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.
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?
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.