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21 Factors To Consider When Choosing A Medical School

21 Factors To Consider When Choosing A Medical School

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.

Choosing the right medical school can be a daunting task, as various factors come into play before making this life-changing decision.

It’s important for you to carefully consider these factors to ensure the best possible fit and environment for your medical education journey.

I studied medicine at the University of Leicester- and absolutely loved it. But, I know some of my friends at other universities weren’t so lucky.

This article aims to guide you through the process by discussing some crucial considerations to keep in mind during your search for the perfect medical school.

1. Location Of The Medical School

Considering the location of the medical schools you’re interested in is an essential factor in making your decision.

Living in a place that suits your personality and lifestyle can significantly impact your overall experience and success.

Firstly, I’d consider whether you prefer an urban or rural setting.

Urban schools often provide access to diverse populations, ample research opportunities, and a vibrant social scene.

Think medical schools based in London, or other major cities.

On the other hand, rural schools may offer a more tight-knit community, lower cost of living, and unique exposure to rural healthcare challenges.

Another aspect to take into account is the proximity to family and friends.

Medical schools are scattered across the UK

Attending a medical school close to your support network can be beneficial, particularly during stressful periods.

However, you might also view medical school as an opportunity to explore new locations and broaden your horizons.

My Goldilocks zone was close enough to home that I could get home for a weekend, but far enough that my parents wouldn’t pay me a surprise visit!

Whichever you prefer, keep in mind that you’ll spend several years at your chosen school—so it’s essential to feel comfortable in the area.

2. Teaching Style

The teaching style of a medical school is arguably one of the most important factors when it comes to your learning experience and ability to excel in your studies.

There are four key different teaching styles commonly found in medical schools: traditional, problem-based, case-based, and enquiry-based.

In a traditional teaching style, you’ll be introduced to scientific theory in the initial years and only start learning in clinical settings after a few years. This approach allows you to build a strong foundation in medical theory before applying it in practice. If you prefer a more structured and systematic approach to learning, a traditional teaching style might be most suitable for you.

Problem-based learning (PBL), on the other hand, encourages students to develop their problem-solving and critical-thinking skills. In PBL, you’ll be presented with real-life scenarios or medical cases, and you’ll work in small groups to identify solutions. This type of teaching style could be a great fit if you enjoy active learning and collaboration.

Case-based teaching shares similarities with PBL but focuses more on discussions and analyses of specific medical cases, often with the guidance of a tutor or lecturer. This learning approach emphasises the practical application of theoretical knowledge and helps you become more adept at handling various clinical scenarios.

Lastly, enquiry-based learning encourages independent thinking and research. You’ll be required to investigate and answer complex medical questions, often with minimal guidance from tutors. This teaching style can help you develop strong self-teaching abilities and adaptability, vital skills in the ever-evolving field of medicine.

By understanding these different teaching styles, you can better identify which medical schools will align with your learning preferences and maximise your potential for success.

3. GCSE Entry Requirements

GCSE requirements vary between universities, so understanding them will help you shortlist suitable medical schools.

The long and short of it is, you’ll be wasting one of your four valuable medical school slots if you apply somewhere that you don’t meet the grade requirements for.

Most medical schools require at least 5 GCSEs at grades 7 to 9 (or A to A*), generally including English, maths and science.

Some universities, like Oxford, don’t actually have any specific GCSE requirements but generally admit students with predominantly A* and A grades.

It’s important to not only focus on meeting the minimum requirements but think about where you’ll stand out as a competitive applicant.

Excelling in your GCSEs will improve your chances of securing a place at your desired medical school, no matter what their minimum requirements.

4. A-Level Entry Requirements

It’s rare for an undergraduate applicant to get into medical school without a minimum of 3As at A-level.

It can be done, but I really wouldn’t want to risk it.

My best friend at school actually missed his AAA offer to study medicine at Leicester on results day but got that 1 in 100 luck that they accepted him through clearing.

Factors To Consider When Choosing A Medical School Pixel Infographic

If you’ve got chemistry, biology and either maths or physics, you’ll be able to apply to pretty much any medical school you want.

If you’ve just got chemistry and biology, you’ll be able to apply to almost any university.

If you’ve just got chemistry or biology (or neither), your options narrow down even further.

You can use your A-levels (predicted or achieved) to help narrow down which universities you should be putting down on your UCAS form.

Just as with your GCSEs, there’s no point punting for somewhere that you’re not sure that you meet the minimum requirements.

5. Entrance Exams

Different medical schools may require different exams, such as the UCAT, BMAT, GAMSAT, or none at all.

It’s essential to familiarise yourself with these exams and understand which ones you may need to take.

The UCAT (University Clinical Aptitude Test) is a widely used entrance exam in the UK. It assesses cognitive abilities, decision making, and situational judgement. If you are considering a medical school that requires the UCAT, ensure that you are well-prepared for this exam as it generally plays a significant role in the selection process.

The BMAT (Biomedical Admissions Test) is another entrance exam used by some medical schools. It assesses your knowledge in science, mathematics, problem-solving, and written communication. This exam is typically more focused on your understanding of scientific principles and your ability to apply them in various contexts.

The GAMSAT (Graduate Medical School Admissions Test) is primarily for graduate-entry medical programmes. It evaluates a candidate’s reasoning, critical thinking, and understanding of science concepts. Although less common than UCAT or BMAT, if you plan on pursuing a graduate-entry course, it’s important to familiarise yourself with the GAMSAT requirements for your chosen medical school.

Always make sure to thoroughly research the entrance exam procedures of each medical school you are interested in and tailor your preparations accordingly.

Prioritise researching and preparing for the exams, as they more than often play a crucial role in the admissions process for your chosen medical school.

6. Opportunity To Intercalate

Intercalation is an excellent opportunity for you to gain additional qualifications and broaden your medical education.

While considering medical schools, it’s essential to identify those that offer the chance to intercalate during your studies.

The main benefit of intercalation is the opportunity to study a subject that may not be covered comprehensively during your medical degree.

This can provide you with a more extensive knowledge base and could make you more competitive when applying for postgraduate training or specialist positions.

I didn’t personally choose to intercalate, but a lot of my friends did.

Another advantage of intercalation is the chance to develop research skills as part of your chosen intercalated degree.

Many medical schools emphasise the value of research experience, so having intercalated can enhance your CV and make you stand out from your peers.

When exploring different medical schools, consider the following factors related to intercalation:

  • Availability: Assess whether the medical schools on your list offer intercalation opportunities. Some institutions may provide all students with the option to intercalate, while others might offer it to a select few based on academic achievement.
  • Flexibility: Investigate the flexibility of their intercalation programmes. Can you choose from a wide range of subjects to study, or are you limited to specific areas? Can you intercalate at different stages of your medical training, or is there a designated year for it?
  • Support: Check the support provided by the medical school both during the application process and the intercalation itself. Will the school help you to find appropriate placements or research opportunities? Are there any financial support options available to assist you with additional costs of intercalating, such as tuition fees or living expenses?

7. Integrated Vs Traditional Curriculums

Medical schools typically offer either an integrated or traditional curriculum. The majority have moved towards integrated, but more traditional institutions, such as Oxbridge, have stuck with the traditional split.

Integrated Curriculum

An integrated curriculum combines basic sciences and clinical experiences throughout your medical education.

This means that you will learn about various medical disciplines simultaneously and apply your knowledge with practical experiences from the beginning.

Some advantages of an integrated curriculum include:

  • Early exposure to clinical experience, giving you a real-world understanding of healthcare.
  • Enhanced problem-solving skills, as you’ll be applying theoretical knowledge to practical situations.
  • Improved retention of information, as the integrated approach helps contextualise basic scientific concepts.

However, there are also some downsides to an integrated curriculum:

  • The fast pace of learning may be challenging for some students.
  • Some may feel that there’s a lack of in-depth exploration of individual subjects.

Traditional Curriculum

A traditional curriculum follows a more linear approach, where you will learn basic sciences in the initial years and focus on clinical rotations in the latter part of your medical education.

This method separates the pre-clinical and clinical phases, enabling you to focus on one aspect of medicine at a time.

Advantages of a traditional curriculum include:

  • A solid foundation in basic sciences, providing a deeper understanding of individual subjects.
  • The opportunity to consolidate your knowledge before entering clinical rotations.

On the other hand, there are a few drawbacks to a traditional curriculum:

  • The delay in clinical experience might make it more difficult to apply theoretical knowledge in real-life situations.
  • Some students may find the transition from pre-clinical to clinical years challenging.

I personally thought I’d prefer more of a traditional split, but actually ended up really enjoying Leicester’s more modern curriculum.

8. Availability Of Scholarships

Scholarships can significantly reduce the financial burden associated with medical education, allowing you to focus on your studies and future career without having to worry about debt.

A good starting point to investigate the scholarship opportunities offered by medical schools is on their official websites.

Many institutions have specific scholarships for students based on merit, financial need, or other criteria. Look for scholarships that you may be eligible for, and take note of application deadlines.

To further increase your chances of securing financial assistance, you can explore external scholarship opportunities.

Many organisations, foundations, and even government agencies offer scholarships or grants to medical students.

Be proactive in searching for these opportunities, as they may not be as widely advertised. Don’t forget to research scholarships that are tailored to your specific circumstances or background.

For example, there may be scholarships available for students from certain ethnic backgrounds, specialties, or geographical locations. Moreover, some scholarships target students with particular interests, such as research or community service.

9. Hospitals In The Local Area

As a medical student, you will spend a significant amount of time in the hospitals in your local area, gaining hands-on experience and practical skills.

The proximity, diversity, and quality of the local hospitals can make a substantial impact on your education and future success.

Local hospitals come in various types, and experiencing a broad range of medical settings is essential for your development.

Consider a medical school with affiliations to teaching hospitals, community hospitals, and specialty centres, offering you diverse exposure to patient populations and medical cases.

Exterior shot of London Bridge Hospital

This diversity will allow you to gain a well-rounded understanding of the field and help you make informed decisions about future specialisations.

Travel time between the medical school and the affiliated hospitals is another key factor to consider.

Having hospitals closer to campus will save you time and limit additional expenses for transportation, giving you time for studying, socialising, or participating in extracurricular activities.

10. Curriculum Content

A medical school’s curriculum is a crucial part of your education and will shape your understanding and capabilities as a future physician.

While the majority of universities will deliver very similar curricula as part of their medicine programs, there are slight differences between them.

If you already have an idea of what specialty you want to go into, you might want to choose a medical school that has a slightly larger focus on that aspect of medical education.

For example, if you want to become a surgeon, you need to have expert anatomy knowledge. The best way to achieve this is to go to a medical school that offers full-body dissection. 

Remember, however, that the curriculum content is just one aspect of your medical school experience.

All UK medical schools are assured by the GMC and all produce excellent doctors- but it is just one more thing you can consider when choosing a medical school.

11. Cohort Size

The size of the class you’re joining can significantly shape your educational experience, as well as your opportunities for networking and building relationships with your peers and faculty members.

A smaller medical school class may offer several benefits. You might find it easier to establish closer relationships with your classmates, leading to a more supportive learning environment.

Smaller class sizes often allow for more individualised attention from teaching staff, which can be helpful when dealing with challenging subjects.

Moreover, a smaller cohort size may offer advanced opportunities for hands-on learning and participation in research projects due to less competition.

On the other hand, a larger medical school class potentially provides you with a broader range of peers to learn from and collaborate with.

Additionally, larger medical schools may have more resources and facilities available to students. Furthermore, bigger institutions often have a higher number of faculty members, which can translate into more research opportunities and a wider selection of clinical rotations.

You can often find information on medical schools’ class sizes on their websites, on message boards and from former/current students.

You can then weigh the implications of each institution’s cohort size on your learning experience and university goals.

12. Undergraduate Vs Graduate Entry Medical Schools

If you’re a graduate or mature student applying to medicine, one of the factors you need to consider is whether to pursue an undergraduate or graduate entry programme.

Both options have their own set of advantages and disadvantages, so it’s essential to understand the differences to make an informed decision.

Undergraduate Entry

These are typically five-year programmes, aimed at students who are starting their medical education directly after completing their secondary education.

In such courses, you’ll be immersed in medical studies from the beginning and gain foundational knowledge in a range of subjects, including anatomy, physiology, and disease processes.

They’re generally slightly less competitive to get into than graduate entry courses but do take a year longer to complete.

Graduate Entry

These programmes are designed solely for students who have already completed a previous degree in a related science field.

They typically last for four years and focus on building upon the knowledge already obtained during your previous degree.

Since these programmes are shorter and more focused, you may save time and resources in pursuing your medical education.

However, the competition for graduate entry spots can be fierce due to the extremely limited number of places available.

13. Cost Of Living

As a poor student, I really wouldn’t underestimate how much of an impact the cost of living in the city you’re studying in can have on your lifestyle.

Living in a less-expensive city can help you reduce your overall expenses during your studies, but each location has its own advantages and drawbacks.

To better understand the cost of living in a specific area, consider factors such as accommodation, transportation, food, and lifestyle expenses.

This information will help you make an informed decision about which medical school to attend based on your budget and financial situation.

Price levels in different locations can vary greatly, so be sure to research the city thoroughly before selecting it as your study location.

When calculating your cost of living, also take into account that attending your dream school may involve trade-offs.

For example, living in a more expensive city (e.g. London) could lead to a greater return on investment in terms of educational quality and network opportunities, but also higher living costs.

14. University Sports And Societies

As you explore options for medical school, it’s essential to consider not only the academic aspects but also the extracurricular activities available on campus.

At medical school, engaging in university sports and societies can enhance your overall learning experience and contribute to a well-rounded education.

University sports programs offer you a chance to maintain your physical fitness, develop teamwork skills, and relieve stress throughout what can be a challenging academic journey.

I played a weirdly unique sport at school, lacrosse, so only wanted to go to a university that had a lacrosse team.

I can’t say I regret that decision as some of my longest-lasting friendships have come from the guys and girls I met in Leicester’s lacrosse club.

In addition to sports, you might want to consider the range of societies and clubs available at your prospective medical schools.

These groups often focus on specific areas of interest, provide networking opportunities with professionals in different fields, and foster personal development.

As a medical student, you could benefit from joining clubs related to your chosen specialty (if you have one), or even explore non-medical societies to cultivate a diverse set of skills and interests.

Furthermore, taking on leadership roles within sports teams or societies can help you develop essential skills like problem-solving, communication, and time management – qualities that you’ll carry over to your medical career.

15. Reputation And Rankings

While rankings can provide a general overview of a school’s performance, they shouldn’t be the sole factor in your decision.

That being said, if you had the choice between two otherwise identical medical schools, it would be logical to go with the one with a higher ranking.

Cambridge University grounds

I firmly believe every GMC-assured medical school in the UK produces top-quality graduates, but in certain circles, there will still be a certain gravitas that comes with being an Oxford or Cambridge graduate as examples.

In terms of reputation and real-world experiences, I don’t think you can go wrong by listening to current students and alumni.

They can provide you with firsthand insight into the school’s strengths, weaknesses, and overall reputation.

Reach out to them through social media, forums or the university’s alumni network to get a better understanding of how people generally view the medical school.

16. Research Opportunities

Engaging in research can enhance your understanding of medical science, develop critical thinking skills, and strengthen your CV when it comes to future job applications.

At many medical schools, you may have the chance to participate in a variety of research projects, both in basic sciences and more clinically based projects.

To get the most out of your research experience, consider the school’s research focus and faculty expertise. Look for institutions that offer research in the areas you’re most interested in.

Collaborating with experienced faculty members can help you develop valuable skills and connections in your field.

You may want to explore the school’s reputation for research and any potential research grants or funding available to students. This information can often be found on the medical school’s official website or published rankings.

To make the most of research opportunities, you should also be proactive in your search.

Attend seminars and workshops, network with faculty members, and actively seek out projects aligned with your interests.

17. Size And Diversity Of The University

The size of the university can impact the types of learning opportunities and resources available to you, as well as the overall atmosphere and campus life.

Larger institutions typically offer a wider range of experiences and research opportunities, whereas smaller schools may provide a more close-knit community and personalised learning environment. 

Diversity within a medical school is crucial for fostering an inclusive learning environment and enriching your educational experience.

Attending a medical school with a diverse student body allows you to gain firsthand exposure to different perspectives and experiences.

Furthermore, it prepares you to work with patients from various backgrounds, thereby enhancing your cultural competence as a future healthcare professional.

18. Support And Resources

A strong support system can greatly impact your overall experience and success during medical studies.

One factor to consider is the availability of academic support services.

Some schools offer tutoring, mentorship programmes, or study groups that can help you thrive academically. Inquire about these services and determine if they fit your needs and learning style.

Another aspect to look into is the school’s mental health and wellbeing resources.

Pursuing a medical degree can be challenging, and it’s essential to have access to resources that support your mental and emotional well-being.

I’d recommend having a quick look if the university you’re interested in offers counselling services, stress management workshops, or other mental health resources.

19. International Friendly Medical Schools

When considering medical schools as an international student, there are several factors to keep in mind that can make your experience more welcoming and rewarding.

Your goal is to find a school that not only provides high-quality education but also supports and accommodates international students.

Firstly, you might want to research the percentage of international students enrolled at each medical school you’re considering.

Medical schools with a higher proportion of international students are likely to have support systems in place, making your transition to a new country and culture smoother.

Cost and financial aid are essential considerations as well. Medical schools that offer scholarships or financial aid specifically for international students can significantly impact your decision.

Language and communication also play a crucial role in your studies and interactions while attending medical school abroad.

If you think it would be helpful, investigate if the medical school offers language courses or additional academic support for non-native English speakers. It can help you adapt effectively to the teaching environment and improve your communication with faculty and peers.

20. Campus Culture

There are several different factors that can influence the campus culture of a university.

They can be hard to nail down, and often it’s just a ‘feeling’ you’ll get walking across a university’s grounds during term time, but I’d done my best to describe some of them here:

Diversity and Inclusivity: Assess whether the medical school values diversity and inclusivity in its student population. A diverse environment enables you to learn from different perspectives and prepares you for working with diverse patient populations. Make sure the school has programmes and support systems in place for students from various backgrounds.

Student Well-being and Support: Medical school can be a challenging experience, both academically and emotionally. Look for schools that prioritise student well-being and provide resources for mental health, stress management, and academic support. This may include counselling services, wellness programmes, and peer mentorship groups.

Collaboration versus Competition: Medical education often demands teamwork, so it’s beneficial to choose a school where students and faculty foster a collaborative atmosphere rather than a highly competitive one. Seek out institutions with an emphasis on group projects, teamwork, and shared learning. Some schools may have pass/fail grading policies to reduce competition.

If you can, it’s always going to be best if you can visit the university in question. They say a picture paints a thousand words and actually touring a medical school on an open day will give you a thousand times more information than reading about it online.

21. Graduate Success And Employment Outcomes

The final factor you can look at when considering which medical schools to choose to apply to is their graduate outcomes.

This information can provide you with insights into the quality of education you’ll receive and your likelihood of securing a job after graduation.

While, as I said, every new junior doctor from a UK university is at pretty much the same high standard, there will always be slight variations between different medical schools.

You can also research the types of specialty training programs that past graduates have entered in the past.

If for example, you think entering into an academic foundation program would appeal to you, you could find universities that historically have got a lot of their graduates into the program.

It’s also worth exploring the professional networks and research opportunities available at each institution.

Medical schools often collaborate with hospitals, research centres, and other healthcare professionals, which can be incredibly valuable when certain opportunities.

Take a moment to investigate the partnerships and affiliations that each university offers and how they might benefit your future career prospects.

Final Thoughts

I’m almost certain whichever medical schools you choose to apply to, and hopefully ultimately end up enrolling at, you’ll have an incredible time as a medical student.

Nearly every doctor will tell you how much they loved their time at university studying medicine- it really is an incredibly exciting and eye-opening experience.

That being said, when you’re choosing a medical school hopefully you can take these 21 factors we’ve discussed and really hone in on just the universities that you think will suit your personality and career aspirations the absolute best.

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.