Applying to Oxbridge

I applied to study medicine at Cambridge because I wanted to become a doctor, and my teachers thought I had a good chance of getting in. Knowing what I now know, would I advise all prospective students with top grades to apply there?

No.

The experience of studying at Oxbridge is different to other universities in the UK, particularly during the preclinical years (1-3). The first thing to understand is that Oxbridge does not necessarily produce better doctors. After graduation, you will be one of many junior doctors in the hospital, and no one will care which university you went to. Second, Oxbridge is not for the work-shy; you will have to work significantly harder than other medical students during your first three years. Finally, intercalation in the 3rd year is mandatory at Oxbridge, so you will graduate a year later and have an additional years’ worth of student debt.

So when it is worth the extra effort?

Oxbridge is perfect for people who want to combine an academic career with a clinical one. The intercalation year is not specifically designed for medics; most will join the third year science students and undertake a research project or literature review, giving you the ability to critically appraise scientific writing. There is also the opportunity to take other subjects, so long as the department is happy with it (I took third year engineering). Cambridge also has a special course called the MB/PhD programme that allows you to undertake a funded PhD during the 4th and 5th years of the course (NB. UCL also has this).

Here are some additional details that would have been useful to know as a prospective student:
• If you go to Oxbridge you will have less free time per week than any other UK medical school, which can make the experience stressful. You need good time management skills, and you may need to compromise work, sleep, extra-curriculars (usually rowing) or your social life depending on what time of year it is.
• You will write A LOT of essays during your course (I wrote 51 during my first year – 9 during the exams themselves). That’s probably more essays in a term that you would do during the whole course at a different university.
• You will have weekly supervisions on the course material (typically 3 hours per week in your first year). In my opinion, this is the single best thing about Oxbridge because they encourage you to work steadily throughout the year, and they allow you to ask questions in small groups.
• The exams are incredibly stressful. I had 10 exams across 8 days in first year and 12 exams across 11 days in second year, and some were on Saturdays. All the exams are at the end of the year and there isn’t any coursework.
• The focus on science in years 1-3 means you will have no patient contact until you reach the 4th year.
• You will spend much of the clinical years 4-6 away from the city. I was based at Ipswich Hospital for 16 weeks of the year, a remote general practice for 4 weeks, and Addenbrooke’s (in Cambridge) for 16 weeks.
• Both Oxford and Cambridge have huge parties organized by student committees after exams are after. In Cambridge they call them May Balls – they made some of the best nights of my life.
• The collegiate system makes it much easier for you to make lasting friendships with non-medics.
• Being part of a college also means that you don’t have to be very good at sport to make it into a team.

So in summary, I would wholeheartedly recommend Oxbridge to anyone who is intent on becoming a clinical academic. I would also recommend it to someone looking for an alternative career after graduating, such as in policymaking, business or medical law. Finally, I would also choose Oxbridge if you’re only 90% set on doing medicine, because there are opportunities to switch course. However, I would warn the majority of applicants that getting a medical degree is hard work as it is, and going to Oxbridge is unlikely to give you a significant advantage in a postgraduate medical world.

Emma is a clinical medical student at Cambridge and the Oxbridge applications and Research lead @becomingadr