MD,  Pre-Med,  School & Life Balance

Guest Blog: A MS3’s Take On How to Prepare for the Australian Medical School System

Hello, my name is Steph, and I’m a 3rd year medical student. By now, that sentence flows off my tongue countless times per day. People react certain ways when hearing someone studies medicine, but the reality is that I am no different from anyone else. I have been incredibly blessed; my parents are accountants and administrators who worked incredibly hard to provide my sister and I a fantastic education and opportunities in music and sport. I am just a kid from Perth, Australia who dreamed and applied for a big medical school a 5-hour costly flight from home. I love to read, I go to the church and the gym, I have taught swimming for the past 6 years, I love my pets, and I used to compete in triathlon.

Australian medical schools are divided into undergraduate schools (5-6 year program) and post-graduate schools (4 year MD). We do not wear white coats, so instead, our stethoscope is our “doctor” symbol. We follow the calendar year: kicking off in January and heading through to November/December. Instead of a MCAT entrance exam it is called a GAMSAT. We don’t have the Step exams, and there is no substitute for the USLME Step 1. My school is a pass/fail assessment structure.  Our government funds our degrees, and we pay back the interest free loan when we earn over a certain threshold. We do not match after medical school. Post medical school, you will spend at least 1 year rotating through specialties (with compulsory emergency and medical rotations) before then applying for specialty training programs.

For all these differences to other countries, an MD is an MD. Everyone knows medical school consists of a lot of lectures, labs and countless exams (that do not end when school is finished either). My school incorporates at least 1 clinical day a week at hospital during the first 2 years, which has transformed my experience in medicine. 

Steph in proper dresswear for the surgical theatre during her first year as a medical student.

“You learn to find the ways to cope with the worst situations.”

In medicine, you can smile and laugh with people despite everyone in the room knowing they have a few weeks left to live. You walk alongside the child on riding a tricycle with chest drains and lines everywhere following open heart surgery 3 days ago. You brainstorm ideas with the consultant and patient to find community exercise options to control their diabetes post-liver transplant. You want to burst into tears as someone with a life-threatening internal tumour cannot access public surgery but also cannot afford private health insurance. You see the difference a government-funded monoclonal antibody can make to someone suffering from rheumatoid arthritis. You chat with kids with Type 1 diabetes to whom a funded measuring device has allowed them freedom from fear. You see the lungs rise and fall during cardiac surgery. You chat to a young woman with stage 4 metastatic breast cancer who only wants a few more days at home to cook for her kids.  You experience the highs such as connecting with patients, getting a cannula in, performing a procedure, knowing the right diagnosis and treatment, and observing the skills of consultants.

You learn to find the ways to cope with the worst situations. You see kids that went to school and will never go home after freak accidents and failed resuscitation. You watch the Emergency Department team work to save a person shot by police after he was threatening to stab the staff and patients. You are constantly learning not just the science, but about the impossible situations some people are in, the limited health care budget and the social situations we can not fix. Medicine is not black and white, but it is every shade of grey possible. It goes past the textbooks, lecture slides or histology slides. It is about real people’s lives.

Everyone has a story of how they got into medicine. Mine is long and contains many speed-humps. I cannot explain how someone gets an offer over another or what determines what school you get sent too. I do however have three things I wish I had known six years ago when this all started…

There’s no rush. Seriously. There will be speed bumps.

I did not plan on going into medicine until Year 12. Unfortunately, the same motor vehicle accident that pushed me towards medicine also forced me to miss 1/3 of the year of which I have no memory of. I did not gain admission into medicine straight from school but instead signed up to a university in my home town Perth and got a Bachelor in Sports Science, Exercise and Health.

It took a further four years, two GAMSAT exams, and a long admission cycle to get into medicine. I had to repeat a semester during undergraduate and took further time off after yet another car accident and head injury. Despite this, I am still one of the youngest in the course with people ranging from 20s-40s. There are engineers, architects, teachers, musicians, writers, people with PhD’s in immunology and everything in between. This diversity is what adds richness to the medical school experience and doctors of the future. It is not a race to get in, despite how the competitive it is.

In a competitive environment, it feels like the world will end if you do not go from school to college to med school but in reality, it is not like that.

Game the system. Know the application process, identify your strengths and target the schools that suit them.

It would take an entire blog post to explain the Australian medical postgraduate entrance system. The short version is there are 11 schools and 9 use a streamlined entrance path which minimizes the cost of applying. You rank schools, get 1 interview and 1 offer. Then there are 2 other schools you can apply to separately.

The catch is every school uses a different combination of GPA, GAMSAT, personal statement, portfolio, rural ranking and interview score to offer interviews and medical school places. A small amount of research at the start of the process will pay dividends later on. I hadn’t even considered my school until I got my GAMSAT score back. I had 2 interviews and got rejected by a 3rd university pre-interview. It was a logistical nightmare flying across the country in a plastered foot, but the research and interview preparation payed off in the end.

Know the sacrifices you are willing to take.

I cannot lie and say medical school is easy. I have relocated across country, faced more medical issues, and some days it seems impossible. Sometimes it feels as though it’s been designed purely to add to the stress of your life. It isn’t just medical school you sign up for – it’s internship, specialty training, long hours, limited control over your life and the emotional toll. Each year that passes I become less naïve and realise how much medicine asks of me. To me, it is currently worth it and I’m working to make sure it remains that way throughout my career.

My final advice to you?

Speak to mentors, family members and friends. Do some research and match your passion with some of the reality so you are prepared when you start school.

Most importantly, enjoy the journey. If you continue in medicine, there will always be more training, another exam and more things to achieve. As Alfred Souza states: “Happiness is a journey, not a destination”.   

Now almost through med school, Steph counts down to her internship where she may choose ICU, anaesthetics, or paediatric cardiology. Outside of the medicine, you'll find Steph at church or the gym. She enjoys prioritizing time for her incredible family and friends. From small Perth to big Sydney, Steph recommends any trainee to experience something new. Kindness will never cost you anything, but it can make the world of difference for someone else.

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