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From Home School to Medical School

Updated: Jul 21, 2020

By Daniel Aszkenasy

Hello! My name is Daniel Aszkenasy, and I am a 3rd year medical student at Newcastle University. I would like to take this opportunity to write about my experience of applying to medical school, and I hope that it will be informative for others who are thinking about medical school and applying themselves:

I personally have a significantly different background to several others in my year, in that I spent the entirety of my school years in home education. My classrooms were my bedroom and the dining room downstairs; my school run involved a simple climb or descent of the thirteen steps of our staircase. I self-taught large parts of my GCSE subjects, as well as A level Chemistry, and had one-to-one tutors to help out with the rest. At the age of 16, choosing my A levels, I didn’t quite know what I wanted to do when I reached university age - to go to medical school seemed like a golden, inaccessible dream. Application-to-offer ratio 10:1. UK Clinical Aptitude Test. Multiple Mini Interviews. Most medical schools needing you to get straight As at your A levels first time to be considered for entry at all. The odds really did seem to be well and truly stacked up against me being able to do what my parents did and become a doctor. I decided to focus on my A levels at hand and, if my results were good enough, put in an application during a gap year. No harm in giving it a try and seeing what happens…

A rollercoaster ride of two years of A levels, and then the application process, followed. Doing Biology and Chemistry A levels from home by means of a correspondence course with Pembrokeshire College meant that I had to travel to their facilities to carry out and pass the practical elements of the courses - which involved several all-day train journeys from Durham, near where I grew up, to Haverfordwest in south-west Wales. Getting those magic 3 As for medical school, with mountains of self-study, often feeling like you were fighting it out alone, certainly wasn’t easy. I’d heard medical students say that self-study skills are important for the course, so I saw it as a good chance to get those skills up to scratch, to help me settle in better if I actually got in… and so, on June 23rd, 2016, as the nation headed to the polling stations to vote in the EU referendum and thunderstorms raged over London and the south-east, I was writing out respiration and neurology six-markers on my very last A level paper of all, with my very red, sweaty and weary right-hand and UniBall black pen. Finally, I closed the paper gently and handed it to the invigilator. That was it. I’d done everything I could do to make my dream come true. Was it enough? Please, please let it be enough… please…

And it was! AAA in Biology, Chemistry (by two marks!) and German. Phew! One hurdle cleared, but I still felt such a long way from lectures, clinical skills, anatomy and physiology. My attention turned to the UKCAT, or UK Clinical Aptitude Test. This test is used by several medical schools to prioritise and select applicants for interview. It was an exam I’d been told was “the worst” by countless applicants and medical students, and it was a test which “could not be revised for” - or so it was said. I bought huge practice books and hammered through them until they looked like they were fifteen years old. We travelled by train to Germany to visit friends, and sitting in a typically French café in the Gare de l’Est in Paris whilst waiting for our connecting train to Stuttgart, I was for once less interested in the magnificent architecture of my favourite city of all around me. All that mattered was whether I could work out those sequences, read those paragraphs, and solve those calculations well enough to stand a chance of getting an interview at medical school. That was the goal, and nothing else mattered. I reached a point where I was able to blank out everything around me; to be fixated on that one ambition; to not fail. “Go for it, Daniel, you can do anything if you put your mind to it” - the words of my late grandma from Tyneside ringing in my head. I told myself to keep going; keep going; even as the searing heat of an early autumn French heatwave beat down on my neck and the lyrical French train announcements echoed and washed around the station concourse like the water in a Monet masterpiece in the Musée de l’Orangerie.

My UKCAT test day arrived. I got on the bus into Newcastle, and skim-read paragraphs of a Michael Palin book to prepare myself for what was coming my way. I got to the test centre. I emptied my pockets, locked my belongings away, and went in. One by one I went through the sections of the test. I’d felt I’d surely messed things up, and that I’d have to forget about that application… but I couldn’t bring myself to face that realisation for real on my own, so I took the slip of paper with my result on it, and immediately folded it up, placing it in my rucksack. I’d go home and get my mum to read it out in front of me. That way, if it’s not good, she’ll be there for me.

“Just read what it says”, I said to her in the living room, as she calculates my overall average score on the laptop. “Please, just get it over and done with.” “Seven-hundred and twenty-three!”, she replied. I collapsed on the floor, screamed and cried. A higher score than I thought I’d get in a million years, and good enough to apply to where I most wanted. It seems that, despite what is said, preparation is as important as anything when taking the UKCAT.

Now it was time for the real thing. I went onto UCAS and, after researching, I decided to tactically apply to Newcastle, Cardiff, Sheffield and UEA in Norwich. I was attracted by courses involving the then relatively novel case-based learning structure, having done an A level Biology syllabus with a similar structure which I enjoyed, and so envisaged that I would most like to go to either Newcastle or Cardiff. Looking at the course structures of medical schools I’d say is crucial, not just because they’ll most likely ask you about it at interview at some point, but because it could well dictate whether you’ll actually enjoy the course or not in terms of it suiting the way you learn. I wrote my personal statement, with a big chunky paragraph on one thing which is pretty much vital for applying to medical school: work experience. Being home educated meant I had to research, plan and book all of this on my own, and if I’m honest it was a world I found a bit confusing at first, so I decided to start with something fairly basic, which was attending the weekly “Mini Medical School” lectures at Newcastle University, as part of a six-week course on what the world of medicine is all about. These lectures, with their outstanding speakers, still stick in my mind today as having sown plenty of the seeds of my medical ambitions. A friend on the course told me one evening that they’d booked a placement in a hospital in Warsaw, Poland, with the Gap Medics company for the following summer - and I scribbled down the name "Gap Medics” in the back of my notebook. It looked like the real deal. Two weeks’ placement all organised for a set price, and accommodation included too, all in a place I knew I’d enjoy going to, being very close to my own continental European roots. And so, the following summer came, and off I flew to Poland for a truly unforgettable experience. Alongside shadowing consultations in dermatology, observing cardiovascular examinations and surgeries, and discussing with specialists what they’d recommend focusing on to achieve the most in a medical career, I ate copious amounts of Polish apple cake, dumplings and Kotlet Schabowys, and explored the beautiful streets of Warsaw’s historic centre with, among several other great friends, an incredible young man who I became close to and is now my best friend. Further placements I completed were: a week as a nursing assistant in a German hospital (in Stuttgart), where I really learned how to be part of a multi-disciplinary team in a major tertiary centre; in paediatrics departments at the RVI in Newcastle and James Cook in Middlesbrough; and a local GP practice. I was also lucky enough to become a volunteer ward helper at St Oswald’s Hospice, Newcastle, serving meals and drinks to patients two or three times a week. I was struck by the calm, comforting atmosphere of the hospice, which was such a moving experience, and I felt (and still feel, as I still volunteer there to this day) so proud, whilst at the same time so humbled, to be able to help in a small way.

My application was sent off, and I was ecstatic to receive interviews at all four of my choices. One by one, as the cold, dark winter dragged on, I went to each interview, desperate to show how passionate I was about becoming a doctor. However, after having spent my whole childhood in the seclusion of home education, the notion of being rotated quickly around a circuit of interview stations and talking about complex issues of current affairs, ethics, social media protocols and others alongside your own reasons for wanting to study medicine, to consultants and academics I’d never met before, felt in many ways to be an even bigger mountain than all the rest. The interview circuits to me remain a blur. I can remember feeling as though I was out of my depth, that they were something I could prepare for better if I had a more realistic idea of what the interview situation was like, and how to talk about the topics confidently. Having felt that the applicants around me were much more used to this situation than I was, I didn’t think I’d ever get that magic offer. A magic offer that started to feel further away again, and even further with each interview that passed.

And so it was that I was not in receipt of any offers. All my friends applying for medicine had received at least one offer - and I was left with nothing. This emptiness is hard to describe. What could I have done differently to get what I so wanted? How could I be like them, those friends with whom I have so much in common and yet got further than I did? I so wanted to get there. That dream was still there, and still burning as brightly as ever. It wasn’t going to die. The fact that I received a letter from Cardiff University saying that I had been close to the offer threshold, and that I had therefore been placed on their waiting list for results day offers, made me determined to keep trying. I resolved to apply again if I had to, and get more and more work experience and interview coaching to do even better the next time if that’s how it had to be.

The months went on. The wait for August was killing. I constantly wanted to stand by the phone all the way until August, to make sure I was there if Cardiff rang with that golden ticket.

Then, one day, my mum came to pick me up from a volunteering shift at St. Oswald’s. “Daniel, you need to email Newcastle as soon as you get in - they say they might have places available if you register your interest!” I rushed in as soon as we got home and replied to said email, thinking it wouldn’t get anywhere. The next day I left for a further Gap Medics placement in Pula, Croatia, where I watched complex orthopaedic surgeries in a non-air-conditioned operating theatre, in 30+ degrees heat; beads of sweat running down the surgeons’ foreheads as the epic operations ticked on, hour after hour. They seemed fixated on one goal: to cure the patient. Nothing else mattered. A metaphor for my pursuit of my ambition perhaps? Maybe. I so, so wanted to be given the chance to make patients better, just like they were doing.

And then came the night I will never forget.

It was Friday, July 7th, 2017. My dad’s birthday. By this point my mum, dad and sister had joined me in Pula for a holiday of their own for a few days. My week’s placement had finished, and I left the Gap Medics house to join my family at the hotel. After dinner, we took a taxi back to the hotel, as the light was fading. We climbed the stairs to reception. The receptionist said “Come down in half an hour, and be seated in the restaurant.” That was all. “Maybe they’ve seen on your passport that it’s your birthday?” said Mum to Dad. Though I had this feeling, this sensation, this gut instinct deep down, that something big, something significant was going to happen. Out came the waiter with the most magnificent tiered birthday cake, with dad’s name iced on it; decorations all over. Click-click, click-click went our cameras as we captured that special moment, and then we all set to work to consume this incredible creation. “That was pretty special, wasn’t it”, said Dad, and we all agreed. Up we went to our room. I sat down randomly on the sofa… and, in the most bizarrely blasé fashion, the very next thing Dad says is this: “Oh, by the way, there’s this email saying you’ve got an offer from Newcastle…”

My heart stood still. I catch my breath. It’s a moment I can hardly put into words. It must have been like what Andy Murray must have felt when winning the 2013 Wimbledon final, as Novak Djokovic’s very last shot hit the net: “Smack", and he realised that he’d done the unthinkable. This time it was my mum who screamed and cried. My dad later said he was blasé since he thought it wasn’t actually an official offer, but when he realised it was, he couldn’t even sleep that night.

I’d done it. I was going to be a doctor. A moment you know you’re going to remember and treasure for the rest of your life. I promised myself not to let Newcastle down. I mouthed promises to myself that I’d look after all my future patients and treat them as well as I could. I posted the news on Facebook, and the first to react, with a love-heart reaction, was my best friend I’d met in Poland. “Celebratory meal at The Bake One in Gosforth when you get back?” he texted shortly afterwards. “You bet”, I replied with a smiley face. All that hard work, all those placements, all that wondering whether I’d get in or not, all those shots seemingly into the dark, had been worth it in the end. Would I go through it again? Yes. One hundred per cent.

And that is the story of how I applied to medical school! I hope it will be useful especially for those who may have similar dreams and ambitions of doing medicine and becoming a doctor, and feel that the application process is complicated, or perhaps that they may not have the “right sort of background” to be successful at getting in. Anyone can apply, anyone can aim for it if it’s their dream. My advice would be never let anyone else tell you not to do it, and just don’t give up. If you feel that medicine’s genuinely what you can see yourself doing the most, go out there and aim for what you know you love. As Ellie Goulding said in one of her songs, you’ve got that fire, fire, fire, and you’ve gotta let it burn, burn, burn.

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