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Interview Preparation: Part I (Interview Advice Column)

Created September 5, 2007 by Jeremiah Fleenor, MD, MBA
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“Never discourage anyone…who continually makes progress…”

Plato (427 BC – 347 BC)

When I look around, everything tells me fall is in the air: school is back in session, the weather is becoming slightly cooler and the smell of OChem lab lingers on my clothes. If you’re half the dork I am, the smell of a new textbook is a welcome aroma. It represents a fresh start and being one step closer to becoming a physician.

All of these indicate there is another interview season upon us. Accordingly, this two-part series is dedicated to helping prospective medical students prepare for upcoming interviews.

Do I really need to prepare?

This is a fair question. We all have multiple demands placed on us and we must make wise decisions as to where we allocate our most precious resource: time. Is it really appropriate to dedicate time to something that is months away and is seemingly just a “conversation?” After all, I have to maintain a stellar GPA, gain work experience, balance my personal life and try not to go crazy in the process. As the title of this column indicates, the answer is yes.

While the interview is, in many ways, just a “conversation,” it only becomes so once you have put in the work required to build a solid foundation. If this foundation is lacking it will be difficult to have a productive interview. There are numerous time constraints and nuances that make the medical school interview very challenging.

For some of you, this may be the first real interview you have encountered. It would be a mistake to think of it like an interview for a job at a fast food restaurant or a coffee shop. Nor is it like an undergraduate entrance interview. It is much more akin to a job interview for a highly paid professional position. After all, you are seeking admittance into a program that, once completed, will allow you to hold one of the most respected positions in our society. It’s a big deal.

At the risk of sounding paternal, this is not the time to try and “wing it.” It is incredibly difficult to get to the interview stage. You will be best served by being as prepared as possible, so you can realize your goal of getting into medical school.

Here is the bottom line: interviewing is a skill. It’s just like riding a bike, making new friends or succeeding in a class. There are certain unique concepts that are important to success and utilizing these concepts takes practice.

As you see one more thing added to your plate, please don’t lose hope. General preparation for your interview might not be as hard as you think.

Gathering Information

One of the most important initial preparations is discovering what you bring to the table. What qualities will carry you through medical school and contribute to your becoming an excellent physician? In essence, this is the material you will convey during the interview. It is the information you are using to substantiate your candidacy. I view each relevant experience or characteristic as a piece of gold. Gathering usable information is like mining. It requires spending time to take an inventory of who you are and what you’ve done in life. Once you’ve collected this information, sift through it and single out the most relevant and important facts. These will best demonstrate how and why you will make an amazing medical student and future physician.

Unfortunately, there is far more detail on the subject of gathering your personal information than this forum allows. Nevertheless, here are a few categories to help you get started in your quest for gold:

* List your strengths and weaknesses
* List the reasons why you want to be a doctor
* List your travels and the important things you learned from them
* List the challenging times in your life, how you dealt with them and what you learned
* List your hobbies or extracurricular activities
* List the positive things that make you unique

Organize It

One of the most daunting facts we face during the interview process is the realization that an interviewer could ask almost any question. Can you imagine trying to prepare for a million different questions? It’s as overwhelming as it is impossible. Fortunately, you don’t have to attempt this feat. It is true that a million different questions can be asked, but they all condense quite nicely into a few broad categories. It is the formation of these categories that allows you to handle the sea of variability encountered during an interview.

Categories are simply mental constructs for grouping similar pieces of the personal information you collected from your past (the gold). The reason for grouping personal information is to make it easy to access during the fast pace of an actual interview. For example, here are some real medical school interview questions to help demonstrate the point.

* Who is a person you would invite to dinner and why?
* What are three adjectives that best describe you?
* What is a symbol that typifies you as a student?

These are all very different questions but each fits nicely into the single category of Personal Values or Characteristics. The interviewer could go on to ask 10 more similar questions and you could easily answer each just with the information you collected and placed in this category.

Again, there is much more detail that goes into the process of category formation but here a few ideas to help get the process started:

* Abilities
* Accomplishments
* Personal Values
* Hobbies

Feel free to adapt, combine or rearrange these categories to best fit your needs. Category creation is largely determined by the way you think, as well as how you want to organize and access your personal information. The categories you choose will likely be different from the choices of the applicant next to you.

In The End

The new school year offers many great opportunities: the chance to learn, meet new friends and come one step closer to realizing your dream of becoming a physician. The interview plays a large role in that process and preparation is the key to success. Use the above steps to help get started, and make this interview season your last!

Please watch for the next article which will contain information on the mechanics of interview preparation.

E-mail your medical school interview questions to [email protected].

To discuss this article, please visit its discussion thread on the SDN Forums.

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