by Jeremiah Fleenor, MD, MBA
Author of The Medical School Interview: Secrets and a System for Success
“Man’s mind, once stretched by a new idea, never regains its original dimensions.”
Oliver Wendell Holmes (1809 – 1894)
I’ve been most successful in life when I’ve stopped to see the situation from another person’s point of view. This is good to have in mind when facing a medical school interview. There are certain salient concepts an applicant must understand to communicate more successfully during the interview. This column will discuss some behind the scenes dynamics, which will give you the edge during your interviews.
The following dramatization is intended to provide a common base of understanding to begin our discussion. As you read this short story, try to picture the scene. Take on the roll of the interviewer and imagine what you might be feeling.
You have been on call and working all night. It was not the busiest night you have had but it was not slow. There were several sick patients on your service and your pager would not stop beeping. You had a very difficult time putting in a central line in an elderly patient requiring vasopressor medications. You are frustrated and your back hurts because you were hunched over for more than an hour. You hurry to finish your rounds so that you are not late for the day’s interviews with the medical school applicants.
You really like being on the admissions committee and have participated for several years now. You like to talk to the young students and care a great deal for the University, as you are a graduate of its medical school. While you do like this position, it is extra work for which you are not getting paid and it is towards the end of the interviewing season. You have completed at least 12 of these interview days already. You are tired and have been up for 30 hours now. You walk into the admissions office, say hello to the secretary and ask for the applications of the students you will be interviewing today. She hands them to you and you quickly pour through the first applicant’s personal statement, grades, MCAT scores and letters of recommendation while drinking your coffee.
You call in the applicant, smile and shake her hand. The interview takes place. You thank the applicant, shake her hand and send her back to the waiting room. You close the door to the interview room and turn to fill out the University’s standard post-encounter evaluation form. You realize there are four more interviews to go and that 38 hours will have passed before you get to sleep. What happens next?
I believe there are several questions being asked by an interviewer, often on a subconscious level. A wise applicant will be aware of these and present his or her information in such a way as to help the interviewer answer them. Three of the more important questions are:
- What is going to make my job easier as I fill out the evaluation?
- Did the applicant give me anything of substance or am I going to have to pull items from the interview to fill out the evaluation?
- What is different about this applicant compared to the others?
When you put yourself in the interviewer’s shoes it’s not hard to see why she would be asking such questions. Let’s look at each one in more detail to gain an understanding of the requirements necessary to answer the question.
Easy Does It
Prepare your responses in such a way as to make it easy for the interviewer to complete the interview evaluation. This is done, in part, by providing complete answers, maintaining a positive attitude and painting a picture. Here is an example using a simple question:
“What do you like to do in your free time?”
Answer #1: “Well, I don’t have a lot of free time because I’m always studying and trying to get good grades. I do like to do logic puzzles and go running if I have the chance.”
Notice, this person only partially answered the question. He started off with a negative comment about not having much free time. He gave the impression that he struggles to get good grades. He did manage to say he likes puzzles and running. As an interviewer it would be a stretch to see this individual as truly confident, happy or even much fun.
Answer #2: “Free time is a precious commodity so I use it wisely. I am eager to hit the books but I also know how important recuperating is for balance. I enjoy doing those Sudoku number puzzles; they’re addictive. I also love to run. I’m not exactly ‘marathon man’ but I have a great time just pounding the pavement and exploring my neighborhood.”
This person has done a great job of painting a picture. The second answer conveys the same information as the first, but in a much better way. As an interviewer, I may not necessarily know what a “logic puzzle” is but I have heard of Sudoku. It is easy for me to visualize this college guy running in the city, making a loop around the local park. Maybe he ends his run with a pit stop in the neighborhood coffee shop to work on a Sudoku puzzle. The second candidate’s interview has left a more vivid picture, more color and more I can use.
Give Them Something to Remember
Recall that the interviewer in our scenario was not getting paid. This is a common occurrence in reality. Few admissions committee members are compensated for their role. Take this to heart. Don’t make them have to work to fill out your evaluation. Do the work for them.
One way this can be accomplished is by giving them several memorable catch phrases. Examples from the second answer would be “marathon man,” Sudoku, and pounding the pavement. In practice, an interviewer may not remember the exact details of each exchange in a given interview. In fact, they may conduct several interviews before filling out the evaluation forms. As the interviewer thinks back, mentally replaying the highlights of the interview, the term “marathon man” is more memorable than “I like running,” as is Sudoku, compared to logic puzzles.
Remember, as the interviewer is filling out your evaluation they are creating an original work of sorts. It is a tremendous help to have been given good material as opposed to generating it on your own. This will make the process more easy and enjoyable for everyone.
Compare and Contrast
Humans learn and remember by focusing on differences. For example, it is easier to remember a person at a funeral wearing a colored outfit as opposed to a black suit. In like fashion, it will be easier for the interviewer to remember you if you present the talents and traits that are unique to you.
Start this process by building a mental image of a typical applicant. Then give serious thought to your unique talents and traits. The goal is to stand out as someone who will be an excellent physician. Spend time talking to other medical school applicants at your university and find out what they bring to the table. Ask your advisor about the skills, talents and past experiences of most applicants. Decide how you stand out, and be prepared to present yourself accordingly in interviews.
For example, you may have significant work experience in the medical field or you may have traveled extensively. Draw from these experiences to identify unique strengths. I recall a woman in my medical school class who had had her own successful business as an interior designer. She was older, refined and very professional. She focused on these areas as they were unique to her and it greatly aided her in gaining acceptance into medical school.
Taking the time to see things from the interviewer’s point of view is important for success. It requires extra work, but facilitates the preparation process and gives a context in which to deliver information during the interview. Keep these ideas in mind as you interview and watch your chances of success increase.
Please email any medical school interview questions to Dr. Fleenor at jdfleenor -at- gmail.com.
Dr. Fleenor is author of The Medical School Interview: Secrets and a System for Success