The purpose of this post is to guide Malaysian pre-med (high school and college) students who are considering an application to medical school. Since many medical schools worldwide have a wide range of selection (specific to each school), my focus is to provide a general idea that will form a foundation for most, if not all your applications.
So you’re thinking of applying to med school. You’ve probably got the grades, having aced biology, chemistry and mathematics and if you’ve found your way here, your heart must be telling you this path may be right for your future. But something inside you is seeking for further clarity (if it doesn’t, it should!) because medicine is a lifelong commitment that’s not all rainbows and sunshine. Let me share with you some insights through my journey that may help you unravel these thoughts that keep you tossing and turning at night.
Preliminary Word of Advice
First, here are 3 things you’re not told in the Malaysian education system about medicine. These are things I honestly wish I was told before I embarked on this journey.
- Being good in biology alone will not make you a good doctor.
Medicine is an art as much as it is a science. That means that although a sound knowledge of human body and its working is necessary to be a skilful doctor, an equally important component is the social aspect of the career i.e. speaking to people, getting to know their non-biological problems, caring for people for an extended time, picking up social cues, coming up with practical solutions.
On the other side, if you’re exceptional at biology, also be aware of the fact that a career in medicine may disappoint you. You should ask yourself if you want to spend more time studying about the science of human body per se in extreme detail or spend most of your time interacting with patients. One way to do this is to spend time working with the community as an extracurricular, which I will talk about later.
Many countries don’t even need students to take biology when applying to med school. Arguably, mathematics and chemistry lay a better foundation for the skills needed to be a good medical student, especially in the era of health data and small molecules. Most things learnt in biology will be studied again in greater depth anyways. Just know that not having a perfect grade in biology should not stop you from applying for medicine.
- The key to medicine is experiential learning
I will not stop repeating that it is extremely important to come into medicine with the right motivations. But be aware that experiences (especially profound ones) form personal drive and motivation and you shouldn’t be surprised if your motivations change over time. Yes, you may step into medical school thinking you want to be a doctor because of a negative past encounter with healthcare, etc but will this be enough to get you through every tough time which mark my words, will get you to the edge and to the verge of tears. Realistically speaking, motivation for medicine changes and grows as you progress through your career. As much as you want to be certain that this job is for you by being sure of your motivations when applying, know that you can never be too rigid. My motivations coming into medicine are completely different from my current motivations that get me going everyday.
- You can pursue medicine as a postgraduate degree
If you really can’t make up your mind and if you’re under too much pressure to choose, just know you can always pursue medicine later. In fact, many countries like US and Canada only allow students to take medicine after they have a Bachelor’s qualification. UK and Australian medical schools are moving to that system too because graduate students are more mature and are able to make better informed decisions about a professional career. Postgraduate medicine is also for a shorter duration of 3-4 years. Meaning if you had taken a previous 3-year Bachelor’s, your total duration to become a doctor will be 6-7 years through the postgraduate medicine pathway which is only slightly longer than 5-6 years of undergraduate medicine. But this option is still limited in Malaysia, but nonetheless, worth exploring.
Medical School Application
Now that that’s behind us and you’re still reading this, let me share with you 5 fundamental parts that will be necessary for any good application to medical school.
- The right motivation
OK, let’s acknowledge the elephant in the room: Medicine is highly glamorised. But I personally believe that that should not be a deterrent for you to pursue your passions but it should make you clearly decide your motivations. This motivation has to come from within, from yourself but it’s okay if you take inspiration from your external surroundings (for example, good doctors in the family, doctors you admire). Take advice with a pinch of salt from people who push you too much towards medicine (mostly parents) because they won’t be attending your oncalls or spend your sleepless nights away from family in the future. Similarly, don’t let negative Nancies (mostly random uncles or aunts) push you away too much from medicine because there are downsides to every career. Something for you to think about: I’ve seen so many accomplished doctors allow (and encourage..) their children to pursue medicine and would this be the case if they dislike their career so much? Who to better speak of the career than the people in the career themselves encouraging their loved ones to pursue it?
I can’t stress enough the importance of figuring out why you want to apply for medical school. This is a lifelong undertaking, a career full of ups and downs that will absolutely drain you and leave you dry if you do not have a solid foundation of purpose. At the same time, don’t think that this career is for you just because it’ll challenge you more than your other options. Ask yourself these questions and answer honestly:
- What do you know about medicine (aside from your biannual visit to your GP, of course)?
- What and who are your influences in making this choice?
- Can you handle difficult situations on a regular basis?
- What does perseverance mean to you and why is it important for a doctor?
- Are you ready for lifelong learning?
- Are you ready for a relatively slower initial career progression?
There are 2 things that I think you must do to your best ability before putting in an application. First, figure out what medicine really is by doing a hospital and clinic attachment. I’ll advice for at least 1 week in both private and public setting. Visit all the different departments and see if the day-to-day life of the doctor is suitable for you. Next, step outside of your self-interest and work with a community. Many encounters in medicine require altruism, which is a relatively uncomfortable undertaking that I feel, is not for everyone. The only way you can tell if working closely with people is for you is by experiencing it for an extended time (at least 3 months). For example, you can do a charity project, volunteer for a community work, tutor children, take care of someone, etc. There is no one single way to do this but do it not just as a checklist for your med school application but to really assess your suitability for medicine.
Once you’ve figured out your motivations, the next steps below will be much easier to curate.
- Personal statement
Most medical schools require you to write a personal statement. Please read the requirements and criteria very carefully and use your community experiences to guide your write-up. Things like details to include, word or character count and format to upload are incredibly important. How you describe your experiences is equally as crucial as how much experience you have.
Sample of 500-word UCAS personal statement (Accepted into MBChB, the University of Edinburgh)
Sample of Q&A personal statement (Accepted into MBChB, the University of Manchester)
- Entrance Exams
There are many different types of entrance exams, the famous ones being BMAT, UCAT, ISAT, MCAT. Do not be intimidated by these exams that may seem foreign because your test scores can significantly be improved by practice. And most practice materials are online so be resourceful and search online, especially on official websites for their sample test material and do all of them (repeatedly..), if possible. Decide early, plan ahead, practice, practice, practice.
- Medical School Interviews
There are two general interview styles for most medical schools, either the panel interview or the multiple-mini interview (MMI). Find out which one your school of interest uses.
Panel interviews are where you will face 3 or more panelists and they will be the ones asking you the questions for 20 to 40 minutes. In most cases, these panelists will be your future lecturers but there may be invited assessors too. The questions usually revolve around your motivations, your fit for the school and your extracurricular activities. Someone inspiring told me about the STAR method, which I have grown comfortable using when answering questions.
Multiple-mini interviews (MMI) are different because these interviews are done in stations which you rotate every 5 to 8 minutes (shown in pic below) and there may be as many as 10 stations in an interview. Each station probably has a scenario which you will read and answer to your best ability. You should always relate back all your answers to your experiences regardless of the scenario. Examples of common themes asked in the scenarios:
- Ethical questions – The five guiding principles of medical ethics are beneficience, non-maleficience, autonomy, justice and consent
- Medical system in the specific country you’re applying to (KKM, NHS, etc)
- Team working & roles of healthcare workers
- Motivation for medical school
- English Proficiency Test
Students are often worried about English requirements but I have come to realise that most schools do not use them in their criteria for assessment. Meaning, you will get your offer regardless of whether or not you have fulfilled your English requirement but you have to somehow do it in the future before you can will be matriculated. Always also check if your school accepts the SPM GCE-1119 English Test (example shown below) before paying to sit for MUET, IELTS, TOEFL, etc.
Finally, although I recognise that this resource is expensive and not accessible for all, a good book I would recommend to read before your applications is “Medical School Interviews” by Olivier Picard and George Lee. The name is a misnomer, the book talks about more than medical school interviews. But if you can’t afford it, fret not, there are tons and tons of free resource if you search online! Just use the things I’ve written in this post as search phrases like “medical ethics”, “Malaysian healthcare system” and read about current news through websites like the New Scientist, Nature News, etc.
I hope this has given you (some) clarity about what lies ahead for those of you aspiring to be a doctor. I hope this advice helps you make an informed decision but remember that my advice is limited by my point of view as a final year medical student, so this too should be taken with a pinch of salt.
Cheers and good luck!