Most applicants come away from their first med school interview saying, “That wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be.” As with many things in life, the anticipation of a stressful event can sometimes be worse than the event itself.
Although many med schools work hard to make interviewing applicants feel relaxed, this doesn’t mean you should show up unprepared. An interview can turn the tide in your favor or against you. If you make a good connection with your interviewer, they will often fight to get you into their incoming class. Conversely, if you make a poor impression, they are likely to say, “Thanks, but no thanks.”
So how do you connect with someone you’ve never met before? How do you make them feel heard? Try this: Imagine you are a doctor, and the interviewer is a patient coming to you for help. Your job is to listen closely, put them at ease, and share your thoughts based on what they are asking. Your job is not to give a speech, but rather to participate in a back-and-forth exchange of ideas. If your interviewer believes that they are being heard, they will feel the same way you can imagine a patient would. And that is ultimately what the interview is for – to reveal how you behave with someone who needs you to listen.
So, this is your chance to practice. Here, we offer some common medical school interview questions and a strategy to help you handle each one.
Common medical school interview questions
- “Tell me about yourself.”
- “What do you like to do for fun?”
- “How should we pay for health care in the United States?”
- “Why do you want to come here?”
- “Tell me about that grade in biochemistry.”
- “Why not become a scientist, teacher, or nurse?”
- “What are your strengths?”
- “What about your greatest weakness?”
- “Tell me about a challenge and how you overcame it.”
- “Where do you see yourself in ten years?”
- “Tell me about a time when you were part of a team.”
- “What would you do if an elderly woman’s family asked you to keep a diagnosis of terminal cancer from her?”
A closer look at these questions
Think about each question and write down a few ways you could answer it.
1. “Tell me about yourself.” (The open-ended question)
This question is all about organization. You might be tempted to start at the beginning of your life and say, “I was born in [place], grew up in [place], studied at [school], and then my family moved to [another place].” Clearly, if you answer this way, it will take you quite a while before you get to anything relevant. Interviewees who start this way often realize they are talking too much and stop before they get to the good stuff.
To be more effective, make sure your answer has a theme. Here are some examples:
- I have always liked taking things apart. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve disassembled things and tried to figure out how they work…
- I love teaching and sharing ideas with others. I learn most when someone is asking me questions, because it makes me think more about what I know…
- I enjoy being active and eating healthy. This keeps me balanced and gives me something in common with others who are interested in health. Being healthy involves so many areas of life…
If you are having trouble thinking of an approach to this question, you can borrow an idea from any of the ones just listed.
2. “What do you like to do for fun?” (The “let’s be friends” question)
This question sometimes stumps applicants who feel they haven’t done anything fun since they started studying for the MCAT and writing essays a year ago! But this isn’t the time to double down on your determination to attend med school. No program wants students who are so high-strung that they can’t slow down and enjoy life.
Try thinking of something that you might have in common with the average person, such as walking your dog, cooking for friends, talking to your grandparents on the phone, painting, reading, playing board games, or going camping, hiking, or rock-climbing. Whatever it is, smiling while you talk about it shows that you know how to enjoy something.
3. “How should we pay for healthcare in the United States?” (The “big picture” question)
Ah, yes, this is the interrogation that stumped me as an interviewee. I went around in circles and finally dug myself into a pit of bad ideas. I’ve thought about that interview many times, and I eventually realized that there was no right answer. After all, politicians and policymakers can’t figure it out, so how should you, a humble premed student, know the correct response? The key is to show that you know something about the debate and have some ideas in mind about how to approach the issue. Acknowledge that it is a difficult problem with many complex factors, then discuss a few of the pros and cons of one solution. Try not to come across as a “know-it-all.” Sometimes the best thing you can say is, “I wish I knew the answer.”
4. “Why do you want to come here?” (The “Why us?” question)
Schools are forever asking, “Does this applicant really want to be here?” If you have high stats and strong program options in your home state, your interviewer might suspect that you aren’t serious about attending their program – and they might be right. However, imagine that it’s the only school you get accepted to. Would you truly want to go there? If so, figure out what is special and unique about it, then convince your interviewer that you belong there. Don’t rattle off a list of things like you’re reading from a brochure. Pick one or two elements or resources that genuinely interest you, or that will help you get where you want to go, and tell the interviewer why you would take advantage of those offerings. In the end, you just might be lucky enough to go the school.
5. “Tell me about that grade in biochemistry.” (The “explain yourself” question)
You got a C- in your sophomore year and are hoping the rest of your academic transcript will overshadow it. Then your worst (med school application) nightmare happens: an interviewer asks about that grade. There could be many reasons – your professor barely spoke English, you were breaking up with your partner, and/or your home team was in the World Series, and studying just wasn’t going to happen. But of course, you can’t say any of that! So how do you take responsibility and show that you’ve learned from the experience, without making excuses or blaming others?
The answer is to discuss your learning style and studying technique. Explain that before the problematic course, you studied a certain way, but the bad grade served as a turning point. You realized that you needed a new approach, and you incorporated a new visual/auditory/kinesthetic learning style. You tried different study styles until you found a technique that worked for you. Most doctors have struggled with a class at some point, and everyone likes to think our success is due to our hard work and perseverance (which, on some level, is true). Remind them of their own challenges and individual learning style, and they will tend to believe you.
6. “Why not become a scientist, teacher, or nurse?” (The “Why medicine?” question)
You feel as though you answered this question already in your application, so how do you do so again here without repeating yourself? Think of a moment when you witnessed how medicine changed someone’s life. Tell the interviewer how you want to be a part of moments like that. What is it about being a physician that appeals to you more than anything else? Be specific and avoid the uber-generic “I want to help people,” which could also apply to being a nurse, teacher, scientist, or a thousand other helping professions.
7. “What are your strengths?” (The “Why should we admit you?” question)
How can you sound confident without appearing self-important? And what are the “best” strengths to have? The important thing to remember here is that it’s not the specific strengths you choose but how well you paint the picture of yourself using them. Start by asking yourself what you like to do most in the world. Usually, we enjoy doing things that allow us to use our strengths, because those activities are less taxing, and we are more apt to do well. If your favorite thing is watching movies with friends, then your strength might be analyzing concepts and reading people. If your hobby is taking cars apart, then maybe your strength is mechanical dexterity. If your favorite thing is rock-climbing, then your strength might be staying calm under pressure. If you enjoy making art, your strength might be finding new ways to express an idea or concept. Everyone has more than one strength, so pick a few and see what sounds best. Don’t limit yourself to the standard academic strengths, and you will find richer and more convincing topics.
8. “What about your greatest weakness?” (The “Do you know yourself?” question)
Everybody has a weakness, and it’s not “being a perfectionist.” To identify yours, take the same approach as for the previous question about strengths, but this time, ask yourself, “What do I really not enjoy?” and work backward. Be sure to dig until you find the underlying answer. Not knowing how to perform a certain lab technique or speak another language is not a weakness, it’s just something you haven’t learned yet.
When sharing your weakness, give a brief example of a time – preferably in the past – when it notably affected or limited you. This will keep the interviewer’s mind from going to the worst possible case. Then, explain the steps you’ve taken to address the shortcoming. Acknowledging your weakness and showing that you are working to improve it is highly desirable in medicine.
9. “Tell me about a challenge and how you overcame it.” (The “adversity” question)
The key here is to identify a difficulty that you have truly been able to work through. Think of something you are proud to have accomplished or have found a way to resolve. Now make note of what made it so difficult along the way. Describe in detail how you persevered when the going got tough. One problem you might encounter with this question is if you are contemplating an answer that lies at one of the two extremes. Either your challenge was so deep and personal that it’s too difficult (or too soon) to discuss, or you can only think of run-of-the-mill challenges (such as getting just a B+ in chemistry) that seem too trivial to talk about. If the B+ in chemistry made you realize you needed to find a new study style or helped you understand how to cope with stress better, you can discuss that in more detail. If your deep personal challenge is still weighing heavily on you, don’t discuss it in the interview. Above all, stay away from talking about your romantic relationships. These conversations can make an interviewer feel uncomfortable, which is not the impression you want to leave.
10. “Where do you see yourself in ten years?” (The “future self” question)
At this point, you probably haven’t thought much about life beyond your next interview, so how do you fast-forward ten whole years? This question takes a bit of creative imagining. Use it as an opportunity to come up with a few ideas, then test them before deciding how to answer. Imagine the mixture of your day. Would you enjoy working with patients for half a day and teaching for the other half? If so, then you might be leaning toward academic medicine. Do you see yourself doing research two or three days a week and seeing patients the other days? If so, clinical research might be a good direction. On the other hand, do you want to focus all your energy on patient care, enjoy playing detective, and hope to address a wide variety of issues? If so, primary care might be the place for you. Remember, it is not important (or even wise) to decide on a specialty now. That’s what your clinical rotations are for. Just try to imagine the way you would like to spend your day, and that should tell you what kind of practice you might enjoy. Smile while you talk about it, to show that you are looking forward to this new life, despite the long hours and years of work to get there.
11. “Tell me about a time when you were part of a team.” (The “working with others” question)
I think of this as a “Goldilocks and the three bears” kind of question. There are three ways to answer it, but only one feels “just right.” You can offer a positive experience (“Everyone was great! We all got along!”), a negative experience (“I had to do all the work myself. Everyone else was lazy.”), or a learning experience (“We had different ideas at the start, but then we compromised and came to appreciate one another’s strengths.”). The all-positive version sounds untruthful, and the all-negative version doesn’t give you responsibility, but the combined, “learning experience” response is what the interviewer is looking for – it is “just right.”
12. “What would you do if an elderly woman’s family asked you to keep a diagnosis of terminal cancer from her?” (The ethics question)
This question is an opportunity for you to show that you can think on your feet. Remember that in any ethical dilemma, there are pros and cons to each path, as well as responsibilities and laws to keep in mind. Above all, though, your primary obligation is to your patient. If you are faced with an ethics question in your med school interview, the key is to explore the pros and cons of each decision point. First, discuss that you would want to get more information (Why does her family want to keep the diagnosis from her? Does she have any underlying emotional or mental health issues?). Then, discuss your primary responsibility (i.e., doing the best thing for your patient). If you get to a point where you don’t know what to do next, remember that you can always ask for help. Say that you would consult with your hospital’s ethics committee, and if they are not available, you would consult with other physicians who have faced similar situations. There is often no right or wrong answer to an ethics question, so the best path involves exploring the options, with a spirit of inquiry and empathy for both sides.
Now it’s time to practice. First, write down your answers to each of the common questions we’ve just presented to get your thoughts organized. Once you feel comfortable with your answers, practice, using your notes. I know, I know, you’re a dedicated notetaker. I am, too. But an interview is not a speech or a script of rehearsed words. It is a conversation. And to be good at conversation, you need to practice doing it live. Do interviews in front of the mirror, with a friend, an advisor, an Accepted consultant, or all of these options. Ask anyone you practice with for feedback on your facial expressions, eye contact, how you responded to the question being asked, and whether they felt heard.
A word of warning: There is no way to anticipate every question. When you are faced with a question or topic you did not anticipate, don’t panic. Use these three tips to keep yourself focused and calm:
The biggest mistake interviewees (and doctors) make is talking about a prerehearsed topic rather than listening and responding to the question being asked. This is what makes an interview more like improv than acting. If you rehearse only what you want to say (acting), you won’t be responding in the moment (improv). Improv actors don’t walk out on stage and hope for the best. They prepare by having other actors throw out suggestions. A practice or mock interview is the only way you can be ready for the real thing.
Your interviewer might have read your application just a few minutes ago, in the middle of a busy, stressful day. They might be new at this, too, and wonder whether they are doing it right. If you seem to be enjoying the conversation, they are likely to rate you as being better at interpersonal communication. The best way to do this is by smiling warmly. Practice your smile on others and ask them for feedback on your facial expression.
Don’t exaggerate or pretend you know the answer to everything. Practice saying “I don’t know” and “I need to learn more about that.” Med schools don’t want students who think they know everything. They want people who are willing to admit when they don’t have all the answers and then work hard to figure them out.
The best way to feel confident going into your med school interview is to be absolutely sure you’ve taken the right steps to prepare. A mock interview and feedback from an Accepted admissions expert will provide you with personalized guidance and feedback and help you put your best foot forward on interview day. Contact us for a free consultation to get started!
Since 2001, Cydney Foote has advised hundreds of successful applicants for medical and dental education, residency and fellowship training, and other health-related degrees. Admissions consulting combines her many years of creating marketing content with five years on fellowship and research selection committees at the University of Washington School of Medicine. She’s also shared her strategy for impressing interviewers in a popular webinar and written three books and numerous articles on the admissions process. Want Cydney to help you get Accepted? Click here to get in touch!