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WHITE SPACE QUESTIONS

Author: Dr Kitty Wong

A comprehensive guide to acing your white space questions

White Space Questions 2021
 

The Oriel application for the AFP is mainly comprised of three components: EPM (medical school ranking), additional achievements (e.g. additional degrees, prizes, publications and presentations), and white-space questions (WSQs). Generally speaking for most deaneries, a combination of these will produce a score for interview shortlisting and may or may not count towards your final ranking for an AFP post.

 

WHAT ARE WHITE SPACE QUESTIONS?

In plain terms, WSQs are similar to personal statements for the application process, with question prompts requiring a paragraph answer (usually 200-250 words each). They are designed to allow you to discuss why you want to do the AFP, elaborate on your achievements, mention achievements that are not listed on Oriel (for example, ongoing research work that has not yet been published; or leadership positions), and to demonstrate commitment and transferrable skills you can apply to an academic post.


It is important to note that the format and weighting of WSQs on your application varies significantly between deaneries or Academic Units of Application (AUoAs). For example, there are no WSQs at all for London deaneries; whilst other “WSQ-heavy” AUoAs can ask up to 6 WSQs.


The weighting of WSQs are different for all AUoAs, and unfortunately most deaneries do not disclose their marking criteria for shortlisting. An example scoring system can be seen below from one of the more transparent AUoAs in the 2019 application round: (disclosure – this information was freely available to the public)

 

DEANERY EXAMPLE

In this particular deanery, the EPM was not actually used in shortlisting at all (even though many other AUoAs will take this into account). Initially, looking at the table, 22 points for 3 WSQs may not seem like much in the face of 250 points up for grabs in the “Additional Educational Achievements” section. However, keep in mind that most applicants will not be scoring fully for these (many don’t even have a single publication when applying!) – therefore, a well-scoring WSQ section could be worth >2 PhDs, >3 international oral presentations, >3 first author publications, and >2 international prizes!


Taking into account the importance of WSQs, you may want to consider strategically applying to “WSQ-heavy” deaneries if you were lacking in the numbers game.


Each year, WSQs for all AUoAs are published on the UKFPO website, usually some months before the application window opens. However, do be aware that the WSQs rarely change very much every year! Therefore, if you’re planning to apply to the AFP, even if you are not a final year student, I would recommend starting to draft your answers even before the formal WSQs are released.


In general, WSQs are split into the following categories (which we will discuss further down below):

  • Personal and career

  • Leadership

  • Education

  • Academic / research experience

  • Non-academic achievements

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GENERAL APPROACH

Key points to remember

  • Read the person specifications – Usually available on the individual deanery website. Although most are vague statements about desirable characteristics in candidates, occasionally there will be particular qualities and interests the AUoA expects of applicants, for example, prior simulation training experience for an education AFP post. Don’t lose out by not doing your homework on the deanery!

  • Answer the question – If the WSQ is asking for one example, give one, as writing more will not gain you any further points, and you might even lose points for not describing the singular example in enough detail!

  • Write confidently – Be proud of your achievements and don’t undersell!

  • Be structured and concise – Get the key points across and don’t waste precious word counts for faff that is non-specific.

  • Be specific – Keep asking yourself if what you wrote is personal to you. Don’t waste sentences on very generic statements that everyone else can say about themselves.

  • Ask for feedback – Ask your mates / senior academics / anyone else to proof-read your responses and ensure the application flows well.


Things to mention

  • Best and most impressive achievements

  • Anything with several key skills (see buzz words below)

  • Anything not in the main application (e.g. audits that led to significant change; unpublished research; national roles)

  • Well-roundedness and variety of skills

  • Understanding of the real world of academia

  • Your commitment to specialty / area of interest

  • Your potential to be a researcher / teacher / leader


Things to avoid

  • Generic statements without evidence (“I am very organised.”)

  • Listing achievements without explicitly referring to transferrable skills

  • Don’t mention anything you’re not prepared to discuss at the interview

  • Don’t write anything you can’t back up with evidence

  • Beware of name-dropping or patient identifiable details (Prior cases have been referred to the GMC!!)

  • Don’t lie!

 

MY APPROACH TO WRITING WSQS

  1. Make a list of achievements you want to mention on your application, ranked by order of importance and significance.

  2. Match these to the WSQs where they may be applicable. Ideally you would want to avoid using the same achievement for more than one question.

  3. For each achievement, identify some key skills you have learnt and incorporate these trigger words into your answer. (see Buzz words below!)

  4. Do some background reading and consider any unique opportunities (e.g. specific courses / research focus) to the AUoA you’re applying for. This will make your answers much more specific and show the examiners you have done your homework.

An example structure to take when constructing any WSQ answer is the sandwich approach.

  • Concise sentence answering the question.

  • Back up with evidence:

    1. Describing your achievement – e.g. a retrospective cohort study / a national teaching programme

    2. Key outputs or recognition awards – e.g. prizes / presentations / publication

    3. What did you do exactly? – e.g. designed the project and performed data analysis using SPSS / delivered a national teaching programme

    4. What skills did you gain? – e.g. statistical analysis / writing up a report for publication / organizational skills

    5. Any reflection or progression – e.g. reflected on feedback and developed a local course into a national conference

  • Summarise in 1-2 sentences why you’re a good candidate for the specific AFP programme.

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WSQ CATEGORIES AND SPECIFC TIPS

CATEGORY 1: PERSONAL ASPIRATIONS

Example Q1: “Why do you want to apply for an AFP?”

This is where you will want to be as specific as possible with your answer. A good approach to these types of questions is CAMP:

  • Clinical: specific patient cohort, tertiary centre, specific departments

  • Academic: research courses of interest, specific NIHR teams or collaborative groups you want to work with.

  • Management: leadership or educational opportunities available

  • Personal: less important but can be briefly mentioned as an extra point

  • Consider any specific skills you want to gain and how this particular AFP can help you develop them.


Example Q2: “What makes you a good candidate?”


You should briefly outline your best achievements and skills learnt, and explain why they fulfil the various aspects on the CANMEDs model. You may use the CAMP structure if you wish to ensure you have covered both clinical and academic aspects. Avoid describing achievements in too much detail and instead focus on as many key transferrable skills as possible that makes you a good academic. For AUoAs with multiple follow-on WSQs, this also means you will be able to discuss the same achievement later in more detail using the sandwich approach.


Example Q3: “How will an AFP post help you with your career goals?”

This question can be split into several parts:

  • Outline your clinical interests and commitment – describe what you have already done to pursue your specialty or area of interest, e.g. research / educational programmes delivered / don’t forget additional clinical time you spent!

  • Demonstrate understanding of the academic pathway – show that you understand the integrated academic track and how this fits around your clinical training, e.g. ACF / ACL / clinician scientist / professorship.

  • How the AFP will help you – BE SPECIFIC! Here is where you want to expand on deanery-specific opportunities and how they will address your needs. For example, a specific research course not offered elsewhere in the country that aligns with your learning goals; a collaborative research group with your area of interest to allow participation in large high-quality studies otherwise not achievable in a single centre; novel educational techniques you want to learn.

CATEGORY 2: RESEARCH EXPERIENCES

Example Q1: “Discuss your research experiences to date / one of your research projects.”

This question is best answered using the sandwich approach as outlined above:

  • Start with a brief outline what types of research you have done (if multiple) to demonstrate breadth of experience. E.g. To date, I have conducted two systematic reviews, one cohort study, and one international survey of current practice.

  • Elaborate on the most impressive project (or max 2), in order to ensure you have adequately described exactly what you did and skills you have gained (e.g. study design / data collection and analysis / writing up the report). If you describe too many, you run the risk of not adequately demonstrating your role and lessons learnt.

  • Outline research output that resulted from your work, e.g. presentations / publications. Make sure you mention whether this is international / national / regional / local.

  • Mention any awards or grants you have received for your academic work.

  • Any collaborative work you have undertaken (this is extremely topical in the academic field and worth some brownie points).

  • If you have limited research experience: consider mentioning any academic courses you have attended and what you learnt; or describe audits or quality improvement projects which are underpinned by evidence-based medicine and clinical governance.


Example Q2: “Describe a research project you want to undertake.”

The purpose of this question is not to hold you to a future research project that you must undertake; but to test your understanding of research methodology and the practical steps to carrying out a research project, your appreciation of evidence-based medicine, and an opportunity to demonstrate your clinical interest and awareness of contemporary issues in medicine.


If you don’t already have some ideas, consider doing a quick internet search for topical research questions in your area of interest, and try to develop a project around this. You may also find reading other papers on a particular topic useful.


When describing your theoretical project, ensure you have described the following clearly:

  • The research question you are trying to answer

  • The type of study you want to do - e.g. systematic review / retrospective cohort / case-control / qualitative

  • Study methodology for data collection and analysis – e.g. PRISMA guidelines, databases for literature search / thematic saturation for qualitative work

  • How have you reduced potential sources of bias in the study – e.g. using two independent reviewers or data extractors

  • Consideration of information governance and ethics – e.g. if using patient-sensitive data, how will you ensure you meet information governance requirements? (Caldicott guardians etc.)

CATEGORY 3: EDUCATION & LEADERSHIP

Example Q: “Discuss your experience in education / leadership.”

The example(s) you use to answer these questions may be medical or non-medical, although the former is generally preferred. To answer the question, you should demonstrate:

  • Understanding of education and leadership – this may be through application of different education theories (e.g. Pedagogy) in various settings (e.g. 1-to-1 teaching / didactic lectures vs interactive PBL). For leadership, you may want to clarify the differences of being a leader (direction & delegation) versus a manger (resourcefulness) and how you have applied these in an example.

  • Transferrable skills you’ve gained – e.g. Working effectively in a team, time management, communication, working under pressure, demonstrating reflection and development from previous experiences.

  • Commitment to the clinical specialty; to medical education and/or leadership, and to learning and personal development.


When discussing an example where you have demonstrated educational or leadership qualities, consider using the STAR approach:

  • Situation / Task: Describe the context or problem – e.g. finding sponsors for a society conference you are trying to organise

  • Action: What did you do and how? Why did you choose to do this? – e.g. delegated a team to communicate and contact potential organizations

  • Result: What happened in the end? – e.g. we were able to provide sponsored prizes for participants and forged a relationship with [organization]

  • Reflection: What did you learn and how can you apply to future projects? – e.g. reflecting on feedback and working closely with [organization], we were able to expand into a national group the following year to deliver our programme.

CATEGORY 4: NON-ACADEMIC ACHIEVEMENTS

Example Q: “Discuss a non-academic achievement and why this is significant.”

N.B. You must discuss a non-academic example for this question; regardless of other impressive achievements you have obtained – if you mention something academic you will score zero points as that is not what the question is asking for!!!


This is an opportunity for you to humanize yourself and demonstrate individuality amongst a sea of other candidates who will likely all have done some research / education / leadership and used the same trigger words as you have.


Ideally, pick something that will demonstrate multiple key transferrable skills, and remember to explicitly explain why this is applicable to academia and why this makes you a good candidate for the AFP. For example, “Maintaining a high level of playing in violin alongside my studies required me to optimise my time management and prioritisation skills, which are key skills for an academic trainee”.


If possible, you can link skills learnt from the non-academic achievement to an academic example to demonstrate how you have reflected on your practice and transferrable skills you have applied elsewhere. For example, “As part of my role as concertmaster, I identified separate players’ strengths and weaknesses and addressed these individually to improve overall performance of the section. This was a useful teaching method that I replicated when running small group teaching sessions in medical school.”

 

FREQUENTLY-ASKED QUESTIONS & FINAL TIPS

I don’t have any experience in research / education / leadership – what should I write about?

Remember that the examiners are looking for your potential to be a researcher / leader / educator! Whilst it is obviously preferable to have some prior experience under your belt, it is still possible to score well by mentioning the relevant skills you are bringing to the AFP. You can mention courses you have attended where you were taught about research / education theories / leadership skills and talk about what you have learned and applied, perhaps in a clinical setting or whilst completing any team-based projects in medical school.


Develop your own WSQ structure

This guide is only meant to provide one example of how to structure your answers, and you may find that it’s not suitable for what you have accomplished or for the specific WSQs your AUoA requires. Don’t worry if your answers do not follow the CAMP / STAR / Sandwich structure – as long as the salient points of describing what you did / key skills are in the answer, you’ll be fine!

 

Try to make the WSQs flow for a cohesive application

Whilst the WSQs are written as individual answer, you should try to ensure they form a cohesive application for ease of reading. As you go on, you can even refer back to other examples mentioned in a previous WSQ to bring multiple answers together or build on what you have already said. Avoid repeating the same achievements if possible.


You may not be able to fit in your entire CV, and that’s fine!

As long as you have outlined your most significant achievements and why this makes you a good AFP candidate, you will score well! The WSQs are more about the quality of your answers and your ability to reflect on what you have learnt; rather than the quantity of what you have done – you have the rest of the Oriel application for that!


Get as much feedback as possible

Having a second pair of eyes will be very helpful to ensure your answers read well, the application flows, and identify any gaps in your answer. Senior academics and your peers are excellent reviewers!