Updated: Sep 9, 2021
There are several ways to win a national prize as an undergraduate medical student. A national prize can not only make you stand out when it comes to applying for your future doctor positions (especially for the Academic Foundation Programme - more info for medical students on my blog post here), but it can also help demonstrate your academic rigor and impressive writing skills.
The commonest way to win a national prize is through an essay competition, offered by most of the Royal Colleges and by many charities. It is worth searching for different essay prizes, having a look at the types of essay questions available, and writing about a subject that piques your interest. You will, at the very least, learn a lot about the topic (because essays require lots of further reading) and you never know, you may just end up winning - as I did twice!
My top tips for writing a winning essay (although, I believe a small portion of it is luck):
Pick a subject that interests you and that you can write confidently about.
I didn't attempt any essay competitions in first year because I wanted to improve my research and writing skills first and felt that I was a bit too out of my depth for most of the subjects. I also have not yet entered any essay competitions that require specific formats like case reports because I have not been on clinical placements for long enough. I tend to go for essay competitions that give you the freedom to write creatively about a topic, backed up with available scientific research - like a literature review. ⠀⠀
Proof-read your essay several times and get feedback on it if you can.
Please remember though: it must be your own work. Having someone (preferably a doctor) who can give you feedback and suggest improvements is great but, ultimately you need to be the one coming up with the ideas for the main body of your essay, seeking further reading resources, and of course, writing the essay itself.
Spend the appropriate amount of time planning and writing your essay.
I took at least a month to write both of my essays, alongside my studies for medical school. I treated these essays as if they were going to be examined. Longer essays and greater prizes will require even more time. You need to plan your ideas early and begin compiling a list of relevant references that back up your points for your bibliography. I brainstormed my ideas on paper and typed the final ideas up on a separate document before beginning to write the essay.
Make sure you really pay attention to the question they are asking you.
Some essay competitions will even give you points that they want you to cover. If you do not adequately cover these points, you are unlikely to win. They expect you to write creatively and succinctly about the topic and ensure it is well-researched. The most important part is that your essay is interesting to read and has something to say - and that you have gone above and beyond to search for valid information to back your points up.
Know your structure
A basic essay consists of three main parts: introduction, body, and conclusion. Depending on the number of words you are required to write, you will want to categorise your paragraphs under these 3 broad headings. You can then decide to add subtitles to get across your main points (remember these subtitles will count in the word count) and figures/graphs or tables if these support your text.
Alternatively, if you are writing a case report, there is a slightly different structure. This is a great resource: Tips for writing a case report for the novice author
Make sure you understand the structure of the essay you are required to submit before you begin writing.
This is a great scientific writing course by Stanford University that was recommended by a doctor
How else can I win national prizes?
Conferences often give a prize for the best poster or oral presentation by a medical student. If you are presenting at a conference, you can try and go that extra mile and aim for the prize. These can be national undergraduate student conferences held by medical schools, charities, or the Royal Colleges across the country. This is especially useful if you have tried to submit something for publication and it fell through. I would advise trying to submit it as an abstract to a conference - you will probably be accepted to present!
For aspiring medics, who are currently still in secondary education, Sixth Form or on a gap year, you can even get a major head start and begin entering some essay competitions if you have a passion for writing. This can be a great addition to your CV as well as something to mention in your personal statement. Current competitions include:
For current medics, there are several competitions out there (too many to list but I update some in the Career Building section of my website every month)! So get googling and enter the ones that pique your interest! Best of luck!