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How to Become a Doctor: The Ultimate Guide

17 February 2022

How to Become a Doctor: The Ultimate Guide

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Are you an aspiring medic wondering how you can start preparing for your future career? 

You’ve come to the right place. 

This comprehensive guide will tell you all you need to know about entering the medical field: what qualifications you’ll need, how to get work experience, the key skills required and what you can be doing now to give yourself the best chance of success. 

Let’s get started!

Is a career in medicine right for me? 


The first thing you’ll need to consider is whether medicine is definitely the right path for you. 

It’s a fantastic career choice for all sorts of reasons. A doctor has the opportunity to help people and contribute positively to society. They can bank on job security - after all, the world will always need doctors - and enjoy an enriching and stimulating work life (a million miles away from a stifling desk job). 

But it’s worth noting that the daily realities of the role can be challenging, and difficult to truly understand before you enter the field. 

Taking care of patients who are dealing with serious or life-threatening conditions can take an emotional toll. You’ll need to be prepared for high levels of responsibility, and the ability to stay calm in stressful situations is important. Long hours and unconventional shift patterns are part of the job too, so a genuine passion for what you do is a must. 

As medicine is among the most popular degree choices, it’s a competitive field to get into, so you’ll also need excellent grades and a strong motivation to succeed.

Up for the challenge? 

Read on!

Want to find out more about what being a doctor is really like? Check out our interview with Dr Manik Kohli, a speciality registrar who worked on the Covid wards throughout the pandemic.

What GCSEs do you need to be a doctor? 


You will need at least grade 5 in your maths and English GCSEs and at least grade 6 in science subjects to get into medical school, but as medicine is so competitive, successful applicants usually achieve higher. Aim for 7s, 8s and 9s in all the subjects you can to give yourself the best possible chance of success. 

It’s a good idea to opt for triple sciences (rather than the double award option) if your school offers it. You’ll need to take at least one science subject at A-level to proceed with medicine, and separate sciences will better prepare you for A-level study. 

When it comes to choosing your options, you have some freedom at this stage. The subjects required of medical students are compulsory anyway, so use the opportunity to pick options you’ll enjoy! 

Interested in political history or fascinated by the way the mind works? Choose history or psychology. Looking for a creative outlet alongside your more academic subjects? Go for art. 

Studying what you love will make you much more motivated and increase your chances of doing well, and a strong set of GCSE grades can really help medical schools differentiate between you and other candidates. 

What A-levels do you need to be a doctor? 


You will need to take A-level chemistry to study medicine, and some medical schools also require biology. 

Entry requirements can vary, so make sure you check what’s compulsory at the different universities you want to apply to. 

Click here for a complete guide to UK medical school entry requirements.

Alongside chemistry and biology, maths and physics are useful additions that will keep your options open: if you take chemistry, biology and physics or chemistry, biology and maths you will be able to apply to any medical school in the UK. 

Want more advice on how to choose your A-levels? Take a look at our blog, What A-Levels Should I Take? Ultimate Guide

Here’s what Dr Manik Kohli, Speciality Registrar in Sexual Health and HIV Medicine, had to say about his choices:

“I’m from Scotland, so the system is a bit different, but essentially I did biology, chemistry, maths and music. I chose the science subjects because they were required for medicine, and maths because I really love maths, which is a bit geeky I know. I did music as an extra subject: I really enjoyed it and was good at it, so it didn’t feel like a huge amount of extra work. Biology, chemistry and maths took up a lot of my mental bandwidth that year.”

Medicine work experience 


If you’re thinking about studying medicine, work experience is essential.

Not only is it a medical school entry requirement, it will also help you get a sense of what the day-to-day life of a doctor is really like. 

There are 2 kinds of relevant experience accepted by medical schools: 

  • Observation of healthcare (e.g. shadowing a doctor)
  • Caring for people who are ill, elderly, disabled or disadvantaged (e.g. in a care home)

There are all sorts of ways you can gain this experience, including helping out at a local GP surgery or hospice, shadowing a hospital doctor, physiotherapist, pharmacist or other medical professional, working in a care home, volunteering with a medical charity or organisation or even caring for a disabled relative. 

For more information, take a look at the Medical Schools Council’s work experience guide.

Ideally, you will have a range of different experience, but don’t worry if this proves impossible. 

The most important thing is that you have some that you can draw on in applications and interviews, and that you can reflect on what it's taught you: you’ll need to demonstrate what you’ve learnt about the medical field and your ability to succeed within it. 

There’s no rule about the minimum number of hours you need to complete - it could be a short-term placement, a paid job, or a long-term volunteering role - as long as the experience demonstrates that you have: 

  • Accumulated people-facing experience of providing care or service
  • Begun to develop some of the traits and skills essential to being a doctor (e.g. communication)
  • Gained a basic understanding of the physical and emotional demands of a medical career

It does also need to be recent, so you should aim to undertake at least some of your experience in sixth form. 

As there are so many aspiring medics on the hunt for experience, placements can be difficult to secure (a situation made worse, unfortunately, by the pandemic). It’s best to start looking early. 

You can start by calling, emailing or visiting local medical centres or NHS Trusts to enquire about shadowing, handing out CVs to local care homes or applying to volunteer with charities such as St John Ambulance or Kissing it Better. Some places (including InvestIN!) now offer virtual schemes. Have a look online for opportunities you’re eligible for. 

Contact as many different places as you can and, if nothing comes of it, keep trying! You may need to follow up with people if they don’t get back to you. Don’t be afraid to ask around the people you know, too. Your parents, teachers, neighbours or family friends may know healthcare professionals that could help.

If you’re struggling to find a placement, InvestIN’s Medicine Programmes offer the chance for you to get hands-on medical experience without an application process. Treat real patients, practise suturing wounds and shadow doctors in a simulated ward round! 

Skills required for medicine 


"For me, I think the most important thing of all is empathy. Sometimes you have days where you’re tired, stressed or have lots going on…Empathy can be the thing that you drop quite quickly whilst maintaining all the other stuff that comes with being a doctor. So I think it's really important to have a good basis to begin with."

Dr Manik Kohli, Speciality Registrar in Sexual Health and HIV Medicine.

Beyond the medical knowledge you’ll acquire at university, there are all sorts of important skills you’ll need in your work as a doctor. These include: 

  • Empathy 
  • Communication 
  • Problem solving
  • Teamwork 
  • Attention to detail 
  • Conscientiousness
  • The ability to remain calm under pressure
  • A willingness to continually educate yourself (about new medical techniques, patient care practises etc.)

Have a think about how you can start developing these skills now. 

There are all sorts of ways you can get started, including joining extracurricular clubs and societies, finding a part-time job and volunteering. 

Why not try learning to code to improve your problem solving abilities, or finding a customer service job to improve your communication skills? Volunteering at a homeless shelter will help you to practise empathy, whilst participating in team sports like football, hockey or netball is a great way to develop key teamwork skills. 

See what’s available at school and in your local area. 

For tips and advice from working professionals, take a look at our blog, How to Improve Your Employability Skills Whilst Still at School.

Problem-solving, lateral thinking and being able to communicate well: those things are all really integral when it comes to being a good doctor.

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After You Finish School: Routes into Medicine 


The most common path to qualifying as a doctor in the UK is: 

  • A 5-year medicine degree
  • A 2-year general medical foundation programme
  • A specialty training programme (3 to 8 years, depending which specialism you choose)

Some students may do a related degree in a science subject before doing a 4-year graduate medicine programme. The final 2 stages of their training are then the same as above. 

Medicine Degree


Choosing your medical school


The first thing you’ll need to do is decide which medical schools to apply to. 

It’s an exciting decision! Do some research into what each university (and the hospital it’s connected to) has to offer and think about which will best suit your needs.

Put some thought into the following: 

  • Entry requirements. Did you take the right A-levels? Are you likely to achieve the A-level grades required? How competitive will it be to get into? Make sure you ask yourself these questions about each university you’re considering. Try to pick medical schools with a range of different entry requirements in case you don’t make your top choice. Some universities place importance on your GCSE grades and some don’t: if you didn’t do as well in your GCSEs as you’d have liked, it’s worth checking. 
  • Course style. Most medical degrees in the UK are ‘integrated courses’: they combine traditional classroom-based teaching with learning in a clinical setting from the 1st year. Traditional courses (such as those offered by Oxford and Cambridge) focus on teaching you the scientific knowledge in the classroom first, so you won’t make it into a clinical setting until your 3rd or 4th year. Have a think about which you would prefer. Teaching styles within these course structures also vary: at some universities you might be given specific medical cases to solve, at others you might study more general medical problems and scenarios. Click here to learn more about the different medical school teaching styles.
  • Location and facilities. Medicine courses in big cities like London, Manchester and Glasgow will, naturally, offer a different learning experience and environment to those in more rural locations. Have a think about where you’d like to live - you’ll be spending the next 5 years of your life there! It’s also worth considering that some universities will have easy access to hospitals and other medical facilities, whilst others that are less connected may require you to travel for your clinical placements. 

The best way to get a feel for the places you're thinking of applying to is to go to university open days. You’ll be able to explore the campus, check out the accommodation, speak to students and meet your future teachers. 

Need more guidance? Check out our blog Choosing Your University: The Complete Guide.

Medical schools require excellent academic results, a high mark in your admissions test, relevant work experience and a strong personal statement demonstrating your commitment and drive. Make sure you put the time into compiling a really good application!

Top medical schools in the UK


League tables can be a useful tool when deciding between universities - just remember to take them with a pinch of salt. 

There are all sorts of factors to take into consideration when deciding on the right medical school for you, and rankings are often affected by things like research, which won’t really affect your student experience. 

If you are interested, however, take a look at the table below for the top 10 universities to study medicine in the United Kingdom, along with the A-level grades and entry test you’ll need to get in. 

Correct as of 17/02/2022, source: The Complete University Guide.

Applying to medical school 


Once you’ve made your selection, it’s time to start applying.

Medical schools require excellent academic results, a high mark in your admissions test, relevant work experience and a strong personal statement demonstrating your commitment and drive. Make sure you put the time into compiling a really good application! 

There are several steps to the application process. 

1. Admissions tests

Most medical schools in the UK will require you to pass 1 of 3 admissions tests:

  • UCAT (University Clinical Aptitude Test)
  • BMAT (BioMedical Admissions Test)
  • GAMSAT (Graduate Medical School Admissions Test)

You’ll need to check on the website for each university you want to apply to to see which test they require and when you will need to take it. 

Click here for more information on the different medical school admissions tests

2. Applying on UCAS

You submit your medical school application through UCAS as usual, but the deadline for medicine is earlier than with other subjects: the 15th of October every year. 

You can only apply to 4 universities to do a medical degree (rather than the usual 5), but you can apply to a 5th institution for a different subject. 

This is essentially so that you have a backup in case your application to study medicine is unsuccessful. 

You can put whatever you like as your 5th choice. Most applicants choose something related to the medical field (e.g. biomedical sciences or biochemistry), in the hopes that they may then be able to do a graduate medicine programme after they finish. Just make sure you choose something you would be happy to pursue if you’re unable to study medicine.

Once you’ve made your choices, you will then need to put together a really convincing personal statement. This is your chance to sell yourself! 

You’ll need to convey a strong motivation to become a doctor and be able to demonstrate all the skills you’ve acquired that will make you a good fit for the role. 

Reflect thoughtfully on the work experience you’ve gained and what it’s taught you - both about the medical profession and about yourself. 

Volunteering, extra study and wider reading are all good ways to demonstrate your commitment to the field, whilst hobbies and extracurricular activities will help to prove that you are a good personality fit. 

Make sure you leave yourself enough time to write a really good statement and don’t include anything you wouldn’t be comfortable talking about in interviews!

Interviews can be nerve wracking, but try not to worry too much (we know it’s easier said than done!). Your interviewers will just want to see that you’re a knowledgeable, committed candidate with a passion for medicine - and you wouldn’t have been invited for an interview if you weren’t all those things.

3. Interviews

If you pass your admissions test and the universities you have applied to are impressed with your application, you will then be invited to an interview. 

Interview season tends to run from around November to March. 

There are 2 different types: 

  • MMIs (Multiple Mini Interviews): the most common kind of medicine interview, MMIs involve multiple small ‘stations’ that you will visit one after the other. At each one you’ll be given a task or scenario ( a role play with a patient, for example, or a selection of data to analyse), with a little time to prepare. There will usually be around 10 stations, each lasting no more than 10 minutes. Examples of universities that use MMIs include Nottingham, Leicester, Newcastle, Cardiff, Edinburgh and Warwick. 
  • Traditional interviews: traditional interviews are more, well, traditional. Rather than completing tasks or responding to scenarios, you will answer a series of questions posed by a panel. Depending on the university, the panel might consist of admissions tutors, academics or medical professionals. Traditional interview questions can cover a range of topics, including your motivation to study medicine, your knowledge of the medical school you’re being interviewed by, and empathy and ethics-based scenarios. The interview should last between 20 and 40 minutes. Examples of universities that use traditional interviews include Oxford, Cambridge, Bristol, Glasgow, Sheffield and UCL. 

Interviews can be nerve wracking, but try not to worry too much (we know it’s easier said than done!). Your interviewers will just want to see that you’re a knowledgeable, committed candidate with a passion for medicine - and you wouldn’t have been invited for an interview if you weren’t all those things.

Do as much preparation as you can. There are plenty of resources online that will help you - go through example interview questions, scenarios and role plays and think carefully about how you would respond to them. You might want to ask a family member or teacher to help you practise.

Once you’ve been accepted into medical school, you have 5 years of rigorous medical education (and fun!) to get through before you progress to the next stage of your medical training: the foundation programme.

Foundation Programme 


Your two year foundation programme will essentially be your first paid job as a newly-qualified doctor after medical school. 

It’s a 2-year training scheme designed to bridge the gap between medical school and specialty or GP training. It takes place in a foundation school based in a hospital trust.

You will usually apply in your final year of study, when you will rank foundation schools in order of where you’d most like to work for the next 2 years. Whether you get your top choice will depend on 2 things: the Educational Performance Measure (a score of up to 50 that reflects your medical school performance and other educational achievements) and the Situational Judgement Test (a sort of admissions exam designed to test whether you have the attributes required to work as a foundation doctor).  

The foundation programme is usually made up of 6 rotations/placements in different medical or surgical specialties, including acute, community, mental health and general practice settings. These will help you decide which specialty to pursue. 

As you progress through the programme you will gain key experience and begin to develop basic clinical skills. You will also have the opportunity to work on the soft skills integral to being a doctor, including teamwork, communication and empathy. 

Once you’ve successfully completed your first year you will gain full registration with a licence to practise from the General Medical Council (essential for all doctors in the UK). 

Specialty Training 


Once the foundation programme has been completed, you will then complete your medical specialty training

This is when you’ll decide what kind of doctor you want to be. You can choose to become a general practitioner (GP), which will require 3 years’ additional training, or pursue a different specialty (which usually takes between 5 and 8 years depending which specialty you choose). 

Did you know? There are about 60 medical specialties in the UK! Choosing which one you want to pursue will be a fun part of your future, but it’s not something you need to worry about now. 

“There’s no rush to pick a specialism. Often, before someone has gone through medical school (or even applied!) they will start worrying about what direction they should go in. And there will always be a small, but loud, minority who know that they want to be a paediatrician, a surgeon or a cardiologist…I didn’t really know what I wanted to do, but I knew I’d figure it out later. My advice is to always keep an open mind. You don’t really know what the job is like until you start doing it. I have many friends who thought they wanted to do something all the way through medical school, started working in that specialty, realised they hated it and then started doing something else. That was fine!”

Dr Manik Kohli, Speciality Registrar in Sexual Health and HIV Medicine.

Different Medical Specialties


Whilst you don’t need to feel pressured to decide which direction you want to go in right now, it can be fun to explore the different options. 

Take a look at the list below for a few of the different specialisms you could go into. 

General practice - a general practitioner (or GP) acts as a first point of call for people seeking medical attention. They treat common medical conditions and refer patients to hospitals and other medical services for urgent and specialist treatment. 

Emergency medicine - doctors in emergency medicine (EM) treat patients with urgent, serious and life-threatening conditions. Think Dr Alex from Love Island or TikTok doc Dr Emeka Okorocha.

Surgery - Surgeons perform operations to repair, remove or replace damaged or diseased parts of a patient’s body. There are 10 main surgical specialities, with sub-specialties within them: you can choose how to specialise as you progress. To use Grey’s Anatomy as an example, Dr Meredith Grey is a general surgeon, Dr Derek Shepherd (aka McDreamy) is a neurosurgeon and Dr Christina Yang is a cardiothoracic surgeon

Paediatrics - a paediatrician manages medical conditions affecting infants, children and young people. There are 4 main areas: general paediatrics, neonatology, community paediatrics and paediatric cardiology.

Oncology - a clinical oncologist cares for patients with cancer. They use chemotherapy, radiotherapy and a range of other treatments. 

Anaesthesia - Anaesthetists give patients anaesthetics (drugs used to numb feeling or induce sleep) for surgical, medical and psychiatric procedures. They facilitate pain-free childbirth, resuscitate acutely unwell patients, run chronic pain services and lead intensive care units. 

Sexual and reproductive health - Community sexual and reproductive health (CSRH) is all about caring for people's sexual health needs. This includes contraception, treatment of sexually transmitted infections, sexual assault and unplanned pregnancies. Dr Manik Kohli, the director of InvestIN’s Young Doctor Programme whose quotes you’ve been reading throughout this article, specialises in this field.

How long does it take to become a doctor? 


It takes most people 7 years to qualify as a doctor in the UK, though it can vary depending on when you start your medical degree, whether you do a different degree before studying graduate medicine etc. 

It will then take several more years to complete your specialty training. A GP, for example, will be fully qualified 10 years after starting their medical education.  

What can you be doing now to prepare for a career in medicine?

So, you know the skills and qualifications you’ll need to become a doctor and some of the different specialties you could go into. But what can you be doing now to prepare for success in the medical field?

  • Get as much medical experience as you can. Find relevant work experience wherever you can. Make a list of local GP surgeries, hospitals and clinics, and contact them to ask about shadowing a doctor. Volunteer with a medical charity, find work in a care home or look into medical research. Secure a range of different experiences if you can, and keep notes on what you learn from it so you have something to refer back to when you’re writing your personal statement. If you’re struggling to secure a placement at a hospital or medical centre, InvestIN’s Medicine Programmes offer a great alternative. Not only will you get hands-on experience of the profession, you will also get to meet and learn from top doctors, and get advice on how to break into the medical field. There’s also no application process, so you can book now, no questions asked.
  • Do your research! There are several stages involved in medical school applications. Learning as much as you can about the process will help you prepare. Research each of the different medical schools and the hospitals they’re attached to thoroughly, as each will have different qualities. Ensure you know exactly what’s expected of you by each school you choose to apply to and try to get at least a basic grasp of what being a doctor is really like by doing work experience and researching online. Familiarising yourself as much as you can with the medical profession will really help impress interviewers and demonstrate your commitment to the field. Guides like this one are a great place to start, and the following resources may also prove useful: 
  • Work hard. There’s a lot of hard work that goes into becoming a doctor - finding work experience, achieving good academic results, getting through medical school and years of extra training. You’ll need real dedication and a strong work ethic! 
    • Put time and effort into your studies. As medicine is such a competitive field, you’ll need top grades. Check out our blog, How to Motivate Yourself to Study, for tips, tricks and practical advice on maximising your study time. 
    • Revise hard for your BMAT/UCAT admissions tests by doing plenty of practice tests!
    • Do lots of preparation for your medical school interviews. Make sure you know what format the interview will take if you’re invited to one and prepare by going over your skills and experience and practising your answers to different questions, examples of which you can find online.
  • Ace your extracurriculars! Extracurriculars are a great way to build key skills and demonstrate to medical schools that you are a well-rounded candidate with a range of interests. Join clubs and societies and dedicate time to the things you’re passionate about. This could be acting in the school play, playing for a sports team, joining a book club, blogging, playing in a band, ultimate frisbee, Dungeons and Dragons… whatever most interests you!
  • Up your skills. Focus on building the skills essential to being a doctor. Join clubs and organisations, volunteer or find part-time work to get started. Volunteering at a soup kitchen could help you develop important communication skills, whilst working in hospitality could teach you how to handle stressful working environments. Have a think about the skills you want to develop and which activities could help you develop them. Need help applying for your first job? Check out our blog How to Write a CV with No Experience.

So - good luck!

We hope you found this guide useful and you have everything you need to kickstart your career in medicine now.

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