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Can You Fail Medical School? (And What Happens If You Do)

Can You Fail Medical School? (And What Happens If You Do)

Updated on: December 3, 2023
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Written By Dr Ollie

Every article is fact-checked by a medical professional. However, inaccuracies may still persist.

If you’re thinking about going to medical school, then you’re probably aware it isn’t renowned for being a walk in the park.

With the frequent exams, long hours and non-stop placements, you may be wondering if students just like yourself can fail medical school?

Students can, and not infrequently do, fail medical school. Medical schools act as guardians for entry to the medical profession and thus are required to uphold stringent standards. If a student repeatedly fails exams or is brought into disrepute as a result of their actions they may be asked to leave.

In my first year of university, I actually got a bit too close for comfort to failing medical school… Which I’ll tell you more about a little later on.

In this article, I wanted to explore what happens if you do end up failing an exam or two (or even a year) at medical school. Hopefully, assuaging your fears a little bit about your chances of being able to come out the other end as a doctor.

Can You Fail An Exam At Medical School?

Medical school is notorious for its incredibly steep learning curve and difficult exams. But, can a student fail an exam and not be kicked off the course?

Students are generally permitted to fail at least one exam while studying at medical school. The exact policy regarding a student who’s failed will vary from medical school to medical school but broadly they will be allowed to resit the exam for a second time before further measures are taken.

This is actually exactly how I came a bit too close for comfort to dropping out of medical school. I failed one of my first-year exams!

It was a practical exam, testing students on basic history taking and examination skills. And funnily enough, all I’d heard from people in the years above was about how easy it was.

But unfortunately, because I’d only heard about how easy it was, I hardly revised for it! Resulting in a rather embarrassing fail come exam day.

Students sitting an exam at medical school

Luckily for me, Leicester always let students resit an exam once for another chance at success. So over my summer holiday, instead of relaxing on an exotic beach, I brushed up on my clinical examination techniques!

I believe Leicester was pretty standard in its policy regarding students failing an exam. If you didn’t have extenuating circumstances, you were allowed a singular resit to improve your performance.

There will be some variation between medical schools, so I’d get in touch with the admissions team if you want to know about a specific university, but broadly you’re not in danger of being booted out if you mess up one of your exams.

What Happens If You Fail A Year At Medical School?

In order to continue progressing through medical school, you need to have checked all the right boxes at the end of each year- exams, supervisor reports and formal assessments.

If you don’t, you run the risk of failing the year.

If a student fails a year at medical they will often be permitted to resit the year for a second time. This allowance isn’t a certainty however and may be withheld if the student has conducted themselves poorly over the preceding years or has failed another year in the past.

For example, if you fail an exam at the end of second year, you’ll likely be allowed to resit it. However, if you fail the resit as well, you might have to redo the entire year.

Most medical schools will let you resit a year once if you’ve conducted yourself well up to that point. If you haven’t, and have had run-ins for discipline problems or truancy for example, the university may use this as an opportunity to ask you to leave the course.

The University of Leicester, which is where I studied medicine, did actually let students resit a year more than once if they had extenuating circumstances. This might be a close family member passing away or personal illness over the year causing the student to miss lectures or placement.

However, neither situation (being allowed to resit a year once or even twice), is a given. You should undoubtedly do everything in your power to avoid failing the year in the first place!

Again, if you’re interested in a specific medical school’s policy regarding failing a year, I’d reach out to their admissions team. But luckily for medical students who are after all only human, most will allow a student to have a second chance.

What Happens Next After You Fail Medical School?

If the worst does happen, and you ‘fail’ medical school, what happens next?

After a student fails medical school they are asked to leave university. Depending on how much of the course they successfully achieved, they may or may not leave with a lesser qualification. This cut-off point is generally three years for a dropout to leave with a BSc as opposed to a medical degree.

Because a normal undergraduate science degree takes three years, and medical school is generally five years long, if a medical student has completed at least three years of the course before dropping out they normally get to leave with a BSc or equivalent.

When I was at medical school, I remember viewing this three-year cut-off as sort of a ‘bank’ point just like in the game show ‘The Weakest Link.’ At least if I completely fluffed every exam from that point onwards, I’d leave university with some sort of qualification.

Depending why you ended up failing medical school, the university may also permit you to transfer onto an alternative course.

For example, if you failed because you really couldn’t motivate yourself to revise for your exams because you just couldn’t see yourself ever working as a doctor, they might let you transfer to a subject you’d be more passionate about.

A university student studying at her laptop

If you explained to the university you love chemistry but felt slightly shoehorned into medicine because of pressure from your parents, I imagine there’s a good chance they’d let you switch to reading pure chemistry.

Now, of course there are other reasons that people fail medical school apart from just poor exam performances. If a medical student does something that calls into question their suitability to work as a doctor, they can be ejected from the course.

In these cases, there’s a far smaller chance that the university would accept them onto an alternative degree program.

How Many People Drop Out Of Medical School?

To get a rough estimate of your chances of failing, it can be interesting to delve into some of the statistics on how many people drop out of medical school.

The attrition rate of medical school in the UK is, on average, about 10%. The majority of people who drop out of medical school will do so in the first year, with rates of failure reducing as the course progresses. It’s very rare for a medical student to completely fail their final examinations.

There’s not a whole lot of freely available data on the rates of failure for medical schools in the UK. But 10% seems like a fair estimate from the limited studies that have been carried out.

It’s important to note there is also a significant difference between ‘drop out’ rates and ‘failure’ rates.

Quite a few people actually get to medical school and then realise their heart really isn’t in medicine- they’d rather do something else. So they drop out from the course, usually within the first year of study.

But they haven’t really ‘failed’ because it was a conscious decision to leave. To complicate matters, there’s then those who will actually fail the exams and get kicked out but exactly because of the reason that their heart isn’t really in it.

If you’re worried about your chances of actually being able to complete medical school, because you’ve heard about horrifically high numbers of students getting kicked out, I wouldn’t worry.

If you’re accepted onto a course in the first place then you undoubtedly have the raw academic ability to finish medical school.

If you’re sufficiently determined to become a doctor, I’m positive you’ll get there in the end. In the worst-case scenario, you may have to resit a couple of exams or even a year, but if your heart’s set on becoming a physician it will happen.

Final Thoughts

Contrary to how it can sometimes feel as a medical student, medical schools aren’t actually trying to fail any of their students.

They genuinely want you to pass and will try and support you through any challenges that crop up during your university journey.

If becoming a doctor is your dream, you’ll be opening that results envelope telling you you’ve passed finals in no time.

About the author
After studying medicine at the University of Leicester, Dr Ollie now works as a junior doctor in London. His interests include medical education and expedition medicine, as well as having a strong belief in the importance of widening access to medicine.