Medical School Interview Part I – What Do They Look For?

The medical school admissions process can be extremely daunting. Years of academic preparation and extracurricular effort have now converged upon this single obstacle. The medical school interview. Even more nerve wracking is that that unlike your previous milestones, the interview is almost impossible to study for. Sure you can memorize answers, but you run the risk of sounding scripted. On the other hand, go into it without the adequate preparation can also spell disaster. Although the feeling of pressure is inevitable, getting too anxious can sabotage your interview performance. Keep in mind that by receiving an interview invite, you have already done something good to distinguish yourself, whether that be a combination of good grades and MCAT, or unique extracurriculars. The admissions committee spotted a remarkable quality in your application, and now they want to get to know you in person. So give yourself a round of applause, but don’t let it go to your head. The quickest route to the rejection pile is to come across sounding entitled or arrogant.

My goal for this two part article is to help you succeed in your medical school interview. In Part I, I give my take on exactly what I believe are the most important qualities that admission committees are looking for. In part II, I talk about logistical context, go over the different types of interview styles as well as high yield questions, and end with my single biggest piece of advice for changing your mindset when approaching the interview. Let’s get right to it.

WHAT DO MEDICAL SCHOOLS REALLY LOOK FOR?

 

Too often, students will overanalyze what medical schools might think about every minute detail on their application. Other times, they might exhibit the fallacy that there exists a magic cut off point whereby reaching [blank] many hours constitutes an extracurricular as being “checked off”.

Both can hinder an applicant from showcasing a quality application. Think big picture. Admission committees from every school are being flooded with 4000-8000 applications every year. Can you imagine the entire adcom team hunched over a table subtracting micropoints for ever overuse of personal pronouns on the 6000 personal statement that they need to read? Probably not. My point is to not dwell on the microscopic details. Focus on what you can control.  

Likewise, during your interview, your interviewers will be evaluating for qualities that you demonstrate, not the amount of hours you recorded on your primary application. More hours typically point towards a higher level of commitment, sure, but it does nothing to reveal the depth of your experience. Try to take on the perspective of the admission committees. If the tables were flipped, what would you look for in a medical school candidate if you were sitting across the table? From speaking with many individuals who have been on the admission committees, as well as reflecting on my own experience, I’ve boiled it down to three essential components: Competence, Motivation, and Maturity.

 

COMPETENCE

First and foremost, admission committees want to ensure that you can succeed in medical school. This is usually determined by academic benchmarks such as GPA and MCAT, which are considered representative predictors for future success in your preclinical courses and board exams. Receiving an interview invite generally means that you have already fulfilled this criteria. However, it goes way beyond just academics. Schools want to ensure that you have the appropriate interpersonal competencies. You are seeking entry into a profession that requires daily human contact (even you, future pathologists). When you walk into a patient’s room, how likely is it that they’re going to interrogate you about your science GPA or your CARS subsection percentile? No one cares. What they care about is that you are a compassionate human being who can listen to their problems and help them navigate toward a solution. Emotional competencies are another aspect. How does a candidate deal with failure, handle criticism, or face ethical dilemmas? In short, schools ultimately want to ensure that you hold the adequate competencies that will make you a successful medical student and future doctor.

Questions that are going through your interviewer’s heads:

  • Will this student succeed in medical school?
  • Do they care about people?
  • Are they empathetic toward others who are less intelligent?
  • Can they work well with others? Can they lead?
  • Can they handle to stress and challenges of medicine?
  • Do they have a good breadth of healthcare experience?

 

MOTIVATION

Schools want to see that you have the motivation and commitment it takes to make it through medical school, residency, and beyond. By means of an acceptance letter, schools are investing in you as an individual. Before they can do that, they want to ensure that you have the correct incentives in mind. Fast forward to residency. When you’re on a 24 hour call shift running on 3 hours of sleep, will you have the grit to pull through, or will you think about quitting? This sense of commitment is first off demonstrated by a compelling reason to pursue medicine. It must go beyond liking science and a desire to help people. Read my full article on approaching the “why medicine” question if you need some guidance. You’ll also need to elaborate on your extracurriculars in a way that reflects dedication and commitment. Your job is to prove to the admission committees that you are a candidate who’s worth investing in.

Another aspect is school specific motivation. It can be hard to imagine, but all medical schools are fighting for the same pool of applicants. They have finite acceptance slots, and aim to distribute them to students who are most likely to accept. Therefore, it is crucial to do research on a school beforehand to locate the specific factors that are appealing for a particular school.  

Possible questions your interviewer might ask:

  • Why medicine?
  • Why do you want to be a doctor?
  • Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
  • Why not NP/PA?
  • Why do you want to come to our school?
  • How do you plan on contributing to our school’s diversity/community?

 

MATURITY

This is an aspect that often gets overlooked. Your interviewers will be looking for a sense of maturity in the way you present yourself. Aside from displaying professionalism, you should become introspective about your own personal qualities, strengths, and weaknesses. Furthermore, you should always be reflecting on your experiences. In other words, what have you learned, and why are you doing it in the first place? A mature candidate will not only have relevant healthcare experiences, but they can also speak about them in a compelling manner that provides meaning, context, and purpose. Personal growth and self reflection goes hand in hand. How will what you’ve done make you a better physician in the future? Lastly, self reflection is far from congruent with success. Acknowledging the failures and pitfalls throughout your journey allows for more sincerity and authenticity.

Schools also want to see that you’ve developed realistic outlook toward the healthcare field as a whole. Notice how I said healthcare and not just physicians. Modern medicine requires teamwork and collaboration just as much as independence and intellect. Realizing this fact goes a long way.

Possible questions your interviewer might ask:

  • If I asked your friend, what would they say about you?
  • What is the greatest challenge facing healthcare today?
  • Tell me about your shadowing. What did you like/dislike?
  • What’s the hardest part about being a doctor… in your opinion?
  • What are your thoughts on [insert ethical issue]?

CONTINUE TO PART II