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Going to medical school is the dream of many, but it can also be daunting when the invitation for an interview arrives. Trying to stay ahead of the pack, Dr Christopher See did something unconventional a month before his interview with Cambridge University about 12 years ago.

"I talked to people randomly," See says. "I'd go up to people in a coffee shop and say: 'Hi, I'm preparing for an interview, and I'd love you to listen to why I want to study medicine.' I was looking very nervous, and people probably thought I was a salesman. Some people were understanding, but I also had people saying: 'No, go away!' That was a painful experience. But in an interview, people wouldn't be like that, so I had actually experienced the worst thing before the interview. That was quite good."

There's a delicate balance between selling yourself and overselling yourself

Dr Christopher See

He also read books on the school's reading list, writing a short summary for each chapter. The night before the interview, when anxiety was at fever pitch, he relaxed by watching a thriller film he had seen before, just to be entertained without the mind being stimulated by new elements.

All these efforts, together with his good grades, eventually won him a place at Trinity College of Cambridge - and ultimately a rewarding career in the medical profession.

Between 2002 and 2011, the number of local students who each obtained their first degree from British medical schools more than doubled, from 130 to 295, according to the Higher Education Statistics Agency in Britain. Locally, more than 1,000 students applied to medical school at Chinese University and University of Hong Kong this year after the release of the Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education exam results.

In admissions interviews, students are expected to explain their motivation and expectations for being a doctor, have general knowledge about the merits and flaws of the local health care system, and opinions on moral and ethical issues, says Professor Winnie Chu, assistant dean (external affairs) of Chinese University's faculty of medicine.

See, now teaching medicine at HKU as a PhD candidate, spoke at a recent British Council talk on studying medicine in Britain. He advised students to focus on identifying institutions that suit them.

"One key problem is that some people just want to go to a good university. But there are many different medical schools and what they want may be quite different," he says. "People who feel their grades are good enough may not be the strongest candidates for a school which puts more weight on soft skills that involve communication and even resilience. Of course, both these skills and [good grades] are required. It's just that the proportion may be a bit different for each school."

One tip from the doctor, who has written several books on university admissions including How to Get Into Medical School and Succeed in Your Medical School Interview, may offer some reassurance for the growing batch of Hong Kong youngsters who aspire to study medicine in Britain. In this regard, See suggests talking to people in the know and doing online research. "The statement on the University College of London website, for example, says it's an excellent research institution and its teachings are based on medical sciences. This implies it's very academic-focused. Just from the way it puts things, you can get a feel for its focus," he says.

One area in which applicants can easily go wrong, See says, is the personal statement. "There's a delicate balance between selling yourself and overselling yourself. Some people may hard-sell themselves and come across as quite arrogant. There's a cultural context here. If you apply to an American medical school, you would sell yourself quite differently. With a British school, being on the humbler side won't hurt you," he says.

To be sure, good academic results play an important part, and the bar tends to be higher for international students, even though that is not explicitly stated on paper, says See. "There's a huge demand from overseas and limited places for international students. Realistically, international students are expected to have very good grades," he adds.

Once a candidate ticks all the boxes on the academic front and is invited to an interview, that is when the big challenge comes. Generally, there are two types of interviews. For the traditional type, several panellists interview one candidate. The other is MMI, or multiple mini-interview, in which interviewees rotate through various stations, each with its own interview scenario, which may involve tackling a task such as verbally guiding a person to tie shoelaces.

"The interview part is highly important," See says. "Academic results are not a great discriminator. You are unlikely to go beyond five As, so you are left with things like an interview, which has a bit more movement, and it's almost the only area where you'll get yourself ahead of or behind others. There's an urban myth that you can't prepare for interviews, but I believe there's a lot you can do. Read broadly, work with other students and go to parties. This may be strange advice, but also good advice."


Win admission with these tips

In applying to universities overseas, writing a personal statement is a crucial task that may determine success or failure, says Nick Strong, director for international and external affairs of Aberystwyth University in Wales.

To write a winning statement, students should start by looking at what kind of experience a university is asking for. Strong says the bulk of the statement should be relevant to the applied subject and the applicant's career aspirations. It should flow well, be well-structured and an interesting read. It should also show one's enthusiasm for the subject, although the word "passion" should be avoided because it is a cliché, Strong says.

Starting the personal statement with a quotation is a common mistake. "It can make the applicant look pompous or pretentious, and often leads to embarrassment if the applicant is asked to expand his knowledge of the [quotation]," he says. Other faux pas include not using the quota of words allowed, plagiarism and indicating a preference for one university over another, which may make the applicant look not serious about his choice.

"Finally, they should try to reflect their own individual character," Strong says. "Do they want to give a sense that they are creative, reflective, disciplined or assiduous? If applicants can do all this, they will stand a very good chance of success."


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