Last Updated on June 27, 2022 by Laura Turner
After obsessively checking your email every five minutes for weeks, the appearance of your first interview offer brings with it a flood of relief and excitement. All that studying, volunteering, and writing of countless secondary applications has earned you a coveted interview slot. Yet coming on the tail of such excitement is that sense of panic. What now?
First, as you prepare it may help you to keep in mind how medical schools use the interview process to select applicants. A study conducted by the AAMC surveyed 142 U.S. medical schools, asking admission officers about their admission decisions1. They found that while your undergraduate GPA and MCAT scores are important for getting that coveted interview offer, non-academic factors have a much more significant effect on who is actually admitted, with your interview itself and your letters of recommendation weighing most heavily1. Thus they found that even amongst those with high GPAs and MCAT scores (3.8 – 4.0 and 39 – 45) 8% received no acceptances, while of those with GPAs of 3.2 to 3.39 and MCATs of 24 to 26, 18% received at least one admission offer. In addition to reading your letters of recommendation, the admission relies on interviews to get a sense of those “non-academic” factors. According to the AAMC’s study, interviewers often focus on trying to get at personal characteristics. For example, the most frequently asked questions focused on determining the applicant’s level of compassion and empathy, personal maturity, and communication skills2. In contrast, less than half indicated they asked questions to test the applicants’ knowledge of various academic subjects2. So, less reciting the Henderson-Hasselbalch equation and more stories about how you helped Mrs. Henderson sign up for health care.
As pre-meds, we tend to be really good at memorization of a defined body of knowledge. We can prepare for exams, cramming bits of minutiae. That style of preparation, however, is not what an interview calls for. However, there are steps you can take to ensure you are ready for your interviews.
1. Know your application: If you wrote about something in your application, you must be able to talk about it, regardless of how long ago it was and how irrelevant it may seem (you included it for a reason, right?). I was warned about this prior to my interviews, but brushed it off. I thought, Of course I know everything in my application. I did it after all (and spent what felt like hours entering everything into that on-line application). However, when, in the midst of one of my interviews the interviewer started asking me to talk more about 17th century Peruvian religious servants – research I had done over a decade prior – I had to scramble to dust off some very well hidden memory banks. Expect that this will happen and be ready.
This is particularly true if you did research in the sciences. Be sure you can talk about your research both technically and in layman’s terms. Most often the interviewer will be unfamiliar with your research. Your explanation should be concise and understandable for someone with no background in your area of interest. Your interviewers are smart people, but their expertise is likely in other areas. Try to convey why your research is interesting – yes, you may have spent your whole summer trying to get a single PCR experiment to work, but what were the larger questions you were trying to answer? If there is a tie to healthcare, highlight it. Practice your explanation on your parents and friends – check for eyes glazing over. Try to avoid this.
2. Create a personal story bank: Everyone loves a good story. As the AAMC study showed, medical schools are using interviews to get to know you as a person. The narrative you tell them, in your responses to their questions, will help to paint a picture of the type of person you are. Using personal stories can highlight your good qualities and make the interview more memorable for the interviewer. Your interviewers are your advocates on the admission committee. You want to give them concrete evidence of why you would be a good choice for their school so they can use this information when they discuss your application with the rest of the admissions committee. Stories can be just such evidence. These might be from your volunteer work, experiences growing up, or time you spent abroad. Look back through your application at all those activities you listed – are there anecdotes from those you can share that demonstrate your personality and highlight qualities that will make you a great doctor? From the AAMC study, personal characteristics interviewers are looking for include compassion and empathy, personal maturity, service orientation, professionalism, altruism, integrity, and leadership2. Keeping these traits in mind can help when you consider how to tell your story.
3. Think about (some of) your answers: There is no way to know all the questions you will be asked. While many of my medical school interviews were conversational in tone, with questions focusing on my background and career goals (the standard – Why medicine? Where do you want to be in ten years? etc.), others involved extended ethical scenarios that I never would have been able to anticipate. That being said, it is worth reviewing some of the most commonly asked questions. If the pre-med advising office at your school doesn’t have a list, a quick Google search will get you to a number of sites listing popular questions.
4. Research why you’re a good fit: One the questions you will almost certainly be asked at each institution at which you interview is “Why do you want to come here?” For this, try to look for things that connect your previous experiences and demonstrated interests with what the school has to offer. Maybe an experience studying abroad piqued your interest in global health or your work teaching science to middle schoolers made you interested in health outreach and the school has strong opportunities in these areas. Creating a good answer usually requires a little sleuthing around the school’s website. Try to have two or three specific examples you can point to for each school. If you want to go somewhere because of factors other than the medical school itself – like being near a significant other, in a city you’ve always wanted to live in, etc. – you can include that in your answer, but try not to make it the primary focus. The admission committee wants to hear that you have specific reason for coming to their school, not just that your significant other happens to be in law school in the same city.
5. Do a practice interview: All the mental practice in the world is nothing like the experience of a real interview. If your school offers practice interviews, sign up early. If your school does not offer interviews or you are currently out of school, ask an advisor or friend to act as interviewer. Do what you can to simulate the real thing – wear your suit, start with a firm handshake, and answer questions as if you don’t know the interviewer. At my own practice interviews, I was surprised by how some questions that seem so straight forward on paper become more difficult when you have to be concise and articulate. “So, tell me about yourself” left me tongue-tied at my first practice interview. Ask for and listen to any feedback your advisers may offer.
Also, if you are able, try to schedule a school you are less interested in attending as your first interview. This can then serve as additional practice. That being said, I ended up attending the school that was my first interview.
Interviewing for medical school is an exciting, but stressful time. Reduce your stress by taking the time to prepare. Good luck and safe travels!
Megan Riddle, MS MD Ph.D., is board certified in both adult psychiatry and consult liaison psychiatry. She attended Western Washington University and received a Bachelor of Arts in Spanish with minors in Latin and English before deciding she wanted to pursue a career in medicine and research. She received a Master’s in Biology at Western Washington University with an emphasis in genetics and then went to Weill Cornell Medical College where she earned a medical degree as well as a PhD in neuroscience. She completed her residency training in psychiatry at the University of Washington, where she was chief resident, before completing a fellowship in consult liaison psychiatry, also at the University of Washington. She is currently a Courtesy Clinical Instructor with the University of Washington Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences and enjoys teaching and supervising residents.