How to Enter Medical School in NZ: A Step-by-Step Guide

How to enter medical school in NZ
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As usual, I’ll be giving you an honest breakdown of how to enter medical school in New Zealand.

Unfortunately, there are countless pieces of bad advice and misinformation floating around out there. It takes only a couple minutes of searching on forums and Facebook to find some pretty bad advice. Most of the time the people giving this advice mean well, but simply lack the experience to know what works and what doesn’t.

JTT has been helping students into medical school for several years. In fact, as an individual, I have more experience than anyone else in New Zealand. I’ve taken people from the middle of high school all the way through to graduating with their medical degree in hand.

It’s important to realise that what works for one person doesn’t necessarily work for someone else. Everyone’s situation is different, but their way of thinking is also different.

Your weaknesses and limitations and barriers might be completely different to the person giving bad advice. So this guide is designed with that in mind. All the advice given in this article is based on what works for most students. Any exceptions are explicitly mentioned.

Of course, I can’t cover every situation so if you’re not sure how relevant it is for you, leave a comment below.

Looking for information on graduate entry? Check out our article here.

Step 0: Know what you want

Before we even get into it, I need to talk about something that is critically important.

Most students are not deciding on their careers in the best way. It is really easy to fall into the trap of thinking that you want something because it feels comfortable and certain. Maybe you get a pat on the back and people commend you for pursuing such a noble path.

But always remember that you are making a decision for your life. Having an open mind and thinking deeply and critically about your choices is a skill that any mature adult needs to develop. It’s much harder to challenge your own ideas and accept the possibility that you may be wrong.

Every year, dozens of students in medical school will message me with doubts about their career decision. Only three, four, five, or even 10 years later did they start really challenging whether this was the right decision for them. Save yourself the lost opportunity of time by thinking through it with a truly open mind. I recommend checking out this video on career decision-making to see how sound your decisions were. If you spot a weakness or a hole, go and fill it first.

Follow me on Youtube at bit.ly/JustinSungYoutube

With that said, let’s move on to step one.

Step 1: Control the Centre

What separates a successful student from the rest?

Yes, there are grades and interviews and applications, but those are just the formalities. What actually makes a difference between someone who is successful and someone who is not?

This is something that I call centre control. It’s something that you will work on for years to come and the earlier you start the better.

Controlling the centre means that you know what you can and cannot influence. Once you know these things, you can start to develop the skills to maximise them.

For example, you can’t control how good your teacher is. You can’t control how you are examined or when your test dates are. You can’t control how loud it is when you’re studying, or how long it takes for you to get home. These are outside of the centre.

What you can control are your study techniques. You can control how you listen in class and the types of notes that you take. You can control how efficient your studying processes and how confident you are with managing your time and taking ownership of your prioritisation and goal setting. These are things that take trial and error and constant experimentation.

It takes time and diligence. Hopefully, if you are reading this right now you have that time.

And importantly, these skills are transferable, while grades are not. You take these skills with you into university to drive your success. Unsuccessful students are vastly under equipped to tackle this challenge.

✋ You may be thinking “I’ve never really tried that hard in high school”. But you need to remember that pre-med is not like your normal classroom. Everyone else in your cohort was in the top 10 or 20% of achievers from their school. You’re competing nationwide and, of these top achievers, only 10% will be entering into medical school at the end of that. Not only that, but most of these people will also be in your shoes, never having tried their hardest through their entire high school life.

You don’t rise to the occasion, you fall to your highest level of preparation.

Chris Voss, FBI hostage negotiator and author

Centre control is a perfect example of this. You don’t want to try and become the person you need to be to achieve that top grade or ace your interview when your test is just around the corner. You want to get all the development out of the way first so that on day one you are already the person that you need to be.

This is especially important when we’re looking at something like medical entry.

University is a much faster pace. You can conceivably cover an entire final year of high school curriculum within the first six weeks of university. Whether you choose to believe me or not doesn’t change the fact that this is what you will encounter. Do you have the time, stress and study management skills to achieve in the top 10% that is required to enter medical school successfully? And has this been tested?

The thing that differentiates a successful student isn’t the grade. The grade is just an outcome of the process.

Successful students have spent time and effort to refine that process and create a system that they know will work. They know that they are in charge of the centre and they know how to control it.

There are two mistakes that the majority of students who fail to enter medical school in their first year will make.

The first mistake is taking too long to ease into the year. They have a high school standard of pace and allow themselves a week or two to get used to the flow of university. Due to the massive volume of university compared to high school, this means that you are on such a back foot that it could be completely unrecoverable. This is dangerous and I would say around 80% of students are fighting an uphill battle due to this avoidable mistake.

The second mistake is that there is a dependency on just learning the academic content instead of what makes the real difference, which is the time, stress and study management skills. This is why for every student in high school, I recommend that you forget about getting all of that tutoring and work on building a robust reliable set of study skills that you know that you can depend on reliably and safely.

Please note: Competitive Edge in this video is an old summer course we ran. It has been replaced with overwhelming success by the far superior Academy.

✋ I frequently have conversations with students who enquire about tutoring. They are falling behind and not understanding the concepts. The thing that they should worry about is why they have fallen behind in the first place. Why are they unable to understand those concepts independently? Why do they need someone to spoonfeed information?

These are red flags and when a student approaches the problem with a fixation on tutoring, I know that they are far less likely to succeed long-term.

Please, for your own sake, believe me when I say that this first step is irrefutably the most important. No matter what happens with the remaining steps, this will be your rate-limiting factor.

I can guarantee it.

Step 2: Medical School Selection – Auckland vs Otago

This is a question I get asked a lot. Which university is best, Auckland or Otago?

The answer is that they are both good and one might be better for different people.

Major University Comparison

The University of Auckland has a less important UCAT and includes an interview. This can be viewed as a positive because the interview and UCAT tend to be strong discriminator of a candidate’s ranking. Because the grades are usually so high, most of the difference is actually not made based on grade points, but on UCAT and interview scores.

The UCAT is a very short and intensive test. It could be argued that the UCAT is more difficult to prepare for, however, in New Zealand, it remains a low hanging fruit. Compared to Australia and the UK, students in New Zealand tend to score much lower on the UCAT. This may be because most students don’t prepare for it as much. What this means is that a small to moderate improvement can result in a significant increase in your overall ranking, because other people are not scoring as highly.

Read our extensive breakdown on UCAT here.

On the other hand, the interview is arguably easier to prepare for, especially with our course, and features a similarly large range of results. Because every university’s interview scoring system is different, it’s impossible to say whether New Zealand students have comparatively lower scores, but successful students tend to have interview scores of 200+ out of 240.

The other major advantage of Auckland is that the grades are only counted across four core papers. Three of these four papers are in the first semester. This means that while the first semester is a little bit more stressful, the second semester can be much more relaxed. Obviously, if you don’t do well in the first semester, your second semester can also be quite stressful.

A side-effect benefit is that if you really bomb out on the first semester, you can cut your losses early because you will know whether you have a chance to redeem yourself in the second semester or not.

💡 I should also mention as fringe benefit, our Academy covers about 99% of the content at Auckland, but only around 80 to 90% of Otago content. So if you are thinking of preparing ahead anyway, it’s possible to be extremely prepared using our resources for Auckland, while you would only be moderate to highly prepared for Otago.

In Otago University, the UCAT is not only higher weighted, but it takes the results from your best six papers, across both semesters. The difficulty of the papers is approximately similar in both Auckland and Otago. This means that Otago can be more suited to academic students, while Auckland is more balanced.

Where you live

Another major factor to determine your University choice should be where you want to live and study for the next few years at least. For the first three years of university, Auckland students will be within central Auckland. Your clinical placements will be anywhere from the mid-North Island through to Northland (you have preferences for this).

Otago students are more widely spread with their clinical training spread all across the South Island and the lower North Island. Otago is also much more social and the University life and experience reflects that. Having this type of experience is important for you, Otago is a definite go-to choice.

NZ District Health Boards (Source: https://www.clinicaldata.nzblood.co.nz)

As a doctor who has worked with both Auckland graduates and Otago graduates, I can definitely say that there is no difference in competency between graduates. Both universities can produce excellent doctors, and both universities can produce absolute flops.

University Entrance

Once you’ve decided on your preferred University, find the rank scores you need and make sure you hit those during high school. At this point me remind you about step one.

We go into this a little bit more now in-depth article on university entrance at Auckland here.

Please get official information such as rank scores from the University website directly at all times. This is incredibly important as there are been many times in the past where third-party information (even those given in large official-looking seminars) has been outdated and led students astray.

Step 3: The Premed Year

If you are studying in Auckland, there are three things you need to do well in: grades, UCAT and interview. If you are in Otago, you only need to worry about grades and UCAT.

Remember this isn’t always a good thing because your interview could be an opportunity to differentiate yourself even more.

Regardless of which university you are studying at, your success this year will be determined by a few factors:

  1. Stress management
  2. Studying efficiency
  3. Self-drive
  4. Level of preparation

These factors are listed in order of importance.

Stress management

This is usually overlooked by most students.

Stress cuts at the knees. It means that no matter how good everything else is if the stress is too much, everything else will crumble away. Over the years I’ve been involved with assisting thousands of students and while more emotionally in tune and open students are more likely to seek help and overcome stress-related challenges, all students are at risk of burnout.

Because stress has the ability to completely undermine every single aspect of your year, it takes the definitive number one most important factor at determining success in medical entry.

Studying efficiency

As I’ve mentioned, the volume of content at university is much higher than at high school. It is at least four times more than the final year of high school. To make it even harder, the standard you need to reach for an A+ is above what would be required for an outstanding scholarship.

In other words, getting three A+’s in first semester it is something like achieving three outstanding scholarships after just two or three months of studying.

This article outlines the grades required for medical entry. It is made for Auckland but is roughly similar for Otago.

Obviously, to achieve this academic level, there is a very high studying efficiency required. This is because studying twice as hard does not create a double result. As you study for longer per day, your efficiency reduces. Therefore, with the current system that might be barely scraping an excellence or scholarship for you right now, you may need 15 to 30 hours of studying per day to achieve this.

This is obviously not sustainable and if you think it is you will probably not do very well in the UCAT critical thinking test.

The answer is therefore not to simply try harder, but to apply that effort through an efficient engine. No matter how hard you drive a 60-year-old car, you will be beaten by a modern supercar. In fact, you’re more likely to damage that car or burn it out. Hopefully, the metaphor is quite clear.

One of many videos we have in our Academy‘s Study Smarter course.

Learning to study more efficiently is quite a big topic which I won’t go into in-depth here. However, this is something I talk and post about almost every single day, which I advise you to check out via the links below.

Study Efficiency tips posted on my channels:
Facebook (facebook.com/drjustinsung)
– IG @drjustinsung
Youtube

And check out this article here.

Self-Drive

Unlike in high school, no one manages your time and activities for you. For many students, this is a difficult transition to make. They find it hard to motivate themselves and stay on schedule. Make it a habit of taking ownership of your time and activities while you’re still at school so that you can transition into this more easily.

While this factor is certainly incredibly important, it is usually much less of a limitation in the first two.

Level of Preparation

The biggest level of preparation are really committing to Steps 0 and 1 above. But if we were to exclude that, there are a lot of important benefits from being prepared both before and during the semester.

A common way to prepare is to study the material in advance using our Academy. The obvious advantage here is that you increase your margin of safety so that if you have a bad day, a bad week, or a global pandemic shuts down the universities, you won’t be totally derailed.

Other types of preparation include having adequate training and practice for the UCAT and interview.

This factor is lower down on the list because although it does make a big difference, it makes a much smaller difference than many people expect. Compared to the earlier factors, it is far more minor.

✋ Now stop and really let it sink in for a moment that the person telling you that the level of preparation is less important than your own ability to be independently successful has a financial incentive to tell you the opposite and sell you tutoring. Just sit on that for a moment.

Timeline of Ideal Preparation

During High School (Year 12 Onwards)

Step 0 and Step 1 + UCAT

Focus on gaining more transferable skills and increase your efficiency of studying and time/stress management. Don’t worry so much about grades – these will come if you have the right process. Don’t receive tutoring and remember that real assessment isn’t the one you have next month, it’s the one you have in 2 to 3 years. You can get an early start to UCAT preparation in Year 12 if you wish.

During Year 13

Step 2 – Select your university + UCAT Preparation

Meet the minimum rank score, keep working on study efficiency and prepare for the UCAT. Make sure you’ve worked through the career decision making model and fill in any experience gaps.

Summer Before Semester Starts

Study and Paper Preparation

Make sure you have a solid study system. This is your last chance. Miss this opportunity and face the consequences. You can also look at working through the semester content in advance at your comfortable pace with our Academy. Continue to work through UCAT.

Semester One

Focus on Grades + Continue UCAT

By this point, if you didn’t create an effective study system and you’re falling behind, contact us ASAP for emergency help. You should also be putting aside at least a couple hours per week on UCAT.

Inter-Semester Break

UCAT

Your UCAT is during this time and you need to focus on it. Make sure to take time to relax and reevaluate if your study system needs improving for the next semester. If you’re still able to reach a high standard, focus intensively on this. You can also start working on the next semester’s paper through our Academy again.

Semester Two

Grades (and Interview if Auckland)

With UCAT out of the way, focus on your grades and if you’re in Auckland, dedicate at least one or two hours per week to interview preparation. Our interview course starts in the middle of the year and we outline the recommended practice schedule. Ignore at your own risk.

Questions?

Getting students into medical school and advising them through the process is what we’re experts at. If you’ve got any questions or you’re looking to get a more personalised strategy, you can get in touch with us here, check out our free advice here, or leave a comment below!

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About the author
Justin Sung
Justin Sung
Justin is a medical doctor, University of Auckland graduate, published research author, certified teacher, and founder of JTT. He has assisted thousands of students into healthcare careers since 2011, making him New Zealand's individually most experienced medical entry expert. He regularly works with schools and organisations to help students and professionals learn more effectively.

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