Gut decisions and choosing a university

Choosing which university or medical school to apply for is like going shopping for a car. There’s so much choice and you don’t want to get it wrong. It’s a serious investment of your life for the next few years and you’ll come out of it at the end with a crippling student debt. There are so many factors to take into consideration and it is not a decision to take lightly. The choice of which medical school to apply for is also a little bit like gambling, you are playing the odds on what the chances of getting an interview are, and subsequently an offer. Getting an interview can often be half the battle because once you have an interview the chances of you getting an offer increases substantially.

Every person has different perspectives on what is important to them. Luckily there is so much choice when it comes to universities that everybody can find a place that suits them. Once you’ve had a looked at the entry requirements of what feels like every university under the sun, you go through the process of eliminating the universities or medical schools that you have little or no chance of getting offers at. Now you can take your pick of universities to apply for by looking at what each university offers and what appeals to you.

Location is an important consideration for many people and often the first thing people think about. If you’re lucky enough to live in a place that has a university that offers your course, then what you have to think about is whether you want to live at home or away from home. Living away from home is the big jump to independence that most people opt for. I would certainly recommend to people to live away from home for the full university experience. By living out you gain so many skills and it really forces you to grow as a person (though I still consider myself as immature at times). Over the last few years I’ve learnt how to manage bills, live cohesively with other people, I’ve learnt how to cook and, yes, how to operate a washing machine (and a dishwasher would you believe it!- It’s not as hard as it looks). Obviously living out means you lose out on the many home comforts such as; your parents acting as your alarm clock, having your mum do your laundry and (the big one) home cooked food. If your living away from home, how far away do you want to be? I wanted to live away from home and experience a new city but I wanted to be close enough so that it wasn’t too far of a journey and I could go back whenever I felt like it without having to worry about expensive last-minute train tickets.

You’ve decided (I’m assuming) to live away from home. So the next thing to think about is if you want to go to a university in a big city or somewhere more rural. I’m a city boy, I grew up in a city and couldn’t imagine life away from the commodities of a big city. Some people are the polar opposite, they have grown up in a rural area and hate cities. Why does it matter? Living in a city means that there are more modern commodities and better transport links usually. Universities in more rural areas tend to have better access to outdoor activities and nicer landscapes. There are some universities that are a nice balance of both aspects of being a city but also not being too far from the beautiful British countryside. This is one of the many reasons I love Sheffield. Sheffield is the 4th largest city in the UK (this fact shocked me) but it’s only a 15 minute drive into the amazing Peak District.

This leads me onto the next thing you should think about. Sports club’s and society’s. University is the place to hone your talents and skills in whatever field interests you. If you play sports seriously then university provides a platform you to compete on a national level. I know people who are national champions in orienteering, cycling, American football and volleyball. There’s even a TV star here in Sheffield (though that shouldn’t be the reason you choose a university). If there has always been something you have wanted to try then university is the place to find undiscovered passions and talents. There’s every sport you could think of, as well as many creative societies, religious societies and academic societies to help you in the career/life/spiritual path you want to follow. University is amazing for encouraging people to try new things and broadening your horizons. A friend of mine dragged me along to a Latin dance lesson recently and I absolutely loved it, something that I would never have dreamed of doing by myself. No commitment is required to go to any club or society. Sheffield has a programme called ‘Give it a Go’ which is exactly what it says, a session where you can go to try out a new activity and most universities have similar programmes. There are tons of weird and wonderful societies as well from the Harry Potter appreciation society to the Assassins Guild (watch this), here’s an article about some of the weirdest university societies. After all that if there’s not a single society that floats your boat then you can go and create your own.

If your a bit of a party animal then you probably want to take look into the night life side of a university. Most university’s hold their own club nights which is in their students union but the advantage of being in a city means that there’s usually a variety of clubs around. I personally do not drink (I’m just boring like that) so I  really appreciate it when a society that I am a part of holds non-alcoholic social’s and in Sheffield there’s plenty of places to go to for non-alcoholic socials.

The most important aspect of applying to university is to look at the course structure. How do you learn best? If you are someone who hates lectures then going to university where all your teaching for the next 3 to 5 years  is delivered through lectures is not going to be to your taste. Some university’s offer sandwich courses where you spend one year working or studying abroad. Every university caters for a different learning style depending on the course. The different teaching tools include lectures, seminars, tutorials, group sessions, practical or theoretical labs and placements. You should look at how much contact time you get on your course because it’s important to know how much of the content you will be taught and how much you will be expected to learn yourself. Medicine and dentistry have the most contact hours out of any course at most universities. You can also look at contact hours as value for money, £9000 a year is a steep price to be paying if all you’re doing is reading textbooks for 3 to 5 years.

When I was looking at course structures for medicine I was really fussy. I definitely didn’t want to do PBL (problem based learning) as my understanding was that you get very little contact tome. I also didn’t want to go to a traditional university that only used lectures as their teaching tool. I wanted to have a mixture of lectures, tutorials, group sessions and practical teaching sessions. This is called an integrated course structure and luckily most medical schools use an integrated course structure. The advantage of this is that if you don’t learn well through one teaching method then there are other options available to you. This is a good article that explains each course structure for medicine.

Some people want to be in hospitals and clinical placements right from the get go whereas others feel uncomfortable being around doctors when they don’t know much. I wanted early clinical exposure because I felt that it was exciting to be in hospitals shadowing doctors and learning what it means to be a doctor right from the get go.

How can you learn about the human body if you haven’t cut one open? Don’t worry, I’m not a sadist. There are university’s that do full body dissection, which means you get a human body (somebody who has kindly donated their body to science) and you learn the anatomy of the human body by dissecting it over a year or sometimes two. Some university’s do prosection which is where you only get a part of a human body to dissect. If you are squeamish and you want to be a doctor then I wouldn’t worry too much, medical school does a good job of curing squeamishness. I personally wanted to go to a university that did full body dissection (I swear I’m not a sadist, honestly) because I’m someone who learns better by doing practical things.

Sheffield medical school has an integrated course structure that is heavily lecture based. This means that there are lectures most days but there are also practical sessions and tutorials (similar to PBL) a few times a week. There’s hospital placements in the first year, as well as GP placements and community attachments where you go to a patients house (it’s not as scary as it sounds). Sheffield does fully body dissections with all their health sciences students.

When choosing a university it is vital that you go to the open days. I dragged my poor parents along to so many open days and I’ll be extremely grateful to them for that. I knew by the end of the open day whether this particular university was the kind of place I could spend the next 5 to 6 years of my life. If by the end of the open day you don’t feel excited by the prospect of potentially attending that particular university then it’s probably not the place for you.

Take home message of the blog: Choosing a university is a big decision which will shape the rest of your life. It is something that you should put a lot of thought into. It is not something you can make a gut decision about but trust your gut to help in the decision process. Always visit the university before hand to get a feel for where you may potentially spend the next few years of your life.


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