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Getting Into Medical School: General Interview Considerations

In this lesson, I’m going to begin a discussion of the medical school interview with a focus on getting ready for and setting the tone for the big event.

In planning for your interview, it is important to think about its purpose. Up until the point they meet you at the interview, you are a virtual entity to the committee, unless you happen to know someone on it. That virtual entity has grades, MCAT scores, and an interesting personal statement, but is not yet a living, breathing being to the committee.

If you did a good job, your personal statement will have helped you stand out from the crowd of applicants. The interview will (ideally) extend this distinction even further and a lot of my advice is aimed at that. An interview committee wants to “see you in action.” They will be looking at you with one primary question in the back of their minds—“Can I imagine this person interacting favorably with patients and being a doctor?”

All the people who will interview you have already been through what you are just experiencing for the first time. To you, it seems like (and is) an enormous deal. To them, it is not. There are much bigger things in life and in your career than this interview. Yes, the interview is important now and yes, you want to nail it, but a career in medicine will require you to be able to handle life and death situations, fear, anxiety, and pain, among many other challenges.

If the message you communicate in your interview is that the interview itself is the biggest challenge in your life and “once I get through this, I’ll be OK,” then you really aren’t ready to take that next step. There is a lot ahead of you and when you look back, you, too, will see the interview from the proper perspective.

You should look at the interview as an opportunity to showcase yourself and to learn more about the school you might be attending. If you view the interview as a test where you must give the right answers to the questions, you will have missed the point. Every question you are asked is an opportunity, not a test of your knowledge, and you need to be thinking of how that opportunity can be used to have the interviewer(s) see you as a physician.

You should go into the interview thinking about the traits, experiences, and perspectives that you want the committee to see and know about you. This will be the goal of your interview. If you get these points across effectively, you can pat yourself on the back.

Preparation—A terrific way to put your nervous energy to use while you are waiting to hear from the schools is to begin to prepare yourself well for the interview. Apart from giving you something to focus on, this is useful, because almost no one can shine in an interview without proper preparation. Proper preparation includes PRACTICE.

There are numerous services online that will do it for a price. Alternatively, you can ask a friend to run you through the paces with some practice questions that they ask you. Practicing in this way is VERY important. Virtually every student I do a practice interview stumbles with the very first question—“Why do you want to be a doctor?”

The problem isn’t that they don’t want to be a doctor, but they aren’t used to articulating the reasons and, more importantly, they aren’t smoothly delivering their answer. If there is an answer that should come out smoothly, this is the one. It isn’t difficult, but you will need to get used to hearing yourself say the words you’re going to use.

Fortunately, you have the time and you can use it to work on your skills. In the lessons that follow on actual interview scenarios, you’ll notice that you will be expected to be smiling, alert, relaxed, thoughtful, confident and if you can manage it, utterly charming.

You must remember some don’ts, such as not fidgeting with your hands and not giggle nervously. You do, however, want to sit upright, make eye contact, be articulate, and impress the committee with your intelligence, wit, and charisma. Not a whole lot to expect of someone whose stomach is churning nervously, huh?

At this point, I like to remind my students that they have already done things far more difficult than what the interview will be. Unfortunately, you won’t get a chance to realize that until the interview is over. Students frequently find that the second interview is much easier and it is likely you will too.

Well, the beauty of preparation is that it can help calm your nerves and increase your self-confidence. Athletes and performers know this very well. The hundreds of hours of practice they put in ensure that on the day of the big game or performance, they go out in front of the crowd and perform flawlessly. To the casual observer, it all seems effortless. You, too, can look poised, and perform, if not flawlessly, certainly with confidence and grace, if you are willing to work on your preparation.

How should you prepare? Take time to become aware of the impression you make on other people, as well as your speech patterns or nervous tics. None of these can be changed overnight. The sooner you start, the better off you’ll be.

Your nervous tics are probably not what you think they are. Students get all worried about how often they say “uh” or “um”. Here’s some good news—they are not a problem. You’re not giving a formal speech.

Problematic nervous tics include short giggles at the ends of sentences, a voice that tails off where you’re not sure of something, and overuse of phrases such as “you know” or the words “like,” and “actually.”

Your body language may indicate your nervousness independent of your words. Examples include not making eye contact, frowning whenever speaking, limp handshakes, and hands clutching each other. Online interviews minimize the impact of body language tics but may make the verbal ones become more apparent. It pays to work on all of them.

In summary, good interviews are planned and prepared for. Your interview provides the admissions committee with an introduction to a promising candidate and it provides you with the chance to convince them that you have what it takes to be a great doctor. Work on your rough spots and polish your bright spots.

In the next lesson, I’ll continue this discussion about general interview strategies and will discuss age, maturity, size, confidence, and how to dress.

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Written by

Kevin Ahern

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