Ophthalmology Applications: How To Get Ahead While Still at Medical School

Ophthalmology is a hugely popular career. Having the skills and ability to improve a patient’s quality of life by restoring their eyesight is undeniably a rewarding vocation. Other positive of Ophthalmology include:

  • An opportunity to use both medical and surgical skills throughout your career, both in the UK and if you wish, abroad.
  • It is an outpatient speciality, meaning there are very few ward patients and no ward rounds. This also allows more time for individual patients, to understand their needs and manage them in a patient-centred way. 
  • There are fewer on-call hours compared to many other surgical specialities. 
  • The training structure is a run through program which provides earlier specialisation (after Foundation Year 2) and job security in one area throughout the specialist training years. 

As a result of all of these advantages, Ophthalmology is a competitive speciality to choose. This is not a reason to be put off, but does mean that careful planning and organisation are required to give yourself the best chance of gaining a place.  

There are 50 points available on the application portfolio and this article is going to give you some of the simple ones to consider going for to put yourself in the best possible position if you are interested in applying for Ophthalmology.  

Throughout medical school there are many opportunities to gather “low-hanging” points on your portfolio which are not often advertised. Most importantly, attending these courses, or taking these exams is a really good opportunity to work out whether Ophthalmology is even for you, so even if you aren’t sure yet, these things may help you decide.

The Duke Elder Exam (1-2 points)

This is very popular among budding Ophthalmologists and is a useful exam to not only learn key Ophthalmic topics for medical school exams but also to gain points for your application. However, you must come in the top 60% of that year’s examinees to gain 1 point and will gather 1 more if you come in the top 10%. It is therefore a potentially time-consuming method of collecting points but the work is worthwhile for your own knowledge and formal university exams.  

Teaching (5 points)

Teaching is one of the key areas where points can be gained. Consider organising things such as:

  • Setting up a teaching course at your medical school to help with exam revision. 
  • Organising small group tutorial sessions for medical students to go over more challenging topics. 
  • Running a mock OSCE day or an online revision course. 

These are often more successful if you involve students from multiple years, particularly if you are not yet in your final year and have therefore not completed all medical topics. Of course, you can achieve the maximum number of points available in this section by writing a chapter in a textbook or e-book which if you are able to do would be very worthwhile. 

If you are not someone who is interested in the organisational side of setting up a course then you should consider taking part in the teaching side of these courses. Importantly, you must remember to get feedback from the teaching that you do. This can include a signed letter by one of your professors or one of the educational/university coordinators to detail your involvement.  

Commitment to Specialty (12 points)

There are 12 points in this section available and many of these can be done while at medical school. Things to consider:

  • FOCUS Edinburgh course. 
  • Royal College of Ophthalmologists Microsurgical skills course. 
  • Attend lectures or conferences. (More points are gained for either national or international Ophthalmology conferences rather than regional).
  • Royal College’s Congress meeting (happens annually). 
  • Taster Weeks/ Electives:

Start by contacting a Consultant who will let you shadow them or their team for a week. Taster weeks will mostly need to happen during your university holiday to avoid missing your normal lectures/placements. An elective is a great opportunity to not only better understand day to day life of an Ophthalmologist but also to get to know some Consultants/Registrars in order to be involved in their possible upcoming projects and research.  

As mentioned above, it is really important that for everything you do or attend that you ask for a certificate/letter to prove it so that you can add it to your portfolio.  

Publications (5 points)

Don’t feel pressure to gain a publication. These are difficult to achieve and time-consuming.  

However, you probably have more free time while at medical school than you will as a Foundation Doctor on the on-call nights/weekend rota. It is definitely worthwhile approaching a Consultant or Registrar during your Ophthalmology placement to ask to be involved in any projects that they are undertaking. Of course, some tasks can feel menial but it is a good opportunity to better understand research and to get your name onto a published article.  

There are also portfolio points for writing in non-peer-reviewed journals so do not worry if you write something and cannot get it accepted in a famous journal. Everything counts! Also, although better for the research to be in Ophthalmology, the points still count if they are on any other topic. 

All in all, it is definitely worth trying to be organised while you are at medical school. By no means is it necessary to gain all of these points and feel stressed by the application process, however, even gaining 1 or 2 points while still in training is useful and takes the pressure off for when you are working in your foundation years.  

Useful Resources


Written by Dr Lucy Fox (FY2), Reviewed by Dr Kate Reed (Ophthalmology ST4)

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