Interview Question: Why Do You Want to be a Doctor?

This is part of my series on medical school interviews. Be sure to check out the rest of the articles on the website to make sure you’re properly prepared when interview day comes around so you can perform at your very best and nail that medical school offer! As with all articles in this series, the following is intended as a rough guide containing talking points and elements to consider, rather than content to be repeated as-is in your interview.

Odd though it may seem, this is a question that can catch medical applicants completely off guard during interviews, and many will unravel extremely quickly. Instinctively 99% of students will simply say ‘I want to help people’, which an admissions tutor can then redirect in any number of ways and doesn’t suggest that much thought has gone into the application, which it most certainly should have done if you’re seriously thinking about committing to a life in medicine.

Try to think what is it about medicine in particular that attracts you?

Try to think what is it about medicine in particular that attracts you?

For example they could very quickly just say ‘then become a paramedic or a nurse. They help people’. When you think about it, an enormous number of occupations involve helping society in one way or another.

What you need to do is convey a sense of purpose and confidence, that gives the impression you have a solid reason you feel that specifically medicine above all else is the correct choice for you as a person. What is it SPECIFICALLY about the art of medicine that attracts you, and why do you think you’d be good at it?

For example, doctors routinely have to combine information from many sources (patient histories, blood samples, physical examinations etc) in order to solve problems and work out the diagnosis. If you enjoy science as well as problem solving, that would be good to mention. Better still, if you could provide an example from your own studies that combines these two aspects, that will sound much more convincing.

"When you think about it, an enormous number of occupations involve helping society in one way or another"

In terms of addressing the idea of why other healthcare roles might be unsuitable for you, doctors are ultimately in control of the care that a patient receives, and wield the most administrative power in doing so. While nurses and auxiliary care staff deliver treatment, the doctors decide what form it should take. If you feel that you want more of a say in this first stage of care then you’d be good for medicine, but be sure to make the point that this places a very large responsibility on you and you alone, which you must bear should anything go wrong following your decision.

Of course if you’re a graduate entrant to medicine (like myself) then you may well have worked in a clinical setting before. This might also of course be true if you did some volunteering in a hospital setting as a younger applicant. In this case try to reflect on the working environment - doctors can often be team leaders and you could talk about having led teams yourself.

Doctors are responsible for the treatment patients receive, but crucially also any mistakes

Doctors are responsible for the treatment patients receive, but crucially also any mistakes

Equally if you’ve had some experience in your own life, which could be seeing relatives treated in hospitals or having witnessed an accident with doctors present and seen them take control of the situation and reassure everyone, they can be good to talk about. My own answer is along these lines, which you can read more about in another article to come.

You might reflect on that most sacred of bonds, the doctor-patient relationship. While this has been restricted somewhat in recent years by reductions on consultation times, as a doctor your responsibility is not to your NHS trust or to your hospital’s clinical targets, but to your patients. It is an immense privilege that doctors are afforded, and if you can recognise how important that is and why you think you should be trusted with it, that would go a long way.

"as a doctor your responsibility is not to your NHS trust or to your hospital’s clinical targets, but to your patients"

Finally, I think a great but simple thing would be being able to come home at the end of every day and knowing you made a difference to somebody’s life. Be careful with this, because it won’t always be positive, and an interviewer could then follow you up on it. That is the great curse of the medical profession, particularly in dangerous fields like neurosurgery where mishaps are relatively more common and the actions of doctors can have very long lasting, debilitating results for their patients.

With this question, perhaps more so than any other you’d be asked in a medical school interview you MUST be honest. Absolutely do not try to fluff up your answer by giving false narratives or regurgitating buzzwords. Take a breath before you speak, look your interviewer in the eye and tell them plainly and simply why you want to be a doctor. This is a question all about self-reflection, there are no extraneous factors at play. Tell the truth, and it’s smooth sailing from there.

Introduction to Applying to Medical School

Medical schools in the UK can vary greatly in their admissions processes, but there are several elements that hold true for the majority. This article is intended for those completely new to the process and who are considering their applications in the future.

1. Grades & Academic Achievement

For undergraduate entry, the minimum requirements to be attained are three A grades at A2. Biology is required virtually everywhere, and most schools demand a second science subject (Maths, Physics or Chemistry). If you wish to only take two sciences, Chemistry is currently the options sought by most schools. The third A level choice does not appear to be of any consequence for most places, so my advice would be simply to take something you will score well in.

If you are applying as a graduate who already holds a degree (or will graduate in the coming summer) usually a 2.1 (Upper Second Class Honours) in a science subject is optimal, although many schools will take graduates of any disciplines.

Note: It is vitally important to check the individual requirements of each university you apply to. This guide is intended as a rough primer only and cannot encompass the individual preferences of the schools.

Medicine offers a dynamic career with a range of opportunities (Image: RAF Lakenheath)

Medicine offers a dynamic career with a range of opportunities (Image: RAF Lakenheath)

2. Entrance Exams

Of course, many students will achieve the grades as detailed above. The next criterion to tackle is the entrance exams required by the universities you’re applying to (these will be listed on the university website under Admissions/Applications). In most cases this will be the UKCAT (United Kingdom Clinical Aptitude Test) which must be booked at the UKCAT registration website and sat between July 3 and October 3. Alternatively some schools ask for the BMAT (BioMedical Admissions Test), which is similar and booked separately.

Note: The UKCAT is sat before the UCAS deadline for medicine (October 15), whereas the BMAT is usually sat afterwards in early November. This means that should your UKCAT exam not go as well as you’d hope, there might still be time to take the BMAT and apply to different schools.

3. UCAS Applications - Personal Statement & Reference

Whether you are applying as a school-leaver or as a graduate, all medical school applications are sent through the UCAS system (Universities and Colleges Admissions Service) - medicine is an undergraduate course, no matter the entry route. You’ll need to provide personal information, including previous academic attainment (GCSEs or similar) and any grades you have.

You will write a personal statement, no longer than 4000 characters. In brief, it should sum up your motivation for studying medicine, give an indication as to why you think you would be a suitable candidate and give some evidence that you’ve properly considered the reality of the career ahead of you. We’ll explore this in more depth another time.

You will also need to find someone willing to give you a reference - usually this will be someone from your college or sixth form, and potentially a university tutor if you’re a graduate. It would be best if they had previous experience of writing references for medicine, but if this is not feasible there is plenty of guidance online. Whether they share the details of this with you is entirely up to them, and it is sent separately through UCAS by your administrator.

"It is vitally important to check the individual requirements of
each university you apply to"

4. Work Experience / Volunteering

In keeping with the previous point, medicine is often idealised and glamourised by the media, which might not offer the best representation of the career. It is more than worth the time and effort to gain some healthcare-relevant work or volunteering experience, be it working in a nursing home, employment in a pharmacy or similar.

Once again the advice of each institution is highly variable, both in terms of the types of experience they consider suitable and whether it is required at all. This is particularly of concern for graduate applicants to medicine, and is more frequently used as a minimum threshold exercise at this level than for school leavers.

I worked with the Nightline group at Newcastle University, an anonymous support phoneline. Picture: I was Neville The Bear for a recruitment day, the mascot of the service.

I worked with the Nightline group at Newcastle University, an anonymous support phoneline.
Picture: I was Neville The Bear for a recruitment day, the mascot of the service.

5. The Interview

If you’ve satisfied all the previous criteria and impressed the right person at the right time, you might find yourself the lucky recipient of an invitation to interview. You’ll be elated, as well you should be, as this is the final hurdle (beyond achieving your grades of course) to overcome before beginning your passage to medical school.

There are several types of interview employed by medical schools to pick the best candidates from the ones who have made it this far. Once more there will be another article to come detailing their differences, but essentially you will go to the university and speak to one or more people about why you deserve the place.

"Don’t be nervous and understand that interviewers are simply to trying to learn more about you"

Depending on the school you might be asked academic questions, about the contents of your reference/personal statement, aspects of the NHS, and other such markers that illustrate your suitability for medicine. Don’t be nervous and understand that interviewers are simply to trying to learn more about you, as you’ve previously only been a piece of paper and some ink up to that point. Medicine requires a large range of skills, including communication, which is one of the main ones being tested although it certainly won’t be the only one. If it goes well (fingers crossed!) you’ll hear back with an email offering you a place, and the real journey will begin.

So there is your primer to the medical admissions process, I hope you’ve found it useful and as usual I encourage you to ask me any questions if there’s something you’d like to know. I know all too well how stressful and mystifying it can seem at times, which is of course why this website exists at all. Good luck, and I’m sure you’ll make a great doctor one day.