I’ve just started my dream course of medicine at UCD. As I’ve found out, trying to secure a place in medicine is a tiring, difficult and convoluted process. As well as negotiating your main Leaving Certificate subjects, you will have to dedicate time to the Health Professionals Admissions Test (Hpat) and score highly to earn a place. Having gone through the process, I wanted to create a guide to make your journey as straightforward as possible. Here are my six key takeaways.
1: Work experience is crucial
Exposure is key during transition year. Whether medicine interests you or not, I would highly recommend attending seminars or courses to gauge your interest. For instance, I took part in the online RCSI TY MiniMed programme, which sparked my interest in the field, as leading professionals walked through their respective areas – including general practice, heart surgery and pathology.
As this programme is now delivered in person, participating schools will be chosen by random selection in 2024, so it is important to make your TY co-ordinator aware of this opportunity. If you attend, you will be able to eliminate a potential career path or perhaps be pleasantly surprised by your burgeoning interest in the field.
I would strongly advise completing work experience in a medical setting during TY as well. Not only would this give you a flavour of life as a doctor, but experience is often an integral aspect of applying for medicine abroad. A long day in a busy ward can ignite or douse your passion for the field. Experience is consequently crucial.
2: Keep practising for the Hpat
When your aspirations of becoming a doctor become clear, you will have to cast your eye towards the Hpat, an aptitude test in which you must score highly to secure a place in medicine. You should treat the Hpat as another subject, practising regularly and diligently. Like your top six subjects, a 90th percentile score, generally equal to 180 CAO points, should be your aim. This should ensure enough points for all medical colleges, if you score highly in the Leaving Certificate as well.
I would strongly recommend starting your practice during the beginning of the summer holidays before sixth year. It may not seem tempting to start studying during a well-deserved break, but the earlier you begin, the more you will become familiar with the format and practice material.
Most students will use a preparation service, with Medentry being the most widely recommended option available for the Hpat. I availed of their platinum package as it provided access to Dr Ann’s seminar, a variety of guides and dozens of mock papers which kept me busy right up to the exam. It is not a cheap service, with prices ranging from €345-€1,000. Various packages of different costs are available with group discounts and scholarships, however. A free trial is also provided, if you are not ready to purchase a full package.
At the end of the day, everyone is different, and everyone will develop their own style of timing and practice for the Hpat. My main advice is to practice full exams regularly, and to stay motivated despite errors. My first few test scores were ranked in the 50th percentile. Even though I was quite discouraged by my initial low scores, I kept practising and started improving and moving towards the higher percentile scores of 90. I realise that if I had given up in the initial stages of my preparation I would have never got my course. It is important to stay positive throughout the process.
3: Resist the urge to increase your workload as exam day approaches
As you approach the day of the Hpat exam you will be inundated with work, assignments and preparation for the mocks. However, you must still maintain your focus on the Hpat. All your study is important, but the Hpat will decide your entry to medicine, unlike the mocks. Having said this, resist the urge to increase your workload right before the exam. Wind down your practice in the week before the test and reflect on your exam technique and timing.
As the Hpat will likely run online for the foreseeable future, there are a few key things to note on the test day. Firstly, ensure you have carefully read the instructions regarding online proctoring and downloaded any related software. I would strongly advise using a laptop to easily showcase your room, and using a plain room with no large windows or glass doors. Have ID on hand, take deep breaths and get ready for the exam. Your online proctor will guide you through the process; just listen to their instructions and your nerves will settle. Each section will begin only when you are fully ready and press start; if you need to go to the bathroom, it is best to do so at these intervals.
4. Consider other medical-based degrees when making your CAO application
Choosing the right medical college can be a challenge, but choosing other courses can be even more difficult. There is a great variety of science and medical-based degrees available in Ireland, but I would definitely consider biomedical science in UCD (DN440) due to the recognition of prior learning (RPL) scheme offered by the university. In essence, this scheme gives students an opportunity to join the second year of undergraduate medicine in the event of places becoming available. This is certainly not a guaranteed entry route, but a backup worth having in case the Hpat does not go your way.
5. Don’t neglect the option of applying abroad
Many aspiring medicine students will apply for universities throughout the country, but often neglect to explore opportunities available abroad. Considering the pressure of the points race, cost of living and shortage of accommodation, exploring alternative pathways to becoming a doctor is a wise choice.
The UK has always been an accessible option for Irish students, with common requirements including work experience, a personal statement and aptitude testing (Ucat/Bmat). Irish students also qualify for home fee status and student loans, although fees are certainly higher than in Ireland and can range up to £9,000.
If you feel the UK is too expensive, do not neglect Queen’s University Belfast. Queen’s is an excellent option for a variety of reasons. Not only is it close to the Republic, but its fees are also comparable to those in Ireland (£4,710) and the cost of living is considerably lower as well. Keep in mind that Ucat testing ends in September of sixth year, so ensure you begin practice and apply by the summer of fifth year.
With the advent of directive 2005/36/EC, mainland and eastern Europe have become attractive as well. Since 2005, the European Union has operated a system allowing for the seamless recognition of medical professional across the member states. Thus, doctors qualified in Poland are entitled to registration in Ireland without having to sit additional exams. Eunicas and Medlink will be invaluable resources if you choose this path.
6. Stay curious and ask for advice
By reading this guide, hopefully you have a more rounded idea of how to tackle entry into medicine. The most crucial aspect is certainly the Hpat but don’t neglect alternative options such as studying abroad or graduate entry medicine. Most importantly, stay curious and ask friends, family, teachers, students and university staff for advice.
Rohan Tewari is a first-year medical student at UCD