanding of mating patterns. In this book, the author explains how these discoveries have changed our theories about mating behavior. Along the way, he discusses bizarre examples such as fruit flies with the longest sperm in the world (58 mm or >2 inches); penis fencing among hermaphroditic slugs; and bedbugs that inseminate by injecting sperm directly through the wall of the female’s body.
A Fish Caught in Time: The Search for the Coelacanth. 2000. Samantha Weinberg. This book was fun to read. The author introduces us to the people that have discovered the coelacanth, a fish thought to have been long extinct. She begins with the 1938 discovery by Marjorie Courtnay-Latimer of the East London museum in South Africa (brought to her by the captain of a fishing boat.) Next comes the long search to find the second coelacanth and then to discover its natural habitat. She explains the efforts that continue to this day to understand this important creature. The book really reads like a science adventure novel.
Genome: The Autobiography Of A Species In 23 Chapters. 1999. Matt Ridley. Ridley writes about the ramifications of our advancing knowledge of the human genome. He devotes one chapter to each chromosome and uses one gene from that chromosome to explore a “theme of human nature.” Themes include intelligence, conflict, sex, stress, memory and free will.
Fearsome Fauna: A Field Guide to the Creatures that Live in You. 1999. Roger M. Knutson. This book is about the many kinds of parasites that can live in your body. The book is fascinating to read in the same way that we are fascinated in watching science fiction movies like “Alien.” The difference, of course, is that although these creatures may be alien to our bodies, they are NOT science fiction. The author writes with a sense of humor and this book is a sequel to his previous book: Furtive Fauna: A Field Guide to the Creatures that live On You.
Rock of Ages. 1999. Stephen Jay Gould. Have questions about how Science and Religion relate? In this book, Gould outlines why there should be no conflict between the two fields of inquiry. The book’s title comes from an old saying that illustrates Gould’s argument. “Science gets the age of rocks, religion, the rock of ages.” Gould is a paleontologist and is best known for his monthly essays published in the magazine, Natural History and as a proponent of the theory of punctuated equilibrium.
At the Water’s Edge: Fish With Fingers, Whales With Legs, And How Life Came Ashore But Then Went Back To Sea. 1998. Carl Zimmer. This book deals with the subject of macro-evolution, or the long-term evolution of species and forms of species. The author focuses on two dramatic transitions. As suggested in the title, these are the transition from fish to land dwelling tetrapod and from a land mammal to whale. The book includes many recent relevant discoveries and is detailed, but enjoyable to read.
The Clock of Ages : Why We Age-How We Age-Winding Back the Clock. 1997. John J. Medina. This book takes you on a tour (aided by many figures) of the anatomical and physiological systems and shows the effects of aging on each. The author also discusses current theories of aging and recent research experiments investigating senescence and the possibility of “turning back the clock.” Along the way as a side note, the author describes particular details of aging of some famous people in history.
Full House. 1996 Stephen Jay Gould. This book is probably unlike any you have read before. Gould is a paleontologist and is best known for his monthly essays published in the magazine, Natural History and as a proponent of the theory of punctuated equilibrium. In this book, he is teaching us how to interpret trends in complex systems. Gould is fanatical about baseball and draws on examples such as the disappearance of 0.400 hitting in baseball to explain his ideas about progress and increasing complexity.
The Origins of Virtue: Human Instincts and the Evolution of Cooperation. 1996. Matt Ridley. Are humans ultimately selfish or cooperative? Is cooperative behavior actually selfish behavior? Under what circumstances does natural selection favor helping other individuals? These are some of the fundamental questions addressed by Ridley in this book. Ridley examines what we have learned about the evolution of cooperation in other species and considers how this may have shaped our own evolution.
Broadsides from the Other Orders. 1993. Sue Hubbell. The author of this book spent many years raising bees for honey and writing books in the Ozarks of Missouri. In this book she looks at 13 major groups of insects and tells their story by telling about her own observations and by interviewing people that work with the insects. You can’t help but find this book fascinating.
The Third Chimpanzee, 1992. Jared Diamond. Diamond is an amazing intellect with two careers. The first is in physiology and the second is in ecology and evolution. This book deals with many things, but is primarily about human evolution. (I’ve used this in several years and it was always a favorite of students.)
The Selfish Gene. 1989. Richard Dawkins. This book is fascinating because it looks at evolution from a different angle, from the perspective of a gene. In essence, Dawkins explains that organisms are vehicles that function to reproduce genes. The book was originally written in 1976, but this new edition incorporates notes of clarification and answers to critics of the original. This edition also includes two new chapters. One is on the evolution of cooperation and the other introduces his more recent book, The Extended Phenotype.
The Panda’s Thumb, 1980. Stephen Jay Gould. This book is one of many collections of essays originally published in the magazine, Natural History, by another famous and sometimes controversial Harvard scientist. Gould is a paleontologist and is best known as a proponent of the theory of punctuated equilibrium. This collection of essays may get you started on reading more from Gould.
On Human Nature. 1978 Edward O. Wilson. In this book, Wilson explores using an understanding of population and evolutionary biology to explain aspects of human sociology. Chapters explore the role of evolution on aspects of aggression, sex, altruism and religion. E. O. Wilson is an expert on ants and other social insects and has had important influences on scientific thinking about biogeography, biodiversity and environmental ethics. His writings are interesting to read because his sense of intellectual curiosity is contagious.
Lives of a Cell, 1974. Lewis Thomas. This is a classic collection of essays explaining cell biology to non-biologists, among other topics. If you have an interest in cell biology, organelles, etc., read this one.
The Edge of the Sea. 1955. Rachel Carson. Carson is best known for her classic, Silent Spring, which was a very influential book about the effects of pesticides in the environment. In this book, she writes about the creatures that live at the edge of the sea. If you are interested in marine biology, you should read this book
This is possibly one of the areas that people give least thought to when making their Oxbridge application for medicine. Whilst most of your teaching including lectures, labs and demonstrations will take place centrally taught by the medical school and you will only have a few tutorials with your college tutors per week, the college is still the place where you will live, sleep, eat and make friends for the duration of your time there.
In the final 3 years your friends become very ´medic-centric,´ as your old college friends willl most likely have left and gone to London or further afield, and you will also be posted on out-firms in various locations throughout England. But in the first few years, the college you belong to is fairly important.
This character of each of the individual colleges is very different, ranging from some of the older and grander, to some of the much younger modern looking pieces of modern art (sometimes more of a 60´s architectural monstrosity than modern art in my opinion). Wherever you go, you can guarantee that the people will be friendly and you will be able to find like-minded people. This is the beauty of intellectual hotspots such as Oxford and Cambridge. Debate, pontifications and even rants can be found everywhere from the college tutorial to the college cafeteria.
But each college differs in size, provisions and demographic and this can dramatically alter the landscape for those first few years
– how many people do you want around you on a daily basis? If you prefer to be left alone or are a blossoming socialite you should
consider how many undergrads you will be surrounded by.
-How self contained? Some of the colleges are particularly impressive for how many different clubs and societies they have, and the strength that the JCR can have in college decisions. This can be great, but can get claustrophobic for some.
– What are your interests? If you are really into rugby, you might want to consider a rugby college. If you really like rowing, you might want to go to a rowing college. Find out. It makes sense.
– To live – in or to Live – out? One of the biggest regrets that people have about their college is not finding out whether there college can guarantee a room for all 3 years, or whether they may have to live out in 2nd year. Many students prefer to live out with a few friends in this year, and then return to college for their final year, but it can be quite financially penalizing. If you sign a tenancy agreement for 1 year you are locked in to a year of rent, whereas the Oxford and Cambridge terms are only 8 weeks long, and the Colleges will usually have you pay only 27 weeks at a relatively favourable rate
– Hall? Is your college hall operating an opt-in or opt-out system. This can actually make quite a big difference financially, as through either forgetting to opt out every day, or through a slightly screwy rebate system, you may end up paying a lot.
– Where is the college located? This really shouldn´t make a difference, but when you spend 24 weeks a year in an incredibly small place, you sometimes wish you had chosen that college which was 2 minutes closer to the centre of town than you did. A consideration if you are as lazy as I was.
– On site facilities? Does the college have sports pitches nearby or on the site, or is it a 30 minute bike ride. It makes quite a difference. Will there be kitchen access for you and a bar which can delight your palate.
There are a million and one considerations to make when choosing a college. I am sure you won´t regret what ever choice you make, but the above are some of the things I had known when I was applying. Please find some youtube videos and virtual prospectuses below which might help you make the decision, but ideally you should get up there and try to speak to the students.
James Oliver, Oxbridgemedicine.com
We previously wrote a post on how to choose your college – http://oxbridgesciences.com/which-oxbridge-college-is-for-me/.
Just wanted to make a slight addendum.
The above post relates mostly to quality of life or ‘best fit’ principles. I appreciate however, that for many people the most important thing is getting in…..anywhere. Certainly when I was applying I had a vague idea of colleges, and I found it useful going there to look at them all, but when it came to it, I would have been happy anywhere.
So here I give you a few more practical pointers about picking the college that will pick YOU.
Grades – assuming you all have the grades, then it is well worthwhile spending time researching the colleges in depth with regards to how they weight the BMAT/GCSE’s/A-levels. All of the colleges work hard together to ensure that a good candidate doesn’t slip through the net somehow (pooling system), but you should not waste a first choice on a college that places most weight on BMAT if you are feeling underprepared. This holds true for your GCSE results.
Topics – If you have been a budding researcher/ have done lots of work experience in a particular area, you may consider applying to a college where one of your interviewers has a similar area of expertise. They will not favour you, but it is only human nature that they will be impressed by your knowledge and dedication, particularly if it is what they have dedicated 15 years of their lives to. You may even find a kindred spirit and develop a real rapport with the interviewer in the short time that you have to be assessed.
Gap-years – some look particularly unfavourably on these. Almost all will want you to do something worthwhile.
Extra-curricular – This does matter. All of the tutors want candidates who will excel academically AND in their lives outside of study. From a practical perspective this means that you will cope with the course, and will add more to the student population. Everyone wants each candidate to get the most out of their Oxbridge experience, and so it is useful to know what a college has a particular reputation for. Some for rowing, some for music etc etc.
Your extracurricular excellence is not a substitute for academic ability, however, your tutors may be more sympathetic to particular activities or hobbies that particularly inpress them and make you an asset to the college.
Hope this helps
At this time of year, people start to think about their personal statements. We aim to have a series of our tutors write their take on this important piece of scripture. Here is our expert from last year:
The time of year has come around where you need to be doing some serious thinking about your UCAS form. Getting the right mix of academic, extracurricular and work experience information into your personal statement is crucial. You can have all the A*’s in the world, but that may not get you past the first hurdle if you can’t articulate how strong a candidate you are. Medicine is getting more and more competitive every year, and it’s a sad truth that many capable, diligent candidates don’t even make it to interview because they didn’t approach their application seriously enough -so showing due care when it comes to your personal statement is of utmost importance.
It’s mid-September now, later than I have written this piece in the past, but hopefully your school will have given you some useful advice on how to approach your personal statement, and here I aim to provide you with some details on the medical personal statement specifically.
Have you thought about what your reasons are for doing medicine? You will be asked this time and time again – from the personal statement, to the medical school interview and onwards for the rest of your career. You have to convince the reader is that you are someone who wants to help others, gets on with others but also that you are intrigued/attracted to/ideal for a lifetime pursuing a scientific path. Medicine may be very practical, but as an undergraduate you must display an interest in human science – this is particularly important for Oxford and Cambridge medical schools.
For most people, this will tend to be the bare bones of the first paragraph. If you have another great reason then share it, but know that you must be prepared to be grilled on this in an interview if your reasoning is eccentric or unconventional. I know of some people who over-weighted the idea of helping people in their personal statement, and were pointedly asked why they weren’t becoming aid workers, and others who over-emphasized the academic side and were duly grilled about their lack of compassion. Getting the right balance is crucial.
1/ Your first thoughts when you entered this world don’t necessarily have to have been “I want to do medicine.” People have lots of varied and good reasons for wanting to be Doctors, and many applicants seem to believe that they will be disqualified from this unless they say that they have wanted to be a doctor since age 5. In many ways it may show that your decision was more mature and considered.
2/ Beware the epiphany – People’s reasons for doing medicine are weird and wonderful, but beware saying that you had a dream or saw a man die and therefore want to save lives. The universities may feel that this is a little impulsive and may also doubt your soundness of mind. Many people have grown up around infirmity or had a particularly difficult experience as a child and subsequently decided that they want to make a meaningful contribution, but this is completely different from the “evangelist’s approach”. Medicine is a life choice and not something to be taken lightly. See the section on work experience.
This is an area that you should not need to comment on. Your grades are self-evident, and your referee should know to discuss your academic aptitude in their part of the statement.
Your work experience –
If you are applying to medical school this year, then by now you need to have conducted some work experience!
Now I know that it is incredibly difficult to get any work experience for young people these days unless you have family connections. Hospital trust administrators are notoriously pernickety (something which will undoubtedly plague you for the rest of your career) requiring mountains of paperwork before you even get near a hospital – but persistence is the name of the game here, and if nothing else it shows that you have the motivation to overcome adversity.
You need to have done some work experience to show that you understand the realities of medicine – this is a career that is not for everyone, and you must demonstrate that you understand all of the implications that illness and infirmity can have for an individual and their families, and thus can understand the importance of your decisions and demonstrating a keen sense of empathy. Furthermore, you actually need to make sure that this is the right thing for you. 6 years is a long time studying, and 30 years practising is even longer, so make sure you like the idea of working with people from all walks of life, and that you can stomach the idea of your Saturday night spent in A&E and a lifetime of studying!
Most medical schools will like you to demonstrate what the work experience meant for you. Whether it was a liver transplant, excision of big toenail or groin swab that you have seen, what did this mean for you? What have you learnt from the experience, and how did your perceptions change from when you first entertained the prospect of studying medicine?
The T-word – sigh, the word team is an over-used, but highly important word in medical school interviews and personal statements. Do you really know what an MDT is (mutli-disciplinary team for the un-enlightened)?
I am sure this is no news to you, but no one is going to let anyone into medical school if they don’t realise the importance of the nursing staff, the physiotherapists, the occupational therapists and the rest of the hospital staff. If you are mean to nurses they will bite. FACT. It is the nurses who will save you when you do your first on-call night 6 years from now and can’t quite work out what to do with this urine specimen or that blood form. They will be your best friends, so neglect them at your peril.
EXTRA-Curricular – This is your chance to wow us all with just how awesome you are. Whether you are the world underwater chess boxing champion, serious gamer or Greco-Roman wrestler extraordinaire, be sure to mention this and what you have learnt from it.
The personal statement is an opportunity for you to display a small part of your personality and to shine. Why would you study for 13 years and then not give due care to this snapshot of your life. It doesn’t have to be the most mellifluous piece of prose, but it certainly should capture the reader’s attention. Be succinct and make sure you aren’t shy – if you aren’t prepared to let the reader know about your hidden talents or display your passion for medicine, then there is a strong chance you might not get that medical school place you deserve. Get writing early, and show it to your reference writer as soon as possible. Good luck!
Tom is an Oxbridgemedicine tutor and studied at Oxford.
Lectures tend to start at 9am and in first year this is often covering topics in either biochemistry or physiology as part of the Molecules in Medical Science and Homeostasis courses. After an hour in a lecture theatre in the centre of Cambridge, the vets split from the medics and head to the Veterinary Anatomy building for a two-hour dissection practical, learning veterinary anatomy in small groups each with a dog cadaver. After another hour back in the lecture theatre it’s finally time for lunch, either back in college or something bought from one of the many central cafes. The afternoon usually consists of either lectures covering the Principles of Animal Management or animal handling sessions covering a wide range of species, from cattle to canaries. When the day is done, it’s time to head back to college. Dinner in the college hall is a great opportunity to catch up with all your college friends who often study a variety of the subjects the University has to offer. Evenings vary from supervisions (small group teaching sessions) in college and preparing for the next day to spending time with friends, whether you enjoy relaxing watching a film or going out to one of the many clubs and bars.