Work experience in a caring or service role is a requisite for applying to medical schools in the UK.1 It is any activity that allows applicants to demonstrate that they have acquired experience of service, care, or helping others, have developed some of the values and attributes needed to study medicine in the UK, and understand the realities of working as a doctor, including the physical, emotional and organisational demands.2
Most medical schools do not specify the type of work experience or a minimum number of hours. However, the work experience must be undertaken in the two years prior to applying.2
The principal considerations for medical schools regarding work experience are demonstration of applicants’ attributes and commitment to caring for other people and their ability to reflect on what they have learned about themselves and medicine.2
This is assessed through the UCAS personal statement and at interviews. Some medical schools expect applicants to submit a separate work experience form to enable admission teams to check that the information provided is correct.
Types of work experience
The two main types of work experience are working in a caring or service role, especially with people who are ill, disabled or disadvantaged, and observing healthcare (shadowing).2 Work experience can be obtained in, for example, hospitals, general practices, hospices, care homes and special schools. International opportunities are also available. However, typically, this is not encouraged as medical schools want applicants to have insight into the UK health service. International applicants can complete work experience in their own country.2
Work experience can be observing, volunteering or paid jobs. Observing a doctor or another healthcare professional allows students to acquire an understanding of their work. The aim is not to learn about medicine itself. Finding a placement can take time. Tips on finding an opportunity are listed in Box 1.3
Box 1 – Finding work experience
Allow adequate time to find a placement and be ready to contact many people.
Remember that NHS services are provided by, for example, care homes, hospices, and charities. Try here as well as in hospitals and general practices.
Search for local organisations that offer work experience programmes.
Search for formal schemes and outreach programmes. These are available across the UK and also assist with UCAS personal statements and interview preparation.
Ask your school or college for a list of contacts for work experience opportunities.
Ask family and friends and other acquaintances who work in healthcare.
Consider shadowing other healthcare professionals, for example, nurses.
Ask for advice from one of the royal medical colleges or medical schools.
Volunteering is another way of gaining work experience. It also highlights applicants’ empathy and commitment. Voluntary work is available in the health sector.
Alternatively, volunteering in community groups, for example, religious groups, Scouts or Guides demonstrates leadership and communication skills. Some websites that can be used to search for volunteering opportunities are listed in Box 2.
Box 2 – Volunteering websites
British Red Cross
Kissing it Better
St John’s Ambulance
It is not recommended to repeat the same type of work experience. Longer experience of volunteering or employment in people-focused roles is more useful than repeated periods of shadowing.2
During the placement
Some steps can be taken to avail the most benefit from work experience. Students should discuss with their supervisors what they want to do and learn during the placement. They should maintain a log diary of their activities and observations.1
This reinforces learning and is a valuable reference tool for UCAS personal statements and interview preparation. Additionally, students should pose questions, for example, about doctors’ working patterns and lifestyles.
It is also advisable to talk to patients, remembering to introduce themselves as medical school applicants on work experience. Students should also try to talk to various healthcare professionals. This aids understanding of multidisciplinary teams. They should be ready to help if an opportunity arises, for example, accompanying patients if they need to visit another hospital department or making tea.
It is important to recognise that some patients may not want students to be present when they are consulting the doctor. Students must always protect patient confidentiality. They must not discuss patients outside of the department or practice they are based in. They should tell their supervisor and leave the room if they know any of the patients socially. Additionally, students should dress smartly.
Alternatives to work experience
There are numerous other means of acquiring an understanding of a career in medicine. Students can generate a list of questions and organise to talk to a doctor, for example, a relative or friend or their GP about their training and job. Applicants who are at school or college can ask teachers to arrange a talk by a doctor, other healthcare professional or medical school tutor.
It is also beneficial to read medical journal articles, medical news stories and real-life accounts of doctors’ lives and careers, that are widely available online.
There are free online resources that provide an insight into working in healthcare. These include Observe GP, created by the Royal College of General Practitioners, Virtual Work Experience created by the Brighton and Sussex Medical School, and Patient journey to GP practice, an app created by the General Medical Council and NHS England.
Getting medical work experience. British Medical Association. 2021 [cited 18 July 2021]. Available from: https://www.bma.org.uk/advice-and-support/studying-medicine/becoming-a-doctor/getting-medical-work-experience
Guidance on relevant experience for applying to medical school [Internet]. Medical Schools Council. [cited 18 July 2021]. Available from: https://www.medschools.ac.uk/media/2331/relevant-experience-for-applying-to-medical-school.pdf
Work shadowing. Health Careers. [cited 18 July 2021]. Available from: https://www.healthcareers.nhs.uk/explore-roles/doctors/applying-medical-school/gaining-experience-medical-school/work-shadowing