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Rethink How You Approach Medical School Interviews

Created 03.19.13 by Sean Dreyer
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The interview has long been a subject of fear and anxiety for premedical students who strive to make it past this one last hurdle before decisions are made. Many applicants try to build their defenses by preparing in advance for whatever questions may get thrown at them. While early preparation is certainly necessary, the interview should not be looked upon as an obstacle or a final test, but rather a block of time where you, the applicant, have tremendous power.

If thoughts of interviewing cause you stress and panic, consider reevaluating your entire conception of the interview. This is arguably your greatest opportunity to showcase yourself. It is your time to take control of the conversation and give off precisely the impression that you want the interviewer to receive. Rather than playing defense, seize this time to stand out among other applicants. However, the interviewer may not always ask the exact questions that you hoped for to highlight your strengths. In this situation, take the initiative to bring up the experiences, background, and activities that make you unique! There is no harm in politely asking the interviewer if you may touch upon a topic that has been crucial to your journey to medicine. When the stakes are high, you cannot afford to keep a remarkable experience to yourself so do not be afraid to speak up and actively guide the conversation.

The beauty of the interview is that you are center stage and have the capacity to present yourself and your accomplishments in any light you choose. Bring the paragraphs of text from your written applications to life and infuse them with the kind of enthusiasm and excitement that will convince your interviewer you are a passionate, genuine person. If these are qualities you look for in your physician then they are likely the qualities they are looking for in their prospective students.

It is remarkable how much your presentation can allure the interviewer. Your confidence and charisma are your greatest assets; utilize them correctly, and you can make even run-of-the-mill experiences seem incredible and insightful. Nearly every applicant has participated in some variation of clinical work. How will you illustrate the impact of your shadowing experience in a way that sets it apart from the dozens of similar stories your interviewer has heard before? The power to do this lies in your eyes, smile, and tone. Imagine the way you look and sound when telling your best friend about the amazing concert of your favorite band you just saw. The energy in your voice and your body mannerisms virtually transmit all the excitement to the listener. Recalling short, specific anecdotes is a great way to illustrate your strengths by example, rather than general statements. If the experience you are describing is truly as meaningful as you believe it is, then allow your enthusiasm to radiate through and win the heart of your interviewer.

On the other hand mastery over your presentation can work to your advantage even when confronted with questions about rough spots in your application. For example, displaying genuine regret and resilience when describing a slip in grades may impress the interviewer with your honesty and tenacity. Handling failure is just as important as reaching success, so being able to discuss mistakes comfortably and confidently will cast the light away from the mistakes themselves and towards your maturity instead. You, as the applicant, have the ability to steer away from negative topics and even reverse the nature of the conversation by letting your human emotions steal the spotlight.

However not all applicants have naturally outgoing personalities to interview in the manner I have described. What about those who are more shy and reserved? While the more social applicants arguably have the advantage, the good news is that the quieter applicants can charm their interviewers just as much, in their own way. Try to win over your interviewer by demonstrating your abilities to listen well and thoughtfully reflect upon the questions asked of you. Medical schools select students of all types, and no school wants an incoming class composed entirely of aggressively social students. Some patients simply connect more with quieter types, who listen patiently with genuine smiles on their faces. No matter what your personality, you can portray it positively during the interview. Just be sure to keep your volume level easily audible.

Even extroverted applicants can tense up and lose their cool when sitting in an office, waiting for the interview to start. Rather than letting your nerves get the best of you, mention to your interviewer that you are a little nervous, in a light-hearted manner; there is nothing wrong with being upfront about the butterflies in your stomach, and your interviewer will most likely do what he or she can to make you feel comfortable. Remember, they are there because they want to hear all about the wonderful things you have done.

Preparing and rehearsing answers to common questions is a great way to reduce the stress of interviews, but many applicants get caught up rehashing their AMCAS application back to interviewers. To distinguish yourself from those who focus on research and academic achievements, I strongly encourage you to emphasize your understanding of how the roots of some health problems lie beyond immediate physical symptoms. The American Association of Medical Colleges will soon be administering a new generation of MCATs that focuses more on social and behavioral sciences. The goal is to attract future doctors who have a better understanding of the “touchy-feely” side of medicine, to better meet the variety of patient needs in this diverse country . Similarly, medical schools are also looking for candidates who are aware that culture, religion, gender, sexuality, and socioeconomic status can affect human health. Even family, work, and emotional issues can manifest themselves physically. Many applicants spend most of the interview on research details and awards, but forget that compassion and empathy are as crucial to being a successful physician as are knowledge and technical skills. By inviting you for an interview, the admissions committee already believes you can handle their curriculum. Now show them that you have a heart. Admittedly, you may not understand every culture or religion in the world, but you can demonstrate that you are always aware there may be something more underneath the surface of a patient’s medical problems.

Finally, even the relatively new Multiple Mini Interviews (MMIs) have their own set of misconceptions that may hurt applicants’ chance of success. The most common is the belief that there is only one correct answer to situational questions. These questions are purposefully designed so that multiple answers exist. The point is not necessarily what you choose, but rather how you chose it. The interviewers are more interested in your thought-process and reasoning abilities. A good approach is to verbally consider the question from all angles with the interviewer, and then choose an answer after evaluating all options. Rather than being concerned about being “right,” explore all the issues at hand, and acknowledge the difficulty in committing to a side. By doing so, you reveal that you understand the magnitude of the situation, which is as important as being decisive. In fact, interviewers will often continue to challenge your decision, not necessarily because they disagree. By design, they may never let you realize a full resolution, only to evaluate your persistence and continual reflection in difficult situations.

With admission into medical school becoming so competitive among an increasing number of applicants, the sentiments of competition often continue through the MMI. Yet when faced with a team-oriented task, it is time to lower the guns. Aiming to beat other students or make them look bad does not necessarily place you one step closer to acceptance. Seeing as the goal of the task is to evaluate teamwork, communication, and honesty, your primary goal should be to help each other, even if time is running short. This means periodically checking that you are both on the same page, maintaining a friendly tone, and admitting when you were unclear or wrong. Medicine is a field that requires cooperation and extensive communication between physicians, researchers, patients, and other health professionals. Schools know that the applicants likely to make significant contributions to medicine are the ones who share and collaborate.

So what is the bottom line? You shouldn’t be scared for medical school interviews. You should be excited, since this is one of the few times you significantly can control this process. Being overly nervous or dominant only hurts yourself and your ability to bond with your interviewers. However, being upfront about both your strengths and weaknesses, as well as how in touch you are with your compassionate side, can convince the interviewer that you are the complete package. Embrace the power you have during interviews to deliver the final glowing depiction of yourself that you want the interviewer to remember.

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  1. syoung says:

    Bravo. Great tips, especially for the upcoming changes in the MCAT, what schools will be looking for, and the MMI.

    My only suggestion is still focus on practicing some CORE things/threads that YOU as the interviewee wish to bring across to the interviewer. IE why medicine, why that school, what makes you unique. I think that if you cannot answer those three questions very well, especially why medicine, then it makes it tough for the interviewer to believe that you want to be a doctor. Definitely, it should not sound like you rehearsed it! But You have to know it well enough!

    The rest of the answers to the follow-up questions, should in my opinion, be as natural and conversational as possible.

    1. While there are some good tips here, it’s not always possible for interviewees to direct the interview. Moreover, they shouldn’t try to hijack the interview from the person conducting it. Listen carefully to the questions posed and respond thoughtfully while weaving in your path to medicine and the reasons for it.

      The tips about the MMI process are excellent; it’s not about a “right” answer but more about the thought process and your reasoning skills.

      I find that it’s always helpful for applicants to prepare for med school interviews. You don’t want to sound canned but you need to be prepared. Be sure to do a mock interview with someone who has experience and can help you focus your answers, telling your story with conviction and passion. Good luck!

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