Alternative Routes into Medicine
The most common route to medical school starts right after finishing high school but this isn’t the only way to become a doctor. Many people enter medical school every year having completed a different university degree/college course first or sometimes after years of working. This page discusses the different routes to medicine that are available in Scotland for anyone who is not currently in high school.
We will cover the different programs in detail but first it is useful to clarify some of the terminology you might have come across in your research. Clicking any of the blue headings below will take you to the relevant section on this page, simply click the up arrow to return to the top of this page.
‘Graduate entry‘ medicine refers to the process of applying to a standard medical degree after completing another degree. Some universities require this previous degree to be science related while others do not, more detail is covered below in the ‘Graduate Entry’ section. The course that you study is the same as those who apply after high school and you will learn alongside them.
In Scotland there is only one program of study that allows you to graduate as a doctor where the content is designed specifically for graduates (and not a standard medical degree). The provision of this course is limited and there are certain conditions after qualifying (see ‘ScotGEM‘ section below).
‘Post-graduate medicine‘ is a term you might see often used to refer to graduates applying to medical school but the term actually applies to specialised degrees that doctors might choose to study after qualifying. For the purposes of this page we will avoid using the term ‘post-graduate medicine’.
‘Mature students/entry‘ is another commonly used label that can have various meanings. For the purposes of this page we use the terms to refer to applicants who have been out of high school and high education for many years. Applicants from this group typically have years of experience working in a separate field (e.g. engineering, finance) and decide they want to do medicine.
‘Gateway to medicine‘ programs (sometimes confusingly referred to as ‘pre-med years’) are not medical degrees but are courses, typically lasting one year, that prepare students to enter a standard medical degree. These are offered by four of the Scottish universities and are designed for specific groups of people. We’ll cover the eligibility criteria in more detail below (‘Gateway to Medicine‘ section).
‘Scottish Widening Access Program‘ or ‘SWAP‘ is another one year course that is designed for students, usually mature, who have been away from education for a few years. These courses have the same aims as the ‘Gateway’ programs but are offered by specific colleges in Edinburgh and Glasgow.
Finally, ‘medicine for healthcare professionals’ or ‘HCP-Med‘ is a new programme offered by the University of Edinburgh to people working as a nurse or other healthcare professional to study medicine while continuing part-time work before joining the final two years of a standard medical degree full time.
“Now two years after I first graduated, I see that there are many different paths and I’m not behind compared to my other friends. People go on to do masters, PhDs, travel, volunteer or just take some time out to decide what they want to do next. You won’t feel behind studying medicine because you’re on your own path and working towards your own goals.“
– Amy, 2nd year medical student at University of Glasgow
Graduate entry medicine refers to the process of applying to a standard medical degree after completing a different course at university. These can have the reputation of being very competitive places but many students enter medicine through this route (some years 30% of the intake can be graduates!). Courses are usually 5 years long but some universities allow you to enter 2nd year directly if your first degree qualifies.
The below drop-down boxes show the different characteristics and entry requirements for the five universities in Scotland. Each one is slightly different but the main components of any application are shown in the flow chart below.
“Studying medicine as a graduate has given me a chance to act as a mentor to some of the younger students. I am already familiar and comfortable with many of the skills they are trying to gain such as academic writing, referencing and critical analysis. Being able to help them achieve that is very rewarding!“
– Joana, 1st year medical student at University of Edinburgh
Below you can find details about the graduate entry requirements for each of the medical schools in Scotland.
University of Aberdeen (5 Years)
- Operates gateway to medicine 1 year program (see ‘Gateway’ section below)
- Achieved at least upper second class (2:1) honours degree (see alternatives below)
- Attained at least B in Chemistry (Higher or English A-level);some degree courses may negate this requirement
- UCAT: no minimum cut-off, SJT not scored but may be used to differentiate close applicants
- Reference (see below)
- Interview: MMI style, 8 stations that are 7 minutes each
University of Dundee (5 Years)
University of Edinburgh (5/6 Years)
University of Glasgow (5 Years)
University of St Andrews (6 Years)
“Can I transfer into medicine during another degree like anatomy or medical sciences?“
Unfortunately, there is an extremely low chance of being able to transfer into medicine from a different degree. The advice from universities is usually to finish that degree (achieving at least a 2:1) and then apply for graduate entry.
A reference is an important part of your application as it allows the universities a chance to read an impartial account of your reliability, work ethic, team work, organisational skills. If your referee is unsure on where to start when writing their reference, see this article from UCAS.
Obtaining a reference for a medical school application can be tricky for graduates and especially for ‘mature’ applicants. References cannot come from a friend or family member. This article from UCAS provides more detail about how to organise getting a reference. If you are enrolled (or recently graduated) in an undergraduate degree you could reach out to a lecturer or tutor that has some knowledge of your academic performance and can talk about how they have seen particular skills demonstrated from you while at university. If you have recently been in education the universities tend to be very interested in your referees opinion of your academic performance/work ethic. For mature students a good option might be asking your line manager at a long time employer.
Some universities may also allow you to submit a second reference which can help flesh out more of the qualities that they think make you a suitable candidate for a career in medicine. One example could be someone who has supervised you in a volunteering role that might have more insight into your personal attributes/skills.
Whoever you choose, the most important thing is to do it early, well ahead of any deadlines.
“You will be selected to join a medical school because of your passion, and abilities to grasp new concepts quickly, and this is what will help you get through. As long as you meet the medical school application requirements (and have some medical work experience) the skills you have developed in a different degree or career are traits you should use to help promote your application and differentiate yourself from other medical school applicants. Not only can you use your previous degree and/or career to help you stand with unique skills and experience, but you can also use your background to help reflect on why medicine could benefit from your approach and different way of thinking.“
– Jack, 1st year medical student at University of Edinburgh
Costs to Consider When Applying
There are a few fees associated with the application to medical school.
- UCAT: costs £75 but can be partially or fully covered if you fulfil eligibility criteria
- UCAS application: costs £20 for a single choice (or £26 if you have more than one)
- PVG scheme: a new application costs £59 but transferring from a previous organisation (e.g. job or volunteering position) costs £18
- Costs of interviews: consider transport costs as well as any wardrobe items you think you might need
Remember to also consider the costs of studying medicine as your second degree;
- Tuition fee: depends on your circumstances/fee status; check with SAAS/the university
- Transport: to classes/placement becomes especially important in later ‘clinical’ years
- Equipment: e.g. lab coat, stethoscope are usually relatively inexpensive one off purchases(£40 each)
- Textbooks: although, just as for your first degree, the library has almost all required textbooks and can minimise the amount you actually have to buy!
“I work 12 hours a week alongside my studies and I worked 20 hours a week throughout my previous degree. It is definitely possible to maintain your studies and a part time job, but cutting my hours from 2 days a week to 1 was necessary.“
– Robyn, 1st year medical student at University of Edinburgh
Gateway to Medicine programs
These are one year programs designed for applicants who might not yet have all the aspects of an application that would make them competitive enough for a graduate entry place. This is particularly tailored for mature students but also applicants out of high school who are from a widening participation background and weren’t able to put together a full application at the time.
The course lasts a year covering biomedical sciences, lab skills, study skills, and helps with developing resilience and adaptability needed for medical school and beyond. After successfully passing, the course typically grants access to enter year 1 of the standard medical degree at that university.
Entry requirements can vary widely (see links below) but, in general, successful applicants are residents of Scotland who have achieved A and B grades in science/maths but also have experience with socio-economic disadvantage, caring/being cared for, or coming from a rural/deprived area or school.
This program is offered by the following universities in Scotland;
Scottish Graduate Entry Medicine (‘ScotGEM’)
This is a 4 year programme that is run by the University of St Andrews and University of Dundee. The course is designed for candidates who have studied any honours degree at university (i.e. not just science related) and who have achieved good high school exam results. Currently there are only 55 places available every year so it is usually a competitive programme. In addition to the standard application components talked about above, applicants also need to pay for and sit an exam called the GAMSAT, discussed below.
The course is unique in that you can graduate as a doctor within 4 years and the content covered has a particular focus on general practice and community healthcare. The first two years take place in St Andrews but your clinical placements can take place in Tayside, Dumfries, or in the highlands and islands. Tuition fees are also covered by the health boards and academic terms are also longer than standard medical degrees.
There are some conditions surrounding a minimum number of years you must work as a GP after you qualify but it’s important to remember that the programme provides you with a medical degree that you could then use to take your career to any medical specialty, not just general practice.
Applicants must have;
- Scotland/UK student status
- Achieved at least 2:1 in an honours degree as your first degree
- Achieved at least B in chemistry (higher or A-level), or studied chemistry modules at Open University/during their first degree
- Achieved at least B in maths (national 5/standard grade or GCSE)
- GAMSAT (see below): target score varies year to year, in 2020 cut off was overall 50
- Reference (see above) as for other graduate entry medicine applications
- Complete ScotGEM questionnaire (allows applicant to discuss work experience, interests, etc.)
The interview is in the MMI format whereby you go through several independent stations where you will likely be asked questions regarding your motivation to study medicine, relevant work experience/personal attributes, and why you applied to ScotGEM in particular. Interviews normally take place at Ninewells Hospital in Dundee, but this may change throughout the pandemic.
The Graduate Medical School Admission Test (GAMSAT)
The GAMSAT is a multi-section exam that takes place over the course of a day. The exam is designed to test your ability to process and combine material and express your thoughts in a logical way. You will need to sit this in order to apply for the ScotGEM programme. You must pay for the exam (cost is £265) and can take the exam either in the spring or autumn but the only test centres are in Edinburgh. There are no bursaries available or exemptions to cover the cost but there are adjustments available to the exam if you have health/accessibility requirements.
The exam can be very difficult and, in contrast to the UCAT, there are relatively few online resources to allow you to prepare for the exam. There are three different sections that test different attributes that you will need to practice in the weeks leading up to the exam. We have prepared a short introductory document that explains the different sections and also links to some online resources that can help you with preparation. We’ve prepared a handbook that covers the basic details of each section and some resources to get you started.
Remember that, if you are applying to both graduate entry places and ScotGEM in the same year, you will need to sit the GAMSAT and the UCAT. Unlike the UCAT you can re-sit the GAMSAT if you would like to improve your score and scores also remain valid for up to two years (whereas UCAT must be taken the year you apply).
Top Tips for Graduates/Mature students
- You may have had a long period of time since high school but use this to your advantage; think about all the experience you have gained across many different qualities and reflect on how these can apply to a career in medicine
“Just remember that all the years you have been out of education is just as valuable. The experiences and maturity that you gain from entering the workforce is so important and essential for developing as a doctor.“
– Yousuf, 1st year medical student at University of Edinburgh
- Try to avoid comparing yourself to other applicants, there are no ‘vital’ skills and all the unique strengths (and weaknesses!) that you have will contribute to making you a well rounded doctor; don’t be afraid to chat with other applicants in the waiting area at interviews!
“I knew that there was a big chance I wouldn’t get in so I said from the start that if I didn’t get in first time round, I would apply again the following year. Luckily, I got in first time, but I was fully prepared to apply again and this took away a little bit of the pressure.“
– Robyn, 1st year medical student at University of Edinburgh
- Once you get to university, don’t let your doubts get in the way of enjoying it. ‘Imposter syndrome’ can feel especially strong for post-graduate students but, as for all other medical students, you are here because the university knows you are going to make a great doctor!
“I struggled with imposter syndrome a lot in my first year, especially being the older student in the group and the expectation that you are very knowledgeable in your degree subject. Opening up to other students and friends made me realise how common the feeling of imposter syndrome is within medicine and helped me feel less alone. I think you just need to remember that you deserve your place in medicine and to just enjoy the process of becoming a doctor.“
– Amy, 2nd year medical student at University of Glasgow
Scottish Wider Access Programme (SWAP)
The SWAP programme is a full time one year course designed for mature applicants who are returning to higher education after a gap (usually at least 5 years). If you decide you want to become a doctor and have the drive and determination to get through medical school, the SWAP programme can bolster your application for medical school but can also serve as a springboard to get into a pharmacy or biomedical sciences degree course which you could then use to apply as a ‘graduate’ to a medical degree.
Before applying it is worth getting in touch with your prospective medical schools to double check they accept the SWAP course as part of their entry requirements.
The course is offered by two colleges in Glasgow and one in Edinburgh (see below) and covers science subjects that are applicable to medical sciences as well as helping you to develop study skills that will be vital for studying at university.
To apply you are expected to hold some previous qualifications in chemistry and biology and will then usually need to sit an entrance test covering biology, chemistry, and maths, provide a reference, and also attend an interview. If you are successful in joining the SWAP programme, remember that you will also need to pay for and sit the UCAT exam during your year at college in order to apply for medical school the following year.
Healthcare Professional Medicine (HCP-Med)
This is a new, five year course that is designed to allow healthcare professionals (nurses, HCAs, midwives) to complete a medical degree and transition to working as a doctor. The programme is currently only offered by University of Edinburgh and is initially part time for three years before students change to full time for the last two years of a standard medical degree.
The course gives healthcare professionals in Scotland the chance to use all the skills they have developed from their previous training and clinical exposure in combination with training in medical sciences and practical skills (like history taking and examination). There is an emphasis on general practice and community healthcare but you will be equipped with the necessary skills to work in any medical specialty and after graduating there is no obligation to work in a particular field.