By Deborah Gutman, MD, MPH
Preparing for an interview always feels like an awkward exercise. How exactly do you prepare? Do you write out answers to the most commonly asked questions? Do you participate in mock interviews? These are common and valuable approaches, but you run the risk of sounding rehearsed in an interview setting which may come off as disingenuous. Other applicants might be inclined not to practice at all because they feel confident and believe their application and personality should speak for themselves. However, this may not be an entirely reliable approach, because you may find that you have trouble remembering or clearly stating important information about yourself when you are put on the spot and you have limited time to represent yourself. You may end up having that moment after the interview when you think, “I wish I said that more clearly” or worse, “I can’t believe I said that”. Another option is not to PRACTICE, but rather, to PREPARE for your interviews. Instead of practicing rote answers, preparation allows you to spend time giving meaningful and in-depth thought to what character traits and skills you bring to the table and why you might be a good fit for a particular medical (or dental, or veterinary) school, or why the school might be a good fit for you. Here are a few tools and exercises you may want to try in preparation for interview season. (They also come in handy for finishing those personal statements and secondary essays).
1. Mind mapping is a visual way to think about a topic or a concept. Mind maps allow you to “map” out ideas and organize them using keywords, colors and images that radiate out from a central main concept. This tool could be used to create a visual image of what makes up YOU. The center circle should be your name or image. From there you would work on adding different spheres of your past development and current life. You could add education, activities, personality traits, passions, family, etc. The ideas is to create a visual representation that you can reference when you answer questions about yourself. Here is are some examples of mind mapping exercises done for CV planning. You could also use a mind map that is divided into competencies you want to demonstrate in an interview setting. At the completion of the exercise you should have a visual reference tool to help you identify many topics that you can and want to talk about on your interview day. There are many mind mapping apps and tools available. Here is a list of 24 mind mapping tools. You can use a software program or just use a blank piece of paper and get started.
2. SWOT (Strength, Weaknesses, Opportunities & Threats) Analysis is a tool to help you identify your strengths and weaknesses in order to identify opportunities and threats. To do a SWOT analysis you need paper and time. You can download a SWOT analysis worksheet to help get you organized. This is a technique in which you outline your strengths by asking yourself what skills or advantages you have that others may not have and/or thinking about your accomplishments. Then you spend time identifying your weaknesses by asking yourself questions such as: What tasks do you avoid because of lack of confidence? What would people around you say are your weaknesses? Do you have negative work habits or personality traits that hold you back? Next you spend some time identifying opportunities to that might take advantage of your strengths or bolster your weaknesses. Are there courses you can take to learn a new skill? Are there projects you can embark on that would specifically highlight your strengths? Lastly, you identify the obstacles or threats that you face in your future job or educational setting. The goal of this exercise is to help you match your strengths to opportunities and to think about ways you can overcome your weaknesses. This will help both with interview questions and when you critically evaluate schools. Spending time identifying your personal SWOT analysis should help you determine if a school will be a good fit for your particular strengths and weaknesses. Will the educational mission and curriculum provide you with more opportunities or more threats? It is not uncommon to be asked, “Why are you interested in our school?” or “Why do you think you would be a good fit for our school?” This exercise should help you know the answer.
3. STAR (Situation, Task, Action, Result) is an organizational tool used to help you focus in on specific situations that demonstrate your competencies in preparation for behavior-based interview questions. Behavior-based interviews rely on the premise that past behavior is a predictor of future behavior. Interviewers typically have in mind core competencies they are looking for and then develop questions that may highlight those competencies. The AAMC has developed 15 core competencies for entering medical students. Examples of behavior-based questions you might be asked at a medical school interview include: Describe a stressful situation, how did you handle it? Give an example of how you work well on a team. Tell me about a time when you failed. Describe how you deal with someone in crisis. This tool helps you prepare a cohesive and informative story about your experiences. Start by identifying at least 6-8 meaningful experiences from your past that you can use to demonstrate the medical school competencies. Most should be positive experiences, but some should be situations that were negative but you made the best of them. Examples can be pulled from any area of your life – this is a good time to reference your mind map if you completed one. For each experience clearly identify the situation and set the context, identify the task you needed or wanted to accomplish, describe the action(s) you took (were there other options? why did you choose the one you did?) and lastly, describe the outcome and what you learned. It is important to be concise yet include enough specific details for the story to be memorable. You could develop a table such as this one to help you prepare for specific questions.<
As the proverb states “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”. There is no Act II when it comes to interviews. The time invested in adequately preparing for interviews will prevent the agony and time of trying to recover from a poor first and last impression at your dream school. Thinking about a STAR approach to your experiences can be the difference between answering “I demonstrated initiative by working in one of the most successful labs on campus and being asked to do a research presentation” versus “When I worked at X lab I was invited to present my research. I quickly realized how difficult it was to clearly explain scientific concepts just using words to non-science audiences. I took the initiative of developing an animation of our central research concept. This was extremely well received and I have since discovered additional opportunities to integrate my passion for animation with my passion for science”.
About the Author
Deborah Gutman, MD, MPH is a practicing emergency physician and a former assistant residency director. You can find her at www.deborahgutmanmd.com.