A step by step guide to becoming a doctor in NZ
The journey to becoming a doctor requires you to jump through a lot of hoops. And what are those hoops, exactly? To answer that question, here’s an overview of each step of the journey to becoming a doctor in New Zealand. We’ll take you from high school to med school to that one sweet day when you’re in scrubs, exclaiming to an assistant, “Pass me the scalpel, stat!” (Doctors in real life say that too, right?)
Step 1: High school
High school might very well be where you are now. At this stage, the main hoop you need to jump through is getting into a first year programme at university that leads to med school. And the two questions that arise from that are:
1. What subjects should you take?
2. What kind of grades do you need?
1. What subjects you should take in Year 13
But of course, you want to study medicine. Just meeting UE standards is not going to cut it. You want to set yourself up to get killer grades in your first year of university and for that, you want to have a good foundation in high school.
There are two places you can study medicine in New Zealand, and they each have their own first year pathways to study medicine:
1. University of Auckland
a. Health Science, or
2. University of Otago
a. Health Sciences First Year (HSFY)
(This article focuses on the pathways to becoming a doctor in NZ, but there are also opportunities for NZ students to study medicine overseas.)
Here’s a breakdown of which Year 13 subjects are crucial, and which ones are nice to have, depending on which university and pathway to medicine you choose:
The bottom line
Going to UoA: take biology and chemistry in Year 13. If you’re going the Health Science pathway, also take an English-rich or “Table A” subject (such as English, geography, classics, history) as it is a prerequisite.
Going to Otago: take physics and chemistry in Year 13.
This is the foundation you need for your first year of uni. Beyond that, the overwhelming consensus from battle-worn med students is to take the subjects that interest you. Once you enter university, you’ll have less wiggle room to pick your subjects. So in Year 13, go ahead and take dance or sculpture or both.
2. What grades you need in high school
Here are the grade requirements for the first year medicine programmes at Otago and UoA.
Otago has two streams for entry into first year: Preferential and Competitive. Both streams include all general Bachelor’s degrees as well as the Health Sciences First Year programme. Most students gain acceptance through the Preferential Entry stream, which generally just requires you to have passed most of your assessments in Year 13.
To gain acceptance through the Preferential Entry stream, you need to meet the entry score requirements:
All students who don’t meet the criteria for Preferential Entry will be placed in the Competitive Entry stream. Here, you are ranked based on your grades and are admitted to the university in this order, where there are places available.
Otago has the entry score and UoA has the rank score. Whereas Otago has a generalised entry score requirement across nearly all disciplines, UoA has different rank score requirements for different degrees. To study medicine at UoA, there are two first year pathways to choose from: Biomed and Health Sci (more on these in Step 2).
Here are the rank score requirements for admission into Biomed and Health Sci:
If you have not met the rank score requirement but satisfy all UE criteria, your application will still be considered if there are places available.
What do entry and rank scores mean in terms of grades?
The Otago entry score and UoA rank score are calculated in the same way (although UoA distinguishes between A* and A grades at A Level). Here’s a breakdown on how entry/rank scores are calculated for NCEA, CIE and IB:
If you have 80 Achieved credits at NCEA Level 3, you will have an entry score of 160, which will meet the requirements for entry into HSFY at Otago.
If you have your sights set on Biomed at UoA, you’ll notice the threshold is a little higher. After some number crunching, you’ll see you need at least 40 Excellence credits + 40 credits at Merit or higher at NCEA Level 3 to have a rank score of 280, the requirement for Biomed.
If you meet the entry/rank score requirements for the first year programme you apply to, then you will be guaranteed a place in that programme (granted UE criteria are satisfied). You will not be competing for limited places – there are plenty of opportunities for that later…
Step 2: First year of uni
‘Later’ is now. You’ve jumped through the first hoop and gained acceptance into a pre-med programme at university. The next hoop is to get into med school proper. At both Otago and UoA, you apply for med school towards the end of your first year at university. Each university has specific first year programmes to prepare you to study medicine.
Health Sciences First Year
At Otago, the first year medicine pathway is called Health Sciences First Year (HSFY). To be considered for admission into medicine after HSFY, you need to have a minimum grade of 70% in each paper in your HSFY programme, and you need to sit the UMAT (more on that later).
Once those criteria are satisfied, you will be ranked for admission based on the following weighting:
About nearly 300 students are admitted to Otago med each year, although this fluctuates year to year. Roughly 180 of these are through the HSFY route, with the rest from graduate and alternative entry.
Biomed or Health Sci
As previously mentioned, you have a choice of two first year programmes at UoA that lead to med school:
1. Bachelor of Science in Biomedical Science (otherwise known as “Biomed”)
2. Bachelor of Health Science
The general consensus is that Biomed is more science-y and Health Sci is more wordy. And so, the decision between the two requires some introspection into what kind of nerd you are. (Let us know if you’d like a more in-depth analysis into Biomed vs Health Sci.)
Regardless of which one you choose, there are four core papers that all medicine applicants take in their first year.
Unlike Otago, entry into medicine at UoA requires an interview. There are two steps to secure an interview.
1. First, you need to have a minimum GPA of 6.0 (B+ average) across all eight of your first year papers (including the four core papers). This is the only time your grades for non-core papers will be counted.
2. Once the minimum GPA of 6.0 is satisfied, you are ranked according to your grades for the four core papers only. You will be granted an interview if you rank above the GPA cut-off. This is usually above 7.0 (A- average). (The four core papers cover biology and chemistry but not physics, which is why the former two subjects are more crucial in Year 13 than physics.)
Interviews are held in late November to early December. They follow a Multi Mini Interview (MMI) format. (Let us know if you’d like more info on the MMI process and tips from people who have gone through it.)
After your interview, you will be ranked for admission based on the following weighting:
Admission is limited to a number that has seen a steady increase in recent years. Around 260 students were accepted for 2014, and 300 students for 2017.
Ahh UMAT – otherwise known as the Undergraduate Medical and Health Sciences Admission Test. Both Otago and UoA require med school applicants to sit UMAT. This is a 3 hour, multiple choice test that med schools use to screen applicants for their suitability to study medicine.
The test is divided into three sections:
1. Logical Reasoning and Problem Solving (word and non-word-based puzzles)
2. Understanding People (emotional intelligence)
3. Non-verbal reasoning (patterns, e.g. identify the next in the series)
If you scroll back up to the admission weightings at Otago and UoA, you’ll notice the impact of your UMAT score on your admission into med school is much higher at Otago than UoA. It’s also worth noting that Otago adjusts your UMAT score by weighting section 3 at 10%, and sections 1 and 2 at 45% each, whereas UoA uses the raw score.
There's no substitute for good grades
All this UMAT talk aside, it’s no surprise that at both Otago and UoA, your grades are ultimately the biggest influence on your entry into med. You want to be getting marks squarely in the ‘A’ range – an ‘A-‘ average could be cutting it close but can be pushed up with a strong interview/UMAT score. And for those As, you’ll need some solid knowledge on how to study effectively in university.
Ok, that’s it! Are you stressed just reading this? Making sense of all the steps to get into med is almost as hard as getting into med.
Step 3: Med School
Phew, you’ve made it to med school. Now you can chill… some iced coffee in the fridge because you’re gonna need a lot of it in the next five years.
Here’s a rundown of what to expect in each of those years:
2nd + 3rd year
The first two years of Otago med school (your second and third year at uni) are mostly lectures, tutorials and labs. One Otago med student describes this as a time where you essentially learn how the human body should work normally. That is, you learn about the anatomy and what all the organs do. There are also some side modules which cover professional and clinical skills. You’ll also be introduced to some patients, both real ones and actors, through tutorials and home visits.
4th + 5th year
From fourth year onwards, you will be on placement at either Wellington, Christchurch or Dunedin. You give your preference of which city you’d like to be placed at, and then a ballot is conducted if not enough students have picked a given location. Once you are placed at a hospital, you and your fellow med students are split into groups and rotate between modules, with assessments at the end of each module. You’ll also attend some lectures in between your time at the hospital. At the end of fifth year, you sit practical and written exams that cover the content from the past two years.
Your final year is your trainee intern year – basically an apprenticeship for being a junior doctor. You’ll also be interested to know that you get paid. It’s not exactly that high-roller brain surgeon moolah that we hear about (it’s more a modest, tax-free grant), but it’s much welcomed nonetheless. Like in the previous two years, you will be rotating between specialties at the hospital you’re placed at, as well as completing a 12 week elective away from campus.
2nd + 3rd year
Like at Otago, the first two years of UoA med school is mainly lectures, tutorials and labs where you cover body systems, and professional and clinical skills. In your second year, you’ll interact with pretend patients during tutorials. Halfway through third year, you’ll begin spending three hours a week at Auckland, Middlemore or North Shore Hospital where you’ll interact with real patients.
4th + 5th year
Again, just like Otago, these are your placement years where you rotate through different specialties, are assessed throughout, and sit a final exam at the end of fifth year. The placements are at Hamilton, Tauranga, Rotorua, South Auckland and Waitemata. You get to pick your placement location, and a ballot is conducted if not enough students pick a particular location.
You know the deal by now – this is your trainee intern year. Some say that as a trainee intern, you do about a quarter of what the House Officer (the next step on the ladder) does. There is more paper work and more interaction with patients, and you begin to take more of a lead in how to manage a patient’s condition. (And yes, you get paid.)
Upon completion of all six years of the MBChB programme at Otago or UoA, you are a Doctor. NOW you can chill…
Step 4: House Officer
…for a moment as you celebrate getting your degree. Once that’s taken care of, you can start working as a House Officer. As a House Officer, you are the most junior doctor. Your responsibilities might include a fair amount of admin like filling out blood tests, writing notes and reporting back to the more senior doctors in your team (the Registrars and Consultants), but you’ll also have a lot of interaction with patients. And you’ll be able to experience working in different areas of medicine through clinical attachments over two years.
Applying to be a House Officer
You start applying to be a House Officer halfway through sixth year at med school. This happens through a system called ACE. The process goes like this:
1. You rank all the District Health Boards (DHBs) you want to work at
2. ACE sends your application materials through to those DHBs
3. The DHBs rank their preference of applicants
4. A little matchmaking occurs
All domestic students generally get a House Officer position through this system.
Getting registered with the Medical Council of New Zealand (MCNZ)
You’re granted provisional registration by the MCNZ when you graduate, and can apply for full registration once you complete twelve months as a House Officer. Being registered means you can practice medicine anywhere in NZ.
Step 5: Registrar
So you’re registered with the MCNZ, which is very official sounding and all. Can you chill now? Well, you already know the answer.
Working as a Registrar is the next step up after working as a House Officer. As a Registrar, you’ll have more responsibility with patients and more of a leadership role in your clinical team, answering House Officers’ questions and leading ward rounds when the Consultant is away. And as the classic saying goes, with more responsibility comes less paper work.
While working as a Registrar, you may enter a training programme in an area of specialisation. This can take 4-6 years or longer depending on the specialisation. Acceptance into training schemes can be competitive, and pass rates for the final exams can be low. Considering these are doctors who’ve spent the better half of their lives sitting and excelling at exams, this says a lot. But when you do achieve your specialist qualification, that sense of accomplishment will be pretty sweet.
Step 6: Consultant/??
At the completion of your training programme, you will become a Specialist or Consultant in your chosen field. This might mean you’re a GP, or an OBGYN or any number of other acronyms. You could be working in a hospital or in private practice. You could be taking your skills overseas (provided you complete any additional qualifications that country requires). You could be hosting your own TV show a la Drs Oz and Phil.
Regardless, you’ll always be learning, keeping up to date with the latest research and generally not chilling. Rest assured that the hustle never really ends!
Many thanks to soon-to-be and current doctors Rahul Anand, Euphemia Li, Kenrick Rosser and Stephen Wong for sharing their wisdom for this article.
By Maggie from MyTuition
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