Organising work experience to support your medical school application
Admissions panels at medical schools judge your suitability and motivation by looking for evidence that you understand what a long term career in medicine entails. Emma Rowson, admissions officer at the University of Edinburgh, says it is important to gain experience with “diseased, disadvantaged, and disabled people (the three Ds).” She highlights that looking after patients can be extremely challenging and it is important to find out whether this is something you would find rewarding and are likely to enjoy long term. Getting some work experience—be it in a medical or non-medical setting —is a great way to develop this understanding and to find answers to common questions admissions staff might ask you. Common questions include:
- What is the difference between a doctor and a nurse?
- Who makes up the healthcare team in hospitals?
- What does being a doctor entail, apart from treating patients?
- What are the challenges for healthcare professionals working in the NHS?
- Can you see yourself directing a team in an emergency, when effective communication is critical?
- Are you motivated to commit to a career of lifelong learning?
- How do you think you would deal with breaking bad news or the death of a patient you have cared for?
We would encourage you to try to get a work experience placement in a clinical setting because this will give you the opportunity to see the diversity of healthcare, from emergency admissions to long term care, and from the discharge of healthy patients to palliative care and the death of a patient. However, do not be disheartened if you cannot shadow a hospital doctor or a general practitioner (GP), because you can gain an insight into medicine in many other ways.
In this article we look at the types of work experience available, how to organise work experience, and what you should get out of any placements.
Types of work experience
Before you start exploring the different types of work experience placements available, look at the admissions policies of the medical schools that you are interested in to find out what type of work experience they prefer you to learn from.
If this is your first time considering work experience, read the Student BMJ editor’s introduction “Work experience—what you should know before you start” (doi:10.1136/sbmj.h3050).
Below is a list of the areas that will give you an insight into a career in medicine and caring for others.
General practice and community experience
Experience in the community could include spending some time with a GP or district nurse. GPs are the first point of contact for most patients, through consultations in the GP surgery or during home visits. GPs play a vital part in not only treating but also preventing illness and educating their patients. GPs manage illness in the community and refer patients to appropriate hospital care. On work experience, you will see that primary care is diverse, as GPs treat the young and the elderly with acute and chronic illnesses. You can also see the challenges of general practice, such as the short 10-minute consultations, the frustration and cost of missed appointments, and people visiting with self resolving illnesses, such as the common cold. If you can gain a placement with a GP it is also worth finding out about how the GP practice is managed. Often GPs need to work with practice managers to deliver high quality healthcare to serve the local population’s needs and to plan for the future. You could also volunteer at your GP surgery’s patient participation group, which can provide a “behind the scenes” view of its day to day function. In this group, along with other volunteers, you act as representatives for the patient population and feed back their needs to the doctors managing the local services. Other ways you could gain primary care work experience is to work as a receptionist at a GP surgery.
Outside the general practice setting, other community based placements are available. You can seek work experience in a pharmacy and learn about the role of the pharmacist in ensuring patients understand their medicines and providing health advice to the community, and how they advocate over-the-counter treatments when suitable, which saves people unnecessary visits to the GP.
Experience in a hospital—in clinics or in theatre—allows you to see the importance of teamwork. Everyone, from the hospital porters to healthcare assistants, to nurses, to clinicians, has a vital but distinct role in the care of patients. In a long term hospital placement, you might follow a patient journey from admission, where doctors will take a history and examine the patient, to the ordering of imaging and blood tests, to long term management and discussion with the wider team. The patient may return for surgery or treatment, after which follow-up will be required either at hospital or at their general practice. If you’re lucky enough to see some surgery, observe how the doctors and allied health professionals communicate and collaborate to ensure safe and effective surgery. Watch how the anaesthetist, who’s looking after the patient’s airways, takes charge when moving the patient on to and off the operating table. Take note of the use of the World Health Organization’s Surgical Safety Checklist, as staff ensure they have introduced themselves to each other, confirm they have the correct patient, are operating on the correct side, and so on. Although a very simple measure, this checklist has made a huge difference to patient outcomes, as highlighted in the superb Ted Talk by Atul Gawande. We would argue that being able to reflect on these key skills, as we mention below, is more important than being able to list operations you have witnessed. You will have five or six years to learn the science, but you should go into medical school conscious of the importance of effective communication and teamwork and strive to work on these skills now.
Another option is to gain experience in a hospital laboratory, where you can see how science is vital to medicine. Teamwork and supervision are exemplified in laboratories, and you can see the importance of clear communication from doctors requesting laboratory tests, such as blood analysis, and from the laboratory technicians who feed back results that are pivotal to patient care.
Other medical experience
In addition to shadowing doctors, consider seeking work experience with allied health professionals. Shadowing a nurse, an occupational therapist, a physiotherapist, a dentist, or paramedics can all give further insights into the workings of the NHS and teach you more about patient care and the skills required of those with this responsibility. Furthermore, you will see how doctors interact with the other members of the healthcare team. You could also volunteer with first aid charities, such as the Red Cross and St John Ambulance. In addition to learning first aid, you will be able to put these skills into practice in the community, where you will learn the importance of reassurance and effective communication and develop basic clinical skills. Furthermore, you could learn to be a trainer and teach others lifesaving skills. Teaching is important throughout a medical career and is one of the core competencies highlighted in the General Medical Council’s Tomorrow’s Doctors. Why not start now?
Although clinical work experience will give you a good insight into a career in medicine, Dipak Kanabar, sub dean of admissions at King’s College London, says that it is not the only way to gain the relevant experience. He believes that you should seek “people-focused experience,” and this does not have to be in a healthcare environment. For example, he says that successful applicants have been mentors or school ambassadors—responsible roles requiring effective communication, professionalism, and organisation. Working in retail is another type of experience that can benefit your application. In this capacity you will develop several transferable skills, such as working as part of a team, the ability to follow instructions, and dealing with challenging situations or difficult customers.
One way to prove commitment to your placements would be to undertake people focused experience as part of an award scheme. For example, the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award has various strands, one of which is volunteering. Other schemes, such as the Inspired awards, both help you to find volunteering opportunities and reward you for your efforts.
Other volunteering opportunities, such as working with youth groups like the Girl Guides or Scouts, working in a charity shop, helping in a hospice or care home, and fundraising are worth considering because they help develop your people and communication skills. Teaching is a key skill as highlighted above, so experience such as sports coaching and helping struggling students at school can make you stand out.
How should you go about arranging work experience?
Arranging work experience can be challenging, time consuming, and disheartening. Kanabar says you must be resourceful and “do the best with what you have.” Do you have a family friend or relative who works in healthcare who could help? You do not have to undertake experience with this contact, but they might help you find someone to shadow. Can your GP help? What about your school, college, or local careers services? Be enthusiastic and ask.
One barrier that you might face in getting work experience at your local general practice is that there may be patients whom you or your family know. If this is an issue, try a practice further afield. Kanabar also highlights that a lengthy conversation with your GP to research the role of a doctor can be invaluable.
Some hospitals have application systems for organising work experience. As soon as you begin to consider medicine, register your interest online. You generally need to apply more than six months before the placement. If there is no online system, telephone the hospital’s human resources department to inquire about opportunities. Another way in is to make direct contact with doctors from specialties you’re interested in. You can write a letter to them directly, explaining your interest in their field of work, and this tailored letter will be much more likely to be successful than a blanket email.
How long should your placement last?
Long term placements are preferable because you will be more likely to follow a “patient journey” from admission to discharge, or if your placement isn’t medical you can collect enough experience to draw on when writing your personal statement.
A short placement might provide only a snapshot of what medicine or caring for others is like. If a long term placement is not possible, however, don’t worry. The most important thing is the quality of your reflection in your personal statement and at interview, rather than the prestige of the placement or the amount of experience you have acquired. Two months with a neurosurgeon means nothing if you stood like a spare part and have not learnt about the skills needed (such as communication, teamwork, and leadership) or the benefits and challenges of a medical career.
If you cannot secure a long term placement, then talk to doctors who work in different areas of medicine to give you a broad understanding of what a career in medicine is like.
Tips on arranging work experience
- Register your interest early to hospitals because waiting lists can be long
- Try to get experience with different types of people—for example, children, older people, and people with disabilities
- If you have a specific interest, get in touch with a specialist in this area and send them an enthusiastic, tailored letter
- Worry if you don’t get a medical placement
- Get complacent if you gain work experience—remember it is all in the reflection
1University of Edinburgh, 2King’s College London
Competing interests: None declared.
Provenance and peer review: Not commissioned; not externally peer reviewed.
Cite this as: Student BMJ 2015;23:h5204