Inevitably, you will be asked to describe a time when you have failed. It’s a common medical school interview question. Just reading this blog post will help you prepare for this question. It’s a tough one.
When selecting an example to discuss, consider the following strategies:
1. Choose a recent example.
It’s almost always better to use examples from college or after for any medical school interview questions. It’s very rarely ever appropriate to use examples from high school or earlier. Doing so can demonstrate a lack of maturity. That being said, it’s also dangerous to use an example that is too recent—one that you have not yet had a chance to process properly and make sense of or integrate into your identity. Brene Brown, in her book, The Power of Vulnerability, does not recommend—under any circumstances—sharing an experience that has not yet been processed. She’s the expert. It would be safe to choose an experience that occurred during college or shortly after, nothing less than two years old. Even better, it would be beneficial to choose an experience that led to a turning point or a breakthrough in your academic or professional goals.
2. Use an example in which you created a positive outcome.
This question, which has such an obviously negative tone, is a trap! We’ve all had failures. Don’t randomly choose an example of one of your failures without thinking it through to its logical conclusion. The best responses to this type of question have clearly positive outcomes that the applicants have created. Think of a time when something didn’t go your way, but you were able to make the best of it or to redo it in a way that allowed you to grow and develop from the experience. Don’t get stuck in the negative details because that would be a sign that you haven’t fully processed the experience. Focus on what you learned and how you improved.
3. Make sure it’s a professional or academic scenario and not something too personal.
This is not the time to discuss a failed personal relationship or a rite of passage type experience. It’s a sign of maturity to be able to discuss something that didn’t go well in your academic or professional life. Failure provides valuable lessons. Life is full of failures. If someone claims they’ve never failed at anything, it means they’re just not trying hard enough or challenging themselves. The worst response to a question like this would be to say that you’ve never failed before, which would also be ironic—that type of response in itself represents a failure to answer the question honestly and with vulnerability. To prevent the conversation from becoming too uncomfortable or revealing, choose an example that does not include any possible red flags, which means that it would be a good idea to practice responding to a question like this one. Think it through—before the interview.
4. Use the example that will best demonstrate how you seek learning opportunities that are outside of your comfort zone.
One of the most interesting responses I’ve received for this type of question was provided by a young woman who talked about her work with a health insurance company. Patients were constantly complaining to her that she was not helping them because her company was denying their requests for medical testing and procedures, claiming that they would not be covered. Instead of taking the hard line of the company, she researched free medical services for the patients who were denied these treatments. She learned about all the resources available in the community for low-income families and was able to provide the kind of support that she found satisfying. Her research led to her interest in medical school. The health insurance company’s failure to provide approval for treatment led to her finding an alternate way to help her clients access medical care. Failure often represents opportunity for those looking for it. Choose a similar example that demonstrates how you go out of your way for others or how you are continually seeking new learning opportunities.
For more assistance or mock interview coaching, you are welcome to contact me or one of my colleagues at Accepted. The best way to prepare for interviews is through mock interviews. I wish you success!
Alicia McNease Nimonkar is an Accepted advisor and editor specializing in healthcare admissions. Prior to joining Accepted, Alicia worked for five years as Student Advisor at UC Davis’ postbac program where she both evaluated applications and advised students applying successfully to med school and related programs.