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Applying to Medical School

The Interview

At the outset, it should be realized that the interview is not just a brief exchange between yourself and one or more representatives of the school that has requested your appearance. The interview should not be looked upon as a one-sided affair, but rather as an opportunity for a dialogue that has advantages for both the school and you.

The school uses the interview to determine

  1. if your personal attributes are as appealing as your academic record (this goes, of course, for a student who is already academically acceptable), and if your personal attributes will enable you to overcome any deficiency that may appear.
  2. if your personal attributes will place you in the overall acceptable range (if you are considered academically borderline).
  3. if you are considered to have some obvious academic or physical deficiency, whether you have the personal attributes to overcome the deficiency.
  4. if your combination of qualities will most likely enable you to succeed as a medical student, therefore meriting your interviewer's recommendation for acceptance to the school's admission committee
  5. if you possess the qualities that will enable you to fit in with the individual school's mission (such as primary care).
  6. if the interviewer can entice you to enroll by means of a “soft” or “hard” sell in the event you are an exceptionally attractive applicant.

The interview will permit you to

  1. have an opportunity to sell yourself by projecting as favorable an image as possible, and thus overcoming any deficiencies in your record.
  2. familiarize yourself with the campus and with its facilities, as well as with members of its student body.
  3. obtain firsthand answers to questions about the school that may not yet have been answered.

Significance of the Interview

It has been previously noted that there are five primary criteria for admission to medical school. These are your nonscience GPA, science cumulative average, MCAT scores, letters of recommendation, and the interview. More than a decade ago Academic Medicine, the journal that focuses on medical educational issues, carried out a survey of U.S. medical schools to determine which of these five criteria ranks highest in importance. The result was that the criterion selected was the interview. It was chosen because they felt that by means of an interview the medical school could determine better than in any other way the noncognitive skills of an applicant. The interview also provides the possibility of obtaining the essential segments of information noted above.

The receipt of the letter requesting that you come for an interview clearly indicates that the medical school is seriously interested in you. The large volume of applications has meant that admissions officers have to be highly selective in granting interviews. Admissions officers have at their disposal only a limited number of interviewers, who are usually faculty members and whose time is obviously very valuable. Thus, obtaining an invitation to come for an interview means either that they wish to confirm a tentative decision that you are acceptable or they think that you deserve a chance to prove that you merit admission in spite of some possible weakness. The interviewer will endeavor to appraise such personal qualifications as responsiveness, a warmth of personality, poise, ability to communicate ideas clearly and concisely, and soundness of motivation.

In the interviewer's written report, these criteria will usually be touched upon.

  1. Physical appearance: Grooming, bearing, and self-confident manner.
  2. Personality: Friendliness, ability to establish rapport and charm, sense of humor.
  3. Communication skills: Ability to express ideas clearly, fluently, and intelligently.
  4. Motivation: Soundness of career choice, conviction of interests.
  5. Maturity: Ability to undertake responsibility that the career entails.
  6. Interests: What educational, social, and cultural interests do you have?
  7. Level of concern: Do you have a genuine interest in people, their problems, and helping them solve them — empathy?
  8. Emotional stability: Composure while under pressure.
  9. Intellectual potential: Have you truly demonstrated superior intellectual abilities?
  10. Overall subjective reaction of the interviewer to the applicant.

Evaluate yourself in terms of items 1 to 9 as honestly as possible and work to improve your weaknesses. By subjecting yourself to mock interviews by your peers, you can determine where your weaknesses are, and how well you are doing to overcome them. Allow your mock interviewers to be honest and candid (even if it hurts your feelings).

Preparation for the Interview

There are a number of steps that you can take that will help to prepare you for your interview.

  1. Read the catalog of the school and become familiar with any special facilities or programs it has to offer.
  2. Discuss with fellow applicants from your college the nature of their experiences at interviews at various schools.
  3. Dress neatly and be properly groomed.
  4. Arrive for the interview early, so that you locate the interview site with time to spare for an adjustment to your surroundings.
  5. If your interviewer is late, do not indicate annoyance for being kept waiting. (He or she probably was delayed by something important.)
  6. Act naturally and avoid looking nervous.
  7. Answer the questions raised without trying to anticipate what you think the interviewer may wish to hear.
  8. Avoid controversial subjects and don't raise sensitive issues.
  9. Be prepared to explain your specific interest in the school you are visiting.
  10. If you inadvertently flub a question, don't let it upset you for the rest of your interview.
  11. Be well rested, alert, and honest. Do not exaggerate your scholastic achievements or extracurricular activities.
  12. If you worked on a research (or other) project, be prepared to discuss it fluently and concisely.
  13. If you have had exposure to medicine by working at a hospital, be prepared to discuss it if asked, or work it into the conversation in an appropriate manner.
  14. If you can, find out the departmental affiliation of your interviewer in advance from an admissions office secretary, or by checking his or her name in the school catalog. You may then be able to raise a topic of special mutual interest (if being interviewed by a surgeon, you may wish to mention that you observed an appendectomy).
  15. Do not hesitate to ask questions about the school and its program — or about the interviewer's activities (such as how much time does he or she have for research).
  16. Talk to a classmate who has had an interview at the school. Get his or her impressions of the school and interview. Remember that it is unlikely that you will get the same interviewer — but it is possible.
  17. If the school is of special interest to you, you may wish to contact an alumnus in attendance or a recent graduate.
  18. Bear in mind that the school is trying to get a sense of you as a person — to see what motivates you — to understand why you want to enter the health sciences, and to become convinced that you are a worthy, potential colleague.

The following steps will be of additional help in preparing for the interview:

  1. Prepare rehearsed answers to the typical questions that may be asked at an interview. You can tape record your responses and hear how you sound.
  2. See if you can appropriately fit or slip your rehearsed answers in during the interview in a manner that is casual and doesn't sound canned. The latter can be accomplished by pausing for a moment before answering a question that you are prepared for, acting as if you are preparing your answers.
  3. Try to sell your favorable assets by fitting them into the interview (hospital work, research experience, community activities, research articles published, etc.). Know your strengths thoroughly.
  4. Try to establish a rapport with the interviewer from the very outset. Walk in with a greeting, a smile on your face, and a firm handshake. On leaving, express your appreciation for the time the interviewer gave you.
  5. Try to avoid, where possible, “yes” or “no” answers. Rather, give the pros and cons of the issue and your views in a brief and concise manner. Show that you can be analytical while at the same time avoid being overly talkative.
  6. If you don't understand the question, ask the interviewer to clarify it.
  7. Look directly at your interviewer; act relaxed; avoid squirming in your seat.
  8. If you don't know an answer, admit it rather than guess wildly. If pressed for a reply, qualify it as being an “on the spur of the moment” judgment, that is open to change on further reflection.
  9. Don't open up discussions on your own, such as on politics or religion. If asked, don't be defensive. Interviewers seek a sense of confidence even on controversial issues.
  10. Avoid disparaging your school or specific instructors or students. It will not help make you look better.
  11. If you have a video camera and VCR, tape yourself during a practice interview and see how you look and sound. Note if your body language conveys a positive or negative impression. Try to improve your performance in a second taping at a later session.
  12. If you have serious problems handling interviews (such as being very shy or having a speech defect), seek professional help by taking a course that teaches interview skills.

Keys to Succeed

The following tips summarize the major factors that can decisively influence the outcome of your interview:

TIP 1 Be knowledgeable

When invited for an interview, be well informed about the school. To do this, study its catalog, talk to fellow students who already had an interview there, and, if possible, alumni of the school. Also you should review your application and refresh your memory as to what you wrote so that you are able to respond to any specific questions raised by its contents.

TIP 2 Be on time

Do everything possible to be on time. Preferably you should be ahead of time, since this will allow you to become used to your new surroundings. Take a cell phone with you so that, if necessary, you can call the admissions office if you are unavoidably delayed. If your interviewer is late, take no notice, since undoubtedly it wasn't intentional.

TIP 3 Be properly dressed

Make sure to dress appropriately. A conservative suit is appropriate for a man, while jeans or a sweater are likely to be self-defeating. Similarly, for women, a skirt suit or demure dress is acceptable, while a pantsuit is certainly not appropriate. Avoid too much jewelry and makeup.

TIP 4 Be honest

Obviously you cannot know in advance the questions that you will face; you can prepare for them as discussed below. It is in your best interest that you avoid any suggestion of being devious. If you cannot answer a question, simply say “I don't know,” rather than trying to obfuscate an issue. If you have a legitimate reason for having done poorly in a critical major course (such as an illness at the time of the final exam), it is not appropriate to bring it to the interviewer's attention. Remember that for physicians, interviewing is a component of their daily work, so it is naïve to feel that you can proceed in any but a straightforward manner.

TIP 5 Be a salesperson

Having been given an opportunity to impress the medical school that you are the type of student it is looking for, make the most of it. Determine the message you wish to convey, namely, “You should accept me because …” Find an appropriate way and time to weave it into the conversation. If you are unable to fit it in unobtrusively during the course of the interview, do it at the very end by saying, “May I make a final comment, … that as a potential medical student in your school I could be an asset by virtue of my|…|.”

TIP 6 Be different

You need to call attention to yourself by your accomplishments so that you stand out in the interviewer's mind. Even if you have noted them in your essay, do not hesitate to make the interviewer aware of your achievements. This may have involved being a member of a band, a school newspaper editor, an artistic achievement, a special job experience, a bicycle race winner, completing a long wilderness hike, and so on. What is desirable is that you demonstrate that you can undertake a project and see it through to a satisfactory conclusion. Schools seek individuals of diverse backgrounds and interests. By emphasizing your uniqueness, in a sense you are presenting yourself as an outstanding person.

Typical Interview Questions

Be prepared to answer some typical questions that frequently come up, some of which follow.

  1. Why did you attend________________College?
  2. What are your extracurricular activities?
  3. Why do you want to become a physician?
  4. What books and newspapers do you read?
  5. What do you do during the summer?
  6. How will you finance your education?
  7. What other schools have you applied to?
  8. What do you plan to specialize in?
  9. Why did you get a poor grade in_____________?
  10. Do you have any questions?
  11. Which medical school is your first choice?
  12. What kind of social life do you have?
  13. Describe your schedule at________________.
  14. What were your favorite courses taken?
  15. Did you participate in any special science projects in high school or college?
  16. Will your religious convictions interfere with your studies or practice?
  17. How did you arrive at your decision to become a physician?
  18. What area of medicine do you wish to enter?
  19. Describe a typical day in your life.
  20. Do you feel you should have gone to a different college?
  21. What do you do in your spare time?
  22. Tell me about yourself and your family.
  23. What do you think are the most pressing social problems?
  24. Describe your study habits.
  25. What are your hobbies?
  26. What experiences led you to your career choice?
  27. What are your plans for marriage and a family?
  28. Why isn't_________________your first choice?
  29. What are the characteristics of a good physician (or dentist)?
  30. Why do you think you are better suited for admission than your classmates?
  31. What is the status of the medical doctor in modern society?
  32. What has been your most significant accomplishment to date?
  33. If you had great willpower, how would you change yourself?
  34. What are the characteristics of a mature person?
  35. What can be determined about an applicant at an interview?
  36. What books have you read recently?
  37. Describe your research at___________________.
  38. What is your opinion on_______________(major current event issues)?
  39. What newspaper do you read and which columnist do you like the best?
  40. How do you cope with frustrating situations?
  41. What will you do if you are not accepted?
  42. How do you rank among the preprofessional students at your school?
  43. Have you ever worked with people, and if so in what capacity?
  44. Who has had the greatest influence on your life?
  45. What made you apply to our school?
  46. What are your weaknesses?
  47. Describe your exposure to medicine at_______________.
  48. If you are accepted to more than one school, how will you decide which to attend?
  49. How do you see yourself ten years from now?
  50. Why did your grades go down in your______________semester?
  51. Why do you want to work with people who are ill?
  52. How will you finance your education and yourself while you are a medical student?
  53. At what point in your life did you decide to become a physician?
  54. How do you know you will be happy if you become a physician?
  55. Will the level of income affect your choice of a specialty, and do you think physicians are overpaid?
  56. How do you feel about treating HIV positive or AIDS patients?
  57. What do you think about legalizing medically sanctioned euthanasia?
  58. What is an HMO? Would you want to be employed by one as a physician?
  59. Will the question of the likelihood of malpractice suits affect your choice of a specialty?
  60. What makes you think you will be prepared for medical school by the time you graduate from college?

Atypical Interview Questions

  1. What is your favorite piece of music?
  2. Do you know enough about hockey to compare the____________and the___________teams?
  3. What would you do to improve the quality of life in large cities?
  4. Describe the difference between lactose and glucose.
  5. What movies did you see recently?
  6. If you were to have a year off, what would you do with it?
  7. What is your favorite form of entertainment?
  8. What is your opinion of socialized medicine?
  9. What do you feel are physicians' obligations to their patients?
  10. How would you respond to a patient who you learn is terminally ill?
  11. How do your parents feel about your career goals?
  12. What are the characteristics of aromatic compounds?
  13. What do you think that life was based on the carbon atom?
  14. What do you think about and how did you prepare for the MCAT?
  15. Can you explain why your MCAT scores went up (down) when you took the test a second time?
  16. Would you be willing to serve in an area where there is a physician shortage?
  17. What subspecialty are you considering?
  18. What message would you like me to convey to the admissions committee in your behalf?
  19. What were your most favorite and least favorite courses in college?
  20. What demands do you think medicine will make upon you?
  21. How will marriage and having a family fit in with your career plans?
  22. Have you been interviewed or accepted at any other school?
  23. What are your thoughts about the expected physician surplus?
  24. What are your views on abortion, gay rights, capital punishment, and animal experimentation?
  25. What are your thoughts about the use of animals for medical research?
  26. What do you feel should be the physician's role as far as abortion is concerned?
  27. What are your opinions about the issue of universal health care?
  28. How do you feel about the level of compensation of interns and residents (house staff)?
  29. Do you feel an obligation to treat the indigent or uninsured patients?
  30. What three words describe you best?
  31. What do you do for recreation?
  32. What do you think of the idea of closing some medical schools to limit the output of physicians and thus avoid a physician surplus?
  33. Do you have a physician role model? If so, who and why do you perceive that person as a role model?
  34. If you were an interviewer, what one question would you always ask an applicant?

You can improve your performance by preparing for it (as indicated in the preceding sections) and by learning from the mistakes you may have made at the interviews you have had. Thus, after each interview, evaluate your performance along the following lines.

  1. Did I come across effectively?
  2. Where did I flounder and become excessively talkative?
  3. Did I keep my cool after a blunder?
  4. Was there some basic information I should have known, but didn't?
  5. Were my prepared responses effective?
  6. Did I sell myself, especially my assets, adequately and effectively?
  7. Did I establish a good rapport and behave in a well-mannered way?
  8. Did I seem to show the appropriate interest in the school at which I was being interviewed?
  9. Was I able to slip in information that I wanted the interviewer to know about me?
  10. What would I have done differently?

With honest answers, you can then go on and prepare more effectively for the next interview. The results should be better. The first interview is usually the toughest. Try to schedule it with a school that is not your first choice, if this is at all possible.

Additional topics

Job Descriptions and Careers, Career and Job Opportunities, Career Search, and Career Choices and ProfilesGuide to Medical & Dental SchoolsApplying to Medical School - General Considerations, Selection Factors, The Application Process, Recommendations, The Interview, The Selection Process