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18th February 2021
Phil Cue, head of Dulwich College’s Psychology department oversees any aspiring medic’s Medical School applications. In this article, he offers some advice for teachers on how to guide aspiring medics when it comes to work experience.

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

I am a Londoner by birth and have been a teacher for most of my professional life. I did my first degree in Biological Sciences at the University of Sussex and then moved to Queen Mary College in London to do a PhD in Marine Biology. I then spent nearly six years in Brazil doing a variety of things including teaching in a number of schools. It was here that I realized that I really enjoyed working with young people and I have been in the classroom ever since, teaching mainly Biology but for the past couple of years also Psychology. I was the Head of Biology at Dulwich College for fourteen years and am now running our new Psychology department. I still oversee all our medical applications.

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How long have you been helping students with their Medical School/university applications?

It’s getting on for twenty years. There is a lot more for potential medics to navigate now than when I first started. I think the demands upon medical applicants are greater than they used to be in terms of what they have to offer in their applications and alongside this, there is much more variation in the requirements of the different Medical Schools. In many ways, I think it is a lot harder to get into Medical School these days.

How do you advise that students usually undertake work experience to aid with their Medical School applications?

Nearly all work experience placements are going to be in a hospital in a GP surgery. Of the two, I would say that the latter could be more informative; students can learn a great deal from sitting in on GP consultations as you will see a wide variety of patients with a range of ailments whereas if, for example, they are shadowing a cardiovascular surgeon in a hospital, they are likely to only see people with heart problems.

It is useful, however, to have experience of a hospital environment as this is obviously where students will be doing a lot of their training and so shadowing a medical professional in such a setting can be very informative also. If they could do a little bit of both, so much the better and this is what we encourage our students to do.

What if students can’t find shadowing placements?

If they are unable to observe consultations, working in the reception at a GP surgery can also be suitably eye-opening for them. It is not necessarily the case that the more work experience the better. A week can be more than enough provided the student uses the time effectively. Some of our overseas students do some of their work experience abroad and this can be very valuable, especially if they also do some in the UK and so can compare the NHS with other healthcare systems.

How can students go about finding work experience?

Our advice on how they should go about finding placements has changed in recent years. Here at Dulwich we have a fantastic Careers Department who historically arranged work experience placements for our medical applicants, often with former Dulwich students now working in the medical professions.

Although this made the burden of finding a placement easier for the students, we now recommend that if possible students organize their own work experience utilising any family or other contacts they may have. This is because many of the Medical Schools now like to see that applicants have used their own initiative to find placements rather than it being done for them.

Also, there are many schools where students are given little or no help finding placements and so it levels up the playing field. We do help students from overseas who obviously will find it harder to organise their work experience in the UK but most of our home students seem to have had no problem finding placements, at least prior to the pandemic

When should students undertake work experience?

As to when they should do their work experience, we normally recommend the Easter or summer holidays of Year 12. They really need to have completed by the time they return to school in September as their applications go off in mid-October. In addition to work experience, we also encourage our students to get involved with voluntary work and our advice here is that the earlier they do this, the better.

Prior to the pandemic, our students did a wide range of volunteering including visiting residential care homes for the disabled and elderly, mentoring younger students and volunteering in hospital wards. Obviously, the COVID pandemic has put paid to much of this but there are still lots of things that students can do.

How is this advice different this year?

The pandemic has obviously had a huge impact on ‘real’ work experience and I think it unlikely that A level students will be allowed back into hospitals and primary care centres for this purpose for quite some time. However, Medical Schools will still expect applicants to have made some effort to find out what life as a Doctor is like.

In what ways are you able to support students with this while work experience options are far more limited than usual?

Fortunately, there are a number of excellent virtual work experience programmes which have been developed by universities to fill the gap left by the disappearance of physical work experience and we have recommended that all our students do at least one of these. The one from The Brighton and Sussex Medical School was one of the first, but there are now others such as those from Birmingham and Leicester and they are all great. In fact, although they cannot provide the ‘hands -on’ experience of working in a real hospital environment, some of our students who had managed to do some ‘real’ work experience before the pandemic said that they felt they’d learned more from the virtual versions!

The ‘Observe GP’ platform is also highly recommended. In terms of voluntary work, the lockdowns have created lots of opportunities for potential medics to help out in their local communities. This may be something as simple as collecting shopping for an elderly neighbour or, as some of our students have done, collecting and delivering prescriptions for people who are unable to leave their homes. A more recent one is volunteering to be a steward at a vaccination centre. While we are locked down many of these activities have the added bonus of being legitimate reasons to leave the house!

What have you found is most beneficial for your aspiring medics who have done some work experience?

As I mentioned earlier, I think the most important aspect here is that they can reflect effectively upon their work experience. When they come to write their personal statements in the autumn it is how they responded to what they saw and did that needs to be the focus rather than, for example, just describing any surgical procedures they observed. I also think it useful for them to focus on particular individuals they encounter during their work experience or voluntary work. These may be healthcare professionals and/or patients. if they can find out about a particular Doctor’s career path or a patient’s backstory and the particular issues they face as a result of their illness, this can also be a powerful thing for them to discuss in their statement and at interview.

What do students find most difficult about the work experience and gaining work experience placements relevant to their Medicine applications?

Our experience is that most students do not have major issues in finding placements. I think the main difficulty with work experience is ensuring that students use the time they are on placement effectively. A good tip is to ask them to keep a diary of what they’ve done and observed on each day of their work experience. Alongside what they have observed, I always ask them to record how they felt about what they have observed, for example, anything that has shocked or surprised them. As I mentioned previously, In their personal statements it is their reflection upon their work experience that is required and so getting them to record their reactions to what they see helps with this.

Do you have any other advice for teachers helping students through the Medical School application process?

I would say it’s a good idea to give them some exposure to the medical admissions tests, the UCAT and BMAT, early on just so they gain a sense of what to expect from them and the kind of skills they need to develop. We usually introduce them in one of our Medical Society meetings fairly on in Year 12 although we don’t start practising them in earnest until the summer term. We have also found that having former students who are now practicing Doctors speaking to aspiring medics to be particularly fruitful. Students find them very relatable and, of course, the speakers themselves can answer questions that we, as teachers can’t.

Later on in the process, I would also strongly recommend going through each applicant’s choices of Medical School with them to ensure that they meet the minimum entry requirements. We have had cases in the past where students have been all set to apply somewhere and when we’ve checked they do not have the required GCSE grades for example. Given that they are only allowed four choices it’s important than they don’t waste any of these by falling at the first hurdle.

Any final tips?

Finally, and I am aware I may be preaching to the converted here, I would say one of the best things teachers can do is to encourage any potential medics to sign up to The Medic Portal! We get them to do this in our first Medical Society meeting at the beginning of Year 12. It really is the most fantastic resource and it has made guiding students through the application process much easier. I would go as far as to say that any student who does not avail themselves of the support that Medic Portal offers would be at a distinct disadvantage given the quality and the timely dissemination of the information they provide.

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