This year, I’ve had the unique pleasure of interviewing prospective medical students, reviewing and scoring completed applications, voting on our Admissions Committee, and seeing several students’ dreams come true at my university. It’s such a surreal feeling sitting in the interviewer chair when just two and a half years ago, I was the one being interviewed. When I drove up the long and winding road to our campus to interview my first batch, I got the same sinking feeling and lump in my throat when I made that same drive to interview for a competitive spot to become a medical student. The trees that hug the road and guide the way through the heart of rolling acres were calming in that moment just as they were the first time I saw them. I wonder what’s going through their heads right now? Did they sleep at a hotel or have friends in town they stayed with? What kind of questions will they have for me? – all rang through my head.
So what do I look for when I’m trying to decide who will fill 1 of our 72 chairs in a pile of over 2,000 incredibly qualified applications? What is my perception of an applicant as a current medical student? What makes me say yes, no, or fight for an underdog? What I’d like to do is walk you through my thought process from the time I arrive to do an initial review of a prospective student to the time we shake hands before going our separate ways, perhaps to meet again.
To preface, before I meet a candidate, they have gone through an extensive screening process, which our Admissions Committee does an incredible job of. By the time an individual meets me or another interviewer, several sets of eyes have seen their application, a secondary application has been written, and everything looks like it could be a great fit. I guess I might compare it to internet dating… Two people have represented themselves well on paper, look great in writing and in communication, but the first date is often the sink or swim.
I interview two people per interview day with one hour allotted for each interview in the afternoon. Their interview day begins long before this as they arrive early to learn more about our incredibly unique learning environment, our culture, and their potential home as they are guided by first year medical students, have lunch with third and fourth years, and spend time around our campus and hospitals. I’m usually in lecture during this time, and focused on being a second year medical student. After lunch, I head up early to review the applications of the people I’ll be interviewing. I cannot see scores or letters of recommendation, only the things people have written about themselves so I am not biased by extrinsic factors. My focus is solely on the person I’m reading about.
Here is where I meet you. We shake hands well before we actually shake hands. I’m often looking for red and green flags, which guide my talking points and goals for the interview. Did you have a TON of shadowing and patient contact in some form or another? Cool, I’m probably not going to ask you much about that. Have you only had 50-100 hours of shadowing and/or patient contact? I might be inclined to learn more about what experiences and exposure lead you to the decision to become a physician. I get that you probably want to help people, but why? One of the most common mistakes I see in applications and interviews is an effect without a cause. What I mean by this is that an intrinsic desire to become a physician without life experiences that shaped and lead you to that desire aren’t enough ground to stand on. On many occasions, I’ve finished reading everything an applicant has to say about themselves, sat in a room and talked for an hour, and I still don’t understand why they want to help people as a doctor other than they simply just do. Connect the dots for me. Show me that A + B lead to C, which exposed you to D, and ultimately lead you down a road with rhyme and reason for why you want to be an MD.
As I read, I’m also looking for interests outside of medicine. Are you an athlete, a musician, an avid stamp collector – what are you passionate about outside of medicine? Tell me these things, because it shows me you’re human, and not just a robot that can nail a 40 on the MCAT while publishing 16 papers and saving babies in the African desert. These qualities show me a level of diversity that can contribute to the culture of our medical school, and we take great pride in having lives outside of medicine. You like to hike? Fan-freaking-tastic, the Appalachian Trail is just up the road, and half of my class has gone to see the incredible landscapes at 6,500 feet. You play piano, guitar or paint as a hobby? Awesome, you’ll have something to keep your sanity, and a unique humanity to contribute to the culture of medicine in dire need of people like you. How do you define diversity, and what diverse qualities would you bring into your medical class? Show me this.
So, I’ve gathered my talking points, both green and red flags, and stand up to go meet you. Coffee and folder in one hand, the other outstretched, smile on my face, and I’m excited to find out more about you. First and foremost, look me right in the eye, and give me a strong handshake. Use my first name, and have some confidence.
At the beginning of the interview, I like to lay out my goals and intentions with our time together so you understand what we’re trying to accomplish. Interviews aren’t meant to weed you out, but to find out if my institution is the perfect fit for you, and you for us. All I ask is that you don’t blow smoke up my butt, and I’ll follow suit. I will answer any question as openly and honestly as I can, and I expect the exact same from you. If I ask about a weakness in your application, be open with me and tell me about what was going on in life when you maybe didn’t have time to shadow as much as you’d like because you just got married and wanted to spend time with your wonderful new husband or wife. That humility and honesty will go a lot further than making excuses, because I value family and always do my best to choose family over medicine. Don’t ever make excuses. Be honest. If I ask about your journey to getting in the seat across from me, I want to hear your story of what experiences, both good and bad, lead you to the decision to become a physician. What things shaped you? What life experiences will help ground you as a holistic physician that is always striving to be patient-centered? How do you respond under pressure, and what is your pressure release valve? Are you coachable? Can you pick yourself back up after failing at something? Are you someone I can see myself mentoring while I’m still a medical student here, and can I envision you as a classmate and colleague? What are your priorities in life?
During our entire interview, I’m trying to ascertain the answers to questions like these, because I want to represent you the best I can and respect the hard work it took you to meet me.
What I’m looking for when I interview a medical school applicant is someone who is personable, a strong leader, has great communication skills, will fit both the mission and culture of my university, has overcome some life obstacles, is dedicated and passionate, has emotional maturity and stability, and most importantly, can articulate the experiences and journeys that specifically lead them to the decision to help people as a physician. I go to the absolute best medical school in the country – for some people – and I want to find out if we both agree you are one of those people.
I wish you the best of luck, and feel free to reach out with questions.
This is a repost of an article by Joshua Wienczkowski. For more articles by Joshua, check out our popular series Journeys with Joshua.