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Getting Into Medical School: Traditional Interview Questions

In the last lesson, we finished preparations for the traditional interview. Now, we’re ready to dive in and tackle its questions.

The most common and often the first question of a traditional interview is answering the question of why you want to be a doctor. Many students struggle with answering that question.

Let’s talk about it. First, this question, like all questions in a traditional interview should be completely answered in two minutes or less. If you talk for longer than two minutes you run the risk of sounding boring and losing the interest of the interviewers.

Next, your answer to the question must be conversational and though I recommend you prepare and practice your response thoroughly, it should NOT in any way look like what you’re saying is coming from memory. You should be smiling through the answer to this question. If you wish to draw on a story from your personal statement, that is OK, but don’t repeat what you said in the personal statement verbatim.

Science-hating psychopaths generally do not apply to medical school, so refrain from saying that you love science and want to help people. Some students prefer to give a chronology of their interest in medicine. You can talk about an experience you had while shadowing. You can talk about a major factor in your development. All of these are OK, so long as what you say is INTERESTING and it is clear why you are seeking a medical career. Remember that your goals here are being friendly, communicative, and interesting.

Depending on your answer, you may get follow-up questions. At this point, I’ll remind you that you absolutely must be honest in your answers and you need to be very aware of what your answers may sound like to an interviewer. That will be more of a factor in some categories of questions coming up.

A common question asked of almost everyone is listing their best and worst qualities. The best is the easiest to answer, but be brief. For the worst qualities, there is a danger if you don’t fully explain what you mean. Let’s say you say your worst quality is “trying to do too many things.” If you stop there, you leave it up to the interviewer’s imagination as to what that might mean. They might assume you never complete projects or that you’re always stressed from overwork. On the other hand, if you add that sometimes don’t have enough free time and when that happens, you regret it but it hasn’t been a problem for you, the interviewer understands what you’re trying to say and likely won’t make other assumptions unless you give them a reason to.

The “worst quality” is an example of a category of questions called negative questions. When you’re asked a question about a negative aspect of yourself, ALWAYS be sure to clearly articulate exactly what you mean in talking about weakness.

Another common question is “what is the hardest thing you’ve ever done?” On the surface, it is innocuous, but there’s a lot hidden in that question. If the hardest thing you’ve ever done is adjust to living away from home, what does that say about your exposure to adult life? Contrast that answer with that of someone who has battled cancer, lost loved ones at an early age, or had parents with drug addictions. If you have not had many challenges in life, you have to be honest, of course, but you’re going to have to work very hard on the maturity angle. One way to do that is with insight and perspective. What if you added, “I know my experiences are not the same as those who have had harder lives, but I tried to use the blessing I have had to be relatively free of worry to improve myself in other ways.” With that, at least you’re clearly not trying to pass off your experiences as significant and you’re pointing the interviewer in another direction.

Complex questions are yet another category and learning how to finesse them will help you not only in a traditional interview but also in the MMI, as we’ll discuss in the next lecture. Complex questions are those that don’t have a straightforward answer. Though on the surface, they may appear simple, you’ll be able to recognize these because they will often be ethical or operational in nature. A great example is “What do you think about doctor-assisted suicide?”

On the surface, it seems to be simple—it looks like your opinion is being requested. Here is where you get in trouble for looking at an interview like a fill-in-the-blanks exam. The fill-in-the-blank answer might be “I’m in favor of it.” Consider for a moment that an issue like doctor-assisted suicide is complex and controversial with strongly held views on both sides.

If you want to sound like someone who simply has an opinion, then give the fill-in-the-blank answer. Thoughtful people, however, see the question as an opportunity to reveal what they know about the subject and to demonstrate that they have given thought to the various concerns surrounding the issue. You do this by defining the problem, discussing the perspectives of both sides, and then elaborating on how your view of the issue fits into those perspectives, and why.

The last common question is the only tricky one. It is which school would you go to if you were accepted to all of the places you applied to? Sometimes students say they would lie and declare they’d attend the school they are interviewing at. Lying is NEVER an option. If you say you would attend the school, that means once that school accepted you, you’d be obligated to go, if you’re an honest person. If you are not an honest person, you should not be a doctor. Some students say they would go to a particular school they have in mind at that moment as their favorite school. Wrong again. The true answer is you don’t know. Reasonable people make decisions after all the offers and all of the facts are in front of them. Saying THAT in an interview will make you sound intelligent. The other responses will make you sound dishonest or naive.

So, in this lecture, we’ve handled some common questions of traditional interviews. In the next lesson, I’ll do the same for MMI type interviews.

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Written by

Kevin Ahern

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