Published on 30th September 2020 by Premela

Barry Brown, Head of Science at Concord College, shares his experience guiding aspiring medics.

Please can you tell us a bit about yourself and your teaching experience?

I started teaching Biology in 1987, at a mixed, inner city 11-16 comprehensive in Rotherham for four and half years before moving on to a boy’s comprehensive in Cheshire for six and a half years. I followed this with a spell as Head of Biology in a girl’s day school in Shrewsbury for twenty years and recently moved to Concord College as Head of Science in 2017.

How long have you been helping students with their medical school applications?

Probably about 23 years now. I was used to handling half a dozen every year before arriving at Concord, but now it’s more like 40 – 50!

How do you advise students unsure whether or not to sit the BMAT?

I always start by getting them to consider the nature of the degree course and the location, so that they don’t just pick BMAT medical schools because of any perceptions that they are somehow better. It’s all about matching individuals to the right course, in the right place. Many students at Concord are international boarders and, for many, English may not be their first language. This can cause issues with the verbal reasoning elements of all admissions tests, but also on the essay. I would always caution students who have already sat the UCAT and scored relatively poorly on the verbal reasoning to think carefully about whether the BMAT is a bit of a gamble. Those who also study English or a humanity usually have better essay writing skills to start with so, for them, it’s worth considering.

Also, background in Physics is one aspect we look at. Some students come to us without a GCSE in Physics, although they may have studied it. Given that many BMAT applicants could be studying all three sciences, a weakness in one of them could reduce the score in section 2.

Some of the BMAT med schools, like Imperial, apply a minimum score on all sections, so you can’t afford to have a glaring weakness. Choosing med schools carefully is just as important as choosing whether or not to do the BMAT.

Every year we get students who have a bad day on UCAT and then do well in the BMAT, but these are usually few in number.

Finally, I would usually advise anyone with a really high UCAT score to consider just applying to UCAT med schools as they would have 4 very, very strong chances and all degrees are GMC approved. However, the lure of Oxbridge or a place at UCL or Imperial so they can live in London is often too big an attraction to turn down!

How much time do you recommend students allocate to preparing for the BMAT test from start to finish?

I don’t have any hard or fast rules. Many of my applicants will work through very BMAT paper they can find and seem to require little additional motivation. Sometimes it’s convincing them to spend a little time on studying A-Levels that needs emphasizing!

What have you found is the best way to support students in getting ready for the BMAT?

We run a training day via Medic Portal in June and this is always really good! Then, in September we run weekly sessions on essay writing and physics with a dedicated member of the Physics Department offering the latter to all those not studying A-Level Physics.

For the BMAT essay we have a team of four staff who act as mentors to advise students and mark practice essays that they complete. We also run a formal BMAT mock exam before ½ term.

Finally, during ½ term I usually run a couple of crammer sessions on Section 2 and the essay. For section 1 they work on this independently.

What do students find most difficult about the BMAT in your experience?

The gamble! Knowing your UCAT score, but not your BMAT one before applying is really hard for many and I really wish they would change this to reduce the pressure on candidates at a time when we want them working on their A-Levels. Many of ours find the essays the biggest challenge, but I appreciate that it varies for each candidate.

Do you have any other advice for teachers helping students through the medical school application process?

Make full use of the wealth of information out there. The two places that I go to most are the Medical Schools Council and Medic Portal websites, but the UCAT and BMAT websites also have lots of materials to support students. I would also suggest reading widely and covering essentials like the GMC guide to Being a good doctor, Daniel Sokol’s excellent ethics book ‘Tough Choices’ and ‘The Appointment’ by Graham Easton. Anyone who is keen to enter this field should have no shortage of amazing books, podcasts, YouTube clips, documentaries and journals available, many of which are free online.

Good luck to everyone applying this year!

Learn More:

Teachers’ Guide: Work Experience

Teachers’ Guide: How To Write A Teacher Reference

Teachers’ Guide: UCAT and BMAT

Teachers’ Guide: Interview

Teachers’ Guide: How To Advise On Studying Medicine Abroad


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