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The Competency Manifesto: Part 2

Part 2: Identifying and Evaluating Your Strengths and Weaknesses

What is your biggest weakness?  What is your greatest strength?

Ever been stumped by these questions on an interview?  Who hasn’t?  I assure you the range of answers given to these questions should be a subcategory in the LOLcats website.  I’ve heard way too many “I focus a lot on my studies” as answers to both questions.  Nevertheless, most companies and professional school admissions committees cite these questions (or similar variations) among their many sample interview questions.
Some of my advice on this topic can be found on the Kaplan Medical School Insider webinar [free pre-registration required], using the analogy that an applicant’s biggest weakness was (noting the pun) being overweight.  While that particular example is quite valid, this article focuses on helping you identify a weakness that answers this question honestly.

Characteristics of successful future health care professionals

I want to make this perfectly clear: There is no secret what the characteristics of successful health care professionals are.  In the previous article, I pointed out the ACGME competencies and its effects on professional education.  Additionally, every single health professional school has a vision of the type of student they want to promote as an alumnus.  It’s written in every mission statement. It’s evident in the awards earned by their students in national meetings or their alumni in professional meetings.  And it’s obvious from the open, honest panel discussions you have with students, residents, alumni, clinical faculty, and residency directors.
While there are cultural differences among schools, all are looking for the same type of talent that has these characteristics.  What surprised me was that these clearly articulated characteristics could be found in every “technical standards of admission” document I researched, whether it was for allopathic medicine, osteopathic medicine, dentistry, pharmacy, optometry, veterinary medicine, podiatry, or physical therapy.  Furthermore, these holistic standards coincided with “multiple intelligence theory,” which has its base in psychology but has more recently become popular in business.
With this knowledge, I changed the evaluation criteria that were used for our institutional letters from the traditional GPA-exam-activities-service model to a more holistic assessment that specifically addressed these technical standards.  This made the process more inclusive to those students previously isolated from pre-health advising (occupational therapy, audiology, physician assistant, allied health) and expanded our advisee pool to better include post-bacs, alumni, and graduate students as well as diverse populations who were traditionally excluded.  As long as everyone found my office website and got connected early in the process, advisees would focus on how to truly understand her or his holistic strengths and weaknesses and use the advising resources to develop more confidence and competence in all areas.

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Ten major domains (plus one)

Like the Ten Commandments, there is an intellectual order in these domains, but none should be viewed as significantly more important than the others.  The questions provided are examples to help you reflect (and often to assist my evaluating interviewers) on your strengths and weaknesses, but are not meant to be a comprehensive list.

1. Academic foundation

What was the performance of the applicant in coursework (science, behavioral, humanities, social science, fine arts, etc.) taken that prepares an applicant for success?  This is not a question limited to grade point average performance (though there are expected ranges), but also includes the diversity and intellectual depth of coursework.  What skills (see below) were acquired and tested in the curricula?

2. Intellectual curiosity and ability

How often and/or successfully has the applicant applied knowledge (academic foundation) to and been invested in scholarly questions or projects of personal interest?  What additional opportunities did the applicant pursue to address and develop academic or professional competencies that could not otherwise be tested in a classroom setting?

3. Social and interpersonal skills

How well does the applicant relate to the world community (such as culture, age, gender identity, hierarchy) as a future team member, authority, advocate, and professional?  What diverse situations have tested the applicant’s skills?

Mentoring relationships
How often does the applicant cite a strong professional mentoring relationship with advisors, faculty, supervisors, or authorities?  How often do the applicant’s letters of recommendation reveal the potential for or existence of such a strong relationship?

4. Project or management experience

How successfully has the applicant been able to organize priorities in tasks, time, finances, and regulations to achieve a project goal?  How has the applicant developed promising characteristics or insights as a professional, a team member and an authority?

5. Intrapersonal intelligence

How realistic is the applicant’s own vision and goals as a future health care professional? Has the applicant reflected on his/her own strengths and weaknesses in an honest way, and how has the applicant attempted to address them?  What personal philosophies, integrity, ethics, or behavioral limits have the applicant set (or have been set environmentally or culturally upon the applicant), and how have those limits been tested and/or externally validated or invalidated?  How well honed is this person’s self-assessment skills (compared to solicited and unsolicited external references)?

6. Observational and aesthetic intelligence

How has the applicant demonstrated professional excellence in observing, describing, and appreciating subtle changes or differences found in patterns, especially in humanities and artistic fields (literature, music, fine arts, popular culture, other hobbies)?  For those who ask why this is important: why did you buy that stethoscope?

7. Kinesthetic intelligence

How has the applicant demonstrated an ability to acquire professional excellence in skills involving tactile sensitivity or muscle memory, especially of repetitive tasks (physical or manual dexterity)?  Examples may include evidence of excellence in creating artwork, playing music, knitting, playing baseball/softball, typing, dancing, and potentially other hobbies.  If you want an example of why this is important, look at anything involving dentistry or surgery.

8. Written communications skills

How often has the applicant created documents or essays that reflect her/his potential as a professional?  While evidence will exist with application essays, competency evaluation may include evidence from asynchronous communications such as unsolicited mails or emails and websites.

9. Oral communications skills

How often has the applicant presented his/her potential as a professional in oral communication opportunities?  While evidence will exist with application interviews, this competency evaluation will also include any synchronous communication with the applicant (telephone, videoconference, face-to-face encounters).  Consideration is also extended to opportunities at professional conferences or other opportunities where the applicant professionally represents a community.

10.  Knowledge of the profession

How deeply has the applicant considered her/his role in the health care system, and how that role may change or be limited in a team-oriented and legally regulated profession?  What roles has the applicant taken to inform, educate, and advocate for and/or to consumers, providers, and administrators of this system?

11.  Institutional fit

(the one area that only admissions committees and residency selection committees can best assess)

How well will this applicant work with patients, caregivers, allies, students, faculty, administrators, staff, and institutional resources when it comes to developing his/her competencies to become a future professional?  When has the applicant adapted to changes in professional culture or environment (for example, different clerkship supervisors, different training hospitals or implementation of new procedures), and what insights were gained?  What will this person do as a professional under your guidance/supervision that will exhibit evidence of excellence as an alumnus of the institution/training program?

In a nutshell, these are the main areas that are addressed in most of the difficult interview questions that I have ever experienced as an interviewee or crafted as an interviewer, including potential questions that I have generated for short essays for my advisees and for mini-interview competitions (similar to mini-OSCE/multiple mini-interviews).  Notice that in most cases, the issue of professionalism cuts across all of these areas.
As you are preparing to apply, it is extremely important that you find a group of professionals (your own pre-professional or pre-residency recommendation committee) with experience and expertise in these competencies.  This is where having at least one significantly strong long-term advising or mentoring relationship (pre-health advisor, faculty member, student programs dean, clinical supervisor, volunteer coordinator) is your best asset and can arguably be the difference to help you get to the next step.  These are the relationships that must be reflected in your letters of recommendation and that will be most useful to selection committees.  They can help you find the deficiencies that can keep you from meeting your goals, but only if you have the courage to look at yourself in the competency mirror.
Emil Chuck, Ph.D., is the Health Professions Advisor and Term Assistant Professor of Biology and Bioengineering at George Mason University.  He has worked with Kaplan Test Prep & Admissions as an admissions consultant, student advisor, and test prep instructor.  There are no conflicting relationships that are relevant or associated with the information in this article.

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Emil Chuck, Ph.D., is the Health Professions Advisor and Term Assistant Professor of Biology and Bioengineering at George Mason University. He has worked with Kaplan Test Prep & Admissions as an admissions consultant, student advisor, and test prep instructor. There are no conflicting relation... Emil Chuck, Ph.D., is the Health Professions Advisor and Term Assistant Professor of Biology and Bioengineering at George Mason University. He has wo...
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    Jeff
  • March 17, 2011
I note that many of these competencies would be quite welcome in non-medical professions as well.
However, I hope that applicants who shall be evaluated by these criteria are made aware of them well in advance of such evaluation. In my own undergraduate experience, due to a lack of advising and guidance at my alma mater, I simply never became aware of the opportunities to work with professors outside of classrooms, take on extra academic or research projects, and otherwise develop these kinds of competencies--one of the deepest regrets of my education.
I hope that advising at the undergraduate level will be strong enough to encourage students to develop these competencies.
I also, however, do harbor some concern that there are issues of scale here: do we reach a point where the sheer number of premedical students seeking research opportunities (to demonstrate a developed intellectual curiosity) and dance lessons (for kinesthetic skills), etc., overwhelms the available resources that would make these useful enrichments? Do we run the risk of turning extra-academic experiences into a g-chem lecture, done more for its potential or theoretical value than for what it achieves in practice?
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    Crisologo
  • March 18, 2011
I have to agree with Jeff about the competencies being brought to the students attention earlier in the academic process. I am a post-bacc pre-med that never really received proper guidance. My education is quite well-rounded and includes holding full-time employment during my undergraduate studies, and I feel that proper advising would be pivotal in the education process and too many institutions suffer from lack of competent advisers. My guidance consisted of "okay, you are set up to take all of the required classes, everything should be good..." and the importance of teacher/student relationships was never emphasized. Thousands of dollars later and I am starting my journey at a disadvantage when compared to the average applicant. This list of competencies should be part of everyone's advising curriculum.
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    Ro
  • March 18, 2011
I too have had the same problem. All these advisors put a "scoreboard" up and state that you will not get into medical school without a high GPA and MCAT. The process is far more in depth than that. There is also have speaking skills and being able to relate to your audience. I never knew this as an undergrad but as a grad student this was all shown in spades. My advisors at the grad level were far superior to my undergrad advisors. This is why I feel undgrads should seek help in anyway possible. Sometimes your professors (mine actually served on med school adcoms) know more than the pre-med advisors (none of mine served on adcoms). Make sure to maximize all your resources; students, professors, physicians, and med school affiliates. This is how you can tell if a person is giving you good advice from one that is giving you mediocre advice.

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