Pathways to med school

The journey into medical school has become more convoluted in the last 20 years, with extra tests, submissions and interviews that can be overwhelming for students already busy with their final school exams. Dr Declan Gaynor, Academic Director of Admissions at RCSI Bahrain, breaks down the different selection methods students might encounter when applying to medical school

In the past, admission to medical school may have been based entirely on academic merit, and occasionally applicants would encounter a single person or panel interview. But the landscape has changed immensely in the 21st century. Almost all medical schools use multiple selection methods when making their admissions decisions.

Academic achievement is still the most important consideration for the majority of medical schools. Applicants need to have a rigorous background knowledge in the sciences before they enter medicine, since a considerable amount of prior knowledge of scientific principles is assumed in medical programmes.

The other selection methods which applicants will regularly encounter include aptitude tests and a variety of non-cognitive selection method. Aptitude tests like the UCAT, BMAT, MCAT and GAMSAT have multiple components and assess a variety of cognitive abilities or skills, such as verbal and non-verbal reasoning, which do require a significant amount of preparation to achieve one’s true ability. There are plenty of online resources available for students to cut their teeth before sitting the real assessment.

The UCAT assessment contains a section featuring a Situational Judgement Test (SJT). These non-cognitive assessments are becoming an increasingly popular stand-alone selection method. Medical education research indicates that coaching has a very small effect on SJT performance, meaning preparatory courses are unlikely to result in significant gains in performance in these types of tests.

Dr Declan Gaynor (right) at a recent Future Doctors Roadshow in Kuwait

Selection methods: a breakdown

Interviews which include both Multiple Mini Interviews (MMIs) and Single Station Personal Interviews (SSPIs) are still a regular feature of many admissions processes. MMIs are generally designed to assess different attributes at a series of individual stations. It is very helpful for any student who is scheduled to complete an MMI to get the opportunity of a trial run in a mock interview. It is common for a cooperative of schools within a large school network, such as GEMS Education, to pool their resources to organise mock MMIs for their aspiring medical school applicants.

One of the oldest forms of selection method is portfolio review, which includes personal statements and reference letters. Research shows that personal statements can have a benefit for the applicant. The process of preparing and reflecting on their experiences in healthcare and community volunteer roles helps students strengthen their resolve to study medicine, or it can help them decide that medicine is not the career for them.

Personality tests and, most recently, emotional intelligence tests have been used to great effect in opening up access to medical education in areas where demand for medical programmes caused academic requirements to reach critically high levels.

Aspects of these selection methods can appear daunting and provide challenges to students attempting to prepare for them. Sometimes a crowded and complex landscape of medical admissions tests and interviews can distract students from the most important preparatory work that will be of most value to them. Gaining first-hand experiences in healthcare environments and community volunteer roles is the most valuable preparation a student can undertake. These experiences will allow students to make the decision to pursue a career in medicine with their eyes wide open. In reality, the student is the first and most important part of the admissions selection process. Students need to be sure they are selecting the right career before they allow themselves to proceed to the next stages of the admissions process.

About the author
Dr Declan Gaynor is the Academic Director of Admissions at RCSI Bahrain. He is a senior lecturer in chemistry and has taught and mentored students in the foundation year of their medical programme for the past 15 years. He is actively involved in a number of research projects in medical education and the health benefits of physical activity.