Generally, medical schools will consider your work experience within the selection process; this will be achieved predominantly through the interview stage, although it may also feature within your personal statement or application form. Medical schools tend not to specify set criteria in terms of the work experience you need to undertake or the amount of time you need to commit to it. Rather, they will assess how you reflect on your experiences and what they taught you about working in the medical profession. To support your application to medical school, the Medical Schools Council advises that you gain experience working in a ‘caring or service role’, with a particular focus on working with people who are ill, diasbled or disadvantaged, where possible, and carry out ‘direct observation of healthcare’. You can find more information about the types of experiences and roles you can undertake in the Medical Schools Council’s ‘Guidance on relevant experience for applying to medical school’.
Inevitably, gaining work experience at this time, particularly within healthcare, will be more challenging. Understandably, you may be concerned about this, but remember that all applicants are in the same position and medical schools will alter their expectations in response to this unprecedented situation.
It is still possible to obtain valuable work experience which will support you in your application, enable you to develop your understanding of working within healthcare and expand your skills and qualities, which will support you in medical school and your future career. Focus on gaining work experience within a role in which you can support or help others, to develop your practical understanding of working in a caring role. The Medical Schools Council has provided ‘Guidance on gaining relevant experience to study medicine in the time of COVID-19’, which provides practical advice on gaining work experience during this time. In addition to this, many medical schools have specified how they will make allowances for the impact of COVID-19 on work experience and offered advice on maximising opportunities.
Within this wider section you will have noted the amount of times we’ve advised that you use an example to demonstrate your point; your work experience will be vital for providing relevant and useful examples throughout your interview to support your answers. When using your work experience as an example, or any other experience for that matter, the key is to always reflect on the experience, not simply describe it. Of course you will need to give a brief description of the situation and what you were doing, to provide context, but the focus should always be on your reflections: what did you learn, how has this helped you to develop and how will this support you in the future?
Although predominantly you may be voluntarily drawing upon your experiences to support your answers, you may also receive specific questions directly related to the work experience you undertook. Outlined below are areas which you may be asked about, relating to your work experience, and suggestions for what to include in your answers:
Medical schools want to explore what you gained from your work experiences, in terms of what you learnt about the medical profession and the skills and qualities you need to work within it; therefore, it’s likely that you’ll be asked to reflect on your experiences and the learning that took place. You may be asked directly what you learnt as a result of your work experience opportunities, the skills you developed which will support you at medical school, or to share a specific example which was a valuable learning experience. Alternatively, you could be asked to reflect on what insights into working in medicine you gained from your experiences and whether these altered your views of the profession in any way.
Depending on the work experience you undertook, if you had the opportunity to observe different aspects of medicine, you may be asked specific questions relating to these. For example, if you spent time within a GP surgery, you may be asked about the specific challenges they face or about the limitations of ten minute consultations; if you gained experience within a hospital setting, you may be asked about things such as ward rounds or patient history taking. Be prepared to reflect on these experiences and discuss in more detail what they taught you about the role of a doctor.
Understandably, you won’t be able to cover everything that you learnt during your various work experiences, if you’re asked about them in general terms; acknowledge the wealth of learning experiences that you gained, but focus on some key ones to discuss with the interviewers. If you gained different types of experiences or worked in different environments, you may wish to touch on each of these, if they’re relevant to the question being asked; however, avoid just listing all the work experience you undertook and instead focus on giving key, specific examples and reflecting on what you learnt as a result of these experiences and what you will take forward in the future.
If you spent time within a healthcare setting, you may want to reflect on how the medical professionals that you observed worked, what skills they demonstrated, for example teamwork and communication skills, and how this has supported your own development. If you undertook placements in alternative caring environments, reflect on what this taught you and how it relates to your understanding of working within medicine, and the skills you developed which will support you in medical school.
For questions relating to your insight into working in medicine or how your experiences have changed your view of this, your answer will be personal depending on what you observed and learnt during your placements, and how this has shaped your view of a career in medicine. However, as always, ensure that you use specific examples to support your answer, and reflect on any realisations you had about working as a doctor and the impact of this experience.
Remember, the key is to always reflect your experiences, give specific examples and share what you learnt from this and how it will impact you in the future.
The Medical Schools Council identifies that applicants should gain experience directly observing healthcare as a key area for work experience; therefore, you may be asked within your interview about the different situations and healthcare professionals you observed. You may be asked about the skills and qualities you saw demonstrated, or about specific situations where you witnessed these, such as instances of teamwork skills within the multidisciplinary team or communication skills as medical staff interacted with patients.
You may be asked about what you observed in relation to individual situations and healthcare professionals, but the questions relate to medicine more generally and the skills and qualities needed to work as a doctor; remember to reflect on your experiences and link back to what this has taught you about working within medicine.
Although it can be useful to acknowledge that a wide range of skills and qualities are required to work within healthcare, avoid simply listing these when faced with questions relating to what you observed or learnt in regards to this. Focus on giving specific examples of situations or medical professionals that you observed and the qualities that they demonstrated; consider how these qualities looked in practical terms and the importance of them within the situation. What did this teach you about working within healthcare?
Remember to always give a concise description of the situation in order to provide context, but to focus primarily on the skills and qualities you observed, the impact of these, particularly in relation to patients, and what you learnt from this experience that will benefit you as you enter medical school.
As we’ve mentioned previously, medical schools are looking for applicants to demonstrate a realistic view of working within healthcare, to ensure that they are entering it with an understanding of the challenges they will face. Work experience is a great tool for providing this, allowing you an insight into the medical profession, and therefore you may receive questions relating to this.
Interviewers may ask you about difficult situations you observed, or even had to deal with, or what aspects of your work experience you found most challenging. They may extend these questions further to ask why you found a situation particularly challenging, how you dealt with it and what you learnt from the experience. You may also be asked if you experienced an aspect of medicine or the role of a doctor which did not appeal to you and what impact this has had on you.
You don’t need to be overly negative to answer these questions effectively, but it is important that you demonstrate a realistic attitude to working as a doctor, and therefore you should acknowledge difficult situations and challenges that you experienced during your work experience.
As always, use specific examples to illustrate your point, especially if you’ve been directly asked to talk about a difficult situation you observed. Interviewers are looking for you to not only identify a challenging situation or aspect of the role, but to also reflect on what you observed. Depending on your answer, consider why it was a difficult situation or why you view it as a challenging aspect of healthcare, and discuss how you or the healthcare professionals you were observing reacted. You may have experienced a challenging situation which highlighted a particular difficulty of being a doctor, for example having difficult conversations or delivering bad news.
The key to answering these questions without appearing overtly negative or unrealistic in your expectations of being a doctor, is to reflect on what you have learnt from your experiences and how this will support you to overcome the challenges you will inevitably face. This allows you to demonstrate that you appreciate the difficulties you’ll encounter working within healthcare but that you are willing and able to learn how to deal with these. It also provides an opportunity to demonstrate your resilience within challenging situations, which is a core attribute required for studying medicine.
In contrast to the questions above, you may be asked about the positive aspects of your work experience and what you particularly enjoyed during your placements. Your work experience enables you to make a more informed decision about applying to medical school; therefore, interviewers may also ask how your experiences impacted this choice and why.
Questions relating to what you enjoyed during your work experience may seem easier than those in the previous section; however, the danger is that by trying to demonstrate that you enjoyed all or most aspects of your work experience, you can end up just listing the different opportunities you had, without providing any depth to your answers. Even if you give a quick overview of your experiences and what you enjoyed, ensure that you focus on one or two specific elements or clinical settings that you particularly enjoyed, and provide examples to support your answer. Reflect on why this was a particularly enjoyable aspect of your experience and what this has taught you about your future in medicine; did it inspire you further or ignite your interest in a certain area of medicine? If possible, try to also provide examples which demonstrate an interest in different elements of healthcare, striking a balance between clinical care and academic aspects of medicine; demonstrating your enthusiasm for studying medicine.
If you’re discussing the positive impact your work experience had your decision to apply to medical school, ensure that you still give a balanced answer, demonstrating the positive elements that you observed which appeal to you, as well as acknowledging the challenging aspects that you’ll encounter. Again, remember to use specific examples to support your answer, sharing with interviewers your experiences that convinced you that you had the required skills and qualities and were well suited to a career in medicine.
During your interview, you may be asked more generally about your opinion on work experience, what you think the benefits of undertaking it are and why you think it’s important prior to gaining a place at medical school.
Taking into account the previous areas covered in this section, consider how undertaking work experience benefited you personally and helped to prepare you for a future career in medicine.
You could focus on the opportunities to observe and learn from healthcare professionals, gaining practical experience of the skills and qualities required within medicine, and allowing you to reflect on your own strengths and areas for development in relation to these. Or you could discuss how it supported you to make an informed decision about medical school, by providing an insight into the realities of working within healthcare and the challenges you’ll face.
Providing an example from your experience will support your answer and demonstrate how it had a positive impact on your medical school preparations.