It Ain’t Over ‘Til It’s Over

21 Aug

I’d guess that for the people whose A-level results came out on Thursday, the dust is beginning to settle.

For some, it’ll have meant waking up with a celebratory hangover. If that’s you, my heartiest congratulations. The only thing you need to do now is to enjoy the last few weeks of your summer holidays, let yourself get excited about what comes next, and not argue with your parents when they try to stock you up with bedsheets and twenty pence pieces and a month’s worth of groceries (trust me, you’ll be grateful for it).

For others, there will have been tears. There are many, many options open to people who didn’t make their conditional grades — re-sits and graduate entry, to name the most popular, and what’s right for one person might very well not be right for another. But when I got my A-level results, six years ago, I was in the tearful group, and to you, I offer this story.


(Note: A number of readers may have seen this story before. It was one of the first things I posted, back in August 2007. It disappeared with the reboot of my blog, earlier this year, and this week felt like an opportunie time to put it back up.)

I’ve submitted three separate UCAS forms with twelve applications to ten different UK medical schools. I’ve sat the MSAT and the GAMSAT and the BMAT and the UKCAT. I’ve had nine interviews, clocking up hundreds of miles and a gallon of GNER coffee en route. I’ve spent my summer holidays bringing up the tail end of ward rounds and sitting in clinics with doctors who’d had the misfortune of getting stuck with the work experience girl. I’ve learned many things since I clicked ‘send’ on that first application in my final year of sixth form, and the most important is that getting into medical school might be about the grades and the experience and the interview, but it’s also about wanting it enough and being pig-headed enough to keep going even when it feels as though it might never happen.

In the 2002/2003 application cycle, I received conditional offers of ABBB from St George’s and ABB from Kings. I was shitting myself an appropriate amount when I headed into school on A-level results day, but in spite of being nervous, in spite of knowing that my synoptic Physics paper belonged in the Edexcel Bloopers Hall of Fame, the idea that I would ever end up with anything less than exactly what I needed had never occurred to me. I was eighteen, you see, and therefore invincible. I don’t remember opening the envelope or exactly what went through my head when I saw my grades (although I do remember, with startling clarity, the look of utter panic on my form tutor’s face as I proceeded to thoroughly fall apart on him), but I know that I knew that BCCC was not going to get me into a UK medical school. I also know that I rang both Kings and St George’s, just to check, and that they very politely didn’t laugh.

The first thing I did was get on the phone to the Czech Republic. In addition to the two places I’d had through UCAS, there was an offer on the table from Charles University in Prague, and in that first half hour of not knowing which way was up, I rang the admissions office and accepted it, but I later called them back and unaccepted my acceptance. I might have been eighteen and invincible, but part of me realised that Prague was just too far from Newcastle and that maybe I was going to have enough challenges without throwing in the additional complication of a new culture and a new language. It was the right decision; I would go on to meet hundreds of international students and realise that I would never have handled it with anything like the grace that most of them did. I also turned down an offer from my school to stick around for a year and do resits, knowing that I’d be miserable and that in any case I would have trouble pulling those grades up to straight As. So, having not had the sense to use one of my spare places in UCAS to apply for something else, I took what seemed to be the only option left to me and I entered Clearing.

For the uninitiated, Clearing is like a rugby scrimmage with more paperwork. I spent two days on the phone. Kings had offered me a place on biomedical sciences almost in the same breath as they’d told me that my offer to do medicine had been rescinded, but, since at that point I had been planning to move to the other side of Europe, I refused it on the spot and I wasn’t surprised to find that all of their biomed places had been filled by the time I called them back. I got a tentative offer for biomed from St George’s, but they wanted to re-interview me and I turned them down because I was worried that I would be rejected and that everywhere else would have filled their places by then (and I would later discover a handful of institutions that had filled their places just in the time it took me to make that decision). I reluctantly called Durham, a university that seemed too close to home and too cliquey and wanted to send me to the middle of nowhere for my degree. I did it because my best friend, who performed a hundred miracles that week, dialled the phone and put it in my hand. I still don’t know what made me agree to their offer, but it was an impulse that I’ve never regretted.

I went to Durham with the intention of getting my degree, not getting noticed by anyone, not embarrassing myself, and getting out. I had no expectations other than that I would be able to use it as an alternative route into medical school. I couldn’t have predicted how much I would come to love it, or how different a person I would be when I left. As an A-level student, I’d regarded science as a necessary evil and was prepared for a degree in biomedical sciences to be more of the same. I was taken completely by surprise. It was interesting, and it was exciting, and I was having fun with it. It sucked sometimes, too, like spending an entire Saturday in a library with a case history and a set of lab values and a precariously stacked pile of books that all added up to a disease that did not appear to exist, but, on the whole, the good days outweighed the bad days, and even the bad days weren’t so bad, not when they ended with the satisfaction of everything finally clicking into place. By the end of my three years, I had turned into a scientist.

And then there were all the things I learned that had nothing to do with biomed. I grew up, I worked out how to function as an independent human being, and I learned who I was and who I wanted to be. Those are things that are worth more than any degree.

It wasn’t planned… but I wouldn’t change it for the world.

At the beginning of third year, I submitted a second application through UCAS, and, by April, I had been summarily rejected by all four of the medical schools that I’d applied to. I put it to one side and got on with the business of getting through finals, and graduated from Durham with an upper second class honours before disappearing for a month of travelling across America. When I landed back in the UK, it was to a room at my parents house, a desk job in public transport admin, and yet another UCAS form.

A few days before Christmas, Kings turned me down for the third and final time. I was shattered and my faith was starting to wane.

I was interviewed at Glasgow on an exceptionally windy day. A complicated story involving trees on the line, the wrong kind of snow on the line, and power cables on the line meant that my journey was delayed and then rerouted. A series of frantic phone calls to the admissions office were made, and, in the end, I arrived with three minutes to spare and had no time to get nervous. Unsurprisingly, I have no coherent picture of it in my head. I remember being asked about my dissertation and recent developments in medicine and why I had chosen to ‘leave’ biomed, and that we digressed at one point into a conversation about Sebastian Faulks. I had no idea of how it had gone and I had months to wait for a decision. I logged onto UCAS Track at 7.10am on the morning of March 15th 2007 to see that my status at the University of Glasgow had changed from a blank space to my favourite word in the English language — unconditional. I screamed the house down.

It had taken five years, but I was going to be a medical student.

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Posted by on August 21, 2009 in Blog, Medicine


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