One of the greatest moments of my life was receiving an email notifying me that I had been invited to interview at a medical school. In fact I was so excited, I did three laps of joy around my living room before I even thought to check which school it was.
For the first time in the application process I felt like someone had actually assessed and approved of my character. I felt I had passed the first of many vital tests, and that someone, somewhere in a board room surrounded by mountainous stacks of personal statements had deemed me to be qualified to attend their school. If you’ve been fortunate enough to receive an interview already, you may have some familiarity with this feeling. (If you haven’t yet—don’t panic. Interview invitations are still being sent out and schools still have room for new members of the Class of 2019.)
But what’s the next step? How do you transform the spark that initially caught the committee member’s eye into the fireworks that will guarantee you a place in their student body? You can find many answers to this question on the AAMC.org website, which provides some really excellent advice for preparing for your interview, including what to wear, the kind of questions you’ll be asked, and what you can expect that day. If you’ve already pored over these tips, I’ve come up with a few of my own that I picked up along the way. Interviews can be scary and daunting but also fun, and I hope the advice below (from a medical student who was quaking in his well-polished interview shoes not quite a year ago) helps.
I know this sounds like the kind of cheesy advice you read on inspirational posters, but it was a strategy that really served me well on interview day. Smile. Like, all the time. From the administration staff who hand you your name badge, to the first fellow interviewee you meet in the elevator. Consider every interaction you have prior to the real thing like a mini-interview, where you warm up your social skills and small talk. If you don’t feel comfortable in social situations this can be a challenge, but start simply by turning to the person next to you and asking where they are from. Take courage in the fact that the person sitting next to you is probably just as nervous.
2. Make friends
Treat your fellow interviewees as your colleagues, not your competition. Everybody walks into that room with their own insecurities, pre-interview jitters and hang-ups. Feeling threatened by your future classmates and peers does nothing to boost your own self-esteem, and could hinder future resources. Make at least one friend on your interview day, even if the friendship only lasts a few hours. Find a partner to have lunch with, share post-interview thoughts, split a taxi to the airport, and even to exchange email addresses. You will find that befriending your co-applicants humanizes them, and takes the sting out of the cutthroat atmosphere that seems so often to accompany the application process. And hey, if you both end up attending the same school, you could even make a friend for life.
3. Make it personal
In some interview situations, in particular Multiple Mini Interviews (MMIs) where you may only have a few minutes of interaction, it might be difficult to let your personality shine. In your efforts to answer the question, the interviewer may not learn what it is that makes you tick. My solution in these situations was to inject every conversation with as much personality as possible. I would start sentences with phrases like “this reminds of a time when I had to deal with a similar patient in the hospital…” or “during my experience as a volunteer, I encountered something like this scenario…”. Not only would I be answering the question, I would be qualifying it with my own experience, as well as discussing some of the accomplishments I was proud to have achieved. This left interviewers with a sound understanding of my motives and also provided a good segue into follow-up questions, particularly if they had not had access to my personal statement beforehand.
4. Go all out
Imagine this: You turn up on the day of your interview in your pristinely pressed business attire. Your mind is focused, your demeanor professional, and as you enter your first interview expecting a riveting discussion on the state of American healthcare, you instead find yourself facing an irate ‘patient’ who needs your counsel. Welcome to the world of the role-play interview, where you are asked to deal with emotion and think on your feet in real time. It was hard enough when they were just judging you on the quality of your answers, now they want to judge you on your acting skills too? Whether you are a lifelong thespian or have never set foot on a stage in your life, the role-play interview will always be a challenge. The only way to get over your trepidation is to believe in your performance. I don’t mean you should be over dramatic, but I do mean you should take it seriously and be genuine. Invest yourself in the scenario, pretend you are really there and act like you would if this scene were playing out in real life. This kind of role-play will happen frequently in medical school. You will take histories and perform physical exams on fellow classmates and hired actors, so it is good to become accustomed to performing under pressure now.
5. Follow a formula
Many people say that a successful interview is one that most closely resembles a conversation. But sometimes conversations aren’t easy. You may have a tendency to ramble or perhaps you struggle to come up with a sufficient number of things to say. I have developed a three-part formula that never fails for me: Engage, Explain, Summarize. The first thing I do when asked a question is engage. Sometimes I use phrases like “wow, this is a challenging question” or “this is something I’ve always had a strong opinion about”. As well as providing a little personality to the interview, this attitude tells the interviewer that you are not just regurgitating what you read on the internet a few days earlier, but actually have true opinions that influence your answer. Part of engaging with your question is approaching it from many angles, which carries you to the second part of the formula: explain. If your question demands a yes or no answer, I explain both sides of the argument, beginning with the side I do not agree with. Perhaps saying something like, “I understand why proponents of the particular action would feel this way…” or “at first glance, it seems like the right thing to do is…”. When I do come to explain my own opinion, I am sure to provide personal experiences to back it up (see tip #3). I address and confront the points I raised when explaining the other side of my argument. Lastly, I end my answer with a simple summary. This clearly states the final answer. Always be prepared to defend your opinions as there may be several follow up questions!
As a medical student, I’ve had the privilege of hosting a number of interview candidates as well as leading tours for prospective candidates. Meeting all these applicants is a regular reminder for me of the fear and anxiety that are a natural part of the application to medical school. I remember just how frustrating it can be to explore the campus of your dreams and still be so uncertain about your future. But while an interview does not always mean an acceptance, it does mean that you’ve passed the first step towards getting into medical school. Use this knowledge to give you the confidence to succeed on interview day.
About Luke Burns
Born in Hong Kong to a British mother and German father, Luke spent most of his childhood following his family around the world. Luke studied Politics & Sociology at University of Bristol in the United Kingdom, graduating in 2008.
He returned to the United States in 2011 and enrolled in the Mills College Pre-medical Post-baccalaureate Program in Oakland, California. Luke loves to work with kids, and has been an active volunteer at both the Muscular Dystrophy Association and the George Mark Children’s House, the first pediatric palliative care center in the US. He is also co-founder of Camp Kitchen & Harvest, a non-profit organization that teaches children in urban communities how to plant, grow and cook their own food.
Today, Luke is an M.D. candidate at the University of California San Diego School of Medicine. He hopes to continue working with children and to one day serve them and their families as a pediatrician.