A comprehensive guide on how get into medicine, maybe…

Eventually I can call myself a final year student – and it feels weird. It’s weird that next year I will have a job, a new environment, and money (okay that part is just awesome). It’s weird that I will no longer have the safety-net of yet another year of studying – something which I’ve viewed as the enemy for the past 5 years, ironically. And it’s weird that this will be my last year as a student (goodbye student discounts, long holidays and being able to use the excuse “I’m a student” to anyone who tries to sell me anything). My entry into medicine was uncomplicated and text-book style – accepted provisionally in Grade 11, and went straight to Tuks after matric. Little did I know that it’s not that simple for most people – and that some people study up until Master’s level before they are accepted into Medicine.

Many people have approached me and my boyfriend (2nd year med student who got into medicine after completing his BSc Honour’s – that’s a 4 year wait, people) asking how to go about getting into medicine, so we decided to write a post on it. Because there are several ways to skin a cat – some more painful than others – and we like to think we know the better ways to go about it.

STEP 1: If you are still at school, and are trying to get into medicine straight after matric, use the following formula: (If you are already out of school, then proceed to STEP 2)

  • Pick Physical Science and Maths in senior high-school (Biology/Life Sciences is advantageous too, but I don’t think it’s a requirement for medical entry).
  • Study as hard as you can to get good marks – specifically in grades 11 and 12. Use LO and ‘easier’ subjects to boost your average, as they don’t just look at your Maths and Science marks in isolation.
  • Do as many sport and culture activities you can possibly manage to do without burning yourself out, and if you can become the captain or join a first team it’s even better.
  • Olympiads? Do it. Advanced maths? Do it. Leadership positions/activities? Do it. Any title you can get? Do it. Sadly, the more you have to bolster your ‘school CV’, the higher your chances are. Because nothing screams ‘balanced and responsible’ like a 17 year old student who does everything, eats nothing, and sleeps 3 hours a night.
  • Do community-service in a hospital-environment. I went to Wilgeheuwel Life and Helen Joseph Hospitals and clocked 150h+ between grade 11 and 12. Show them you KNOW what you’re getting yourself into.
  • Apply everywhere…and I mean everywhere: UP, Wits, UCT, Stellenbosch, MEDUNSA, UFS, UKZN. And I heard that by putting a BSc Biological Sciences as your second degree choice will make them take your application more seriously – as it shows you are considering other ways of getting into medicine should you not be accepted off-the-bat.
  • Try do well in NBTs (National Benchmark Tests), I guess. I got 60’s for mine – not that great – but some swear that the NBTs were the sole reason they were NOT accepted. Who knows? My view, from experience, is that if you have everything else in place, then a bloops on your NBTs won’t actually make much of a difference.
  • Get letters of recommendation from the heads of your school.
  • Apply in grade 11 based on whichever Grade 11 marks you have available before the application cut-off. This – if high enough – should score you a provisional acceptance into the degree. Then keep those marks up in order to seal the deal on your final acceptance at the end of matric. This doesn’t mean stop doing all the extra-curricular activities, but also doesn’t mean to put your academics on the back-burner to focus on those extra-curriculars.

It has to be noted that there are cases in which students who do a hell of a lot less than what’s been described above end up getting accepted seamlessly and first-time, but very many don’t. Thus I would recommend giving it all you have if you’re serious about becoming a Dr – because that might be the difference between getting accepted on try 1, or waiting up to 5 years essentially floating in the void while you wait in uncertainty trying to get into medicine.

STEP 2: Okay so either you weren’t accepted from matric, took a gap year, or realised later in life that medicine is for you, but whatever the case there is still time to engage Plan B – in no particular order:

  1. Apply for medicine overseas – Belgium, Cuba, China. Not ideal, but if you have the guts, funds, opportunity and passion, then go for it!
  2. Study a BSc-based degree – preferably in medical science or physiology – and try do as well as you possibly can. From this, several options stem:
    1. At Tuks after the first semester of BSc (June-ish) there is another intake for Medicine, where the top 10% (in terms of marks alone) get into medicine and join semester 2 of the 1st year medicine class.
    2. If you don’t get in here, then continue working hard in your BSc and apply for medicine at the end of each year with that year’s marks. At this stage marks is the only thing that counts, so try do as well as possible.
    3. Continue onto post-grad if you still don’t get in. Honour’s is a 1 year course, and if you choose sensible subjects then you have a good chance of creaming them and getting into medicine based on those marks. There is a separate intake from the post-grad pool, so you’ll be competing against other post-grads and not against those applying from matric/from under-grad BSc). This is what Konrad did, and it worked well for him after completing his Honour’s in Pharmacology.
  3. Try the GEMP program at Wits: From 3rd year of any BSc degree at any university one can apply for GEMP – in which case you write a test based on molecular medicine (genetics and biochemistry, essentially), physiology and anatomy. If you pass this test, your past TWO YEAR’S BSc marks will be evaluated and then students with the top 10% of those marks are admitted into THIRD year medicine at Wits. Sounds appealing? If you have a strong grasp of the subjects that they test in GEMP, and solid BSc marks, then it is a great choice. But don’t put ALL of your hope into this option, as it’s ultimately very costly and competitive and you will have a limited number of times to write the test. So in addition to trying the avenues listed above, giving GEMP a shot is a worthwhile thing to do.
  4. Still not accepted? At this stage you have to make a highly-personal choice about how long you are willing to try get into medicine, as after a certain number of years it becomes more of a wasteful sacrifice than a wait. The process can get very psychologically-grueling! I know of students who started 1st year medicine at the ages of 23, 24, 25, 26…33! Passion is more important than age, and – trust me – you won’t be the only older student in the class. But for some the thought of still trying to get into medicine at the age of 25 is less than appealing, in which case take a little sabbatical and consider other degree options.

It’s important to note that often the top achievers at school are brainwashed into thinking that medicine is the only path for them, or people are attracted to the glamour surrounding medicine and being a Doctor – neither of which are solid motivations to pursue a medical degree. My biggest tips – based on personal experience – are:

  • Sit ALONE (that means without siblings, parents, teachers, friends) and think about whether or not YOU want to study medicine. It is a 6 year degree; this is a LONG time, let me tell you. You will have a student lifestyle for 3 years longer than the average student, and by the time your school friends have jobs and money you’ll most likely have 2-3 years left of being a student. You will sacrifice a part of your youth studying a very intense degree, and will be forced to become an adult far before most adolescents are. This is both a privilege and a nuisance. This is NOT a decision to be taken lightly. You WILL be unhappy otherwise.
  • Look at your best marks from school. If it’s Maths and Science, then great. If your best subjects in terms of marks and enjoyment are English and Art, then stop and think about that. Would a career in those fields not be more satisfying? Yes medicine is satisfying too – but first it beats the pulp out of you. Anything you do with passion, you will make a success out of. Medicine is not the only way to be successful, credible, happy…
  • Take a gap year, or study short-courses for a year if you’re unsure of what to study. Other degrees are easy to escape from. Medicine is a different story; once you reach 3rd year, there’s no going back. But it’s also important to note that if you can get through the first 2 years of medicine, then the worst is behind you, and that my passion only started kicking in properly in 3rd year. So don’t be scared off either!
  • The important thing is to be happy. That’s it. No amount of fame and fortune can substitute that.

Finally, some info on the degree:

  • It’s 6 years
  • Each university structures it differently – some focus more on theory, and others on practical skills (Tuks focuses on practical skills, and at this stage I feel very confident in my future as a Dr)
  • After these 6 years you apply to 3 posts around the country (in public hospitals) to practice medicine as a Junior Dr for 2 years (you get paid, and you’re not a student anymore; you’re basically a ‘Doctorling’ gaining experience)
  • After those 2 years you apply at more rural hospitals around the country to practice medicine as a Community Service Dr for a year (you might be the only Doctor for kilometres at your post)
  • THEN you register to become an independent practitioner, in which case you can work wherever the heck you want to work – private practice, state/private hospitals, cruise ships, relief organisations etc. At this stage you can specialise if you want – in which case you go back to varsity for 4-5 years and complete your Master’s of Medicine in whichever field you fancy. You don’t have to specialise (please read my post on this).

Please note that this info is based on personal experience, and from the point of view of applying to Tuks (University of Pretoria). Other universities might do things differently, so ask around if you want tips pertaining to specific universities other than Tuks/Wits!

If you have questions or need advice in any way, please don’t hesitate to contact me – hugnay@gmail.com – or Konrad –  k-de-vries@hotmail.com – (he’s much nicer than me ;)) and we will gladly step you through it!

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