Work experience is one of the most important components needed to get into
medical school. Your personal statement may be the most well written piece of
work seen in the 21 ST century, but without any evidence of work experience or
volunteering, it means very little. Universities are looking for applicants with
experience in a caring environment, whether this is paid work, work experience
or volunteering. It’s an essential part of the process and having some exposure to
environments such as a hospital, GP or care home will demonstrate your
dedication to studying medicine and will be useful at every step of your medical
school journey. Here are some tips on how to get work experience, and most
importantly, what to do with it.
How to get work experience
Having been through the stress of trying to find appropriate work experience and volunteering opportunities, I understand that this can be a frustrating process, especially after receiving a near consistent stream of “I’m sorry but no…” emails. After the 5 th rejection, you’ve probably started to wonder if this is really necessary and if you can get away with a 3-month stint volunteering in a charity shop. Whilst you can spin almost anything and make it relevant to medicine, I’d encourage you to keep trying and do whatever you can to get even a few hours in a caring or service environment.
- Use your school’s help – many schools organise a few days of work experience for students, so use this opportunity to ask for a placement in a healthcare related area. Also, take inspiration from older students – if you know students in the year above ask for any helpful contacts that they may have.
- Contact all your local GP’s – call, email and even send a letter if you have to! Persistence is key; the more places you contact, the more likely you are to receive a positive response.
- Use your contacts – if you’re lucky enough to have a family member or friend who works in the medical field, ask if they know anyone who would be willing to take on a student for even just one day. Don’t forget that you don’t always need to shadow a doctor, even spending time with a nurse or physiotherapist would be useful.
- Try and get a broad range of experience – as well as time in a GP practice or hospital, you could volunteer at a school for children with disabilities, a care home or a pharmacy.
- If you’re taking a gap year, or even if you have enough free time, try and get a job as a HCA. Aside from the obvious benefit of getting paid, it’s great experience and looks good on your personal statement.
- Be persistent. It takes time. Be polite but persistent. Doctors and NHS facilities are generally extremely busy. You may need to apply to many places before you get a positive response and even getting a response can take some time. But always remember to call them back for an update.
- Start early. Places often fill up so organise your placement as soon as possible and some applications are often only open for a few weeks a year.
How to make the most of your time there
There’s a lot to learn from your work experience, so make sure to use your time wisely and get as much out of it as you can.
- Look the part – looking professional creates a good first impression and you can re-use the smart clothes for OSCE’s and during clinical years.
- Be enthusiastic! – Healthcare staff are very busy and most really don’t have time for a student who seems disinterested, so if you ask questions and show interest, they’re more likely to engage with you.
- Talk to patients – first and foremost, be polite and always introduce yourself as a student. If appropriate, ask if you can speak to the patient about why they’ve come in. It can be quite daunting at first, but being comfortable around patients will really improve your bedside manner and will be a useful skill during medical school – it’s very easy to spot the students who have never spoken to a patient before… they’re usually the ones shaking in the back
- Keep a diary – this will be a handy reference point when writing your personal statement and preparing for your interviews.
- Take initiative – if you see a patient struggling to get through the door then offer a helping hand, this again demonstrates enthusiasm and a willingness to learn and help
- Get a variety of work experience so you can gain a clear perspective of different specialities as well as different components of a multidisciplinary team
- Send a letter/ email of thanks as this will help to maintain a good relationship and build contacts
- Treat it like actual work (e.g. Be on time, be respectful, don’t get distracted, dress smartly, remember confidentiality)
How to use it in your personal statement/interviews
Now that you’ve done the hard part, writing and talking about your work experience will be a walk in the park.
In your personal statement, it’s not enough to just list where you’ve been and what you’ve done, you need to discuss what you’ve learnt from it, how it relates to medicine and why this has further encouraged you to want to study medicine.
If you’re one of those lucky people who have a wide range of experiences to write about, remember that quality is better than quantity; personal statements have a word limit, so use your words carefully. Choose the examples where you have learnt or seen the most.
For interviews, my advice would be to milk your work experience as much as you can, trust me you can refer to it in almost any question. For example, if they ask: “why is teamwork important in medicine”, you could mention that time where you saw a nurse discussing a patient with a doctor and how it highlighted the importance of teamwork in a healthcare setting. You worked hard to get that work experience, so don’t waste it and use it whenever you can! Even if you feel like your work experience isn’t relevant, if you dig deep enough you’ll realise that volunteering in cancer research every weekend taught you how to be patient with difficult customers and that patience is important in medicine because of X, Y and Z.
Don’t forget that work experience can take many forms, so don’t worry if you haven’t managed to secure some time in a hospital or GP. The important thing to remember is that your work experience is only as valuable as you make it.
Check out our other blog post on the Types of Medical Work Experience you can do!
Written by Ife Akano-Williams