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Trick Question (Interview Advice Column)

Created 02.09.08 by Jeremiah Fleenor, MD, MBA
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“It is better to know some of the questions than all of the answers.”
James Thurber (1894 -1961)

As the second half of the interview season begins, I want to provide some insight into one of the most common, but deceptively tricky, questions asked during an interview. This question was posed to me in every one of my interviews, and I suspect that many of you will also face this potentially silent killer: “So, can you tell me a little about yourself?”  

It appears to be so simple and apparently innocuous. But don’t be fooled! Beneath these few words, and plain veneer, lies a myriad of pitfalls. This is unfortunate, because this question affords an interviewee with one of the best opportunities to impress the interviewer and guide the session towards success.

Let’s look at some of the pitfalls, how to avoid them, and how to use this question as a spring-board to propel yourself into the status of a top-notch applicant.

The Bad

The most devious aspect of this question is the element of surprise – it often comes before the applicant even thinks the interview has begun. But be forewarned! As the lights come on, the show is underway. The “thumbnail biography” question may well be asked as you and the interviewer casually walk down the hallway toward the interview room. It seems like small talk – even an ice-breaker. While this may be true in part, you must not treat it as such. Be aware that there is significantly much more going on than informal chit-chat.

Another difficulty for medical school interviewees is that this question lacks a right or wrong answer. This is a recurrent theme in medical school interviews, and many questions fit into this category. But as scientists, we live in a world dominated by the concept of correct and incorrect. The steps of mitosis are ordered, well established and fixed, and there’s not a lot of room for interpretation as to the correct order of anaphase and telophase. As such, applicants tend to struggle with questions that lack correct, fixed answers.

The Ugly

The one-two punch of informality and lack of a set or correct answer often leads the applicant to stumble. The common response by unprepared applicants is to ramble on at length. Not only is rambling inefficient, the outcome is deleterious. Time is a precious interview commodity, and you must not waste it. You only have a set amount of time in which to convince your interviewer that you would make a great physician, and equally importantly, that you are the best fit for their school. An overly long response many actually detract from the interviewer’s first impression of you and frustrate them. By droning on, you may actually limit the interviewer’s efforts to come to a good decision. But you must not squander the opportunity to convey the important items which distinguish you from other applicants, and demonstrate that you are an excellent match for the school.

The problems above have an even greater impact because they prevent you from gaining yet another important advantage. As the next section will detail, this is quite simply the perfect opening to take control of the interview.

The Good

A biographical question offers an ideal opportunity to provide a selective overview of what you’d like to discuss during the interview. It is a perfect vehicle to help steer the interview into a positive direction, and to distinguish yourself from the masses of other applicants. The question is intentionally open-ended, designed to see where you choose to take it. With this in mind, be sure to lead the interviewer down a well prepared path that casts your application in the best possible light.

Before we see what a good answer might look like, there is another important concept I’d like to convey. This is one of my favorite analogies, and like all good physician analogies, it involves food. I view the response to “Tell me about yourself” like a tray of hors d’oeuvres. I present the interviewer with a tasty selection of potential topics of discussion, and allow them to choose which they would like to talk about. In so doing, I accomplish several things:

  1. I set the menu with items I’m best prepared to discuss.
  2. I increase my ability to guide the interview, as the interviewer is more likely to ask questions about these subjects than about other, random subjects.
  3. I reduce the stress for all parties by providing the topics for discussion, thereby, decreasing the likelihood of being blindsided by an unanticipated question.

In order to take advantage of this opportunity, you will need to work off of the body of information you have developed in preparation for interviews. Basically, you will offer the information in outline form, allowing the interviewer to then choose which topics they would like you to elaborate on. While this column doesn’t comprehensively cover the detailed components of that information, it will provide some guidance. But keep in mind that the goal is to communicate your strengths, the life experiences that have contributed to these strengths, and the personal attributes you feel will demonstrate your ability to be both an outstanding medical student and future physician. Based on my personal experience, it is good to include a few other facts in order to help the interviewer relate to you as a person. For example, I would always state my age and where I was from, but a variety of other personalizing facts may be offered.

Here is a list of possible categories to help structure your body of information:

  • Age
  • City of origin (could be your city of birth or current residence)
  • Important work experiences (you can include research and volunteer activities)
  • Passions
  • Personal characteristics (kind, compassionate, energetic, etc.)
  • Hobbies

Here is what an applicant’s list of topics they would like to mention might look like:

  • 23 years old.
  • Live in Boston.
  • Compassionate, diligent and determined.
  • Passionate about cancer research; spent two years assisting in the investigation of a new medication.
  • Aunt is a breast cancer survivor – spent a lot of time with her during the course of her illness and recovery.
  • Enjoy traveling in Central America, sailing and other water sports.

Let’s look at all of this in action. Here is a sample answer to the question utilizing the information above:

“Can you tell me a little bit about yourself?”

“Well, I’m 23 and currently living in Boston. I spend a good portion of my time working on a research project with my university investigating a new cancer treatment medicine. It’s easy for me to devote time to this project as my aunt is a breast cancer survivor, and I learned a lot as she went through this process. I’d like to be part of a team, helping others to beat cancer. It’s not all work for me, though. To relax, I love to sail, and Boston is a great city for this hobby. I also like traveling, to Central America in particular. I’ve found some great volunteer opportunities in these countries as well, and met some amazing people along the way. These trips are always fantastic experiences, and really feed my compassionate side.”

This basic outline can be offered with ease in less than 45 seconds, and it gives the interviewer a feast of potential items to discuss. Perhaps he or she went to school in Boston, or knows someone who teaches in the city. Maybe your interviewer speaks Spanish or has traveled to Central America. It would be easy for an interviewer to ask what life lessons you’ve learned on your travels to these foreign countries. Or maybe she will ask whether helping your aunt get through breast cancer was the hardest time in your life, and what you learned in the process. Perhaps the interviewer also does pharmaceutical research. The possibilities are endless, and enables the interviewer to follow up on topics that are of more interest, while at the same time helping to keep the conversation within your comfort zone – at least for awhile.

Summary

The applicant who is aware of, and prepares to deal with, the perils latent in the biographical question, can turn the tables on a trick and make it into a treat. The hors d’oeuvres concept allows the applicant to subtly outline the body of the interview, and control the main topics of discussion. In the end, using these simple methods can ease the discomfort of an open-ended ice breaker, and really give you the opportunity to shine.

Please email your medical school questions to Dr. Fleenor at [email protected].

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Comments

  1. Ella says:

    Thank you! This is really helpful! :D

  2. Anonymous says:

    If someone told me something fed their compassionate side I would start laughing. The interview is just a conversation and should be thought of as such with the stipulation that you need to stay positive. As long as you can present yourself as a reasonable and approachable person who doesn’t complain a lot you will do fine.

  3. Tenk says:

    This question usually comes up more often during a closed note interview where the interviewer knows little to nothing about the candidate. I usually give a brief life history and explain my current state which usually leads off to other questions as Jeremiah has explained here.

    It’s a great informative piece, but yes, feeding your compassionate side might be over the top. Always remember to speak from the heart, not from a card.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Very helpful!

  5. Gina says:

    Thanks Dr. Fleenor. The info was helpful because I have a tendency to be too good to be true. People often see me as dramatic and animated. I imagine the same will be true in the med school interview. I will continue to be myself and leave it in the hands of God, who is in control of us getting in med school anyway.

  6. Kevin says:

    I also find talking in reverse chronological order very useful, as the most relevant information about your application will be the most current and recent developments, not something that happened when you were 5 years old. People’s attention spans are also more acute during the initial phase of the conversation. In short, start talking at the present, and then move backwards through your life.

  7. Marodin says:

    This post offers helpful tips and adds a colorful dimension to a dry colorless picture that many poor premed souls revisit every night. It really comes down to wisdom and perspective. Having lived through undergraduate lifestyle and overcome its obstacles, I realize it has tremendously molded my personality and character. I really believe that applicants should use other’s opinions and advice as they prepare for interviews, however the key is for an applicant to realize their passion and purpose for wanting to pursue a lifestyle of serving. After all, if one can, with minimal doubts, convince themselves as to what their mission’s goal is in medicine, the interview will be a nice conversation with just another listener hearing your story of “Why Medicine?” Thank you Dr. Fleenor, it’s a blessing having such individuals willingly reaching out to enlighten others. God bless.

  8. Anonymous says:

    I have interviewed a LOT of med school candidates, and if one of them told me that something “fed their compassionate side,” I’d probably gag right then and there, and pretty much write them off. And I am one of the most touchy-feely people doing interviews for my institution.

    Also, I do start out with “tell me a little about yourself,” partly because my institution does closed-file interviews, and partly because I want to see where the applicant is going to go with that open-ended question. (What you choose to mention about yourself is often very telling with regard to what you value most.) But it is NOT an invitation for you to drone on for minutes on end and give me an extended sales pitch. I can see right through that. If an applicant’s answer is longer than about 45 seconds to a minute, I start to have trouble following it, and I start to wonder what’s most important to them as opposed to just trying to throw as many “sales points” at me as possible.

  9. Masaud Nadi says:

    Dr. Fleenor,

    Thank you so much for taking your time and post your personal experience. I am very nervous about my interview, and to be honest I was confused too. Because I did not know what should mention about myself. So this really helped me to form my speech during the interview.

  10. Simon says:

    Thank you!

  11. BBK says:

    Thanks a million for your insightful advise to potential medical students. I am looking forward to my interview date and I will take with me your suggestion on how to answer the question. I would have answered it the way you did. I probably would have bored them to death telling them my life history. Thanks onces more and may God bless you.

  12. BBK says:

    Thanks a million for your insightful advise to potential medical students. I am looking forward to my interview date and I will take with me your suggestion on how to answer the question. I would not have answered it the way you did. I probably would have bored them to death telling them my life history. Thanks onces more and may God bless you.

  13. Jake says:

    I wonder what people are really trying to find out with questions like that. Everyone will feign kindness, compassion, walking old ladies across the street, etc.. I’m just curious what exactly about how I personally view experiences would include/exclude me as a candidate.

    Interviewers know everyone puts their best foot forward, that’s a given. I’m just curious (for the sake of discussion) what moment of honesty makes a good candidate.

  14. kf says:

    What the Anonymous person (who talked about gagging) above said is really true. Avoid sounding overly rehearsed, but do know what you want to say; more importantly, know WHY you are saying the things you are saying. Don’t drone; stay confident; look the person in the eye, in a friendly way.

    That’s it.
    Also, it might be good to brush up on ethical issues. You never know who your interviewer will be. A pediatric psychologist will have very different questions than an osteopathic department head than an Admissions committee member. Don’t be afraid to tailor your answers a little given your audience. Unless your interviewer is just plain screwing with you and is also a really good actor, they should give you non-verbal communication signals. It should be clear whether they like you and what you’re saying or not.

  15. Senior says:

    sorry but if you can’t have a sociable conversation off the top of your head, I don’t believe you should be in medicine. Sorry if i dashed your legitimate hopes but this is the reality. good luck ;-)

  16. Anonymous says:

    “if you can’t have a sociable conversation off the top of your head, I don’t believe you should be in medicine”

    I don’t fully agree. While the interview is your time to convince somebody that you would make a good doctor, I don’t think a good interviewee is what makes a good doctor, or even somebody who is a great conversationalist. Good doctors listen to their patients and use their knowledge to help them improve their health. Being able to chat with them is helpful, but is there really much time to talk about yourself? It would be more accurate to say that doctors should be good interviewers.

  17. DangerBob says:

    Dr. Fleenor thanks for the post. I think that an interviewee really needs to be prepared when he/she goes into a medical school interview. You really need to have thought out the big questions like why medicine and why X school of medicine, as well as what aspects of your application you are most proud of and you want the interviewer to take to the committee. Questions like tell me about yourself should be a chance to really try to convince the interviewer you are the right fit for the school. Before I interviewed, I wrote out big questions and answers on note cards and practiced in front of the mirror for a few days. (I found many of these questions on the interview feedback web site linked off of SDN). If you think preparing like this will make you sound scripted and not yourself, you’re wrong. The more you practice how exactly you want to communicate to the interviewer, the easier it will be on interview day to show your true personality.

  18. Vince says:

    I thought that I had sufficiently prepared myself for any potential question except for this one. I only had a problem with my first interview, as I just rambled on and basically just regurgitated my AMCAS personal statement when I was asked this question. This is a good, solid tip and it would benefit anybody still in the interview cycle to reflect on this rather “simple” question. BTW, I eventually decided to go to the school where I had my first interview. I met up with one of the professors who interviewed me – he didn’t even remember me.

  19. Sunshine says:

    Thank you so much for your advice. Could you pose any more questions for me? I have my first interview (with SDSU’s College of Pharmacy) in a week and a half. I’m just trying to find out what questions I should expect. My school has a Career Services center where I can request a mock-interview. Would you recommend my doing that?

  20. Boogieman says:

    Thanks Doc,

    Very well said. Most everybody here had said it already. The making of a good physician starts when you’re just a we bit old, when you’re just learning how to care for the world around you. The interviewers more often than not, want to see if you and their institution would be a good match. They might also looking for folks that will compliment that year’s incoming freshmen. Giving them a road map to walk through is brilliant because it demonstrates forethought. The type of organization tool essential for a future of lifelong learning. Intelligence however, when not tempered with Compassion can be very dangerous, and they realize this. Allowing them to step inside your head to see your touchy-feely warmnfuzzies allows them the opportunity to see and hopefully appreciate (to a limited extent)what kind person you are. There is just so little time with too much to say. We have to make the most of our words. It is a little more difficult in this regard for us non-traditional students. The hardest part for us would be deciding what impacted us the most in our lives, ie. Finding my faith vs. cutting my own child’s umbilical or saving someone’s life in a helicopter at my job…who knows? The point is, most of us going through the process later in life have been students of medicine long before we became medical students. Hopefully they’ll get it;-)

  21. Gael Moncoeur says:

    Very helpful! my suggestion is that everyone should know that Secrets and a System for success is a must read.

  22. Benjamin Cook says:

    Dr. Fleenor,

    I have a specific interview question which builds upon your article. If an interviewer asks how I prepared for the interview, is it a wise decision to devulge how much effort I had actually put into it or should I “sand bag” (not lie!) and make it look more off-the-cuff?

    Thanks!
    Ben

  23. jackblack says:

    This was really good. I have been reading a few other websites and most of them say that we are done with the hard part and just need to count our blessings from there on out. this article was to the point and actually useful. instead of simply telling me what questions i might be asked, a thorough analysis such as this really helps.

  24. Student says:

    Thanks for the article, was helpful.

    For blog participant, Anonymous, I appreciate your input as to what may or may not work during an interview. However, unless I’ve misunderstood something, I must admit that you sound a little discouraging when you say you would straight out “laugh”, “gag”, and/or “write off immediately [the applicant]” if you were to hear one more potential medical student telling you how they developed compassion or was compassionate in some way. It seems from your comments that you are experienced with interviewing medical students; I just wanted to add that I’m pretty sure at least a handful of them who tell you about their compassion sincerely mean it. Rather than immediately scoffing, I would suggest that you first consider the applicant’s words and then determine whether or not the he/she may be eligible for your school. I hope medical school admissions don’t all scoff at interviewees; I would feel demeaned by the school, to be honest, and not be attracted to an environment that harbors an ego against students.

    Nonetheless, thank you for helping me realize what admissions might be like. Humans are humans.

  25. nate says:

    i am so scared… but this article really helps!

  26. nicole says:

    Thanks for the article, was helpful.

    For blog participant, Anonymous, I appreciate your input as to what may or may not work during an interview. However, unless I’ve misunderstood something, I must admit that you sound a little discouraging when you say you would straight out “laugh”, “gag”, and/or “write off immediately [the applicant]” if you were to hear one more potential medical student telling you how they developed compassion or was compassionate in some way. It seems from your comments that you are experienced with interviewing medical students; I just wanted to add that I’m pretty sure at least a handful of them who tell you about their compassion sincerely mean it. Rather than immediately scoffing, I would suggest that you first consider the applicant’s words and then determine whether or not the he/she may be eligible for your school. I hope medical school admissions don’t all scoff at interviewees; I would feel demeaned by the school, to be honest, and not be attracted to an environment that harbors an ego against students.

    Nonetheless, thank you for helping me realize what admissions might be like. Humans are humans.

    ^Just so you feel a little better, I believe the interviewer you’re referring to said that they’d gag if someone were to say, quote, “…fed my compassionate side”. They didn’t say that they have ever gagged or laughed or scoffed when an interviewee mentions their compassionate side.

  27. Ashley says:

    Thank you this has been tremendously helpful and insightful! I feel less anxiety and more prepared simply after reading this article. You are very much appreciated!!

  28. Anon says:

    Great. Except some of us have lived more than can be paraphrased in 45 seconds. Might as well ask, “teach me physics in under a minute.” Such a stupid question.

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