The medical school interview: Strategies from an admissions officer

As a member of the medical school admissions committee, I’ve interviewed many amazing applicants. Here’s what I wish I could say to them:

1. Your interview performance is critical. As interviewers, we’re amazed by the quality of today’s applicants. In fact, many of us wonder if we would get into med school today. “I can’t believe how much she’s done,” is something I hear time and time again from my colleagues. The sad reality, though, is that sometimes stars on paper are less than impressive in person. We turn down well-qualified applicants all the time because of poor interviews. One surprising AAMC study found that 8% of applicants with GPAs above 3.8 and MCAT scores above 39 didn’t make it into any medical school to which they applied. Other research has found that the interview is the most important factor in med school admissions decisions. Whether it’s the content of your answers, your verbal and non-verbal communication skills [or lack thereof], or your lack of a clear fit with our school, I really wish some of you had prepared more extensively, practiced more thoroughly, and most importantly, had received better feedback on your performance.

2. I understand that “loving science” may be a motivation for you to pursue a career in medicine. If that’s all you offer, though, it won’t be enough. Medicine is ultimately about service and taking care of people. It amazes me how often applicants neglect to mention people. I recall one applicant who was heavily involved in service activities, with beautifully written AMCAS descriptions reflecting the depth and breadth of her involvement. As hard as I tried, I couldn’t get her to express a desire to serve others during the interview. This is considered a deal-breaker for many faculty.

3. After a month of interviews, applicants start to blend together. Actually, this starts to happen after a day of interviews. You may provide heartfelt responses, but if you sound like every other applicant, you’ve lost an important opportunity to stand out and impress. My mantra is:  “If you can imagine another applicant saying the same thing, then your answer isn’t good enough.” At a recent symposium, I asked over 300 students to write down their response to this question: “What are your strengths?” Here are typical answers:

“I am very team oriented and work well with others. I am a calm person who can work well with obstacles that come up, and I am a good listener.”

“My strengths are working well with others, strong listening skills, and work ethic.”

“I have a positive attitude, and constant willingness to learn. I’m easy to work with.”

4. Which brings me to my next point. You can talk about qualities all you want, but that’s never as compelling as providing evidence. Compare these two responses. “What are your strengths?” “I have a strong work ethic, and I work very well with others.” Versus: “I’m very determined and hard-working. When I initiated a service project through our pre-med honor society, I was very excited. What I didn’t realize was how many obstacles would arise. However, I persisted, and by doing x and y, I was able to achieve our goal of z.” This is what I advise my students: provide evidence. Provide depth in your responses. Prove to me that you are really the person I sense on paper. Evidence is what imparts sincerity and believability to your responses.

5. Prove to me that you really want to be at our school, and that there’s a reason you chose to apply to our school. “Why are you interested in our school?” is code for “Are you the type of student who would benefit from the education that we offer, and the type of student who would help us reach our institution’s goals?” Medical schools have differing missions and goals, and this question is the perfect opportunity to demonstrate your “fit” with this school. You need to research the school extensively before the interview, and you need to know yourself and your goals thoroughly. Whether it’s a mission to provide care to the underserved, promote patient safety initiatives, advance medical research, or other objectives, you need to learn about the school and you need to be able to convey your fit with this school during the interview.

Samir Desai is a physician and author of The Medical School Interview: Winning Strategies from Admissions Faculty and founder, The Successful Match

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