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Getting Into Medical School: Traditional Interview Strategies

In this lesson, I’m going to discuss the traditional interview format and give you inside information and strategies on how to do your best.

Fifteen years ago, if you had an interview, there was only one type to be concerned about. It was, what I call a traditional interview and it still predominates today. It involves face to face chatting about whatever the interviewer(s) want(s) to ask you about. Traditional interviews are great at giving a feel for you as a person but don’t tell a lot about your critical thinking and decision-making skills. To gauge these, the second type of interview format called Multiple Mini Interviews, or MMI were started at McMaster University in 2004 and they are rather widespread today. You may have both traditional and MMI-style interviews. I’ll discuss MMI in Lesson 14.

Fast forward to 2020 and the COVID-19 era and a new wrinkle in interviewing entered the scene—the Zoom interview. I’ll talk about strategies for it in Lesson 15.

The traditional interview is the least structured of the three formats and it gives you a chance to show the interview committee what you’re all about. Let’s discuss how it’s going to play out.

First, you should make sure you give yourself plenty of time to get to the building where the interview will be held. Then, assuming you’ve got the time, take a long walk before presenting yourself at the assigned location. The walk will do wonders for your nerves. It’s OK to show up five minutes early at the assigned location. It is not OK to show up 30 minutes early or be late by even a minute.

Set the tone—you’ve probably heard that people form an opinion of you in the first few seconds of meeting you. It is important you use this time strategically. Doctors are doers with a capital D and that is the first impression you’re going to want to make. When the interviewer comes to greet you to take you to the site of the interview, you immediately set the tone of the interaction. First, if you are sitting, jump to your feet and walk over to her/him. Do not wait passively for them to come to you. Second, on your way over to the interviewer, extend your hand. Do not wait for them to give you their hand. Third, give the person a firm handshake.

You do not need to crush the other person’s hand, but match their firmness with yours. Fourth, you should introduce yourself—“I’m Kevin Ahern and I’m pleased to meet you.” If you are wondering how to address your interviewers, take your cue from the way they introduce themselves. If your interviewer introduces herself as “Jane” then that’s how you should address her. If she says, “Hi, I’m Dr. Smith”, then address her as Dr. Smith.

Taking charge—The reason for all of these actions is to “take charge of the interview.” If you wait for the interviewers to take the lead, you have given control of the interview over to them and you’re not going to get it back.

It is essential for you to be perceived by the interviewers as an adult and an equal, not as a subordinate or child. If you act like a subordinate, you will be viewed as one. This is bad. You are aspiring to be a professional like the people interviewing you. Act like an equal to be treated and perceived like one. As you walk to the interview room with the interviewer, walk beside, not behind, the interviewer.

When you arrive at the interview room, you may have a panel of interviewers or it may be only the person who walked you there. If you have a panel of interviewers, use the same advice as to when you met the first person—take charge, shake hands, introduce yourself.

You must get each of the interviewer’s names and remember them so that you can refer to them by name when you reply to questions. You aren’t going to say a name every time you look at someone, but it is good to work in each interviewer’s name once during the interview.

Body language—As you get started, take a few seconds for a quick body language check. First, are you smiling? Second, after you sit down, make eye contact with your interviewers. Third, and this is important, separate your hands and don’t let them touch each other during the interview. Why? When people get nervous, they hold their hands together. When your hands are holding onto each other for dear life, they are not communicating for you. Plus, they make you look nervous. Your hands are useful for making your points and coming across clearly. The more your hands hold onto each other, the less of a communicator you will appear. Fourth, as you are sitting down, do not get comfortable. Don’t lean back in your chair. In fact, your back should not touch the back of the chair. Leaning forward shows interest on your part and that is not a bad image to be communicating. Fifth, in answering questions, do not look up when you are thinking. Why? If you’ve ever watched people taking an exam, you will know what looking upwards communicates. That’s what students do when they are trying to pull something out of memory. You’ve probably done it on every exam you have ever taken. Why is that bad? It’s bad because you do not want your answers to look like they were memorized. It is much better to get in the habit of looking down when you try to recall something. The visual effect of looking down is one of thoughtfulness, not of pulling things out of memory.

In this lesson, we learned about the setup for a traditional interview and the importance of setting the tone of the interview starting with the very first interactions. We also discussed things to keep in mind with respect to what your body language is communicating. Coming up in the second part of traditional interviews, I’ll give you some help with common questions in a traditional interview.

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Written by

Kevin Ahern

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