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Things you can do to prepare for specialty training applications whilst still at medical school

By Faheem Bhatti

After medical school in the UK, doctors embark on two years of foundation training. Following this, doctors can opt to do further years as a foundation doctor, the so-called ‘F3’ and ‘F4’ etc or apply for specialty training.

Specialty training is the training programme whereby a doctor becomes fully qualified in a particular specialty of their interest. Training can range in length from as short as 3 years, to become a fully qualified general practitioner (GP), to over 8 years for some surgical and medical subspecialties.

In order to get a specialty training ‘job’ or ‘number’ an application process is involved. Each specialty has its own, slightly different, application process. In general, these can involve any of the following: assessment of portfolio (a collection of your achievements across education, teaching, research, audit and your commitment to that specialty), postgraduate exams and interviews. Obtaining a place on a specialty training programme is a competitive process and ratios of applicants to places have been rising over the past few years.

Whilst this can appear daunting and a long way ahead in the future, there are several manageable steps you can take to put yourself in the best position to get onto the specialty training pathway of your choice. In this blog series we’ll be demystifying the application processes for different specialties and sharing our tips for things you can do whilst you are still at medical school!

This week we’ll discuss some general tips for the process!

1. Don’t worry if you don’t know exactly what you want to do!

Whilst some people know exactly what specialty they want to pursue from day one of medical school, many students don’t, and this is completely fine! Even if you aren’t sure what you want to do, you can still take steps to prepare for this future hurdle as many aspects of the application process are common between specialties. By selectively choosing activities to get involved in, you can prepare for multiple options simultaneously.

2. Start early!

Many specialties have a point-based scoring system for your portfolio. You can score a lot of points by getting involved in activities whilst you are still a medical student. In fact, it can be easier to set aside time for projects as a student compared to when you’re a doctor and busy with on-call and night shifts! Our top tip would be to start by scouting out the documents published on the details of the application process for the specialties that you are interested in to identify what they assess. You can then plan out how to most efficiently address these points. At first it can be overwhelming to see the breadth of activities that they assess, however by starting when you’re still at medical school, you’ll buy yourself more time, allowing you to spread them out in a manageable manner.

3. Collaborate

Whilst the application is a competitive process this doesn’t mean that you can’t work together! By finding people interested in the same specialties as you, whether that be on your placements at medical school or on forums such as the WPMN forum, you’ll be able to support each other in preparing your applications. For example, if you and a friend are both involved in research projects, it’s a great idea to help each other out. This way you both gain exposure to more projects, learn more skills and help each other with the workload. Similarly, attending courses or conferences is much more fun in a group than alone!

4. Identify a mentor

It can be very helpful to find someone who has already gone through the application process for the specialty you are interested in. This may be someone you encounter whilst on placement, elective or through other research and teaching projects that you are involved in. By having a mentor you’ll have someone who can guide you on which activities to get involved in, alert you to opportunities you weren’t aware of and someone to ask questions to.

Check out the WPMN website for our Doctor Representatives who will be more than happy for you to contact them and can give you further advice on a particular specialty ( The connections you make whilst you are at medical school can be invaluable and who knows, you may even go on to working with the same people later in your career!

5. Funding

Several aspects of the specialty application process can be costly, whether that be interview or exam preparation courses, additional qualifications such as the post graduate certification in medical education or even courses and conferences. There are several things you can do to try and ease this burden. Firstly, look out for free alternatives, for example the National Catheter Education Programme is a free course that is available to all and is a great addition to your portfolio. Similarly, there are many free educational webinars which guide you on how best to prepare for interviews and exams. Secondly, make the most of the reduced rates you have access to as a student. Many conferences and courses are significantly cheaper to attend as a student than as a doctor and count the same towards your portfolio. Thirdly, as a student you may be eligible for funding from your university or organisations such as the Royal Colleges. Keep an eye out for any schemes available to you and make the most of the financial support on offer whilst you can!

6. Keep your receipts!

You’ll be surprised how many of the activities you’re involved in at medical school can score you points for your specialty applications. It’s extremely important to keep any evidence you have of your achievements, whether this is in the form of emails from supervisors or certificates. For example, if you’ve already done your medical elective, you were likely signed off by a consultant. You can go one step further and draft a letter for them to sign to use as evidence of attending a medical elective and demonstrating your commitment to that specialty. To boost your chances of getting your supervisors to sign such letters, try to draft a copy yourself so they only need to make some small edits and add a signature! We advise starting a portfolio folder early on, so you have all these documents safely in one place.

7. Enjoy the process

These applications can require a lot of work however it's important to keep the bigger picture in mind to avoid feeling burned out. Remember there’s no rush with these applications and you don’t necessarily need to score full marks on every single category to get in! Furthermore, it’s completely fine to take an F3 or F4 etc to give yourself more time to complete these activities! Another top tip would be to try to find activities which you 1) enjoy and 2) also benefit your applications. For example, if you need to find a leadership or management position, look for committees which you have a genuine interest in; the same applies when choosing research projects, teaching schemes and audits.

8. Follow our upcoming posts

Over the coming weeks we’ll be releasing a series of blog posts focussing on one specialty at a time, outlining the application process and providing suggestions on things you can do now, whilst you are still a medical student to get ahead of the game!

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