How to prepare for medical school interviews: the myth of the ‘most common medical school interview questions’

The medical school interview is often the most feared aspect of the application process. Between getting dressed in professional attire, visiting an unfamiliar campus, feeling as if every action is under intense scrutiny, and explaining your passion for medicine to faculty members, there is plenty to prepare for prior to interview day. Pre-medical applicants are inevitably interested in predicting what they will be asked during medical school interviews so that they can prepare ahead of time and nail down the perfect answers. We want to shed some light on common misconceptions we’ve found around the internet and strategies students can use to perform to their fullest potential at any interview they attend. In particular, we want to dispel the belief that there is such a thing as ‘the most common medical school interview question’ because it does students a disservice as they prepare for interview day. Though it may seem like a useless, feel-good platitude, the best advice really is to just…’be yourself’. By exploring why medical schools conduct interviews in the first place, we hope to explain what we mean by this and help you prepare for your interviews the right way.

Why do medical schools conduct student interviews?

Over 50,000 students apply to medical school each year. Even before any sort of selection process, these students represent some of the strongest national and international undergraduates. Prior to the interview day, in the eyes of admissions boards, applicants are not much more than an aggregate of numbers; the hours and scores paint a very vague picture of what the applicant was interested in and how strong a worker the applicant was up to that point. The resolving capacity of MCAT, GPA’s, and volunteer hours (in other words, the ability for these statistics to differentiate applicants) is not sufficient to effectively construct a capable, well-rounded medical school class. The student interview gives admissions committees the chance to discover characteristics of the applicant apart from his or her peers. The key is, these characteristics can be anything unique about the applicant – musical talent, coding aptitude, life experience, or interesting hobby. Generally, by the time a student has received an interview invite, the admissions committee has deemed that student capable of successfully handling the academic and intellectual workload of medical school. Now, they are interested in gauging the students’ ‘soft skills’, factors that will contribute to diverse and successful medical school classes. It is in this context that people often give the advice to ‘just be yourself.’ The medical school interview is your opportunity to speak with faculty members about what sets you apart from another equally capable medical school applicant.

What do you mean there are no ‘most common questions’?

When you sit in the interview chair, any number of things can happen. Depending on who sits across from you, the introductions could go any number of ways. Depending on what sort of day the faculty member or interviewer is having, the first topic of conversation could be any number of things. And, depending on what your interviewer is interested in, the interview could evolve in an indefinite number of directions. The point is, there simply is no way to predict what questions will be asked during an interview. Imagine going on a date. In preparation, would composing answers to the questions you were most likely to receive be an effective (let alone socially acceptable) strategy for the date? Would you be able to predict what sorts of questions he or she would have for you? More importantly, would that sort of preparation and those sorts of answers make for a comfortable, non-awkward experience? No and no and no. This analogy is supposed to illustrate the point that your interview is nothing more than a conversation. In no other conversation would you consider preparing answers or predicting what questions would be thrown your way. Authenticity and honesty are two major sells for admissions committees. Close correlates to those are confidence are interpersonal skills. There is no pre-set group of questions that would allow an interviewer to determine if you possess these attributes. They determine this based on how well you hold conversations with students and how passionately or well you speak to your interests and experiences. At the end of the day, is this student capable of speaking with a wide diversity of patients and professional colleagues? So if the interview is not a set of questions, how do I prepare for it?

Well, how exactly do I prepare for medical school interviews then?

If succeeding at interviews is just about representing yourself well, how do you go about doing that? First and foremost, know your application. Although we spend hours upon hours and days upon days preparing our medical school primary and secondary applications, speaking about what we have done in our lives is very different from putting that same stuff down on paper. Either to friends, family, or a mirror, practice explaining each activity you partook in and how it relates to your medical career aspirations. For each entry on your application, answer the questions: ‘What did you do? How did you do it? Why did you do it? and What did you learn from it?’ When you start out, you may find that it is hard to say more than one or two sentences about a given activity. If this is the case, a helpful alternative would be to start by journaling about the activities. With pen and paper, write freely about the research you did during undergraduate, or the volunteer organization you worked with. The writing does not need to be beautiful prose, let alone grammatically correct; the key is that you spew all of your thoughts about a given activity into writing, and in doing so you will discover why the activity was important to you in the first place. Once you have these general ideas, repeated practice speaking with different people may be beneficial given you will naturally alter and tweak your answers based on the audience. In doing so, you will become more comfortable speaking about the subject in many different ways. Just take care not to drive those close to you nuts with your practice! An extremely important caveat to this type of practice is that you do not prepare these answers or write out specific answers. The writing exercise is nothing more than an opportunity to express yourself. Answers should come organically. You may naturally refine your answer, but there is no need to write specific points down or memorize words and phrases. Such answers will not be genuine and you will feel much more pressure trying to recite an answer instead of speaking freely.

Another valuable exercise in preparing for medical school interviews involves simply recalling stories! There may be particularly memorable experiences you had while you were working, volunteering, or researching that were memorable. These moments may have been memorable because they were comical, upsetting, inspiring, or gratifying. The stories need not be profound; in fact, most of them won’t be. A lot of the time we spend doing these activities is mundane, and thats fine. If you did learn something from the experience, know what it was and why it was important to you. But even if the story was nothing more than a funny experience or a ridiculous accident, it will help you speak more freely about any topic that happens to come up in conversation. So think about two or three specific experiences within each of your activities and why they were memorable. Once again, do not write these stories down or memorize how to recite them. As ridiculous as it may sound, just think about them, reflect on them, ruminate on them. If you do so, when a question arises, one of those stories may pop into your head and help you segue into a strong, authentic response. A close correlate to this point is, in the midst of doing everything that helps strengthen our application, it is important to continue to do what we are passionate about and collect new experiences. Not only do these experiences give us more to share with admissions committees in interviews, but they help us grow. That sort of growth will help you naturally preform better at any interview, regardless the questions.

Fine. What are some of the most common ‘topics of conversation’ during medical school interviews?

Okay, okay. Perhaps we can now agree that are no ‘most common questions’ to prepare for. But are there some common themes that arise during interviews? Of course! For one, your interviewers will steer the conversation in such a direction that helps them determine why you are interested in medicine. What has motivated you to complete all the grueling coursework and to put in the hundreds of extracurricular hours. Students with strong, healthy driving forces are likely to succeed in medical school. The great thing is, using the practice methods mentioned earlier will ensure you are ready to speak about these sorts of things. As you reflect on the research, jobs, and volunteer work you did, themes and underlying motivations will start to become clear. Being able to describe the driving forces behind the things you do is essential to bringing your application together. Remember that people are drawn to narratives. You want to understand what your narrative is; how did you end up at a medical school interview? What sorts of things led you to that moment? Once you understand what your overarching narrative is, example experiences (AKA stories) are often the best way to convey your own narrative to someone else. Putting into words ‘why medicine?’ can often be really difficult because the answer is multifaceted and complex. Rather than creating a word for word answer for that question, we encourage you to think about the stories in your life that contributed the most to your pursuit of a medical career. Responding to the ‘why medicine’ line of inquiry by sharing important stories will be 1) more compelling 2) more genuine 3) more unique!

Another topic that interviewers will often cover is a student’s interest in that particular school. Why does the student want to attend our medical school as opposed to the hundreds of others? Perhaps it is because you have ties to the region. Perhaps there is a faculty member that drew you to the community. Or maybe it’s a particular aspect of the curriculum. Regardless, your interviewer will want to know why you are interested in their school because it will help them gauge how well you’ll fit into the medical school culture. Students interested in the school’s curriculum or extracurricular programs are likely to involve themselves heavily, build strong relationships, and support the entire community. So prior to an interview, gather as much information as you can. Use admissions websites, check out our student interviews, use Wikipedia, or if possible speak with current students. An often overlooked opportunity to learn about the school is the student interview. Many admissions committee have applicants interview with a student in addition to a faculty member. Because the student interview may be slightly less formal and because you may be a bit more at ease, feel free to ask the student about their medical school. You may want to learn about student organizations, clinical experiences, lecture format, or the surrounding area. Not only will you learn useful details of a school from someone with first-hand experience, it will also help engage your interviewer by giving them an opportunity to talk for a change! Demonstrating genuine interest in a school goes a long way with admissions committees. They want people that are excited to be there and interested in helping the school and all its members realize their full potential.

Another topic covered by medical school interviewers is stress! Admissions committee want to be sure of two things: that you know exactly what you are getting yourself into and that you are equipped to cope with the challenges you will face. En route to a medical career, we develop a particular conception regarding the job. These ideas may be a bit idealistic and unrealistic. The interviewer will be interested in hearing about how you went about trying to figure out what being a physician is really about. Doing well in courses and crushing your MCAT is all well and good; however, if you don’t really understand the big-picture of being a doctor, those stats won’t do you much good. And by no means do you need to develop a perfect understanding of medical careers. As medical students we are still learning so much about the challenges of being a physician. There’s no way an applicant would be expected to know everything there is to know about the job. But applicants should put effort into at least learning the basics. If you get the chance to shadow physicians or speak with residents, ask them about the most difficult things they do on the job. Ask them about things they might want to change. Knowing these types of things help dispel overly idealistic views of physicianship and demonstrate maturity and thoughtfulness to interviewers and AdComs. Okay! Now that you know being a doctor is no cake-walk, how are you going to cope. Luckily, this is the easy part. What do you do for fun? What do you do to stay healthy? If you want to really knock it out of the park, explain to the admissions committee why their school in particular (i.e. the surrounding area) is perfect for you to keep up with your hobbies and deal with your stress. Perhaps you’re a surfer and being near the beach helps you blow off steam. Maybe you lean on nearby family during difficult times. If you can link your coping mechanisms to a particular medical school, *ding ding ding ding ding*!

Tell me about yourself…

One part of the medical school interview we want to touch on in particular is what many students refer to as the “‘Tell me about yourself’ question”. Sometimes, the interviewer needs a way to open up the floor to the interviewee…get them to open up.  They’ll ask the student to start by ‘telling me about yourself’ and let the student get the ball rolling. Understandably, this can feel overwhelming or uncomfortable. Where do you start? What do they want to know? Before we give you specific ways to nail this opportunity, some big-picture advice. Students should realize that this is an opportunity for you to set the tone of the conversation. Meaning, you have been given a blank check of sorts, the ability to steer at least the initial portion of the conversation in any direction they like. In addition to normal introductory pleasantries, students can also tactfully choose things to mention about themselves that they are comfortable speaking about. If you mention a particular hobby or activity during this time, there is a good chance that that the interviewer will ask additional questions about it. So, realize it can be an opportunity to control how the interview begins. Now, the specific of responding to something this open ended. Bits of info that would be appropriate here would be where you are from, where you went to school, what you studied, work experience, hobbies and non-academic interests, and that you are interested in becoming a medical student and physician. That all there is to it! Its easy to get caught up in wanting to knock it out of the park with a profound, tear-jerker or an introduction. But, once again, this is nothing more than an opportunity for you to lay out possible topics of conversation for the interviewer to take. A critical point here is that, for this answer, less truly is more. You don’t need to describe anything in detail here. You are only mentioning them. If the interviewer so chooses, they can ask you to expand on something you mentioned. Your job is just to lay it all in front of them, give them the options, and then see which topic they want to ask you more about. So, think about the shortest way to describe the topics mentioned above and don’t worry about creating a fancy, detailed, perfect response!

Putting it all together to crush your medical school interview

The key take away from all of this advice is, think of the interview as a conversation rather than a set of questions. Reflection is going to be the best form of preparation. Take your application, run through each and every line, and ask yourself ‘What? How? Why? and What did I learn?’ Practice speaking about your various activities and experiences with different people to become comfortable with creating spontaneous, organic answers. If need be, even practicing in a mirror can be extremely helpful. Never memorize or construct answers. In addition to being yourself and knowing your application, give particular thought to your motivations and driving forces. Develop as strong and as accurate an understanding of being a doctor as you possibly can by speaking with medical students and healthcare professionals. Most importantly, through this entire application process, do not stop doing the things you love and the things you are passionate about. New experiences help you grow and give you exciting stories to share. Admissions committees want to hear about the awesome things you’ve done in your life and how they will contribute to their medical school. So tell them!

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