"Be prepared not only to discuss your motivation for a career in medicine, but also any activities or experiences that are relevant to your goal, and times you have served others," says one expert.
Filomeno Maldonado is assistant dean for admissions at The Texas A&M Health Science Center College of Medicine. He has been with the college of medicine since 1988 and served in many positions there, including principal investigator and director of the Health Careers Opportunity Program-Bridge to Medicine Program and the Hispanic Center of Excellence.
Norma Wagoner, PhD
Norma Wagoner, PhD, has served on admissions committees in five medical schools, interviewing more than 6,000 applicants. For 28 years, she served as dean of students in three of the five medical schools. She is now on the faculty at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, interviewing 60-70 applicants a year. As an anatomy professor, she teaches first year medical students.
Ask the Experts
What general tips do you have for preparing for the medical school interview?
When one is invited for an interview, it is especially important to prepare for the interview visit in three distinct ways: timeliness, attitude, and uniqueness.
Once invited do not procrastinate-- confirm your interview immediately. Communication with the medical school is critical. Know the interview schedule in advance if it is at all possible. If the entire schedule is not available, find out at least the time that your interview will begin. Allow some time to be flexible. In other words, give yourself the time you need to get your bearings, find parking, and find the location of the interview. After your interview, don't run out early. Leaving early may give the impression that you are not interested. Give yourself the opportunity to explore the institution or ask more questions. Also, avoid scheduling multiple interviews too tightly. Again, don't be late. Faculty's time is valuable!
Attitude, attitude, attitude-- it is all so important! Smile! Be pleasant to everyone you encounter during the interview and be pleasant at all times even if there are snags in the schedule, etc. Also, remember that you are under observation the entire time you interact with the medical school.
You bring your own uniqueness to the interview, and it is essential that that uniqueness gets you noticed. For the most part, people notice exceptional deviations from the normal pattern, therefore, it is important to be noticed for something positively. Leave your mark. While you are at your interview, add to the positive feeling that you have already worked so hard to create via your application. Bear in mind that people forget much of what they learn, and forget it quickly. Make certain that the interviewers remember you.
Lastly, convey a healthy self-understanding and demonstrate humility. Be yourself, for interviews can bring out betrayals of character. Be prepared to respond to all kinds of questions, many unrelated to the study of medicine. Similarly, be prepared not only to discuss your motivation for a career in medicine, but also any activities or experiences that are relevant to your goal, and times you have served others.
Here are 10 tips that I have recommended to applicants:
- Prepare a few questions for the interviewer, but don't ask about strengths and weaknesses of a program-- be more creative.
- Keep a positive, upbeat attitude. Be open, honest and believe in what you say. Stay away from a recitation of prepared answers.
- Be aware of your body language as it conveys a significant amount of information regarding your confidence and demeanor. While cultures may differ with respect to greeting others, a firm handshake will be anticipated in most cases. It is important to look at your interviewer when responding to questions. Sitting in a comfortable position also denotes a level of confidence when communicating with others.
- Find a way to convey some uniqueness about yourself in the interview.
- If questions are focused on the academic record, don't make excuses - provide the best forthright information or explanation of personal circumstances that were occurring at the time. The interviewer knows you are human.
- If you are unable to make the interview, don't just fail to show up. Professional demeanor dictates your telling the school the circumstances that prevent you from attending.
- Be on time. If you are uncomfortable about how to get to the interviewer, call and get directions. Remember that traffic or weather conditions can create difficulties, so be prepared.
- Treat everyone with respect. Courtesy leaves a lasting impression.
- Dress appropriately. Select a comfortable outfit and wear it in advance of the interview to ensure that no problems arise.
- Relax and be yourself. Confidence, poise, and thoughtfulness are important ingredients of success.
How important is the interview in getting accepted to medical school?
The interview is very important in getting accepted to medical school. Although intellectual ability and record of achievement are important factors, the personal interview gives the admissions committee another dimension by which to evaluate and understand other traits necessary to foster the development of a competent, compassionate, and responsible physician. The ability to communicate and interact, social consciousness, maturity, personal integrity, tolerance, service to others, and motivation for a career in medicine are among the characteristics sought.
The majority of medical schools in this country interview applicants. It is an expensive and time-consuming process. Thus, one can assume that the schools will value what their faculty and students learn about an applicant. The interview process, in many respects, is designed for the applicant as much as the school. Interviews serve as a valuable recruitment tool, provide a resource for answering questions, and help the applicant determine whether the institution is right for him or her. From the school's standpoint, a sizable component of the information gathering focuses on important character traits that include such things as integrity, commitment to medicine as a career, conscientiousness, strength of interpersonal skills, empathy, and reliability. The transcript gives some indication of academic strength, but some aspects of the interview will focus on problem-solving skills, research interests, creativity, and challenges that bring out one's best potential.
How prepared do I need to be to talk about different topics?
Be prepared to respond to all kinds of questions-- many unrelated to the study of medicine. Why not talk about genetics, chemistry, or, for that matter, social issues? How extensively you discuss a different topic like genetics or a societal problem depends upon the context in which the question is asked. Take your cue from the interviewer. Bear in mind that there is a purpose to these kinds of questions, which is often to derive your breadth of knowledge on a variety of topics and your ability to articulate your point of view. This gives the interviewer insight into your ability to communicate and interact, which obviously has many implications. Below is an example of an interview question that targets social issues:
"If you were asked to give a keynote speech to your graduating class about societal problems, which problems would you focus on? What major points would you make?"
Interviewers are not likely to ask an applicant to recite the Henderson-Hasslebach equation, although for those interested in research, a question of why this equation is important in science could arise. In general though, the topics are more focused on learning about the applicant, his or her interests, challenges, commitment, and future plans. For the applicant, it becomes more valuable to convey information that reveals personal character traits, rather than the ability to demonstrate a depth of scientific knowledge across several disciplines.
For those applicants who have extensive research backgrounds, being able to converse intelligently on their research projects is important. Many of the interviewers are engaged in research, and oftentimes the school tries to match the interviewer with an applicant doing similar work in order to get a more in-depth analysis of the applicant's understanding of the project they are pursuing.
If I did poorly in a prerequisite course (like biochemistry or genetics), will I be asked about this during my interview? How should I respond?
Some interviews are open-file and others are not. For an open-file interview, the interviewer has had time to review your complete application and will often have the application in hand at the time of the interview. One purpose of an open-file interview is to clarify your academic record. Therefore, you can count on the interviewer asking you about poor performance on any coursework, regardless if it is a prerequisite course.
You should respond honestly about the circumstances that may have led to a poor performance and don't offer mere excuses and rationalizations. Provide an explanation and avoid being defensive or evasive. Take responsibility! It is critical for the interviewer to understand the circumstances and give careful consideration to your history of academic performance and those characteristics, background, and situations that reflect a meaningful record of accomplishment or history of impediment.
Types of interviews vary. Some interviewers will have access to applicant files, and thus can view the student's academic information, and others will not. In the main, the general consensus is that applicants who are screened into the interview group should be able to do the academic work. However, having stated this, it does not preclude interviewers who have access to an applicant's files from asking, "Why did you get a 'C' in biochemistry?", The response should be a forthright one that includes any circumstances at the time, such as family problems in which the applicant was embroiled (and now why this is no longer an issue), need to work extensive hours to pay tuition, or too many extracurricular activities (and why this is no longer an issue). Never tell an interviewer, "I'm no good at standardized test taking, and the whole course was based on this type of exam." What the interviewer is interested in knowing is the circumstances and whether any issues that caused problems remain.
What sorts of questions should I ask during the interview?
Ask questions that will help you become better informed about the school and its resources, accomplishments, and opportunities, such as inquiring about faculty, the student body, the research enterprise, internships, combined degrees, graduate studies, residencies, study abroad opportunities, health and fitness. If this is your first time in the community surrounding the medical school, inquire about local history and educational opportunities, particularly if you are married and have children. Ask about the location in proximity to other communities or major cities, the arts and culture, parks and recreation, and other attractions.
Be sure to read the information about the school on their web site, so that you don't ask questions about something for which information is readily available. Be creative in your questioning. A few examples might include: 1) "If I were to ask the students in your first-year medical school class what they would like to change, what areas do you think they would emphasize?" 2) "How do you see the cost of a medical education affecting the students here?" 3) "What do faculty members feel is the most unique aspect of this medical school, such that they would encourage their sons or daughters to attend?"
How honest should I be during my interview, particularly if controversial topics come up (eg., euthanasia, abortion)?
It is always important to be honest; anything less would be simply wrong, unprofessional, and dishonorable.
It is not customary for interviewers to ask questions that are morally charged, particularly on such issues as euthanasia and abortion. But, if they should be asked, share your views as succinctly as possible. Try to avoid having the discussion on these topics dominate the interview. There is much more to you than your perspective on one issue.
Controversial and ethical topics have become somewhat standard among medical school interviews. They are worth researching in advance, and thus a word to the wise: do your homework.
Some interviewers may ask you to present both sides of an issue and then select the one you believe in. Interviewers are not as much concerned about the applicants' belief systems, as they are about whether an understanding of the issue is present.
For instance, it would not be good to state, "I don't believe in fill-in-the-blank, and I would never treat or even refer a patient under these circumstances." The interviewer is likely to see the applicant as being too rigid, rather than having the right to his or her belief system.
Increasingly, information appears in the literature about a physician's right to refuse to provide treatment. Questions may center on whether the Hippocratic oath gives latitude for physicians to chose their own moral stance over the wishes of the patient. It would be advisable to think about the viewpoint you might take if asked, "From an ethical standpoint, regardless of a physician's belief, is the responsibility first and foremost to the patient and his or her needs, or are there circumstances where a physician might legitimately refuse to offer information, refer, or treat a patient?"
Not an easy question, but one worth researching.
Who should I expect to meet with in my interview?
The interview day is typically filled with opportunities for you to interact with faculty, medical students, administrators, and staff. During the course of an interview day, you will likely meet with a dozen or more people. Interviews are usually conducted by members of the admissions committee, faculty and administration, and at some schools like ours, the student body.
An interview session often varies in size from institution to institution. Some invite small groups ranging from 15 to 25 applicants while others invite large groups ranging in size from 50 to 100 applicants. A typical session at our school ranges from 40 to 50 interviewees per session.
The format of the interview varies from school to school. Some use group interviews with panel members talking to one applicant. Other times, a whole group of applicants may be interviewed together by one or two committee members. Both methods are more the exception rather than standard practice. In the main, interviews are done on a one-on-one basis for 30, 45, or 60 minutes. Where possible, most schools will have two separate interviews, the first often with a faculty member and the second with a medical student. Some schools only have members of the admissions committee interview applicants. Other schools call upon a broad range of faculty members who are not necessarily on the admissions committee and are not given access to the applicant's file. The second interview may be with an administrator who does have the file and will seek to clarify any pertinent academic or personal issues identified there. Medical schools try to include one of their own students as interviewers where possible. A word of caution: Don't take the medical student interview less seriously. What the medical students have to say about applicants carries substantial weight with an admissions committee.
Do you have any strategies I can use to relax before and during the interview?
I am not an expert in relaxation strategies, but I have come to learn that engaging in constructive self-talk is certainly one method to spruce up your mood. For example, tell yourself that you were invited to interview because the medical school screened applications and determined you have promise for medicine and many of the characteristics and experiences they seek. Avoid such negative self-talk as, "I just can't deal with this now. I am just wasting my time trying to prove that I can be a doctor. I am not good at interviewing and will likely stumble all over myself." If you want to feel worse, this is exactly how to go about it.
The message in all of this is simple and is often the basis for the many techniques out there to improve the quality of a person's life: "Change the way you think (and talk about yourself) and you will change the way you feel. Talk to yourself in a more positive and constructive manner and you will start to feel better and become more productive." - Joni E. Spurlin, Karen W. Collins, and Donald F. Dansereau.
Interviewing is a skill, and the more experience you have, the more comfortable you will feel. A lot of college pre-medical offices do "mock interviews" for their applicants, helping them to think about the range of questions that might be asked and then providing a critique on how applicants might improve. Many applicants have had clinical experiences and develop relationships with a clinical mentor. Ask a mentor to interview you and provide feedback.
Don't try to memorize answers to questions you think will be asked. If you follow the 10 tips suggested for interviewing and gain a sense that you've done everything possible to make the interview go smoothly, you'll increase your confidence. Remember, there are four important goals for the interview process, and three directly serve the needs of the applicant: public relations for the school, answering the applicant's questions, recruitment, and gathering data.
Also remember that the school is trying to encourage you to come to their institution, so they want you to succeed and think well of them. Sometimes applicants will tell their interviewer that they are nervous because it is a first interview. Most faculty members who engage in interviewing applicants will try to help the applicant relax. They know that the interview process is stressful and many will remember their own experience. If a question comes your way that you don't understand, ask for clarification or ask to have the question repeated. Don't feel discouraged making this request. Some faculty members ask difficult questions, and will try and challenge your thinking. Never get into an argument with your interviewer, even if they try to bait you. Always be respectful and listen carefully. Take a lot of deep breaths before you start, and once into the interview if you need a drink of water, ask for it.
How much money does the average person spend on interviews?
It's hard to be precise, but taking into account travel (road or air), lodging, meals, and other expenses (such as attire), an applicant may spend in the range of $500 to $2,000. These expenses may vary from state to state. Most schools will provide a meal or two such as breakfast or lunch. However, do not expect the schools to pay for your lodging or travel. You are on your own there.
This is a very difficult question to answer because it is problematic to come up with the average person. Most applicants will invest roughly $100 to $200 on the interview outfit. Beyond this, averages go out the window. If the applicant is a student going to college in Ohio and is invited for interviews at six of the seven schools in that state, driving to them is a viable option. The primary cost will be for gas and possibly an overnight stay when traveling to the most distant site. This applicant would likely spend somewhere in the range of $200 to $300. For an applicant from California who gets invited to six schools on the East coast, unless the applicant can arrange a schedule with the medical schools to group some of the interviews, this may require paying for several cross-country flights. Now we are talking about $1,000 or more. The majority of medical schools have an "overnight host program," and applicants should use this resource. Normally, second-year medical students are the hosts. It is a great opportunity to learn more about the school and the faculty prior to the actual interview day, thus enabling the applicant to feel a bit more relaxed. If the school does not have a host program, they will likely share with you where applicants stay, as the school may have worked out a financial relationship with a nearby hotel, or they may even own a hotel.
What should I wear to the interview?
Look the part! The "uniform" should be conservative, tasteful, and neat. The standard attire for men is still the suit, and I recommend a well-cut, well-tailored solid or pin stripe, navy, gray, charcoal, or brown. The standard attire for women, albeit styles changing in the professional work place, is also the suit in gray, light charcoal, or blue. Like the men, women should keep it conservative, tasteful, and neat, avoiding bold or flashy patterns. Accessories can sometimes be distracting in an interview, particularly if you are nervous or have nervous idiosyncrasies. Keep your accessories sedate, limiting jewelry to a watch and wedding band (if married). Last but not least is personal grooming: keep it neat, squeaky clean, and conservative. I can't emphasize enough how important this is in making a positive impression.
Interviewers are often struck when they meet a group of applicants, because they will likely be wearing either dark blue or black suits. The women usually have on white blouses with their dark suits and are wearing no jewelry. Interviewers often laud applicants who assert their individuality and appear in conservative, but tasteful, non-black or blue outfits. The message here is not to be afraid to step away from the norm if you believe brown, green, sage, or another color suits you better. It is perfectly acceptable for women to wear pantsuits, but if a skirt is chosen, it should not be so short that when in a seated position, it rides up to an uncomfortable level. Tugging on a too-short skirt throughout the interview is distracting and will definitely be noted by the interviewer. The same goes for a blouse that is too tight. Practice wearing the outfit and make certain that you feel good about it before setting off. Upon entering an interview room, if the temperature is uncomfortably warm, ask permission of your interviewer to remove your jacket.
Please note that some schools provide a walking campus tour during the interview day. For women applicants from a warm climate, coming to Chicago in the middle of winter, remember that sling back high heels won't work. Once you know the school's schedule, prepare for clothing needs throughout the day.
What months are best for interviewing?
The best time to interview is early or at the beginning of the cycle. However, there will be times when you have no choice in the matter. Don't despair, because getting an interview is an important event, regardless of when it is offered.
Schools will consider for acceptance all applicants who have interviewed because not all the applicants that they select for acceptance in the early rounds will take their offers. There is invariably a certain rate of attrition as acceptances are doled out.
A strategy that can help is to submit your application and all supporting documents and secondary applications early in the process.
Ideally, it is to an applicant's benefit to do the first one or two interviews at medical schools that are not the highest priority for entry. This affords valuable interview practice and a better sense of what to look for and what to ask when on the next medical school campus.
Early on in the interview process, faculty members tend to be more enthusiastic and a bit fresher. However, they can be a bit more critical in what they are looking for in applicants as well.
The reverse has the potential to be true later in the year. As the year wears on, and faculty members engage in responsibilities to interview senior medical students for residency positions, along with applicants to the medical school, enthusiasm can wane a bit.
The message is that you want their full attention, and enthusiasm helps. Later in the year, applicants often have an acceptance, and nothing boosts an applicant's confidence at the time of the interview like holding a position in a medical school. They know for certain that they will be entering the profession of medicine.