How to become a doctor

Here, we try to lay out the steps you’ll need to take to make an application. Following these steps will not guarantee you a place but should provide some guidance to help you do as well as you can:

Pathways & ReachGradesUKCATWork experienceBeing a doctorExtracurricular activitiesUCASPersonal statementsFundingExtra resourcesFor teachersFor Doctors


Below is a 10 minute video where Callum, our Chair, answers the 5 questions he gets asked most often about applying to medical school. More information on everything he says can be found by clicking the buttons above.

Pathways to the Professions and  

Reach Scotland

One of the first things we advise is that you check your eligibility for Pathways or Reach. To come to our events you need to be signed up to one of these programs. If you attend a state school in the Edinburgh and Lothian area, Pathways to the Professions are available to offer advice and support for S4-6 pupils who are intending to apply to degree subjects such as medicine.  Along with offering advice, they also run a variety of events which give you an insight into different areas of medicine, revision sessions and opportunities to meet current medical students (details of which can be found here).

Register with Pathways to find out more.

In other areas, Reach: Scotland provides the same support. You want to sign up with the university you’re closest to. Here’s the links:

We strongly urge you to check your eligibility and sign up!

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Above all else, you need to have the minimum grade requirements set by the medical school admissions team. They expect you to be able to understand complex theoretical concepts when you are at Medical school so by doing this at high school, you are proving to the admissions team that you would be capable of doing the same on your own!

Work hard at school and still enjoy it. It’s a fantastic opportunity to learn. The workload seems like a lot at the moment, but remember that it will only get harder in the future. Different universities differ in their entrance requirements but the entrance requirements for medicine are higher than other courses.

What are the grade requirements?

The grade requirements will change from year to year and so you should always check the most up-to-date sources – either UCAS or the website of wherever you are applying. We have some information for the Scottish Medical Schools under Where You Can Study.

keyThe UCAS website offers a tool called the Course Search. You can search for the relevant course (which in this case will be A100 Medicine) and then find the grade requirements for the respective universities.

Should I take extra subjects?

Some schools encourage their students to take extra subjects (like six Highers in 5th year).  When applying to medicine having an extra Higher will not give you an advantage over those taking the usual number of courses for that year.  If an applicant has gained 6 Highers in one sitting, only the best 5 grades will be taken into account during the application process.

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United Kingdom Clinical Aptitude Test

The United Kingdom Clinical Aptitude Test (UKCAT) is one of the two entrance exams for medical schools in the UK. It is used by all the Scottish medical schools although they all differ in how they use your score. The other is the BMAT, Biomedical Admission Test, which is used by the following schools: Oxford, Cambridge, Brighton and Sussex Medical School, Imperial College London, Lancaster, Leeds and UCL. You only need to sit the BMAT if you are applying to one of those schools.

Which medical schools in Scotland require the UKCAT?

All 5 medical schools in Scotland require the UKCAT so you are going to have to sit it if you are planning on applying to medicine in Scotland.

More information on the UKCAT

keyThe UKCAT website has a link to an excellent guide with 100 Free Practice Questions available on their website. The Guide provides the key testing dates along with all other information that you require.

The test costs money and the fees vary depending on when you sit the test (ranging between £65 and £80). Fortunately there are bursaries available to help you with the cost of the test – more info on the UKCAT website.

Our views on the UKCAT and how to prepare for it

The UKCAT will be different to many of the other tests you have sat so far. There is some evidence which suggests that your UKCAT score will reflect how well you do at medical school but the reality is that you are able to increase your UKCAT score through practice.

Everyone applying to medicine is doing pretty well so Medical Schools need some way of separating out the people they are going to give offers.  Unfortunately, this does mean that you will need to sit the exam and make sure you do well in it because it will affect your application.

There is no score which guarantees you a place and the ranges change year on year so it can be hard to predict how well you need to do.

There is plenty of advice regarding the content of the UKCAT available in the UKCAT Official guide. In terms of when to actually sit the exam, it is up to you, but I would recommend that you get it out the way as early as you can – sit it  by the end of August at the latest. Come September, you will need to focus on your school work. Having said that, you need to make sure you have done all the preparation you can.

The best way to prepare is to practice. Practice questions over and over again until you develop your own system of working through the different forms of questions. You should do the practice tests timed and in exam conditions to get a feeling for what you’ll have to do on the day. Make sure you’re rested and that you know how to get to the test center.

Frankly, some of the questions are strange and you need to familiarise yourself with them to give yourself the best chance. It is inevitable that you will find some sections more difficult than others but aim to get the highest overall score. You can do terribly on the Verbal Reasoning section but still do very well on the UKCAT overall if you do reasonably well on the other sections.

Other resources to help you prepare

keyThe UKCAT website offers a comprehensive set of resources to help you prepare for the UKCAT with at least 300 free questions (100 are available on the Official Guide and 200 are available online through their online test platform). It is important that you get used to the format of the test through this website – you might prefer keeping this resource till late in your practice because it will be the most representative of the actual thing since it has been made by the developers of the test. They also have an official guide and some practice tests.

This is the youtube playlist from the official UKCAT channel. It takes you through most of what you need to know about the test.

Other resources to help

You can find various books that claim to help you prepare for the UKCAT. They are often expensive and are not necessary but if you do want to buy one I recommend “Get Into Medical School – 600 UKCAT Practice Questions”. This was an extremely useful book because it offers an extremely simple approach to solving the questions and also offers 600 practice questions – do them all and you will be well prepared for that UKCAT.

You may choose to attend various courses to help you with the preparation. Pathways to the Professions run a UKCAT workshop for Edinburgh and Lothians pupils so sign up to them if you haven’t already.

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Work Experience and Career Exploration

keyWork Experience Guide for pupils

We’ve got tips from Doctors, medical students and school pupils to help you get the most out of your work experience.

What’s the point of work experience?

Work experience is to help you explore:

  • Why you want to do Medicine?
  • Whether you would be suited for a career in medicine

You need to make sure you are making an informed decision to study medicine. You don’t want to commit the rest of your life to a difficult profession if that choice is made without knowing what you’re letting yourself in for. Firstly, that means having an idea of what doctors do and secondly, it means finding out about caring for vulnerable people.

Universities want you to do work experience to help you – they want you to be sure that you are ready to commit yourself and want to do this. They want you to explore and think deeply about what a career in medicine involves and whether you would be suited to that career.  Work experience is not something which needs to be ticked off a checklist. Work experience offers a chance to reflect and learn a lot about yourself as a person, what you enjoy doing, and what you can cope with in the very real world of health care. You may even end up deciding not to do medicine as a result of the work experience or realising you are more interested in something ‘like medicine’  – paramedic, psychologist, dietician, speech therapy, radiographer etc.

It is hard to think deeply about your work experience because we are naturally inclined to think superficially and intuitively (see Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow). To help you think about why you did work experience and what you gained from it you could use a reflection tool. One such method is the Gibbs Reflective Cycle – this is commonly used at medical school.

Where should you do work experience?

There is no “correct” answer to this and I think that this questions stems from the fact that applicants want to try to impress  medical schools by doing the most amazing work experience ever. Again,this is not the point of work experience – do not treat this as a checklist exercise but as as an opportunity to find out what a career in medicine involves. Your work experience placement should involve patients – doctors deal with patients every day so you need to work out if yo uare comfortable with them. You will not be far “wrong” in whatever work experience you chose to do as long as you spend time with patients. It goes without saying that you are not qualified and are not yet a medical student and need to respect the patients’ privacy. If they don’t want you in the room you should leave.

Suitable places to do work experience include:

  • Local GP surgery
  • Voluntary (or paid) work:
    • Hospice
    • Youth Club
    • Disability Centres and Schools for children with special needs
    • Nursing homes
  • Hospitals
  • Pharmacy
  • Etc…

If you can try to get a mix of experiences but the key point is that it doesn’t matter where your work experience takes place but whether you learn something from it. Hopefully, by the end of your work experience you should have a better understanding of the role of doctors in the modern NHS (either in primary care as a GP or in secondary care as a hospital doctor)  and some of the unfortunate truths behind modern medicine (such as the fact that despite many of the advancements there is still much that we are not able to do – Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal is an excellent read on some of these aspects).

Remember that work experience is not just time spent in hospitals or with doctors, although that is important. Any work caring for vulnerable people (adults or children) is good experience and this need not be for free if you can get a job as, for example, a care assistant. Equally, no one will look down on you if you volunteer. This can be a good way to support your family or save up some money for uni and get the experience you need.

keyThe Student Room website has an excellent Wiki page with a lot of information on all aspects of applying to university, written by students. There is a section on applying to medicine which has some excellent information and the section on work experience is particularly useful.

How much work experience do you need?


As described above this is a great way to gain skills which will be useful as both a medical student and a doctor. Many people who know what area they would like to do volunteering in, directly contact organisations which are involved in it, and details of this will normally be found on their websites.  If you are unsure of what to do or what is available in your area try Volunteer Scotland which has a database of volunteering opportunities across Scotland.

Career exploration

There are several different ways in which you can go about applying for work experience.  If you know someone who works in healthcare you can ask them to speak to a healthcare professional and ask if they would be willing to allow you to shadow them and give you their contact details.  Approaching your GP is another option for gaining work experience. You can do this through speaking to the GP surgery receptionist or handing in a letter to your GP. If your GP does not reply or says no then you can try a neighbouring GP surgery, which is often better as you are less likely to come across people you know!

If there is an area of medicine which you are interested in it may be a good idea to try and gain some work experience here.  A good bet is to google your local health board and add “work experience” e.g NHS Fife work experience. This is the page for NHS Lothian but most boards have something similar. Most boards will have an appliction form to fill in and you’ll usually have to let your guidance teacher know too.

It is important to add that often places will not take on high school students for work experience and you often won’t even get a reply from people you try to contact.  This means medical work experience can be difficult to arrange, so it is important to try contacting several different people.

keyThe Medic Insight Programmes offer high school pupils in their fourth and fifth years the chance to gain some insight into the life of a doctor. One of the highlights of the programme is an opportunity to get hospital work experience within the NHS. In Edinburgh this will be at the Royal Infirmary while in Dundee this will be at Ninewells Hospital. More information on the application process and the programme can be found at their website.

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Being a doctor

It’s important that you have some idea what you’re letting yourself in for when you apply to medicine. You shouldn’t worry too much about individual specialities though. Some people come into medical school with a very clear idea of what they want to do at the end but many more leave medical school not really knowing. So what you want to get is an idea of what doctors do generally and an idea of how things like general practice differ from hospital medicine. You’ll find out a lot about that during your career exploration and by talking to doctors and medical students and you can watch our profilesNHS Education for Scotland have some excellent videos about being a doctor in Scotland.

NHS Education for Scotland have a whole host of videos about being a doctor in Scotland

The other thing to give some thought is what training will be like once you’re a doctor. You’ll have the opportunity to pick a speciality which can be anything from psychiatry to neurosurgery and continue your training in that area, becoming an expert in that field. You’re paid from the time you graduate too. The BMA website has the current pay scales if you’re interested.

keyTo find out more about different careers in medicine you can check the Scottish Medical Training website. They also have links to some other useful resources about applying to medical school.

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What extra-curricular activities do you need to be doing?

A common question which arises is based around what activities should you do to help with the application to medical school…

The best way to try and rationalise this is to ask yourself “What do I need to prove to the medical schools that I am applying to?” The simple answer is to this is that you will need to demonstrate that you have the personal attributes to become a doctor. So what are these attributes – i.e. what makes a good doctor? Most of you will have a list similar to this:

  • Training and Experience
    • Good knowledge of medicine
    • Confident in clinical abilities and decision making
    • Up to date with recent advancements
    • Able to recognise their limitations
  • Academic
    • Teaching
    • Research aware and perhaps even research active
    • Regular audits
  • General skills
    • Good communication skills
    • Team worker and team leader
    • Good organisational skills
    • Handles stress well
    • Honest and Professional

An important point to take away is that you are not expected to demonstrate all of these – yet. You are not expected to be a doctor when you leave school! You will develop these attributes as you go through medical school and hopefully pass through the gauntlet having grown. This personal and professional development will continue to take place in your life as a doctor.

Your academic ability is reflected in your UKCAT scores and Highers. However, you will also need to provide some form of evidence to the medical schools in your “personal statement” about some of these attributes. Everyone has their strengths and weaknesses and it will be your job to play up strengths as well as you can. You just need to show that you have the right characteristics to become a good doctor in the future – and the best way to do this is to be honest about what you do.

I would not recommend doing something just for the sake of putting things on your personal statement. I know that many people will inevitably end up doing this but in my opinion it just makes it a lot harder!  It’s probably better to do things you enjoy so you can talk about it enthusiastically when you apply to medical school.

Gibb's reflective cycleThe activities you could do will depend on yourself and what you get out of it. Playing the guitar for one individual might allow them to demonstrate their ability to handle stress while for other individuals it might show that they are very good at organising their time around other commitments. You need to make it personal! No one else but you experiences the things you do and if you can coherently express your views in your personal statement, you will do great.

Again, it is hard to think this way. However, to make things easier you could try a more formal reflection process such as the Gibbs Reflective cycle.

Download this as a PDF

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What is UCAS?

UCAS is a charity through which you will need to provide your application to university and medical school.

How is UCAS different for medical applicants?

Two key points:

  1. Earlier deadline: the deadline for applicants of Medicine (and Dentistry and Vet Med) is on 15 October the year before you expect to go to university. Therefore, if you are wanting to study medicine at university in September 2016 then your deadline will be on 15 October 2015.
  2. Limit to four medical schools: UCAS allows you the option of applying to five different courses. However, you can only apply to Medicine (A100 etc) to four universities. Your final choice will need to be a different course.

Is there help with filling in the application form?

The UCAS application form is completed on-line through “UCAS Apply”. There is comprehensive guidance on how to fill this through their website.

keyThe UCAS website has a section called Apply and Track through which you can fill in your application. There are several sections of the application form. If you are applying through your school they should help guide you through the process. However, you can also apply on your own and if you are in doubt about the process of filling out your application form there are plenty of helpful how-to-videos how-to videos produced by UCAS.

There are also student-written guides on helping you complete the application form which you might find more helpful than the Official UCAS videos.

keyThe Student Room has a comprehensive guide on all the aspects of the UCAS application form written by students. It is freely available but is clearly aimed at an English audience. Substitute National/Standard Grade for GSCE

How do I track my application?

Once your application has gone you will undoubtedly mull over it. In fact, you will think about it so much that you will memorise your ID number and track your application incessantly on the UCAS Track website.

Remember that although everyone does this, it seems a bit silly in hindsight. You will just need to wait till the medical schools have had time to read through your application. This will vary and there is no true answer for how long it will take. Some universities might process their applications in batches while others will process them as they come.

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General advice on writing your personal statement

  • Write your personal statement as early as you can – you will undoubtedly go through many drafts of it
  • Save your drafts – you might find that previous versions contained some phrase that you might want to use in your final document
  • Make sure you do not have any mistakes in your personal statement – this includes easy-to-make mistakes such as spelling or punctuation. Get someone to proofread your personal statement (in return you can read their personal statement) since it is often easier to spot the mistakes of others rather than your own mistakes
    • Try to get the proofreading done when you are almost done with your personal statement

Many people end up having similar personal statements – this is rather ironic because the whole point of a personal statement is that it is personal. The reason this probably arises is because Medicine personal statements tend to follow certain format (Introduction, Work Experience, Extra-curriculars etc). To help you stand out it is important that you reflect on your activities and really demonstrate that you have thought about your activities and your reasons carefully.

This means not simply writing about what you’ve done but what you gained from it. A list of achievements won’t differentiate you from the other applicants but writing in detail about the ways you developed because of your experiences just might.

keyIf you require some inspiration, The Student Room Medicine Wiki page has a section on personal statements where users have “donated” their personal statements for use. There’s over 100 freely available examples on the website.

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Who pays for medical school?

Tuition fees

If you study in Scotland, tuition fees are paid for by Student Awards Agency Scotland (SAAS) for the majority of students.  Most applicants who live in Scotland are eligible for SAAS funding but you can check if you meet the criteria and get more details on the funding on the SAAS website.

How do I get a student loan or bursary?

This video from SAAS takes you through the process of applying. is where you can apply and has all the information you need

If you are eligible to have your tuition fees payed for by SAAS you can also take out a student loan with the Student Loans Company but you still apply through SAAS.  This loan is paid into your bank account on a monthly basis and covers a lot of, if not all of, your living expenses.  Once you have completed university and start earning money over a certain threshold, you will gradually start paying the loan back.  If your household income is below a certain amount, you may also be eligible for a Young Students’ Bursary.  This is also paid into your account along with your student loan, but you do not pay back the amount received as a bursary.  You can find out details on eligibility here.

There are also a number of bursaries offered by universities, details of these will be available on the specific university website.  A discretionary fund is also available at every university, which is available to people who would not be able to attend university because of financial reasons or those who have financial difficulties while at university.  Student support services at university are responsible for deciding who is eligible for this money, and details of contacting them will be available on the university website.

It’s worth thinking about the hidden costs of studying medicine as opposed to another subject. Medical students are expected to travel a lot more, whether that’s across the city or to far flung district hospitals, which can prove expensive. They’re at uni for longer which means more years of living costs to be paid and, in later years, they’re at uni over the summer so it can be difficult to find work that fits in with your teaching schedule. That paints a fairly dreich picture but the flipside is that there are very few degrees that lead to such a rewarding career with such a high employment rate or starting salary.

I mention this here because any savings you can build up by working at school or in the early years of medicine can be immensely useful later on to get you through the clinical years. As mentioned above, you won’t be paying back your loans until you are earning and given how much doctors get paid this isn’t as worrying as it might be.

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General websites

Popular science/medicine books

  • Complications: A Surgeon’s Notes on an Imperfect Science. Atul Gawande (2008)
  • The Checklist Manifesto. Atul Gawande (2011)
  • Being Mortal. Atul Gawande (2014)

Atul Gawande is a renowned general surgeon working in Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital. He was part of the team that devised the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) safe surgical checklist which has revolutionized patient safety across the world. His first book which I have mentioned above is a remarkable account of one his first few years as a surgical resident on the wards. His writing is very human and we learn just how much of a human endeavor medicine really is. With this humanity, we also learn that we are fallible. Unfortunately, it is the nature of our profession that we need to learn through the patients we treat. The Checklist Manifesto describes the use of a very simple tool – a checklist – which can be used to minimize our fallibilities. Finally, Being Mortal should be on the reading list of every medical student and doctor – it is remarkable and will definitely be practice changing. Being Mortal is Gawande’s reflections on modern medicine, the place of the elderly in society, how the medical profession treats the elderly and reflections on good and bad deaths. Gawande’s humanity is immediately apparent.

  • Bad Science. Ben Goldacre (2009)
  • Bad Pharma. How Medicine is Broken and How We Can Fix It. Ben Goldacre (2013).

Ben Goldacre is an absolute genius and this guy has the balls to challenge what we all sometimes questions. Both of these books should be compulsory reading at medical schools but even likely to benefit at the pre-medical student stage.

  • The Great Cholesterol Con. Malcolm Kendrick (2007).

Malcolm Kendrick is a Scottish GP and writes a passionate account about the “Cholesterol Hypothesis”: If you eat too much food containing cholesterol and/or saturated fat, the level of cholesterol in your blood will rise. The excess cholesterol will be deposited in artery walls causing them to thicken and narrow. In time this will block the blood supply to the heart and other organs causing heart attacks and stroke. He provides some excellent evidence in a readable manner to make you question what really causes heart disease.

  • Thinking, Fast and Slow. Daniel Kahneman(2014).

Daniel Kahneman won a Nobel Prize in Economics for his work on Prospect Theory with Amos Tversky. The implications of prospect theory are wide ranging and the psychological principles upon which it is based is highly fundamental and applicable to many aspects of life. This book will be a good ready for any one! Very interesting account of the System 1 and System 2 thinking with many implications for medical decision making.

  • Genome: The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters. Matt Ridley (2000)

An absolutely amazing introduction on the human genome and the evolving field of genetics! Each chapter is dedicated to one set of chromosomes and offers a great way to get into topics ranging from the philosophy of life to the development of cancer. It is probably the reason I got interested in biology and science. Ridley’s style of writing is also great.

  • Nature via Nurture: Genes, experience and what makes us human. Matt Ridley (2004)

This was the next edition of Ridley’s masterpieces. This book covers how it is not actually genes and environmental factors working independently which ultimately determine our phenotype. Rather, it is the complex interactions of our genes (nature) and our environment (nurture) which ultimately affect who we are – it is nature VIA nurture and not nature OR nurture. A must read!

  • The Epigenetics Revolution: How Modern Biology is Rewriting Our Understanding of Genetics, Disease and Inheritance. Nessa Carey (2012)

If Matt Ridley’s “Genome” was a summary of our knowledge on genetics till the year 2000 (around the time of the completion of the Human Genome Project), Nessa Carey’s “Epigenetic Revolution” is a real tour de force describing our advancements over the last few years. One of my favourite sections in her book is where she predicts Shinya Yamanaka and Sir John Gurdon as future Nobel Prize Winners – remarkably they did win the Nobel Prize for Medicine and Physiology for their outstanding work. Yamanaka’s induced pluripotent stem cells technique is already leading to remarkable medical insights in research and it is hoped that we can translate some of the scientific findings into patients.

  • The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer. Siddhartha Mukherjee (2011)

I am fascinated by cancer biology and this book is an attempt at the history of “cancer” – the emperor of all maladies. It is a great a read but is quite long and does stray into several different aspects of medical history; however, this should detract you away from what is a beautifully written book on the subject of cancer – you will learn a lot about many aspects of the history of medicine.

  • Medical Ethics: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions). Tony Hope (2004)

Good series of books. This is one a nice introduction to a complicated subject and you might be interested in reading this one in preparation for your interview. You could probably read this in two or three sittings – about a 100 pages long.

TED talks to watch

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For Teachers

It can be difficult to keep track of all the different hoops pupils have to jump through to apply to medicine, particularly if not many pupils at your school apply. We’ve collated some common questions into a one page guide to what to say to a pupil who wants to study medicine.

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For Doctors

keyWork Experience Guide for Doctors

We’ve got tips from Doctors, medical students and school pupils to help you provide the best work experience you can.

Many doctors are kind enough to give up their time to provide crucial work experience for school pupils. We hope this guide will help make work experience more enjoyable for doctors and pupils alike. If you find this useful you can send our Work Experience Guide for Pupils to any pupils you’re hosting.

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