Some pitfalls of the medical school interview are obvious: Don’t ramble, don’t say “um” too much, don’t be rude to people, don’t chew gum and don’t greet your interviewer like this: “Hey Dave. It is great to meet you. I read everything I could find about you on the internet.” But what pitfalls might not be so obvious?
Not being prepared
You studied for the MCAT. You composed multiple drafts of your personal statement. So, why is it that you think walking in cold to your first medical school interview is acceptable? I find that many outstanding medical school applicants who have an impressive list of accomplishments are often not able to clearly articulate their motivations and paths to pursue a career in medicine. All great performances require practice, and speaking about yourself and essentially marketing your candidacy is not easy. So, practice, practice, practice. Most undergraduate career centers offer mock interviews. Or you can grab a friend, teacher, parent or relative who has more experience than you do in this arena. Practicing also builds confidence, which helps your performance.
On the opposite side of the coin, practicing too much can also hurt you. Why? First of all, you don’t want your answers to sound rehearsed or canned. Ideally, you want your medical school interview to be conversational so if you are fixated on what you have rehearsed, a conversation pattern for which you didn’t prepare can make you overly anxious. In the same way, over-rehearsed applicants often stumble when they receive a question they weren’t anticipating. This is also an issue for the fortunate applicant who has multiple interviewers. Try to keep your answers fresh, which can be challenging after being asked “Why do you want to be a doctor” for the 17th time.
Getting psyched out before the interview
“Everyone there already had at least 5 acceptances.” “I was the only one at the interview from a non-Ivy League school. I have no chance.” Sometimes the interactions between candidates as they wait for their interviewer or a presentation about the school can be harmful. Obviously, you don’t want to seem like a social outcast and sit alone in a corner of the conference room while the other applicants are chatting. But at the same time, you don’t want these casual conversations to cause you unnecessary anxiety before you enter your interviewer’s office. Though it’s tough, try to stay away from, “So, where else have you interviewed/been accepted” type of topics. And, if such questions do arise, answer vaguely or change the topic without being rude. If you were invited for an interview, you are just as qualified as everyone else sitting in that room with you, and each interview is an opportunity for acceptance.
Adhering to strict rules
“I heard I should speak only for a maximum of three minutes per answer.” “I heard that I need to ask my interviewer at least three questions to seem interested in the school.” Many myths are out there about what you “must do” or “not do” on interviews. Remember that your interviewers are not robots; they are individuals. The vast majority of interviews are not scripted so the rhythm and flow of an interview will depend on many factors, including your interviewer’s style, level of experience and even his or her mood that day. It is important to enter each interview with an open mind as to how the interview might progress. For example, some less-experienced interviewers may feel uncomfortable having a fluid conversation whereas the more experienced medical educator might purposefully get off topic and start a conversation about something in your background that you didn’t expect.
Telling them what they want to hear
It is important to research your school before your interview so you have a clear idea of its mission and values. You also want to try and tailor your answers so you fit these ideals as best you can. But the applicant who says something that is not sincere or that is inconsistent with her background has fallen right into a major pitfall. For example, the school that values community service is seeking students who have a demonstrated commitment in this area but also wants students who have other interests. When an applicant who has no background in community service says that she hopes to become involved in helping the underserved during medical school, her assertion seems patently false. Be true to yourself and make sure that everything you say is consistent with your background and experiences.
Trying too hard to “stand out” or “be distinctive.”
Applicants are always concerned about standing out from the crowd. “What can I say that will make me different than everyone else?” “What can I do that will be unique?” First of all, you cannot change who you are on your medical school interview day. Most interviews are somewhat biographical so your experiences are what they are. I find that when applicants try too hard to be “different,” they often undermine their own success. Medical schools are not evaluating you on your distinctiveness, per se; they are trying to assess your motivation for a career in medicine, intelligence, communication skills and level of compassion, among other qualities. Sure, candidates who have accomplished something truly unusual are evaluated differently, but these candidates are the exception. Ironically, applicants who exude confidence, enthusiasm and authenticity and who are “comfortable in their own skin” are often the individuals who stand out. So, be yourself. A seasoned interviewer can sniff out insincerity. Trying to be someone or something that you are not will inevitably negatively impact your performance and your interviewer’s evaluation.
Ultimately, every interview dynamic is affected by the rapport between the interviewer and applicant, the interviewer’s approach and the applicant’s comfort level in speaking about himself, his motivations and his ideals. Be aware of the common pitfalls and be able to express who you are, why you want to pursue a career in medicine and how you got there.
Jessica Freedman, MD, a former medical admissions officer, is president of MedEdits, a medical school, residency and fellowship admissions consulting firm. She is also the author of the MedEdits blog and The Medical School Interview: From Preparation to Thank You Notes.