The transition from A Levels to Medical School

By Safiya Zaloum

Medical school is quite different from A levels. There are many unique challenges that medicine presents compared to other courses, as it is structured quite differently. It is aimed at transforming you into a doctor after 5 or 6 years! At first, it can feel like a big step up, but once you have settled into a new way of working, it is incredibly enjoyable.


Medicine is totally different from A levels


The amount of content in medicine is sometimes compared by first years to 20 GCSEs all in one year! It is a LOT of content to learn and unlike A levels, often a topic is covered once and then not revisited again. Lectures are very different to classes at A level as there isn’t a teacher who checks that everyone is following okay; the lecturer will deliver the lecture at their own pace and perhaps stay for some questions after. Often there is a lot of memorisation rather than grappling with concepts. Although understanding the major points is essential so that you can apply what you have learned to clinical scenarios. It will always feel like there is too much to learn, so prioritising learning broad concepts and then the finer detail is a key skill you will develop over time.


Self directed learning and labs


It is really up to you to stay on track and do the work. It is rare for your attendance to be checked at lectures, although it is very advisable to go to all of them, and there are online learning tools that you need to do. Going to the lectures is great but it is up to you to really learn the content before your exam. It is best to do little and often to avoid getting overwhelmed around exam time. You need to look ahead and be motivated to stay on top of things.


Labs are also something that was new to me. Anatomy is very self directed with the responsibility of asking the tutors questions totally on you. A lot of teaching at medical school is great, but only if you are proactive and make the most out of it. We also have physiology labs where we do experiments, kind of like at school! Clinical skills teaching is really fun as you get to practise the examination you are learning on your peers. I remember being very nervous about getting it wrong at the start but throughout the year as we became friends as a group, we really helped each other pick up the right techniques! It is a comfortable environment to learn how to do practical examinations whilst giving you a taster of what is to come in clinical years.


Photograph of the Blizard BuildingPBL


At Barts twice a week we have problem based learning. This is where a group of about 8 students work through a scenario, creating your own objectives under the guidance of a facilitator. This often relates to what you have been learning in lectures. The next session you feedback to your group and learn from each other. This is much more active and requires participation in every session! I think it is really useful to learn from your peers and the scenarios are often clinical ones so you have a chance to apply what you have been learning about.


Studying and revising with your peers makes medical school much more enjoyable. You may have already done this at A level but especially when exams are coming up, practising clinical skills together or testing each other is one of the best revision techniques.




Picture of a GP taking medical notesIn first year, medical students at Barts and the London have placements at GPs once a fortnight. This is where we get to meet patients and see how the conditions we have been learning about affect people in real life, and how doctors treat medical conditions in the community. This experiential type of learning –  learning through experience or observation –  is totally different to anything I had done before, but is brilliant for putting all of the theory into context.


Living away from home


Not everyone lives away from home when they come to university but many people do live in halls for the first year. This is usually university accommodation where you live with other first years. Living away from home for the first time can be daunting, and managing your time can be challenging if you haven’t had to cook your meals or do your laundry completely by yourself before. However, with good time-management skills and some advice from friends and family you can settle into a routine quickly.


Living away from home also means being away from all of your school friends and family. This can be really hard but calling your loved ones regularly, especially at the beginning can really help. Once you start meeting people at university and joining clubs/ societies you’ll find like minded people who will soon become friends. After the first term it will probably feel like you’ve known your university friends for way more than just a few months! Barts is so friendly and like a big family – there is plenty of support if you need or want it.


Medical school is a big adjustment from A levels, but once you get used to the new way of learning and the style of the course it is incredibly enjoyable!