Getting beyond the numbers in your medical school interview

Everyone knows that the process of applying and getting accepted into medical school is highly competitive. Last year, 51,680 people applied for seats in U.S. medical schools. Collectively, they submitted 816,153 applications — a whopping 16 applications per person on average. Only 21,338 applicants matriculated to a U.S. school last fall, or 41 percent of applicants.

So how do the admissions committees evaluating all these applicants make their decisions? We know that the MCAT is one of their most important tools in identifying students with high aptitude, with GPA used also to validate past academic performance. For some applicants, these numbers alone, along with solid letters of recommendation, will help them secure a seat.

But let’s say you have been invited for a medical school interview, but you’re concerned that your numbers aren’t going to set you apart from other applicants who may appear stronger on paper. MCAT and GPA, while useful, only tell part of the story for any applicant. To have the best shot at getting accepted, you have to help the admissions committee understand you in full: not just how you’ve performed on tests or in coursework, but how you think, what you value, and what else you have learned that demonstrates you could potentially succeed in medical school.

Here are a few tips to help you use your background and experience — the non-academic aspects of your medical school application — to help focus your interview on the full picture of you:

1. Connect your experiences with your future goals

Every medical school applicant should be able to articulate why they want to become a doctor. Many applicants have a seminal life experience that led them to choose medicine, whether it was witnessing a family member struggling with disease, or some event that revealed to them special skills or interests they didn’t know they had. The key in your interview is to be able to talk about these experiences or events in a compelling way that demonstrates your passion and commitment. Admissions committees are more likely to take a chance on an applicant who appears to be extraordinarily driven and secure in their goal.

In my experience, I have seen many applicants with life experiences that clearly impacted their decision to apply to medical school. One recent applicant came to her calling while helping her brother, who suffered from epilepsy. This led her to pursue graduate-level research on neurological disorders prior to applying to medical school. Her personal statement focused on this aspect of her life and led to a great discussion in her interview that revealed her passion for medicine. Our admissions committee recognized that she was truly committed and would have tremendous potential to succeed in medical school.

2. Demonstrate that you have learned from your health care experiences 

Many applicants list experience as hospital volunteers or scribes on their medical school applications. And while admissions committees are happy to see that an applicant has sought out these opportunities, the name of a hospital and your years of service there don’t tell much of a story. But you can bring it to life in your interview by demonstrating vividly how these experiences in a hospital setting has helped form you as a future medical student.

Admissions committees look closely at past performance, but they also want to see potential. Being able to describe what you have learned through your observations in the hospital can help show them that you’re able to take in, analyze, and synthesize information — a critical skill for all medical students. When you talk in your interview about your time in the hospital, it should be more than just that you showed up and enjoyed it. Be specific. Let the person interviewing you see the impact it had on you. Working as a volunteer or scribe, you often have a fly-on-the-wall vantage point that allows you to form an insight: you can observe the way the doctor calmed the patient during a difficult situation, notice the way the medical team fluidly moved into their roles to treat the patient, or empathize with the challenge faced by a patient who is fearful.

3. Communicate your personal values

This comes back to the idea of separating yourself from the numbers on the page and presenting yourself as a real person with values, hopes and dreams, and a voice. One’s personal drive to succeed is often related to their values, and we often observe in medical school applicants positive core values like kindness to others, compassion, curiosity, commitment to service, and sense of social justice. You should be able to talk about why you want to become a doctor, but also about why a career as a physician resonates with your values. I’ve read countless personal statements in which the applicant declares that they want to help people, but I suggest that you take this idea further in both your statement and your interview. What makes you want to help people?

Many applicants have participated in a lot of community service activities, and this is an opportunity, in the interview, to let the admissions committee know what you care about. Just like with volunteering in the hospital, if you have community service experience, it’s important that you are able to talk about it in a compelling way. Why did you do it? What was the impact on the people in your community? What did it teach you? All of this will help the committee understand what drives you and what you are passionate about, but also give them insight into how you think about the world.

Community service is an important part of the medical school where I work. Many of our students, when they are not studying, take the time to engage with organizations outside our campus community. They work with local youth, the elderly, schools, and charitable organizations. They volunteer at health screenings and other medical-related events in the community. When we interview applicants who speak passionately about the work they have done to impact their communities, we know they will be a great fit at our medical school.

Tiffany Ciolek is vice-president of enrollment management, American University of the Caribbean School of Medicine.

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