EDIT 4 July 2021: Hi! This remains one of the most popular posts on my blog, but please note that it was first written in 2014. While I like to think that my advice here is broadly applicable, things can and do change all the time. Do be sure to have a look around social media and get opinions from current medical students, too. As always, I am happy to help.
A large number of Google searches relating to this topic directs to my blog. I have been working on this post for a reasonable amount of time (most of if in my head) and I hope this will help. Note that if you are an international student (in other words, not South African or her neighbour) or a student with a prior undergraduate degree, this advice might not sufficiently answer all your questions. If you are a medical student and would like to add to these, feel free to let me know!
Step 0: Decide to study medicine
This is not as easy for some as it is for others. As I have said before: don’t believe for one second that it has to be a dream you have cherished since you could talk.
Nevertheless, consider your options carefully. Know what med school is like. Forget the idea that it is glamorous. Realise that you will be entering a war zone. Realise that you will be dealing with HIV and TB and violent trauma centres. Realise that you will work long hours. Realise that in South Africa, doctors are no longer the “rich and famous”. Realise that passion is a big component, but that it is not enough to sustain a successful career. Realise that you will be required to complete internship and ComServe and that it, too, may not be as exciting as you think it will be at the age of 18. Also, read this really good post by Hopeful Doc about reasons NOT to go into medicine. Be open-minded.
Step 1: Visit the university’s website
This requires some of your own initiative and sleuthing. Not all South African universities have equally user-friendly portals for prospective students (not an isolated phenomenon: it goes for a lot of North American and European universities too). Stellenbosch University has a good portal, Maties.com, which guides you pretty much every step of the way. They also have their prospectus online. The University of the Free State has a reasonably easy-to-navigate system. Point is, you need to check this out yourself. I’m just giving guidelines.
Things to find on the website when you find it:
- admission requirements – small degrees of variability do occur among the different institutions
- language requirements and language policies (for example parallel medium vs T-option vs single medium teaching)
- online applications: whether or not these are available may significantly impact your timeline for applying
- closing date: note that application deadlines for health sciences are as a rule different than the deadlines for other programs! For the majority of institutions the 2014 deadline is 31 May.
- student life – if you you haven’t had the opportunity to visit the campus in person, use the website and social media to get an idea of whether you will enjoy the particular institution.
Step 2: Have the right subjects
This is pretty much non-negotiable, and is the reason I always tell Grade 9s to keep their doors open when they choose subjects. Science, for example, keeps doors open. To the best of my knowledge, all medical schools in South Africa currently require applicants to have Mathematics, Physical Science (the Physics AND Chemistry component) and Life Sciences (a.k.a. Biology) as Matriculation subjects, and they will not compromise on this (as well they should not).
Furthermore, high marks are required for admission to the degree. As such, you should be aiming for averages in all subjects (especially, but not limited to the pre-reqs) of above 90%. It is still quite possible to get admission with averages of 80-89%, especially with good co-curriculars, so don’t freak out.
Have the wrong subjects or poor results? If you are convinced that medicine is the only career for you, you can still fix it by doing a year post-matric to get your prerequisite subjects done. Also investigate bridging courses and Extended Degree Programs.
Step 3: Have good co-curriculars
South African medical schools (as all medical schools, I assume) require students who are talented in multiple facets of their lives and are able to multitask and handle fast-paced lives. The irony is that med school does not allow all that much time to continue these co-curriculars. Nevertheless, the assumption is that a student who does academically well while juggling non-academic activities, will perform well at university.
Have at least one sport or cultural activity – preferably one you can do well at (unfortunately not all schools have equally wide varieties on offer). Debating, a musical instrument, team or solo sports, all of these and many more are acceptable.
Step 4: Leadership
This is something that is also of importance to medical schools and requires a bit of foresight. Serving on the leadership structure of your co-curricular activities kills two birds with one stone. There are other opportunities too though, and they need not be confined to school-based activities. Think religious-affiliation leadership (e.g. Sunday school teacher) or teaching at winter schools.
Step 5: Community Service
This is an oft-neglected, but extremely important, area. That you show an active interest in community building is extremely important to your future medical school. It does not have to pertain to healthcare: it is the ability to interact and care and give of yourself that is important to them. That said, don’t underestimate the value of healthcare-related activities, such as hosting Christmas parties in long-term hospital wards. Long-term projects and especially projects that you started and brought to success can provide an extra boost.
(Personal experience: I served on our school’s Interact Committee and was part of the society for four years. We interacted with children at the nearby hospital, organised fundraisers, visited elderly homes and orphanages. It took maybe three hours of my week, at most five during busy planning phases. You don’t have to inundate yourself, you just have to show that you have done something actively.)
Step 6: Shadowing
This is VERY subjective. From what I can gather, shadowing is a big thing in the USA. Your choice school may or may not require proof of shadowing – mine did not, and I did not shadow either (although perhaps my service activities in hospital helped). However, if you do have time to do so, I would strongly recommend a period of shadowing. Not only can this help you understand your future career and whether it is a good choice for you, but it could earn you a nice reference letter.
Step 7: Application
DO APPLY IF MEDICINE IS WHAT YOU WANT TO DO. Do not let anyone convince you that you will not make it and therefore should not apply. It is YOUR future. You will have a whole set of documents the university requires. Basic application forms, past school reports, those kinds of things. I say: GIVE THEM MORE. Whenever I have applied to things – university, conferences, Semester at Sea, bursaries – I have always submitted more than they asked for. I don’t know if this is wise when actually applying for a job, but in all these other settings it has never failed me. The worst they can do is not read the extra documents, right?
So, I ALWAYS include a cover/motivational letter. Not all South African medical schools ask why you want to do medicine; but who says that knowing your reason won’t help?
I ALWAYS include a Curriculum Vitae. Why? Because the forms they give you to complete has one little line for co-curriculars, for example, and that just does not suffice. I don’t submit a long and irrelevant CV, but I submit one that paints me in the best possible light.
Applying to medical school means selling yourself. You have to make the admissions board WANT YOU AT THEIR INSTITUTION. And, sometimes, a few duly completed forms just does not do that very well.
All institutions will require you to apply for second and third choices. Do not place another healthcare field (occupational therapy, physiotherapy, etc) as a second or third choice. Very few institutions look favourably upon that, because it appears that you do not know what you really want to do. Also, the Allied Health Sciences do not appreciate being a second or third choice. There is no real evidence as to what is a “good” second and third choice to write down. Some say it should be something related, like a Bachelors of Science in Human Life Sciences. However, if (touch wood) you are NOT accepted to medicine, the second or third choice should be something you actually want to do. So… choose accordingly.
Apply everywhere. This is user-dependent, but if medicine is the ONLY thing you want to do and you worry you will not get admission, APPLY EVERYWHERE. Or at least to as many as you can afford – most applications carry an application fee upwards of ZAR200.
Step 8: Reference Letters
This goes with the CV-thing. Not all schools request reference letters, but if you can get a good one, then by all means submit it. I would not suggest more than two letters, unless the school specifically requests a specific number. It is not necessary to get a letter from someone in the healthcare profession: it is far more important for it to be someone who knows you and your work-ethic well. One can smell a waffled reference letter miles away and it only does you harm.
Step 9: National Benchmark Tests
South African medical schools don’t have SATS or MCATS, but they do have NBTs. Some schools have additional tests they want you to write. Be sure you register for the RIGHT tests – you will need to write the AQL and MAT for most healthcare-related fields. Get a good balance between testing early or late. Writing later gives your the opportunity to have more confidence as you progress through maths at school, but reduces your chances of writing a second time should your results be worse than expected.
Just a pointer: NBTs do matter quite a bit with admission (not all institutions admit this, but it is a casual observation my peers and I made when we got our NBT results). However, studying into the early hours of the morning is not going to help you a lot, because a lot of the testing is based on problem-solving ability. In other words, the testing material will be quite different from what you are doing in high school, and they have a good reason for that. Study a little beforehand, but more importantly, get good sleep hygiene going in the weeks beforehand and train your brain with problem-solving challenges rather than rote math exercises.
Step 10: Wait…
The waiting game is hard, especially since you probably have a lot of other things (EXAMS) causing anxiety at the same time. If you get your results and you are wait-listed, stay on the list. I know someone who was 100th on the waiting list and managed to get to the front!
That said, if you get accepted to more than one school, try not to take too long to decline those spots you will not use. Remember, there are people waiting on those lists!
If you are not accepted, try not spew hatred on social networks. I know it sucks, and it is acceptable and expected for you to be upset. If medicine is still what you want to do, there are ways to get to it. Do a post-matric, or a B.Sc. Keep trying.
I hope this helps. I am happy to answer any questions either in the comments or via email (although in the comments it serves to help other readers too).