Applying to Oxbridge for Medicine? Really?

by     24 Comments    Posted under: Application, Medical Schools

studying medicine at oxbridge

Now before we divulge our very valuable insider tips about cracking the Oxbridge interview (currently being prepared) there is an important question to consider. Should you even be applying for Medicine at Oxford or Cambridge? Read the following carefully because I really do think the emperor has no clothes. I need your thoughts and comments.

Here’s a question I received recently on our private mailing list:

  • “I need some help. I’m thinking of applying to Oxford or Cambridge for medicine next year. My teachers tell me I have a strong application but is it going to be worth the extra effort? What do Oxford and Cambridge offer that other medical schools do not?”

A very perceptive question by a clearly above average student. A potential Oxbridge student.

Obviously, just because you have the grades to do something doesn’t automatically make that the right decision.

Oxford and Cambridge routinely get excellent teaching scores across all courses, not just medicine. Their degrees are highly regarded both in the UK and internationally.

So does that mean that if you’re a top student and want to be a doctor you should automatically be applying to Oxford and Cambridge?

You need to think carefully before following the crowds of knee jerk, trigger happy A-grade students who shoot off an Oxbridge medicine application as soon as they possibly can.

Firstly, what do I know about this?
I have taught medical students at these universities and at other medical schools. I have also taught junior doctors both from Oxbridge and elsewhere.

So here are some pretty uncontroversial facts from my experience about Oxford and Cambridge medics:

Oxbridge medical students do not make better doctors.
Medical schools in general select the brightest students. Oxford and Cambridge students are not easy to differentiate from other students once they become junior doctors. Some are good doctors whilst others are bad. Some are disillusioned with medicine, others are keen and enthused. Junior doctors are a pretty homogenous bunch overall.

Oxbridge medical students have less free time per week than students from any other UK medical school.
At Oxford or Cambridge you will be writing more essays in one year than your non-Oxbridge colleagues will write during the whole 5 or 6 years of their medical undergraduate training. Does assignment writing make you a better doctor? The evidence is unclear but plenty of people have strong thoughts about it. Does doing more assignments help you better retain information? Quite possibly, yes.

Oxbridge medical students learn things in a lot more detail.
This is true particularly at pre-clinical level.
Once you hit the wards in year 3, clinical training doesn’t differ hugely across medical schools. It is much more dependent on the individual clinicians and their enthusiasm for teaching (which is highly variable). Plenty of Oxbridge students leave for London or other big cities for their clinical training anyway. The big differences are therefore at the pre-clinical level. There is no doubt that teaching in anatomy, physiology and other basic sciences is more in-depth and better taught at Oxbridge than almost anywhere else.

The overdependence on PBL (problem based learning) seen at certain other institutions (resulting in many saved pounds and many frustrated students) does not exist at Oxbridge.

Does this better medical science teaching help after graduating? In my experience most junior doctors applying for postgraduate exams still need to revise their anatomy and physiology all over again regardless of how good their teaching was. Most of us are pretty forgetful.
It is therefore difficult to say how much benefit is conferred by the undoubtedly high quality Oxbridge teaching standard, in what remains a vocational degree course with a practical career at the end of it.

Oxbridge Medical students have harder end of year exams
It’s difficult to compare such things directly but I have in my hand some year 1 anatomy papers from Cambridge and from some other medical schools and to get a decent mark in the Cambridge paper you simply have to work harder and longer. Enough said.

But I thought Oxford and Cambridge were the best Universities in the world?

Yes, but pay some regard to the course you intend to study. If you’re studying a truly academic course like biology, physics, English or PPE there is no university that will offer better teaching and better employment and earning prospects when you graduate.

However, medicine is a vocational course and is simply training you to be an FY1 doctor at the end of 6 years. You are pretty much guaranteed a job upon graduation.
Contrary to what some might tell you, most of your clinical training will actually take place in the first few years after graduation when you will be allowed to prescribe drugs, make clinical decisions, organise investigations, treat sick patients, and learn how to perform basic surgical procedures. This is on the job training and has always been an integral part of a medical career.

This is why I believe that the benefits of the Oxbridge system are a little wasted on medical students. Very few of these overworked, essay writing, sleep deprived medics will follow a truly academic career.

Medicine as a vocation on the other hand, is all about learning quickly, devising shortcuts around problems, rules of thumb, pattern recognition and presenting oneself to patients and colleagues by way of a highly standardised and widely accepted protocol. This is the very antithesis of the traditional Oxbridge academic who is taught to inquire perceptively, reflect deeply and (it must be hoped) write frequently.

What about career prospects in competitive specialities?
Current selection for the most competitive (ie surgical) specialities such as cardiothoracics, orthopaedics and plastics are on a points based system. There is currently a point for getting an honours degree and for getting prizes at undergraduate level. Most of the points are for interview performance, publications, courses and references. It is essentially a free for all once you graduate. Whilst an Oxbridge degree won’t hold you back, it is not clear that all that extra work as a student counts for very much in the postgraduate medical world.

medicine at oxford

So why apply to medicine at Oxbridge?

The following would be good reasons to apply:

  • You are intent on an academic career after graduation
  • You are intent on applying internationally
  • You want to do a medical science degree and then consider non-medical career options as well as clinical medicine.
  • You live in Oxford or Cambridge and will save money on living expenses.
  • You want the prestige of an Oxford or Cambridge degree and want to be a doctor.
  • You have visited Oxford or Cambridge and have fallen for the beauty and charm of either place and now MUST go there. (A common problem!)

In summary
If you want to go to Oxford and Cambridge and have got an excellent CV and the required grades, my advice would be to avoid medicine and do a proper academic course in a subject that interests you. It will be fulfilling, inspiring and cultivating. You can always come back to medicine as graduate and shouldn’t have a problem getting in.

If you’re pretty set on becoming a doctor however, remember that medicine at its very root is about memorising a whole load of facts as quickly as possible. There is not much of the nuance and subtlety of English literature and little of the hard scientific rigour of physics. Getting through a degree in medicine is difficult enough. Go somewhere that allows you to do that with the least amount of fuss and the minimum amount of back breaking hard work.



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And what do you reckon? Is medicine at Oxbridge a special route to success or too much hard work for too little benefit? Comments below!

24 Comments + Add Comment

  • I am thinking of applying to Oxford for the 2014 intake. I appreciate that the long term career benefits don’t apply to medics but I feel that the higher quality teaching will be more enjoyable. Perhaps I’ve fallen for the charm too..

    • Agree. I enjoyed teaching Oxbridge students as many of them had read up the material BEFORE my session with them. The discussion was therefore better and the learning deeper.
      I guess my point is that such benefits come at a huge cost in time and effort.

  • I live just outside Cambridge and if I get in my accommodation costs will be zero. That was actually my main reason.. Too bad I’ve dropped a grade at AS and now any MBBS is looking tight…

  • Never even thought about OX or CAM for these very reasons. And once I get into med I think I’ll be lazier than most..

  • I was hoping for some interview tips for Oxford. Instead this seems to suggest it’s better not to bother. ANy advice for those already committed?

    • Well Emma, we have some interview transcripts (!) that we’re currently working through… We’re still thinking about how much we can reveal and how.
      Watch this space for some valuable gems.


  • Found you via Twitter.
    Just the sort of inside info that is promised on a number of courses that failed to deliver in my opinion. Thanks – especially for the personal statement blueprint.

    • Thanks for your kind words Gina. Keep letting us know how we’re doing.

  • Hi Leo,
    Just had my Cambridge interview a few weeks ago.
    It went well, but I do agree that their courses are very intense and will likely leave me stressed and overworked.

    The style of the interview was something I was unprepared for but wasn’t too difficult once I got the hang of it. Not sure I scored highly enough but anyway, I think you can easily produce a quick guide to help people out as it really isn’t as complicated as people make out.


  • Thanks you for some food for thought

  • Overseas applicants are making an increasing proportion of Oxbridge applicants this year. I reckon the colleges will smell some easy money and skew the process against home students

  • I’d have a tough time getting on with a largely elite public school crowd even if I could get in. For me, just getting a place anywhere for medicine is going to me enough…

  • Leo, you’ve given me a new angle on this. I may have to rethink when I get back after gap year, thanks.

  • I’m in my second year at Cambridge. Whilst the going is tough at times, the rewards are also magnified although I can’t compare directly having only attended Cambridge and no other UK university/

    We get plenty of small group tutorials and many chnces to ask questions if we’re in difficulty. If you get your work routine right fron the start you should.t have to cram like crazy during exam week. For me the degree is not what matters but the process

    • Some good points Wes.
      I used to give supervision sessions to revise material, and the students would all attend.

      I think other medical schools should do the same. It can’t possibly be that difficult or costly.

  • No interviews or offers for me from Oxford despite a decent application. However just got my offer from Sheffield about which I’m thrilled. The teaching scores etc are all excellent. Looking forward to it. Thaks for all your help!

  • Congrats!

  • […] Sounds like Oxbridge just isn't that special anymore when it comes to medicine.Applying for medicine at Oxford or Cambridge? | Doc eat doc Reply With Quote + Reply to […]

  • Agree. Wasting my precious time learning more physiology than I’ll ever need as a doctor.

  • Would you say these are some good reasons to apply to ox?

    1. I like the tutorial system a lot…it seems demanding but rewarding
    2. I like studying things at a greater depth, I suppose it will make me more confident when it comes to the clinical years
    3. The challenge… when I do something I usually work at my best, I demand a lot from myself and I’m quite competitive, so I’d try oxford because I love aiming high
    4. I went to an open day and I swear I’m badly in love with the place and their facilities 🙂

    • Hi Martina, I think those are good enough reasons. It sounds like you’re into the teaching style as long as you’re aware that after graduating you’ll be in the same boat as everyone else.

      The place is pretty awesome, I agree.

  • hi im in yr 8 and our maths teacher wants us to write about a russel group university, i was wondering which uni is better as i really really want to become a surgeon when i am older! please help as i am gonna take my GCSE’s next year! thanks 🙂

  • A couple of days away from sitting my third year (pre-clinical) “finals”: although I completely adore Oxford, the academic work load is unnecessarily rigorous and I’m currently wishing I was at any university other than Oxford studying medicine, the feeling of complete and total inadequacy is overwhelming sometimes but hopefully at least an appreciation and understanding of research will be advantageous (if for nothing else than squashing any silly ideas that doing a PhD or going into research is in anyway a good idea)