It’s about that time of year again. This time four years ago, I was anxiously preparing for my medical school interview. It seems like every year I have someone in my life needing advice on how to get through this process and land themselves a seat.
I have gone through this experience myself three times, I’ve taken an interview prep course, and I’ve volunteered as an interviewer for one year. While of course I can’t share with you the questions my program uses, I can offer some advice to help make the situation a little easier.
How to prepare
I don’t think anyone has ever gone into a medical school interview not expecting to be asked “why do you want to be a doctor?” Of course you will be asked that question. Have an answer, but don’t have one that is so well prepared you sound as though you’re reading a script. Be honest. If you really don’t know why you want to be a doctor, you should probably reconsider what you’re planning on committing to for the rest of your life.
“Because I want to help people” is the answer that the majority of people will say. This isn’t the time to give the same answer as everyone else, and I hope that isn’t the only reason anyone wants to be a doctor. What about medicine really makes you tick? Have a story that is 100% you. What moment in your life did you decide you wanted to be a doctor? Do you love science? Problem solving? Did you latch on to something in high school biology and can’t stop learning about it? You don’t need a sad story about a brush with death and the magic performed on you in a hospital, but what you say needs to be real. Unless the reason you want to go to medical school is for money, in which case I wouldn’t say that, and instead would suggest withdrawing your application now – medicine isn’t for you and there are better ways to get rich.
One thing I noticed during my time interviewing applicants is that you can really tell who is being genuine, and who came up with the answer they think you want to hear. You can see the light in their eyes when they talk about something they’re passionate about. Conjure that up, because it is pure gold.
Try and think of an experience where you collaborated as a team to get a job done, how without teamwork, reaching that goal wouldn’t be possible. Think of a time where a breakdown in communication caused an adverse event, and how you learned communication skills that could prevent that from happening again, or how particular communication skills (you should be able to identify specific skills you have developed) prevented a mistake from happening. Come up with an example of a time where you advocated for change, where you faced adversity and how you overcame that. Essentially, they want to know what skills you possess that will make you a good doctor, but listing them isn’t enough. The difference between a good applicant and an exceptional one is someone that can prove they have the traits they’re talking about, and discuss how they developed their skill set. Another ten points if you can say how you continue to improve your skills. We never know enough, us humans, and should be able to describe how we will continue to better ourselves.
While you’re preparing, I would suggest making some jot notes to bring up while answering that question. Don’t write a word-for-word script for yourself, because you can immediately pick out applicants who have answers memorized. It looks terrible. Interviewers really do just want to get to know you. A medical school committee doesn’t want to know what you think they want to hear. They want something real. I don’t want a doctor who can’t interact with me, or who memorizes things to tell me. I want someone who can offer up interaction, passion for their chosen career path, and compassion for others. Mix a little of those things into your responses and you’ll be fine. Ask a friend to go over some questions with you and try to answer as genuinely as possible.
Finally, take a glance at the CanMEDS framework. I’m not sure if a similar entity exists in the United States or elsewhere, but if you’re in Canada, you will probably be reciting these roles in your sleep for the rest of your life. You will write an infinite number of papers on them, and you will have to submit your professional hours with emphasis on these roles for the rest of your career. I even know someone who dressed up as the CanMEDS flower for Halloween. I’m not saying to talk about nothing but these roles for the entirety of your interview, but they can offer some perspective as to what a medical school wants in a physician. You should have some idea about each of these roles in the framework, as it will help you gain some understanding as to why they are asking you some of the questions thrown at you in a multiple mini interview.
For example, if you are given a scenario to act out with a professional or another applicant, they want to see how you communicate with others. If you’re asked to describe how you work with a team who doesn’t do their share of the work, they want to hear about your skills as a leader. If you find common interview questions online and try to apply these roles to them, then think about what makes a good leader, scholar, professional, advocate, communicator, or collaborator, you will find yourself answers to the questions they are asking.
What to wear
This is a question I am commonly asked, and each year my phone gets flooded with potential wardrobe choices from a friend or two.
Of course, anyone will tell you business professional attire is required. For guys, it’s a little easier. A suit and tie, simple right? Choose a colour and you’re done! I’ll give you a warning that watching everyone pour into a building on interview day looks like attack of the clones if storm troopers wore plain black, ill-fitted suits. There is a trick to standing out without compromising professionalism. Navy or grey might be something you’re into, maybe a pinstripe. But mainly just ensure your suit fits really well, regardless of colour.
Ladies have a little more trouble deciding what to wear, how to style their hair, make-up or no?
Again, it is common to see an army of young women standing in poorly tailored suits. The best way to look stylish and professional is to have a suit that fits well – not one that makes you look as though you’re wearing a paper bag, or as though you’re shaped like a box. I recently bought a suit from Banana Republic and was totally impressed by the feminine appearance of their professional attire. Would highly recommend.
Pantsuit versus skirt. The age old debate. During my first interview for medical school I opted for a skirt. I somehow managed to get a run in not one but two pairs of tights. I was smart enough to bring a backup (always bring a backup), but didn’t foresee myself needing two pairs. I underestimated my own clumsiness. If you do opt for a skirt, be sure it is at least knee length, and that it is fitted, but not tight. For some reason there is always a girl or two who wears a dress. If you can find the right one that looks, well, like a suit – go for it. Otherwise, I’d probably stay away.
Heels or no heels? I believe for my interviews I wore a low, comfortable heel. Every interview will have you marching around the medical school all day long, you don’t want to be the person who looks silly, trailing behind, nearly limping. This isn’t the time to buy new shoes to wear for your first time that day. Whatever you wear, be able to walk far in them looking like a normal human. If you aren’t a heels type of gal, just go ahead and wear flats. You can get really cute loafers that are totally comfortable, and I guarantee you will wear them plenty more throughout medical school and in your career.
Make-up or au natural? If you never wear make-up, I wouldn’t choose this particular event to start. You want to be yourself. If you always wear makeup, go for a natural look. I’d recommend some foundation, going light on contour and blush, less than over the top brows, and some mascara. I wouldn’t go for eye shadow or a lip colour, but if you feel as though you want to go there – try and look as natural as possible.
Hair – up, down, or in between? Honestly, it doesn’t really matter. I can’t think of a single instance where a student sat in front of me on interview day and I remembered what their hair looked like. Unless it looked as though it hadn’t been brushed in about a week (that did happen). I would recommend one word to follow: sleek. If your hair is curly, just put enough product in it to stave off frizz. If it’s straight, let it be. Sure you can curl it and look totally fabulous, but if you’re at all afraid that the way it looks at 7am won’t be how it looks by 5pm, you may want to just put it up. In which case I’d recommend a low bun or pony tail. Keep it professional.
The night before
‘Twas the night before interviews, and all through the house – the place is a buzzing, you’re looking for a blouse. Your closet is empty, contents strewn without care. Your hair is a mess, what shoes should you wear?
That pretty much sums up how all of my interviews went. I remember one year sitting on the floor in the middle of my closet crying to my friend that I will never get into medical school (I did, you will too – so relax!).
If you absolutely must, take another glance at your discussion points, but don’t obsessively read over them all night – if you don’t know it by this point, you won’t learn it tonight! Have your outfit ready, ironed and neatly hung somewhere that your cat won’t get fur on it, or it won’t slip off the hanger into a pile of hair. Decide what you’ll have for breakfast and have everything ready, then go to bed early.
The morning of
Eat your breakfast first, then brush your teeth, do your hair, and put on your makeup. Give yourself minimal opportunity to get food/makeup/hair products/toothpaste all over your suit. Put your extra tights in your bag if you need them, get dressed and head out the door. Give yourself plenty of time to get there and find parking. A friend in my class couldn’t find parking before our interviews, ended up parking in a bus lane, and finished her interview by finding a $300 ticket on her car. She did get in though, so maybe there’s something to that trick after all.
When you get to the interview area, mingle with other applicants. Try talking about something other than the interview, but try not to engage in “what amazing traits do you have to get into medical school, I did all of THIS research” – “yeah, but I did all of THIS research”. No one walks away from those conversations feeling more confident about their interview. Ask where they’re from, usually a good start. I’ve met great friends while we were waiting for interviews, and it helps break the tension a little.
How to formulate answers
Once you get in the room, what do you say?
The one thing I learned from the interview prep course I took was how to create a comprehensive answer without rambling on, a mistake I no doubt made in previous interviews I had gone through. Formulate answers as though you are writing an essay. When you are asked a question, or when you read it on the door outside the room, come up with a few points to answer it, relating back to why that is an important trait for a physician to have. When you begin to answer, start by saying something that essentially reframes the question, state your points, and then finish with a conclusion.
For example, if I were asked “if you could be any type of vegetable, what would you be and why?”
My first reaction would be “why would anyone ask me that?” – if I were to just spit out anything or the first thing that came to mind it may sound something like this:
Well, I do like vegetables. I’d probably be a zucchini, because I really like zucchini, they’re healthy and I eat them a lot, and I can cook them lots of different ways.
I actually had a conversation with someone about this exact question, and that is basically the answer they gave, followed by “what a stupid question”.
So let’s pick apart why they would ask you something so silly. First of all, no one is expecting a question like that. It throws you off just enough that you feel pressured, and an interviewer gets to see how you perform under stress. More importantly though, you didn’t know it was coming, so you have to come up with something genuine. You didn’t prepare an answer for this one at home. No scripts. It requires that you think about your own personality traits and apply creativity to come up with a solution to the problem.
What might be a better answer, is something like this:
If I were any vegetable (reframe the question), I think I would probably be a butternut squash. Their colour is bright yellow, it reminds me of the sunny disposition I try to embody, the smile I greet strangers with, or when I strike up a conversation with the lady in front of me at the grocery store (Point 1). It is an extremely versatile vegetable. I use it in soup, chilli, baked, grilled, it can be made sweet or savoury, depending on the circumstances you put it in. It is like me in that sense, I have different traits I am able to apply depending on the circumstances. I think it is important for physicians to have this skill, as working in health care you must be able to adapt to be whatever your patient and their family need at the time. You may spend time with a patient who is dying, surrounded by family and friends, then see a patient celebrating the news that their cancer has gone into remission, next you may be thrown into an emergency and have to deal with that. It is important to be able to adapt to each situation to provide safe, compassionate, and effective care for patients (Point 2). Finally, butternut squash has a tough skin, protecting its soft interior. I am similar in that I have developed skills through my experience in nursing school, to protect myself from the sometimes tragic circumstances my patients find themselves in. I believe physicians must be able to provide compassionate care while maintaining self care, otherwise their patients may not receive the safe, competent care they deserve (Point 3). I considered choosing a tomato instead, because it is also quite versatile and can be applied to many different situations. It is used in cooking across many cultures, appealing to my love of travel and desire to make a global impact in medicine, but ultimately I decided that the butternut squash most closely resembles my personality for the reasons I mentioned – its friendly disposition, adaptability, and protective skin. I think that these qualities also make for an excellent physician (Conclusion).
Or something like that. Regardless of how silly that answer is, present your answers in a clear, concise manner. Provide some evidence of your thought process and how you are able to see the other side of things (I considered another answer because, but I ultimately chose this one because). I learned that using an introduction and conclusion gave me a way to prevent myself from rambling on and on. Basically, thats most of what I learned throughout my prep course – so way to go, you just saved $1,100!
A lot of questions ask you to give your opinion on something that has two opposing arguments. It is best to answer these questions as an argumentative essay. Clearly state which side of the argument you are on, give a reason why, ideally with an experience or example to back it up. Then provide an argument for the opposite choice. Show that you are able to take both sides into consideration and look at the whole picture. You might even want to say something like ultimately, in this scenario I would choose option A. while in this scenario I would choose option B.
The whole purpose of these questions is to gain an idea of how you think through problems. Nothing in medicine is black and white, you must be able to see opposing sides and appreciate them in your decision making. Every single patient encounter you will ever have requires a balance between benefit and harm, if you can’t see one of those sides and balance your choices properly, your patients will suffer. Critical thinking is a difficult thing to assess when meeting someone for the first time, so these questions are the best schools can do.
Ultimately, most questions for medical school interviews follow principles of ethics like beneficence (doing good) vs maleficence (causing harm), patient autonomy (the right to make their own decisions), interprofessional collaboration and communication, and to identify what personality traits and skills you have as an applicant that would make you a good physician. They also want to see that you can self-reflect to identify those traits in yourself.
What they don’t want to hear
I already mentioned that you shouldn’t formulate your answers based on what you think the admissions committee wants to hear, but to be genuine and show them who you really are. The interview process really is just meant for programs to get to know you. Interviewers really don’t want to make you stressed, they want you to perform well. See this as an opportunity to show them who you really are, and just relax.
You don’t need to spend all of your time belabouring your extensive research background. They have all of your information and your accomplishments in your application already. Tell them things that aren’t there. Tell them lessons you have learned from your research – working together with others in a lab, learning to critique articles and how you think that will help you as a physician. Tell them about a time you made a mistake, what you’ve learned from that and how it changed you as a person. This is your opportunity to say why the things on your application are important. No one will see your experience working as a camp counsellor as all that significant until they hear you say that you learned how to prioritize and manage your time, you gained experience in managing responsibility, leadership, hard work, the list goes on and on. Draw on the experiences you’ve had to answer questions. You can’t just say you are an excellent leader, back it up with experience that has taught you to be an excellent leader and how you gained those skills.
They don’t want to hear you cite articles and policies word for word. I had an applicant who did that, and while I’m sure she walked away feeling confident, she didn’t give us any insight whatsoever into who she was as a person. If you know about a study that applies to a question, that’s great – mention it briefly, maybe offer some insight into what you thought of the particular study, but then move on.
They don’t want you to sound cocky or arrogant, but to present yourself with a professional confidence in your own skills and abilities. Smile and be polite, thank them for their time when you finish. Don’t choose an inappropriate time to say “oh by the way I’d be great for this program” when you’re being asked about professional attire in the workplace. Allow your answers to speak for themselves.
What happens if I know my interviewer?
I’m sure that this is more common in smaller schools like mine, but it is still possible of course. Basically, say hello and remain professional. Answer the questions they give you as though you had never met them before. The interviewer will indicate on their sheet whether there is a potential conflict of interest and then describe how they know you. The admissions committee will then decide if the conflict is significant enough to throw out the question. If that is the case, it will not harm your results in any way.
What happens if I blank on a question?
It happens. As an interviewer, our hearts break for you, as an applicant, you feel like the world just ended. Stop, take a breath, and say “I’m sorry, I just need a moment to think about the question”. Put your head down, breathe, and count to five. Then play through the question in your mind for 5-10 seconds. No one will judge you for being silent, or for collecting your thoughts. It is better to present a well thought out answer with a short pause than to ramble on for the entire five minutes without really ever reaching an answer, or drifting away from the point without returning to the question.
When it’s over
Relax. It’s out of your hands now. You did all that you could, tried your best, and now it’s up to the admissions committee. I know it’s easy to overthink every question you had – to think “I should have said this instead” but there’s no changing it now, so don’t worry about it.
The waiting begins, but in the mean time, you just had an interview for medical school. That’s a huge step toward your future. Think of everyone you met in your first year of college who said they wanted to go to medical school, you are in the small percentage who have made it this far. Be proud of yourself. You’re getting there!