SUMMER is not only the time for going to the beach; it is also the time thousands of Australians try to slot into a university course.
For school leavers, university entry depends on the Australian Tertiary Admissions Rank (ATAR). As with other exams throughout school (eg, the National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy, or NAPLAN), some hold the view that the ATAR has become too much of the focus for students, schools and families; instead of seeking a well rounded education, they seek a big ATAR. One journalist has referred to it as “worshipping at the altar of ATAR”.
Thousands of ATAR worshippers have a very concrete goal in mind: medical school.
Nowadays, a high ATAR no longer suffices to qualify for medical school. Undergraduate courses require an Undergraduate Medicine and Health Sciences Admission Test (UMAT) and the post-graduate courses set the Graduate Australian Medical Schools Admission Test (GAMSAT) as one of their prerequisites. Every year, over 10 000 Australians sit one or both of these exams, competing for about 3000 university places.
The merits of undergraduate versus post-graduate courses may be a topic for a future article, but effectively, the process for entry into either course mode is made up of the same three components:
- an academic qualification – ATAR for undergraduates, a degree for post-graduates;
- an entry exam – UMAT for undergraduates, GAMSAT for post-graduates; and
- an interview.
There are a few special entry programs, but the numbers are small (eg, the University of Sydney’s combined program).
Having had four boys pass through high school in the past decade and having hosted scores of medical students in Coonabarabran, the topic of medical school entry comes up all the time.
Let me illustrate …
Part 1 of a typical conversation with an ATAR worshipper:
Aniello: Have you thought about what you want to do after Year 12?
ATAR worshipper: Yes. I would like to do medicine.
Aniello: At which university?
ATAR worshipper: If I get a high ATAR, I hope to go to the University of New South Wales (UNSW). I have done the UMAT and hope they give me an interview.
Aniello: And if not?
ATAR worshipper: I will do medical science and sit the GAMSAT a few times until I get a good mark in that and keep applying for medicine until I get in.
That is the path hundreds, and perhaps thousands, undertake and many remain frustrated for years before entering a medical school or finally giving up and choosing another career.
Part 2 of Aniello’s conversation with an ATAR worshipper:
Aniello: Have you thought about going to Newcastle or Armidale instead of UNSW? The entry criteria are not as onerous.
ATAR worshipper: No. I want to go to the University of Sydney or UNSW.
Aniello: What’s wrong with the other programs?
ATAR worshipper: Not as prestigious.
Aniello: And why medical science? Say you don’t get into medicine, what work will medical science let you do?
ATAR worshipper: I will wait until I get into medicine. I will do a Master or PhD while I wait.
Aniello: Why don’t you do something related to medicine first, such as nursing or pharmacy or another allied health discipline. It will give you some practical knowledge that will serve you well in medicine.
At this point the ATAR worshipper has a drop in blood pressure, turns pale and thinks Aniello is an alien life form.
ATAR worshipper: Others have told me to do medical science. That’s what everyone else does.
End of conversation …
The large enrolment of medicine hopefuls in medical science degrees is because of the obvious benefits; they confer basic knowledge in various pre-clinical disciplines, expose students to academics in the medical disciplines and make the subsequent study of medicine easier.
Not studying science before entering medical school does make the medical degree tougher. The students I have known in this situation all admit that they have to work harder and longer to get to the same endpoint.
However, the medical science degrees do not necessarily teach other skills that come in handy during medical school (eg, time management, interpersonal skills, written and verbal expression). This is when those who have had lives in other industries often shine.
Therefore, medicine hopefuls should keep an open mind. Other clinical disciplines (eg, pharmacy, nursing, physiotherapy, veterinary studies) allow both a practical and an academic grounding that other paths to medical school may not. In my mind, it is an under-rated and underutilised path to medical school. It’s my tip for the worshippers.
Dr Aniello Iannuzzi, FACRRM, FRACGP, FARGP, FAICD, is a GP practising in Coonabarabran, NSW, and a clinical associate professor at the University of Sydney.
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