Five Mistakes to Avoid in Medical School Interviews

We all know medical school interviews are important. But did you know, according to a survey of medical school admissions committees conducted by the American Association of Medical Colleges (AAMC), interviews are the most important factor used to decide which applicants gain acceptance (Dunleavy DM, et al. Medical School Admissions: More than Grades and Test Scores. AIB. 11 (6), 2011)? The most important factor! Fortunately, interview techniques can be learned and, when practiced, improved. This article addresses the five biggest mistakes I have seen pre-meds make regarding interviews during my over 10+ years as a Harvard pre-med tutor and admissions consultant.
1. Assuming medical school interviews are granted based on a computer algorithm
Many pre-meds assume the majority of medical school admissions committees decide whom to interview based on a computer algorithm. According to the AAMC survey mentioned above, which received responses from 90% of all admissions committees, only 12% of admissions committees used a computer algorithm to help select interview candidates. All other schools had admissions committee members or staff read the application. Yes, someone does actually review your AMCAS application and secondary essays (or TMDSAS for Texas applicants or AACOMAS for DO applicants).
I have seen pre-meds with high GPAs and MCAT scores make light of the written medical school application because they expect these academic credentials to be enough to earn a medical school interview. As a result of this lackluster effort, they did not receive interviews. I have also seen pre-meds with less than stellar grades and MCAT scores think they have no chance of being offered interviews at certain schools because of the computer algorithm myth. Remember, medical school admissions committees when deciding who gets an interview take every part of your application, from the personal statement to work/activities to secondary essays, into account.
2. Misunderstanding the best way to schedule interviews
I am always amazed by how much angst interview scheduling causes pre-meds. Here’s an insider secret: There is no hidden, complicated medical school interview scheduling system to game. The best time to interview is when you will be most prepared.
Most schools start offering interviews in August/September and run through March. Receiving an early interview is a good sign, but doesn’t guarantee admission. Similarly, an interview invite sent in January is just as important as one sent in September. If you haven’t been offered an interview by the end of January, it is unlikely, but not impossible, one will come your way.
The time of your interview has little bearing on interview acceptance chances in schools that follow “regular” admissions processes. This is because most regular admissions schools interview all candidates first, and then make final acceptance, waitlist, and rejection decisions sometime in February, March, or April. Interviewing timing can matter, however, in rolling admissions schools. Rolling admissions schools interview a batch of applicants, and then offer the best candidates admission within weeks. The later you interview, the fewer spots will be available, and, generally speaking, the less likely you are to gain acceptance. But rolling admissions schools often take the scheduling decision out of your hands by providing one short window of interview dates. You simply need to choose the date that works best for you in the timeframe given. If you are offered a choice of interview dates many weeks to months apart, try to interview earlier rather than later. Of course, if you aren’t going to be ready to interview during an earlier time frame, it’s best to delay. A poor interview performance usually leads to rejection. It follows naturally that interviewing early and performing badly is worse than interviewing later and excelling, even at rolling admissions schools. Take home point – scheduling should be based on what works best for you and your ability to excel.
3. Not adequately preparing an answer to the inevitable “Why MD?” question
Motivation to enter medicine is the number one quality interviewers aim to assess in applicants. You will be asked about why you want to be a physician in some way in every interview. It really is “the” question, isn’t it?
I encourage you to try and answer the question, “Why do you want to be a doctor?” right now. Harder than it seems, right? Perhaps you started off with something like, “I want to enter medicine because I gain great satisfaction from helping others, and I love science.” This is the most typical answer provided by pre-meds when first asked to describe their motivation for entering medicine. And it makes sense. Every future physician should want to help others and enjoy science. But to stand out in medical school interviews, you must dive deeper, using your passion for science and helping others as the starting point and peeling back the layers until you find the very specific reasons for becoming a physician supported by your life experiences.
I suggest coming up with three talking points, as humans think best in groups of three. Tie three talking points to concise personal anecdotes to help the interviewer remember your reasons. After interviewing dozens of applicants, which will a medical school interviewer remember more easily – the name of a pre-med’s community service project or that the project involved bushwhacking through the jungle to reach remote southeast Asian villages and deliver medical supplies? Use brief stories to help the interviewer remember you.
Preparing an answer to the “Why MD?” question takes deep thought and practice. Practice the answer with anyone who will listen – your college or post-bac pre-med advisor, your doctor uncle, your sister, your significant other, and your admissions consultant. Practice, practice, and practice some more. Make your motivation for entering medicine clear and memorable.
4. Misuse of ethical terms
Ethical and behavioral questions have gained popularity in medical school interviews as a means of testing less about your moral code and more about how you think. These types of questions are the mainstay of Multiple Mini Interviews (MMIs), but are also increasing in popularity in traditional interviews. Ethical and behavioral questions usually have no right answer, but often do require a baseline understanding of ethical terms and laws that guide physicians during ethical dilemmas.
I have noticed many pre-meds are tripped up when they lack understanding of subtle nuances in ethical definitions, such as the difference between euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide. Do you know the difference? I suggest reading up on ethical topics to both ensure you understand the terminology and to help in the formation of your own opinions. There are many places you can find information on bioethics as a quick Internet search reveals. I find these websites particularly useful: http://bioethics.od.nih.gov/ and http://depts.washington.edu/bioethx/topics/.
5. Not practicing for Multiple Mini Interviews (MMIs)
A new type of interview called the MMI is taking off in the medical school admissions world. Started at McMaster University, MMIs involve multiple short independent questions at different stations, usually in a timed circuit, with each station involving a unique scenario and interviewer. The MMIs focus on an applicant’s “soft skills,” testing interpersonal relations, moral judgment, teamwork, and professionalism. In general, you will walk up to a room with a written scenario posted on the door. After reading the scenario and taking a moment to think, you will enter the room and do what is asked in the scenario. The entire station generally takes eight to ten minutes. All MMIs require you to sign a pledge not to discuss the scenarios with anyone.
Many pre-meds think they don’t need to practice for MMIs. “Dr. Miller,” they say, “How do you practice for an interview that tests soft skills and no one can share the scenarios?” Here’s my answer: you practice for a MMI by finding an interviewer with MMI experience. The most likely people to ask are your pre-med advisor or an admissions consultant. Retired MMI questions exist that are perfect for practice sessions.
The key to succeeding in MMIs is to think out loud. Use retired MMI questions that exist on the Internet to practice answering questions in a way that clearly shows the interviewer your thought process. I suggest a three-part approach. Start with summarizing what you believe the scenario is asking. Then move through, point by point, the issues you are considering when answering the question. Finally, clearly answer the question. This framework for answering MMI questions takes practice and will be highly effective when you get used to it.
Best of luck in your interview preparations. As with most things, practice makes perfect!