Book Recommendations For An Oxbridge Medicine Personal Statement

Some reading suggestions that you may wish to discuss in an Oxbridge personal statement and tips on how to include them.

February 2022
Chandan Sekhon
Cambridge University - 1st Year Medical Student

When considering the approach to take for a personal statement directed at Oxbridge, it is important to think about including further reading as this is something they favour. This does not have to be books, it can be articles, courses, journals, or anything else that shows that you have taken an interest in medicine. They want to see that you have been proactive and taken a  step further to learn more about the profession. But, sometimes it can be difficult to weave these into your personal statement, therefore in this post, we will discuss how this can be done as well as provide some recommendations of reading material.

How to write about books?

A misconception surrounding Oxbridge is that you need excessive further reading to stand of chance of getting an offer. This is absolutely not the case! Whilst it is useful to have some academic content, i.e. further reading, in your personal statement, it is not a requirement. It is also important to note that too much focus on further reading, meaning it takes up the majority of the personal statement, may be disadvantageous. At most, a few lines or a short paragraph should be sufficient. Rather than summarising the reading, you should talk about what you find interesting about it, and what you learnt from it. This could be a particular condition you found interesting, a case study you resonated with, an aspect of healthcare you might want to go into etc.

Book Recommendations

The Man who mistook his Wife for a Hat, Oliver Sacks: This book is a collection of patient cases who the neurologist Oliver Sacks encountered during his career. Each of these cases is individual and unique and offers a detailed visual description of how many neurological disorders and diseases present in patients. This book is a fantastic and insightful read for those interested in a career in neurology or psychiatry. Although difficult to understand initially due to medical terminology, it is a great piece of text to discuss at interviews. When talking about the book I would personally recommend taking a particular case you found interesting, talking about why it stood out, what you’ve done since reading about it to learn more about that disease, and how it may link to your desire to study Medicine. This shows you’ve read the book and have taken the necessary steps to explore this interest further, expanding your knowledge in the process.

When Breath Becomes Air, Paul Kalanithi: This is a non-fictional autobiography that details the author’s battle with stage 4 lung cancer. As a neurosurgical resident in the US, he experienced symptoms of lung cancer but was initially diagnosed as healthy. After a long and arduous journey battling cancer, he sadly died at the age of 37. The book was published after his death and received excellent reviews worldwide. This book is a great choice for those who are interested in a career in oncology. Although written by a doctor, it is written from the patient’s perspective, contrasting to ‘The Man who mistook his Wife for a Hat’, so would certainly be interesting to write about. When writing about this book, I would take a similar approach to the one above – talk about what you found particularly fascinating, what you have done since to learn more, and how it may link to your desire to study Medicine.

Life at the Extremes, Frances Ashcroft: This is an exciting read if I do say so myself! This book focuses on how people survive extreme conditions – things like temperature extremes, altitude extremes and depth extremes. This book gives examples of how the body is adapted for human survival in harsh conditions. Answering questions like ‘What causes mountain sickness?’, ‘Why do astronauts faint when standing up after returning to Earth?’ and ‘Why don’t penguins get frostbite?’ This book is excellent for people who want to learn more about physiology and the scientific principles behind bodily systems. A more scientifically oriented read with a huge variety of examples. It may also be quite useful for interviews as it encourages you to think about slightly out of the box scenarios, and helps develop your ability to apply your prior scientific knowledge when problem-solving.

A quick example of how you may wish to talk about books:

“The book ‘The Man who mistook his Wife for a Hat’ particularly furthered my interest in neurology. I especially enjoyed a case on visual agnosia, where the patient was able to see objects but couldn’t recognise them. To learn more about this abnormality I completed an online course on neurological diseases where I learnt more about the pathophysiology of devastating disorders such as Parkinson’s disease and multiple sclerosis.”

General Tips

The biggest tip I can give is that if you mention a book in your personal statement, please make sure you have actually read the book and know it fairly well. So many people mention books that they have not read or have only read part of. Of course, interviewers know this, so they often try and ask interviewees about the book to make sure they have read it. This can include questions like ‘You mentioned this condition from this book. What can you tell me about it?’ or ‘What else did you find interesting from this book?’ etc. So please make sure you are prepared to answer questions like these! You won’t have to know enough to recite the entire book, but just enough to provide a summary and offer some thoughts about what you liked/disliked about it. Another important factor to consider is to not just mention a book for the sake of it. Only mention things in your personal statement if you actually think it adds something and it helped you decide on Medicine as a career or learn more about the profession. Sometimes, it may be more suitable to talk about journals, articles or other forms of reading depending on what you would like to convey. Often books give personal narratives and experiences, which may not be suitable for you. If this is the case for you, I would recommend looking at some of the below resources:

For more information regarding online courses such as FutureLearn and MOOCs, see our post ‘Free Online Courses For Medicine Applications 2021’ (although written last year it is still very relevant).

To summarise…

Books are a great way to express your desire to pursue medicine, but they are by no means a requirement for Oxbridge. It is important to only mention reading you find genuinely interesting as you won’t be able to talk about it well at an interview if you are not passionate about it. Sometimes it may be better to talk about alternative further reading such as journals depending on the nature of what you would like to talk about and convey. If you do talk about a book(s), please be careful about the wording to ensure you talk about it in a way that is effective at expressing your interest. Also, please make sure to actually read the book – if you receive an interview and you are asked about it, you will most certainly lose out on marks if it is clear you haven’t read it!

Author: Chandan Sekhon

Editor: Allegra Wisking

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