Use the power of psychology to ace your medical school interview

Receiving medical school interview offers simultaneously provides relief, justifies the incredibly hard work you’ve put into your primary and secondary applications, and confirms that you are indeed cut out for medicine.

In other words, you’ve convinced them — at least on paper — that you will succeed in their program and make an excellent doctor.

So why do they even want to interview you?

Consider what schools can only learn about you in person. They want to: 1) Confirm that you’re as wonderful as you seem; 2) Assess your interpersonal skills; and, 3) Be assured that you’re not super arrogant or weird.

I realize you may be freaking out about when you’ll be hearing back from schools, or perhaps overthinking and psyching yourself out about med school interviews.

I want to help you impress admissions committees (adcoms) by breaking down the entire interview process, including quick tips on how to prepare, how to act and respond during the interview (i.e., what messages to send and how), and how to follow up. Moreover, I’m going to show you how to harness psychology to ace medical school interviews.

Preparation

Before I get into interview specifics, I want to bring up two important points. First, you begin making your impression on adcoms as soon as you receive an interview invitation. Therefore, confirm your interview immediately to demonstrate your interest in their program and choose the earliest date you can make it. Interviewing earlier helps you take advantage of the rolling admissions process, since schools will have more admissions offers that they can make. Second, your interview includes every interaction you have with schools before, the day of, and after your interview. Thus, make sure that you write very polite emails in full sentences, regardless of whom you’re communicating with (administrative staff, adcom members, etc.).

Know your applications inside and out

Every piece of information in your primary and secondary applications is fair game for adcoms to inquire about, so read everything thoroughly before your interview with a particular school. Additionally, if you know who you’ll be interviewing with, read their bios online to learn about their background and field. This will help you develop personalized questions (more on this later).

Build a flexible interview schedule

Get your interview schedule in advance if at all possible — at a bare minimum, find out the time your interviews will begin. To reduce the amount of stress on interview day, arrive early to find parking and the location of your interview. Also, try to build 15 minutes of cushion between faculty interviews if possible. Interviewers often lose track of time, and building in time will allow you to focus all of your attention on carrying yourself well and answering questions calmly and confidently, rather than staring at the clock and appearing anxious to leave.

Practice answering common questions

I strongly encourage applicants to conduct a few practice interviews with a trusted advisor or friend to build comfort in answering questions and to get feedback on body language and social skills. It’s also important to develop answers to common interview questions, but this is tricky because, while you never want to be stumped by a question, you also never want your responses to seem too rehearsed.  A good tactic is to pause briefly before responding to show your interviewer that you’re thinking hard about their question and your response. Nevertheless, I’ll provide some brief guidance on the information you’ll want to convey when answering some common medical school interview questions.

“Why do you want to be a doctor?”

There are many valid reasons people want to become doctors, including a love of science, enjoying challenges, and earning a comfortable living. However, above all other reasons you can provide in your response to this question, you must communicate wanting to help and serve others as your primary motivation. Also, you’ve probably already answered this question in your applications; it’s a good idea to reiterate your response.

“What will you do if you don’t get into medical school this year?”

In your response to this question, adcoms want to hear that you’ll do the following if you were rejected from all medical schools: 1) Find out why you didn’t get in; 2) Address the issues; and, 3) Reapply. This type of response communicates persistence and a commitment to medicine specifically. On the other hand, never tell an interviewer you’ll resort to some plan B, such as dentistry, teaching, or law.

The “ethical dilemma” question

This question comes in many forms (e.g., “What would you do if you knew your physician colleague arrived to work under the influence of alcohol or drugs?”), but your response should always communicate putting your patients’ welfare first.

“What is your biggest weakness?”

I don’t know a single person who enjoys hearing this question, myself included. Most people give some cliché answer about a strength that’s poorly masqueraded as a weakness (e.g., “I work too hard”), which irks every interviewer I’ve spoken with, medical school or otherwise. A better answer? Mentioning an honest weakness (e.g., “I have a hard time seeking help”), followed up by a discussion about how you’ve been working to improve yourself, preferably with examples.

Interview day

Dress (slightly) different: The Von Restorff effect

Medical schools interview a lot of applicants, and they have a hard time remembering everyone. Therefore, it’s important to stand out on interview day. In addition to providing great answers during your interviews, why not help your cause by wearing an article of clothing that most others don’t or won’t?

Why? The Von Restorff effect (a.k.a., the isolation effect) predicts that anything (or anyone) that stands out like a sore thumb is much more likely to be remembered. I’m not suggesting you wear an orange suit, but it wouldn’t hurt to be remembered as “the lady wearing the light gray suit with blue shoes” or “the guy wearing a red paisley tie.” In a world full of black- and charcoal-suited applicants, it helps to look unique and be talked about.

Smile, sit up straight, and treat everyone politely: The halo effect

You hear the following two pieces of advice often: “Smile and sit up straight during interviews” and “Everyone you meet on interview day, including administrative and maintenance staff, is interviewing you and can provide feedback to adcoms, so make sure to be polite to everyone.” I will echo this advice, but why is it so important, beyond getting people to like you?

The answer lies in the halo effect, which posits that others’ overall impressions of us influences their thoughts about our specific traits. For example, if an admissions interviewer or secretary believes you are positive and like them (achieved by smiling), confident (sitting up straight), or polite, they will also be more likely to think you are intelligent, well spoken, and so on. A little effort up front to make a good first impression can serve as an ultra-effective lead domino for high interview scores. On the other hand, a negative first impression will force you to fight an uphill battle the rest of the time.

Match the interviewer’s emotion, tone, and energy level: Mirroring

When a friend is feeling mopey while discussing a bad breakup, do you comfort them by smiling or speaking with high energy? Of course not! Doing so would probably make your friend feel like they’re not heard and that you don’t get their situation. On the other hand, matching your friend’s emotions and energy level will help them feel validated and understood.

Why not extend this communication approach to mirror your interviewer? For example, if your interviewer is calm, speak calmly, but if they’re excitedly discussing their research projects, respond enthusiastically! If you’re already effective at emotion and energy mirroring, practice mirroring their thoughts. For example, if your interviewer expresses dissatisfaction with medical school curricula not emphasizing diversity issues enough, respond with something like, “I agree, and I’m really glad to hear your program offers a lot of formal training in diversity issues.”

Make the interviewer feel important: The association principle

People love talking about themselves, especially in tense situations. So encourage them to do so by asking questions about them and their perspectives. Who said the interview has to be all about you? Instead of focusing exclusively on speaking well, heed the great Dale Carnegie’s wisdom that attentively listening to your interviewer will be “one of the highest compliments [you] can pay” (I encourage everyone to read his masterpiece, How to Win Friends and Influence People, for more great tips).

When an interviewer is made to feel important and appreciated by sharing their thoughts with you, and by you thanking them for it, they’ll associate you with their good feelings. So, how do you break the cycle of only answering questions you’re asked? My two favorite ways to accomplish this are:

  • Finishing your response by asking the interviewer their thoughts on the same topic rather than waiting silently. Example if asked about research: “I’m definitely looking forward to conducting research during med school. How do you involve medical students in your stem cell research?” or “When do you feel is the best time for med students to start research and the best way to get involved in an ongoing study?”
  • Asking for your interviewer’s thoughts and advice when they open the interview for questions. Interviewers usually ask whether you have any questions near the end of your interview. Instead of asking about the first year curriculum, or anything else you can gather from the website or speaking with current students, solicit their advice on medical school. Example: “In your experience, what have you noticed to be the biggest challenge for first-year medical students, and what advice do you have for someone in my position to avoid the same pitfalls?” Trust me, interviewers love this one.

Follow up

After each of your interviews, I encourage you to write down one or two simple notes or bullet points to remind you about specific talking points that stood out during your interview, especially ones that your interviewer was particularly excited or gave you advice about. These notes should then be included in your thank you email to each of your interviewers.

I know it’s tedious to write individualized thank you notes to every single person you interviewed with, but these will all go in your application folder and strengthen your case when you’re being considered for admission. Sending a follow-up email no more than two days later to thank the interviewer for their time and for answering your questions shows sincerity, and it serves as the final memory with which an interviewer will write their review.

In your thank you email, include: 1) an expression of thanks; 2) the date you interviewed; 3) what you’re grateful for; 4) any insights you gained; 5) emphasis on wanting to attend their program; and, 6) an invitation to contact you for any reason.

Final thoughts

The med school application process is a long and tedious one, and the interview provides confirmation that you’re cut out to be a doctor.  Best of all, it’s the final step before waking up to congratulatory messages from various adcoms! While it’s a stressful process, you don’t have to navigate interviews alone. You now have tried-and-true psychological principles at your disposal to naturally stack the admissions deck in your favor.

As a favor, please share the #1 thing stressing you out about med school interviews or any other aspect of the med school admissions process. Best of luck!

Shirag Shemmassian is a psychologist and founder, Shemmassian Academic Consulting.  A modified version of this article originally appeared on DoctorPremed.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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