Acing the Medical School Interview

If you’ve been invited for an interview at your dream medical school, you should give yourself a pat on the back. It means that you have already made it through the first hurdle. However, even the most intelligent and eloquent student would feel some degree of anxiety and apprehension at the thought of attending a formal interview. Just the idea that someone is sitting there questioning you and judging your abilities can be an extremely unnerving prospect. Thankfully there are many ways to overcome this anxiety. The more prepared you are, the more confident you will feel when you step in front of the interviewer. You need to be prepared when questions don’t go your way, when you make a mistake, or sometimes even when the interviewer is deliberately trying to discompose you. It’s important to know how to recover and stay focused when things go awry.

In order to make the best impression, you need to give yourself sufficient preparation time before an interview. This involves working out ways of marketing yourself, reflecting on past achievements you are most proud of and finally understanding the type of candidate the school is looking for. Try and sell your desirable traits; for example your communication skills, maturity, drive and motivation, leadership skills, responsibility, empathy, honesty, personality, analytical skills and problem solving ability. Having a good understanding of your strengths and weaknesses is imperative.

Before you start preparing for your interview, it is important to do some research about the interview format. There are a number of different ways that medical schools assess potential medical students. The two interview formats that you’re most likely to face are Panel and Multiple-Mini Interviews.

Panel Interviews

Most students find this type of interview the most daunting as several interviewers will be sitting across from you in a very formal setting throwing question after question at you. Panels may consist of faculty members only or include medical students or alumni as well. You need to be prepared to address the specific concerns of each member of the panel. Depending on the school, they may or may not share your application details or personal statement with the panel of interviewers. If the panel of interviewers knows nothing about you, you need to make a strong first impression and go into more detail when discussing your attributes and strengths.

If they ask you a question and you have no idea how to answer, simply take a pause. Control is key – don’t lose your nerve. Give yourself a chance to think and stay calm. A deep breath will help you to clear your head and analyze the question. Remember that they are going to push you to see how you respond to difficult questions under pressure! For example, an interviewer could ask ‘So, how do you think the recent Zika virus outbreak could have been prevented?’ It is good to familiarise yourself with topical medical issues, significant medical discoveries and the healthcare system of the country the medical school is located before your interview. 

Below is a list of common difficult questions you may encounter at a panel interview along with ideas for answering them.

Tell me about yourself?

This question is actually a lot harder to answer than you would expect! The interviewer wants to get to know you, so try and give them a greater insight into who you are than is in your application. You want to try and avoid generic answers such as ‘I’m a great friend’ or ‘I’m a really hard working student’ or ‘I’m very responsible’. It is important to make yourself memorable and stand out from the rest of the pack.  Explain what your passions are and the inspiration behind them. You can also talk about any unusual hobbies or interests you have that showcase your desirable characteristics.

Why do you want to be a doctor?

This is one question that will definitely get asked during a panel interview. Even though most aspiring medical students know in their hearts why they want to get into medicine, articulating their reasoning can be challenging, especially if it is very personal or involves multiple facets. Your answer also needs to ring with certainty and conviction, as if you’re not able to convince the interviewer that you possess the maturity and the self-awareness required to know why you want to become a doctor, they will probably not offer you a place at their school.

When answering this question, I urge you not to go for the generic “I love helping others” or “Medicine is a noble profession” spiel! If you want to be offered a limited spot at your dream university, you need to have an answer that sets you apart from the other dozens of candidates. I recommend including something personal, a life event that initially sparked your interest in medicine and build it up with other events or experiences that solidified your initial interest. It is also important to convey to the interviewers that you don’t have an idealized picture of a career in medicine. Show them that you understand the challenges and have the fortitude to overcome them through your response.

Why are you interested in our university?

They want to know how much time and consideration you have put into applying to their institute. Try and think of specific aspects of the college that you like, and why the place is different from others. In order to do this, you’ll have to dig a little deeper than the home page of their medical school website. Find out more information about the programme offered and what makes it stand out from other schools’. You can also talk about the school’s location or the opportunities offered for non-academic pursuits. Even though you should be talking about the school’s strengths that attracted to you, avoid overly gushy platitudes. You will end up appearing fake and desperate.

What are your strengths and weaknesses?

This is another question that stumps most aspiring medical students, and most end up picking being hardworking or persevering as their strengths and even worse, taking the strength as a weakness approach. Some students also end up listing many more weaknesses than strengths, which may give the interviewers a negative message about your confidence levels. A clichéd response would be something like this: “My biggest strengths are that I am very hard working and never give up, which I believe are very important traits for a doctor. As for weaknesses, my biggest weakness is that I am a perfectionist. No matter what I do, I try to do it as perfectly as possible, which sometimes causes me stress.”  Instead, I suggest picking strengths that may not be so common, but will serve you well as a medical student. It is also important to give examples of situations where you displayed these strengths. As for weaknesses, pick one or two real weaknesses, but pick those that will not impair your ability to perform the duties required of a doctor. You must also show that you have identified and taken steps to correct the weakness.

Questions Related to Ethics

Aside from these questions, you also need to be prepared to tackle ethical questions that may or may not be related to medicine. Familiarise yourself with medical ethics and the Hippocratic Oath. Even though there may not be clear-cut right or wrong answers to ethical questions, be prepared to provide logical arguments to support the answer you pick. The BBC website provides an excellent guide to prevalent ethical issues:  Do keep your religious and personal beliefs out of your answer, and keep it logical and scientifically sound.

Other Common Questions

Other questions you may get asked and should have some idea of how to answer are listed below:

  • Why do you believe you have the ability to undertake the study and work involved?
  • What do you consider to be important advances in medicine over the last 50 / 100 years?
  • Tell us about a group activity you have organised.
  • What do you think being a doctor entails, apart from treating patients?
  • Do you read any medical publications?
  • What is a recent medical story that really piqued your interest?
  • How do you think you will cope with criticism from colleagues or other health professionals?
  • Can you learn communication skill

Questions for the interviewers

The questions that you ask the interviewers when provided the opportunity to do so are of as equal importance as your responses. The worst thing you can do is to say no when the interviewers turn the tables on you and ask if you have any questions for them. So, do your research and come up with 2-3 questions related to the university or the programme that you can’t easily find the answers to by simply browsing their website.

Below are a few suggestions:

  • What types of research opportunities are available to students?
  • What are the major differences in the curriculum in the clinical and non-clinical years?
  • What, in your personal opinion, is the strongest aspect of this medical school?
  • What kind of support network does the university provide its students?

Multiple-Mini Interviews (MMIs)

In the multiple-mini interview, there are a number of stations set up where 6-10 minute mini interviews are conducted. The length of each mini interview varies from school to school. Some schools also throw in activities such as role-playing or solving puzzles. The pro of a multiple-mini interview is that it gives you many chances to impress, so even if you mess up at one station, your bad score will not carry over to the next one. The con is that you have a brief window of opportunity to make a lasting impression on the interviewer since each interview lasts only a few minutes. It is quite similar to speed dating in that sense!

Typically, you will be given 2 minutes to read and evaluate the MMI prompt before formulating your response. Use this time to organize your thoughts before you walk into the interview room to start discussing the prompt.   

Below is a short outline of each type of station that you are likely to encounter at an MMI.

Ethical Decision Making Station

Ethical questions try to assess your ability to face morally ambiguous situations that you may face as a medical professional. Approach all ethical situations in a patient-centric way in keeping with the medical ethics that you are expected to follow. As I mentioned before, do not let your religious or philosophical beliefs cloud your thinking process. Consistency and logic are very important in your response. Once you have come up with an answer that you believe in and have clearly identified and outlined logical arguments to support your answer, stick to it, even if the interviewer challenges your position.  

Current Health or Social Issues Station

Questions about current health or social issues test your breadth of knowledge outside the scope of your academics. Physicians are expected to stay abreast of latest advancements in medicine as well as have an understanding of trends that may have an impact on healthcare, from disease outbreaks to behavioural issues such as smoking or drug usage. You don’t need to subscribe to every single medical journal out there to stay abreast of such topics. Read the Science or Medicine section of credible newspapers or magazines such as The New York Times, National Geographic or even The Economist regularly and find out more information about articles that truly pique your interest. This will give you plenty to talk about when faced with a question on current issues.   

Role-Playing Station

Ask yourself the following questions in the two minutes of reflection time before walking into a role-play situation: How do I begin the conversation? What reactions could I expect from the actor? What solutions could I suggest? How would I deal if they become angry or upset? It is important to remember that the purpose of this type of station is to assess your communication skills and empathy as well as how you react when faced with difficult people or situations. Do not lose your cool even if the actor starts yelling or even crying.  

Activity Station

Activities may be anything from describing an object or image to an interviewer to something out a game show like building a structure out of a deck of cards in the allotted 6-8 minutes. Activities require problem solving skills as well as the ability to think on your feet. Use the reflection time to analyse the task and come up with a strategy to complete it. Understand that there is more than one way of approaching these activities. Play to your strengths and employ out-of-the-box thinking to come up with creative solutions.

Behavioural Interview Station

Behavioural interviews are based on the premise that past behaviour gives an accurate prediction of future actions and behaviour. So, when approaching a behavioural style interview question, be very careful about the event or experience that you choose to discuss. Unless they specifically ask you about a negative situation, try to pick an incident that has a positive outcome or ending. If they ask you about a time when you faced failure or criticism, always end with looking back on the experience and reflecting on the lessons it taught you. Another important point to keep in mind is that you should always give credit to others where credit is due, especially if the question concerns teamwork or leadership.

Lastly, the best piece of advice I can give you is, do your research beforehand and prepare, but for goodness’ sake, do NOT write down responses to all the above questions and memorise them word for word. Write down in bullet form the main ideas you wish to get across in your answers and fill in the rest of the information during the actual interview. You need to sound like a human being who has a genuine passion for medicine, not a mindless automaton spouting perfectly crafted responses at the push of a button!

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