Just what the doctor ordered! Oxbridge students' prescription for success for NI teenagers applying to study medicine
From fellow students who try to psyche you out to making a good first impression, Molly Gilmartin and Rachel Flynn tell Stephanie Bell why their new course will help would-be medics improve their chances
Two Oxbridge medical students are on a mission to help Ulster's brightest kids secure careers in medicine. Oxford's Molly Gilmartin (20), from Belfast, and Cambridge's Rachel Flynn (22), from Newry, are so appalled by the large numbers of students with top grades from Northern Ireland being turned down for medical courses at UK universities that they decided to try and do something about it.
The girls believe that students in the rest of the UK are securing places ahead of brighter kids from Northern Ireland simply because they are better prepared.
And this lack of help in preparing for the daunting application process is having a knock-on effect on self-confidence, which the girls say is also putting our students at a disadvantage.
The girls have launched Applican – a two day "insiders" coaching course which they believe will give young people here an equal chance of competing for places alongside their English counterparts.
There is no doubt that competition is fierce – in 2012, 82,489 young people applied for 7,805 medical course places, which works out at 10.6 people vying for each place.
A general survey of Northern Ireland schools suggests that 3 in 4 students who apply for medicine courses fail to secure even one offer and that's despite the fact that our young people regularly top the GCSE and A-level result tables.
And as the girls point out you don't need to be top of the class to see that something is wrong.
"We think we have the answer and we think we can change these statistics through Applican," says Molly, who has just completed her second year at Oxford.
"We have the brightest students yet they are not getting the places and we believe that having been through the process we know why and we want to help.
"We have two more Oxbridge students on board as coaches and by combining our personal experiences we have drawn up two two-day courses covering the application and selection phases.
"We will be offering guidance on selecting the right universities, finalising personal statements, perfecting both traditional and MMI (multiple mini station) interview techniques, appreciating medicine in global current affairs and approaching ethical scenarios."
Rachel, who has just finished her third year of medicine at the University of Cambridge, explains: "We aim to prepare Northern Ireland students to stand out from the crowd and to remove the stigma that Northern Ireland students do not have the inside track about the application process.
"Northern Irish students seem to have the attitude 'I will apply but probably won't get in', whereas English students think 'I will apply and probably get it' and that's wrong and we want to change that."
Rachel, who studied at Sacred Heart School in Newry, where she secured four A stars in her A-level Maths, Physics, Chemistry and Music, says her choice of medicine as a career was something of a surprise as no one in her family is in the profession.
Her parents are in research and management while her older sister is studying for a Masters Degree in Opera and her older brother is a civil servant.
She explains: "There are no medics in my family at all. From a very young age I wanted to be a vet and then I thought about law.
"But I like science and I do a lot of drama and music and really like people so I decided on medicine which combines both. I knew as soon as I started the course that I was doing the right thing and I haven't looked back."
Describing the university application process as "like throwing a ball into a dark room", she says: "I had absolutely no idea what I was doing and I know it sounds awful but often teachers don't have a clue about it either.
"There were seven or eight students in my year who applied to university to study medicine and I was the only one lucky enough to get offered a place. The rest were really capable students and all had top grades.
"When you apply you don't know what you are up against or the calibre of the other students."
Rachel was stunned to discover when she started Cambridge that English students are groomed to decide and prepare from the age of 11 or 12 if they are aiming to apply for Oxford or Cambridge.
In Northern Ireland teenagers usually start to think about their choice of university when doing their A-levels.
She says: "It's a cultural thing that is totally ingrained in these schools across the water and yet it's not even broached here. It wasn't until sixth year that I started to consider what university course I wanted to do.
"I think we need to be helping students decide much earlier, maybe when they are 15 or 16."
Like many people, Rachel admits she viewed Oxford and Cambridge as the reserve of the very rich where only posh kids and the very elite are accepted.
Having spent three years there, though, she has discovered the reality is very different.
"I think there is a perception that Oxford and Cambridge are slightly out of reach for people in Northern Ireland and I think that is really unfortunate.
"When you do go over you discover they are just normal people. People are a bit intimidated when you say you go to Cambridge but it's a mindset and that's what we are trying to do; we are trying to show young people here that they are good enough to apply. Everyone deserves a chance to get the best education in the world and we want to even the playing field so that our young people have an equal chance."
The young women are absolutely convinced that their carefully thought out course will give young people the edge in choosing the right university for their particular skills, filling in the application form so that it makes the right impression and preparing them for many of the different interview scenarios.
Molly, who lives in Belfast and has two younger sisters, says she always had a passion for medicine and a fascination for science.
A former pupil of Victoria College, she also got four A stars in her A-levels in the subjects of Chemistry, Physics, Biology and Maths.
While on the train en route to Oxford for her interview she had her first experience of just how different the preparation for English students is.
She recalls: "There was a boy sitting opposite me on the train holding a massive book on neuro anthropology and it was obvious he was going where I was going.
"That's typical of the confidence they have in England. The book was about intimidating the other students waiting for interview. They try to psyche you out and get into your head when you are sitting outside the interview room.
"I didn't actually study neuro anthropology until my second year and it is just one of the tactics they would use to try and make you doubt yourself."
To Molly, it's simple. Our students are not securing places because something is happening between the application and selection process.
She and her friends believe this is a lack of coaching which English children take for granted, as well as a lack of confidence.
With Applican they aim to try and bridge this gap.
She says: "Some people struggle with the application and lots of different schools have different application forms looking for different qualities and we aim to cover as much of this as possible on he course.
"The personal statement aspect of it is often crucial to getting an interview. I heard one tutor at Oxford say that he can decide from the first line of a personal statement whether or not he is going to grant the person an interview.
"The personal statement is a way to stand out from the crowd and the part of the application which most people really struggle with."
Interview styles and technique also vary widely from university to university and the girls aim to coach course participants on as many of these as possible.
They will have a large TV screen showing mock interviews during the course to give students an idea of what they might expect and how best to perform.
Between Molly and Rachel and their two coaches, they applied for a total of 10 different universities, giving them wide experience of the different techniques. It's that insight they hope they hope to bring to the course.
The four of them also sat a good number of the many medical entrance tests required which they will also be able to provide an insight to.
Molly says: "It definitely gives you the advantage if you can get an idea of the inside track from someone who has done it.
"The unknown aspects are what causes the most stress and stress is not beneficial to helping people make the best impression.
"If three in four people applying for medicine are not getting in even though they are top calibre it is obvious something is wrong and we feel that fear and lack of self-belief is proving detrimental to the process.
"It's not luck, it's preparation and some people do need a bit of help. I lacked a lot of confidence when I was applying and it is only when I got in and met the other students that I realised that I did not have as much to fear as I thought.
"I think the more advice you get the more confidence you will have. We just felt that because English students are better prepared and more confident that we could actually make a difference here and help give young people in Northern Ireland a good shot at it," she adds.
"It's not about ability it's about getting the right advice and having confidence."
Helping students identify and select the right course to suit their skills is another important aspect of Applican.
The girls have deliberately kept costs low to make the course accessible. A similar UK course can cost £55 for three hours while the Applican two-day course is priced at £67.
Molly adds: "This isn't about making money but about helping young people. We feel so passionate about it.
"After the course every student will have one of our phone numbers and be entitled to a one-hour chat to answer any questions or go over any hurdles they discover when doing their application."
And a final word from Rachel: "We believe in the huge potential that the young people of Northern Ireland hold and refuse to watch them be put at a disadvantage due to a simple lack of access to the same resources as other students in the UK.
"Gone are the days where Northern Irish students will be appli-CAN'Ts, they deserve to be appli-CANs."