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22-04-2020 | Original Article | Uitgave 3/2020 Open Access

Perspectives on Medical Education 3/2020

“The biggest barrier was my own self”: the role of social comparison in non-traditional students’ journey to medicine

Perspectives on Medical Education > Uitgave 3/2020
Rachel Ball, Kirsty Alexander, Jennifer Cleland
Belangrijke opmerkingen
Editor’s Note: Commentary by: Anouk Wouters, https://​doi.​org/​10.​1007/​s40037-020-00579-z.



Social comparisons strongly influence an individual’s concept of self, their aspirations and decisions. This study investigates how non-traditional applicants used social comparison to shape their preferences, beliefs and predictions whilst preparing an application for medical school.


Semi-structured interviews were conducted with 12 UK medical students from non-traditional backgrounds to explore their process of ‘getting ready’ for medical school, and the role social comparison played in their experiences. Thematic analysis was used to inductively develop themes in the data, before findings were interpreted through the ‘triadic model’ of social comparison.


Findings revealed that participants looked to the opinions of those with similar norms and backgrounds to accept their desire to study medicine. They sought the opinions of ‘experts’ to affirm a belief in their suitability but lacked confidence until success in crucial examinations ‘proved’, in their own view, that they had the ability to do medicine. Social comparison to peers who were perceived to be less committed to medicine, and to relatable role models, reassured participants that someone from their background could succeed in medicine.


Our findings further understanding about ‘how’ and ‘why’ exposure to relevant experts, peers and role models can positively influence application to medicine through the lens of social comparison. We recommend widening access initiatives promote and foster various opportunities for social comparison to help counter non-traditional students’ feelings of uncertainty about their ability and prospects, and to reorient their focus away from achieving the required grades before preparing the non-academic aspects of their application.
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