By Joel Butterly
Medical school interviews come in all different shapes and sizes. Some schools interview one-on-one, some have multiple interviewers, some have multiple-mini-interviews (MMI). Some schools use students, others use faculty, and some use alumni.
In preparing this article, I interviewed admissions officers from the top medical schools – Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Penn, UCSF, and others. What I found was that their advice on med school interviews varied tremendously.
However, nearly every person I interviewed commented on several common mistakes that applicants are constantly making. These aren’t always deal-breaking mistakes, but for an applicant who is right on the cusp of admission, avoiding these mistakes can be the difference between a fat envelope and a thin rejection letter.
1. Don’t assume that the interviewer knows how serious you are about becoming a doctor.
In your interview, you must demonstrate that you are fully committed to this field, and convey a clear sense of purpose in your professional goals. Never assume that applying and showing up for an interview is sufficient evidence of your commitment. Here’s why:
Admissions officers have a job. For medical school admissions officers, that job includes vetting and selecting the best possible students for their program. One of the most important criteria by which these admissions officers are judged is the dropout rate. If 20% of the students that they admit end up dropping out midway through medical school, it reflects terribly on the admissions officers who selected them.
Moreover, medical students are extremely expensive. Medical schools pour hundreds of thousands – if not millions – of dollars into training their students. Every time a student drops out, that money is wasted. Even the wealthiest medical schools cannot afford too many dropouts.
Long story short, admissions committees are extremely sensitive to indications that an applicant will “go the distance.” You would do well to convey this to your interviewer. Similarly, admissions committees are extremely sensitive to indications that an applicant is not 100% sure that medical school is right for them.
The most common example cited by admissions officers was that applicants, when asked why they wanted to attend medical school, would routinely respond that their parents are doctors. This is never a good strategy. To an admissions officer, this is like saying that you are going to move to Bhutan because your friend did it and seemed to enjoy it. Of course, you can mention that your parents are physicians, but leading with this fact is a surefire way of indicating that you haven’t thought your decision through.
Moreover, when asked why you wish to become a doctor, make your answer specific. Don’t say, “I’ve always wanted to help people.” Say how you want to help people. Better yet, give a short story that is representative of what you want to do, and why. The more specific and concrete, the more likely you are to seem like a safe bet to admissions officers.
2. Understand how difficult medical school and practicing medicine can be – and be able to explain why this isn’t a problem for you
Admissions officers want to make absolutely certain that applicants know what they are getting themselves into. The reality is that very few, if any applicants truly understand the commitment it takes to see themselves through medical school and residency.
Nonetheless, you might consider talking with some current residents or recent residency graduates to figure out what the absolute worst parts about becoming a doctor are. You should probably know this for your own sake, but for the purposes of the interview, being well-informed about the downsides of medical school and practicing medicine is a huge asset.
If your interviewer doesn’t think you know what you are getting yourself into, they may reject you because they don’t think you’ll be able to stomach the challenges. It is crucial that you show them otherwise.
Spend some time thinking about how to address these “downsides” in an interview. You could rephrase them as a positive feature: “I love intense working environments, and I think working late-nights in the hospital when there are a million things to do, and not enough people to do them, would be really exhilarating.” Obviously, you don’t want to be too over-the-top, or the interviewer will know you’re full of it.
You might also explain why these downsides don’t matter, in light of other considerations. Maybe you are so determined and passionate about a certain aspect of medicine, that these things are a small price to pay.
Bottom line: make sure that you take a moment in your interview – if at all possible – to show that you know something about the challenges you will face, and that you are fully committed to facing them head-on.
3. Compassion is key – don’t forget to show that you’re human
Shockingly, many students go into the interview too scared or too hyped-up to demonstrate a critical characteristic: compassion. Without compassion – and a lot of it – practicing medicine is nearly impossible.
Make sure that you don’t ignore the human element of your candidacy. Interviewers know your test scores, your GPA, they’ve seen your resume…now show them that there is a compassionate, amiable human being behind it all.
Admissions committees (at least for many of the top-ranked schools) sit and debate whether an applicant should be admitted. Your interviewer will probably speak or write on your behalf during these deliberations. If you have failed to convey your compassion and amiability during your interview, chances are good that your interviewer will not fight too hard if other members of the committee decide to pass on your application. Thus, you cannot give the impression that you lack compassion; if you do, your allies on the admissions committee will be dramatically reduced.
4. A Student Interviewer is not an excuse to relax
Most applicants breathe a small sigh of relief when they find out that they are being interviewed by a medical student. This is a mistake for two reasons.
First, these student interviewers are more likely to be an “interviewer-from-hell” than their senior counterparts. They are eager to prove how rigorous and devoted they are, and that might translate to a much more aggressive and rigorous interview style.
Second, admissions committees do not send in student interviewers with the expectation that they will perform a different job than any other interviewer. They are assessing the same things as the more seasoned interviewers, and so you should maintain the same level of composure and professionalism as you would for any other interview.
A number of admissions officers and student interviewers have told me that many applicants seem to think that they can be more casual when a student is interviewing them. The truth is that while this is sometimes the case, most applicants go way too far. This is an interview, not a social interaction, and trying to act like you’re talking with a friend on the street will only make you seem unprofessional and unqualified.
Bottom line: keep it professional.
5. Know your application
Many interviewers will have your application right in front of them. Sometimes, they will start the interview asking you questions about different parts of your application. You need to know your application(s) by heart. If you put something in the activities/experiences section of the AMCAS application, and can’t remember what you wrote when your interviewer asks about it, you are going to look foolish, if not dishonest. This happens surprisingly often.
Bottom line: You should be able to recall every part of your application, so that you can talk about it fluently if and when you are asked.
6. Be honest about your weaknesses
Many interviewers ask applicants about their weaknesses. When discussing your weaknesses, honesty and candor can make the difference between a great response and one which will, at best, do nothing for your chances of admission.
Your biggest weakness is not that you work too hard, care too much, take on too many challenges, are too hard on yourself, or any other strength-disguised-as-a-weakness. As soon as you give one of these self-serving responses, you have grouped yourself into the roughly 50% of applicants (according to one source) who believe that offering one of their positive characteristics as their “biggest weakness” is an effective strategy. It isn’t. Admissions officers see right through this, and are likely to feel that you are either too immature to be self-reflective, or too dishonest to give a straightforward answer.
This doesn’t mean that you should go nuts criticizing yourself. Don’t say that you are a heavy drinker, a drug addict, a criminal, or a psychopath; you’re right to keep those thing to yourself. However, you can and should talk about things that you really do struggle with, and how you’re working to improve on those things (this latter component is very important).
For example, maybe you are easily frustrated, have difficulty taking orders, or struggle to memorize long lists of details. What is important is that you recognize these things, and explain that (and how) you are working on improving them. This shows honesty, integrity, and maturity – all things which medical schools want to see in their students.
Bottom line: you have weaknesses which are undesirable. Pick one of them, work on it, and then tell your interviewer about it with a straight face.
Joel Butterly is a JD Student at Yale University and received his AB in Government & International Studies from Dartmouth University.
This article was originally published on StudentDoctor.net on December 22, 2013.