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Can’t be a Doc: For Now (Interview Advice Column)

Created 07.11.08 by Jeremiah Fleenor, MD, MBA
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Another summer is upon us. As you enjoy the warm days and break from classes, let’s consider another commonly encountered interview question. This one is almost certain to pop up during your interview conversation.

What would you do if you couldn’t be a doctor?

I’ve seen this question take many an applicant aback. When asked this question during my interviews I recall being confused and wondering whether there was a hidden meaning. Here’s what would go through my mind: “Why do they want to know what I’d do if I wasn’t able to be a doctor? Are they somehow trying to see if I’m really serious about my career choice? Is it appropriate to say there is no other option and that becoming a physician is the only reality for me?”

Perhaps you’ve already faced this question. If you hesitated or felt uncomfortable don’t feel badly –most of us have been there! In this article we will discuss how to give the interviewer a succinct, informative answer.

The Question Behind the Question

Often times an interviewer is looking for specific information but will ask the question in such a way that is not necessarily obvious. There is a question behind the question. Think of these questions as “fronts” for something else. Some common examples are listed below:

  • What symbol or object describes you?
  • If you could invite one person, living or dead, to dinner, who would it be, and what would you discuss?
  • If I were the president of my town’s chamber of commerce and you were a new doctor here, why should I recommend you?

These “front” questions can be completely hypothetical, physically impossible and seemingly unrelated to medicine. These characteristics can make them easier to spot. The key to these questions is to determine what information the interviewer is trying to “get at” and answer accordingly.

For example, the interviewer asking the second question in the list does not really care whether you choose to have dinner with Albert Einstein or Madonna. She doesn’t necessarily care if you talk about the theory of relativity or the perks of being a rock star. What she wants to know is what characteristics you posses (likely typified in the person you select) and what aspects of this person you find most interesting. It’s a question about character and values.

“What would you do if you couldn’t be a doctor?” is a classic “front” question. I think the two items of focus behind this question are:

  • What are your interests outside of medicine?
  • What are your personal drivers? (What motivate you?)

Outside Interests

Your outside interests are more than casual hobbies. They may be indicators of your passions. Perhaps you volunteer time to a specific organization or there is a business venture you’d like to pursue. Or perhaps you assist in an area of research that you find captivating. Although volunteer jobs may not necessarily relate to being a doctor they are important to you. They help to show the admissions committee who you truly are … the depth you possess.

Motives

More important to the interviewer are your personal drivers. What is it that causes you to get out of bed every morning? Maybe you’ve never thought about this but it’s an important question to ask.

The answer to “What would you do if you couldn’t be a doctor?” is a clever way to determine what drives you. Simply put, your motives shouldn’t change just because your career does.

Sometimes it can be tricky to determine what motivates us. These questions may help in your discovery.

  • If you had the day off and didn’t have any responsibilities to attend to, what would you do?
  • What activity would you choose to do, even if you weren’t going to be paid?
  • What discussion topic really gets you fired up?
  • Is there a particular injustice that is very upsetting to you? If so, why?

For example, I know someone who loves to build. Furthermore, he loves to incorporate new technology into his projects. With or without a paycheck he would choose to design buildings. He loves investigating new, better materials and construction techniques. He is constantly interested in ways to be more environmentally friendly. If he had his way he would devote the majority of his time to this area of interest because it’s what drives him.

What drives you? This is important for you to know and equally important to convey to the admissions committee.

The Approach

Once you know the information the interviewer is actually trying to obtain it becomes much easier to answer the question. Try this three-step approach as you prepare:

  1. Express sadness over the possibility of not being able to practice medicine.
  2. Share the things that motivate you and would make you a good physician.
  3. Answer the question in the context of an important outside interest.

Express Sadness

Remember, the interviewer just took away what you believe is your life-long goal and passion. It would be inappropriate to say, “That’s cool. I’d just go work at my dad’s warehouse until something else popped up.” The goal is to play along, but to also convey your conviction that medicine is the best place for you.

Motivation

Discover for yourself those things which motivate you and would make you a good physician. Character traits and values such as compassion, discovery, strong work ethic, diligence, creativity or social justice are good examples. In an interview these would be expressed in the context of certain activities ( e.g. building a new house, volunteering, research, etc.).

Outside Interests

This allows the interviewer to get to know more about you and to remember you long after the interview. It is a great opportunity to demonstrate the depth and breadth of your character. Your passions and the time you devote to them are important to admissions committees. They make you unique and memorable and are glimpses into your inner person.

In Action

A sample answer might look like this:

“Wow, I’d be pretty upset not to be able to practice medicine, because I really believe it’s the best profession for my talents and personality. However, if I couldn’t be a doctor, I would probably go into R&D (research and development) at a biotech company. I love to figure things out. New discoveries excite my imagination. During a summer internship at _____ I really enjoyed the analytical, research component of the work. It was very demanding and required a high level of commitment, but my enthusiasm stayed. I felt excited about my work. Also it was nice to know we were working on projects that would eventually help people.

This would likely satisfy my passion for science, but I would still feel something missing. I really need meaningful human interaction. I’d likely do volunteer work abroad. Some of my travels have opened my eyes to the extreme hardships people face in other countries. [Perhaps tell a quick story of a personal experience]. It’s important for me to stay close to people in need and to develop strong, meaningful interactions.”

From what this applicant said I see that she would be saddened by not being able to practice medicine. She is analytical, diligent and likes to solve problems. This is someone who has a strong need to connect with people on a fundamental level, in order to help them. To an interviewer, that’s valuable information.

Summary

Don’t be thrown by the question, “What would you do if you couldn’t be a doctor?”. Now that you know what the interviewer has in mind you can take advantage of this opportunity. Use this question as an excellent way to demonstrate important aspects of your character and personality, as well as your drive to become a physician.

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

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Comments

  1. Anonymous says:

    great post mate

  2. Dana says:

    Great tip! That is so helpful to know as I prepare for interviews! Thanks for posting! (^_^)

  3. Jim says:

    No offense, but during interviews I hate hearing these “canned” answers that are now so cliche that it shows no real thought. Everyone these days has read a book about interviewing or read posts like this and come up with nice little “sound bites” that you think the interviewer wants to hear. I agree, answering with “I’d just work with my dad until something pops up” is what an interviewer does NOT want to hear, but I’d rather if the interviewee would just be themselves.

    My advice: RELAX! I know how important the interview process is, but people get too stressed and it shows.

  4. yc says:

    I agree with Jim. In your “article” you are exactly propagating the myth that you have to have a “good answer.” The real task is to think about how you personally would answer the question.

    It is so sad to me to see all of these premeds lose their minds in the quest to become perfect applicants…. “What would you do if you weren’t a doctor” is a completely legitimate question, and a crucially revealing one. Those who cannot answer it from their heart show that they have a narrow-mindedness that may be debilitating and could cause extraordinary harm to their patients and those around them.

    Would you want to have a doctor treating you who does not take the whole landscape into consideration?

  5. Phong Le says:

    I do agree that this article may make the supposedly correct answer sound robotic and lifeless, but it does review the main points that we should address when we do answer the question, rather than drawing a blank. This includes the personal characteristics that we need to review and exemplify with stories during our response. Ideally, not every applicant will say that they are diligent, creative, hardworking etc., but will also add their own personal unique attributes as well. However, if they are truly diligent and creative, then by all means express it and back it up with a personal story.

  6. ty says:

    To those that think this article is simply molding all the applicants to one single “perfect applicant” I think you are wrong. True, you shouldn’t be someone that you aren’t in an interview, but articles like this merely give you insight on how you can better be prepared for questions such as “what if you can’t be a doctor?” In this ever increasingly difficult-to-become a doctor world you almost have to be that “perfect applicant”, as yc put it. However, you would be a complete fool to mold yourself into a mindless, by the book answer applicant, especially in an interview.

    This article did an excellent job at giving us insight on how to be prepared to answer such questions. When sitting in an interview that could possible determine whether or not you are accepted into X medical school you better be dang sure you have “prepared” answers ahead of time. You can’t always rely on your wit and intelligence in the heat of the moment, and an interview sure can bring the heat. There is absolutely nothing wrong with preparing answers, or learning from articles such as this one to help prepare such as answers.

    You are going to need all the help you can get as applicant numbers to med school increases every year.

  7. up says:

    Thanks for the article. It can be really hard to answer questions like those with no prep, so I liked the way you broke the answer down into a process. I’m going into pharmacy, not medicine, but the app process is similar, and they love to throw these questions in. The hardest answer I ever had to give in a school interview was a one-word description of myself.

  8. anon says:

    Well, there’s nothing wrong with giving a standard answer to a standard question. Interviewers have “canned” questions, so it’s only fair for interviewees to have “canned” answers.

  9. Anonymous says:

    Man, that ‘canned’ answer example provided is EXACTLY what I wrote for my secondaries… except I didn’t intend it to be.

    Sigh. Shows how original I am.

  10. Anonymous says:

    WOW! Thank you for this post….I have some things to really think about now.

  11. JoeBlow says:

    It’s insane to me to try to give advice to pre-meds in an attempt to formulate the perfect answer to hypothetical interview questions. This sort of junk further gives fuel to the flame that pre-meds are robots with no independent thought. Next time, spare us from this sort of useless bs.

  12. better says:

    “You can’t always rely on your wit and intelligence in the heat of the moment,”
    -said by someone who wants to work in a profession where you must rely on your intelligence heavily, and run into some moments much more heated than an interview….

  13. Anonymous says:

    If you come up with these perfect canned answers to interview questions and practice them over and over prior to your interviews, you will likely just stress yourself out and come across to the interviewer as lifeless and robotic. It’s better to come up with some general guidelines to how you would answer questions (instead of trying to memorize exact wording) and genuinely be yourself.

  14. Anonymous says:

    This stuff is all garbage. Read a couple of current events articles, try to think about some medical ethics questions, formulate your own opinions and be yourself. If you are going to bomb the interview, you’re going to bomb it. Just be yourself and try to show your interviewers you are capable of carrying a conversation.

  15. blaine says:

    This is a great article. Some of these comments humor me…Read The Medical School Interview by Jeremiah Fleenor,MD,MBA. It’s not about knowing WHAT to say people. It’s about understanding the structure and culture of medicine and medical schools, and communicating how your unique person fits into that picture.

  16. Anonymous says:

    I would be perfectly honest if asked that question and reply “A pimp.”

  17. Sandy says:

    Yeah I don’t think reciting a ‘canned’ answer is a good thing at all. Plus, if you do say it, it will sound recited and not honest. I think it’s a lot easier to just relax and answer the questions truthfully. It solves a lot of problems for you and your interviewer.

  18. Anonymous says:

    “need to prepare”

    Where’s the sincerity?
    If you don’t feel comfortable going into an interview without reading every post on studentdoctor.net something is wrong with you.
    Canned answers are as bad as unimaginative ones.
    I want to see a thought process and an ability to communicate not evidence that you were so neurotic you felt like preparing for every answer beforehand.

    What you’re worried about is that if you are just who you are it won’t be considered good enough. If that’s true save yourself the trouble and stay away (from that school at least).

  19. jocelyne says:

    unfortunately , when i entered med school i found that most student were partly immature , living with their parents and at least 60% – 70% never engaged in complete sexual activity . It doesn t get better after a residency program , when they make money , have kids , work -work – work – divorce -work – have other kids – make more money. In fact i wonder what all the answers were , i don’t see any concrete reality to all these alleged interests. maybe doctors are just doctors , what would be interesting is a personality test to detect troubled personnalities that some time are loose canons in a group or go on and act on their impulses with patients

    1. Duat98 says:

      “at least 60% – 70% never engaged in complete sexual activity.”
      Having sexual activity or not does not determine your maturity. Early sexual intercourse only leads to complications later in life such as unplanned pregnancy. Regardless, the fact that you equate having sexual experiences to maturity proves how immature you are, the exact thing that you accuse other med students are. Ironic? I think so.

  20. mztwyw says:

    what a tip for idiot……

  21. Anonymous says:

    It’s ludicrous to think that this question is some chance to express your disappointment at not being able to pursue medicine, or sell why you will be a good doctor, or some BS like that. I even got asked this question on my residency interviews…when I clearly WAS going to be a doctor. It’s just a fun way of asking “what else do you like and what would you get satisfaction from doing?” I can easily think of at least a dozen things I’d do if I weren’t in medicine. And don’t get me wrong, I love being a doctor. But it’s easy to imagine doing something else.

  22. MC says:

    Just my .02 cents. For those that HAVE NOT gained acceptence into med school I would advise you to read and follow the excellent advice in Dr Fleenors book. I am a resident and have sat on the admissions committe for two medical schools, one a consistent top five. Canned answers or not the old very conservative physicians that WILL be interviewing you want to hear this. In their eyes the loose sort of well you know sir everything works out for a reason I would probably uhhh X because y is a red flag in there book – to them if you stumble or fumble through a question you know we are likely to ask it shows zero preperation and little regard for your future career. So what you describe as canned or rehersed answers to us/them represents a canidate who has thought, planned and practiced his or her interview. That is very different from the non-sincere answer(lie) which is very easy to see through. You know what we will be asking so prepare a thoughtful and honest answer. I.E. if you don’t have a clear concise response to the question why do you want to become a physician you will likey wind up at the bottom of the pile. Being prepared is a sign of dedication and professionilism. At your stage as pre-meds prepare and play the game – I know that sucks to hear but the majority of times unless you are a truly stellar applicant, and trust me they are very few and far between, you just need to go with the flow. This is not the time to show everyone how cool you think you are and wing it because the guys/gals because what impresses an admissions officer is looking for a well prepared hard working student. Good luck to you all.

  23. Theraball says:

    Well, I think Dr. Fleenor has some good advice here, and some of these comments seem rather flippant and dismissive. As MC points out, some of these interviewers just want to see if you’ve prepared and/or you are quick on your feet.

    Look, when we’re physicians, we’re going to be dealing with all sorts of weird personalities. Read “A Singular Intimacy” by Danielle Ofri for some of her experiences as a resident dealing with drug addicts coming into a big city hospital–“You don’t know nothin’, get me a real goddamned doctor!” If you can’t handle a slightly provocative question in an interview, do you think you can handle one of these characters?

    Best of luck to all who are applying!

  24. Fedup says:

    Tire of all the jumping through hoops to get into medical schooL? you should know it never stops!!

  25. Ami says:

    I would have to agree with Jim. Even though the sample answer in the article sounds nice, it’s too impersonal. The author concluded by writing, “From what this applicant said I see that she would be saddened by not being able to practice medicine. She is analytical, diligent and likes to solve problems. This is someone who has a strong need to connect with people on a fundamental level, in order to help them. To an interviewer, that’s valuable information.” I strongly disagree. I hear that same sample answer from many students and it sounds truly fake. Telling an interviewer that you like the analytical challenge of research and desire a human interaction in the practice of medicine is a weak and known answer. If you did not have these traits and desires you probably would not be interviewing in a medical school. I would want to hear a story that shows your enjoyment in the challenge of research and a story explaining that you understand the human side of medicine, not a canned answer.

    Please be yourself in an interview. I often hear pre-med’s speaking with me in a casual setting and they constantly throw these canned answers at me. It is time to reflect on our past experiences and find the individual and personal reasons why we all desire to enter the field of medicine. Think critically, analytically, and honestly about your intentions and passions.

  26. premed says:

    I am preparing for my interviews currently and I greatly appreciate the advice if the article writer. It is extremely helpful to know the components of what the admissions committees are looking for in a thorough well-thought out (“prepared”) answer versus a vague, less informative (“unprepared”) answer. I am going to be truthful whether I’m prepared or unprepared for the question. Practicing an honest answer to be sure to hit on all the main components while still sounding genuine and not like a robot is my understanding to the key of success in an interview.

  27. Niki says:

    Thank you for this article. It was extremely helpful. It gave me a new angle to how I should evaluate my answers to relate to what ultimately motivates me.

    To those of you who are bashing this article: I took away something positive. It has made me realize what things I need to self-reflect upon about myself so that I can produce my own quality answer. Yes of course you have to be personal in your responses (non robotic as some of you have said). You still have to prepare ahead of time though.

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