Most applicants come away from their first med school interview saying, “that wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be.” As in many areas of life, the anticipation of a stressful event can be worse than the event itself. Although many med schools work hard to make applicants feels relaxed, this doesn’t mean you should show up unprepared.
An interview can turn the tide for or against you. It gives the school a sense of how you will interact with patients, i.e. your potential bedside manner. If you make a good connection with your interviewer, they will often fight to get you into their incoming class.
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 interviewers are patients 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 interviewers feels like they are being heard, they will imagine a patient would feel the same way. And that is ultimately what the interview is for — to find out how you behave with someone who needs you to listen.
So here is your chance to practice. Here are some common medical school interview questions and a strategy to help you handle each one. Look at each of the questions below and write down a few ways you would answer it.
1. “Tell me about yourself.” (The open-ended question)
This question is all about organization. You may be tempted to start at the beginning of your life and say, “I was born in … grew up in … went to school at…and then my family moved to…” Clearly, this answer will take quite a while to get to anything relevant. Interviewees who start this way often realize they are talking too much and stop before they get to anything important. To be more effective, your answer should have a theme. Some examples:
• I have always liked taking things apart. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve taken things apart and tried to figure out how they work.
• I love teaching and sharing ideas with others. I learn most when I’m listening to someone else 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 a common area of interest 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 one of the ones above, especially if you find a topic that you want to share. Just be careful to finish within a few sentences.
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! Try thinking of something that makes you sound like a normal person, such as walking the family dog, cooking for friends, talking to your grandparents on the phone, painting, reading, playing board games, or going camping, hiking, rock-climbing, etc. Whatever it is, smile while you talk about it, which shows that you know how to enjoy something. They don’t want students who are so high strung they can’t slow down and enjoy life.
3. “How should we pay for health care in the U.S.?” (The big picture question)
Ah, the interrogation that stumped me as an interviewee. I went around in circles and finally dug myself into a pit of bad ideas. I thought about that interview many times, and eventually realized there was no right answer. After all, politicians and policy makers can’t figure it out, so how should you, a humble pre-med student, know the correct answer? The key is to show that you know a something about the debate, and have some ideas on how to approach it. 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 options in your home state, they may suspect you aren’t serious about their school, and they may be right. However, imagine it’s the only school you get accepted to. Would you want to go there? If so, figure out what is special and unique about their curriculum, then convince them you belong there. Don’t rattle off a list of things like a brochure. Pick one or two programs that genuinely interest you, and tell them why you would participate. In the end, you just might be lucky enough to go there.
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 record will overshadow it. Then your worst nightmare happens. An interviewer asks you to explain that class and why you got that grade. The story you have been telling yourself is that your professor barely spoke English, you were sick with mono, and your home team was in the World Series. 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 them that you’ve learned from it, without making excuses or blaming others?
The answer is to discuss your learning style and studying technique. Explain that before this course, you studied a certain way, but this grade was a turning point. You realized that you needed a new approach, and you incorporated your visual/auditory/kinesthetic learning style. You tried new 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 think you answered this already in your application, so how do you relate it here, without repeating yourself? Think of a moment when you saw how medicine changed someone’s life. Tell them how you want to be a part of that moment. 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 can lead you to being a nurse, a teacher, a scientist, or a thousand other helping professions.
7. “What are your strengths?” (The “why should we admit you” question)
How to sound confident without appearing too 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 off 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 they 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 concept 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 may 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 a richer and more convincing topic.
8. “Tell me about a challenge and how you overcame it.” (The adversity question)
The key here is to come up with a challenge that you have truly overcome. Think of something you are proud to have accomplished, or found a way to resolve. Now think of what made it so difficult along the way. Describe in detail how you persevered when the going got tough. The difficulty in this question usually comes 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 hard (or too soon) to write about it, or you can only think of run-of-the-mill challenges (a B+ in chemistry, for example), which 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 romantic relationships. These conversations can make an interviewer feel uncomfortable, which is not the impression you want to leave.
9. “Where do you see yourself in 10 years?” (The “future self” question)
At this point, you probably haven’t thought much about life beyond your next interview, so how to fast-forward ten entire years? This question takes a bit of creative imagining. Use it as an opportunity to try out 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 towards academic medicine. Do you see yourself doing research 2-3 days and seeing patients the other days? Then 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 want to see a wide variety of issues? If so, primary care may 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 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.
10. “Tell me about a time when you were on a team.” (The working with others question)
I call this the “Goldilocks and the three bears” question. There are three ways to answer it, but only one feels “just right.” You can answer it as 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, the all negative version does not give you responsibility, while the combined approach is what they are looking for, or “just right.”
11. “What if an elderly woman’s family asks 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, responsibilities and laws to keep in mind, and above all, your primary obligation is to your patient. If you are faced with an ethics question, the key is to explore the pros and cons of each decision point. First, discuss that you would want to get more information (why do they want to keep the diagnosis from her, does she have any underlying emotional or mental health issues?). Then, discuss your primary responsibility (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 enquiring and empathy for both sides.
Now it’s time to practice. First, write down your answers to each of the above questions to get your thoughts organized. Once you feel comfortable with your answers, practice without using your notes. I know, I know, you’re a dedicated note taker. 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 with friends, in front of the mirror, an advisor, an Accepted consultant, or a little of each. Ask for feedback on your facial expressions, eye contact, how you responded to the question being asked, and whether the other person felt heard.
A word of warning: There is no way to anticipate every question. When you are faced with a question or topic you have not practiced for, don’t panic. Use these three tips to keep yourself focused and calm:
Listen. The biggest mistake interviewees (and doctors) make, is talking about a pre-rehearsed topic of your own interest, instead of 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.
Smile. Your interviewer may have read your application just a few minutes ago, in the middle of a busy, stress-filled day. They may be new at this too, and wonder if 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 a warm smile. Practice your smile on others and ask them for feedback on your facial expression.
Be honest. Don’t exaggerate or pretend you know the answer to everything. Practice saying the words, “I don’t know,” or “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 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 to get started!
Suzi Schweikert is a former UCSD School of Medicine adcom member who has mentored students in healthcare programs for over 20 years. She has a BA in English Lit from UCLA, an MD from UCSD, and an MPH from SDSU. Want Suzi to help you get Accepted? Click here to get in touch!