The Medical School Interview
The interview is the medical school's way of assessing a student's personality and how this personality will fit into the environment of that particular institution. From my experiences hanging out with my fellow first year medical school students, I must emphasize to you that there is no one particular, prototypical med student personality for which the interviewer is looking. The interviewer will not deduct "points" if you are a naturally reserved person or if you are generally extroverted.
Being honest to yourself and your personality is the most important piece of advice I can give to you. In your own heart, you know why you want to be a physician, and the only way you can express this desire to the interviewer is by allowing him or her to interact with the real you. My best interviews were those when the interviewer and I just gelled and conversed freely, and I was able to show the interviewer my real personality. Now, not all interviewers conduct interviews in such a free-flowing manner. There will be many interviews that are organized more like a Q&A session. Again, be honest. When I was asked a question I did not know, I made no qualms about it and simply said, "I don't know." Besides compassion, two qualities that I know I look for in my own physician are integrity and honesty.
Now I can get down to the details. Firstly, know the name of the school that you are interviewing at. Sounds idiotic, right? Trust me, it happens. You will be traveling around the country doing interviews one after the other, and a lot of times you will truly be disoriented. Just the other day, my friend who was interviewing in New York told me she was at Columbia and repeatedly said that "she loved it here at Albert Einstein." Not good.
Second, the interviewers are choosing compassionate, intelligent, and honest students for the medical profession, so it is in your best interest to dress like a professional. If you are a man, wear a suit and tie. If you are a woman, wear a pant suit or a skirt suit.
I would also recommend that you learn how prone you are to fidgeting in nervous situations. For example, I had my friend interview me while I was in full interview attire. I learned that I tended to tug on my tie and shift my hands restlessly when asked tough questions. Some interviewers like to throw curveballs trying to bump you out of your comfort zone. They may ask you difficult ethical questions or even geography questions out of the blue. Make sure that you stay composed. If you do not have a clue to what the difference in the American and English health care system is, tell him or her so. It seems quite twisted of them to torture you like this, but they are testing how you react to tough situations in which you do not know the solution, something that happens every day as a practicing physician.
The third and last piece of advice I can give you is to come into each interview prepared. This does not mean that you should have a concocted answer for every question that they list on those med school interview websites. But you do need to make preparations so that you can respond to general questions about yourself because that is what each interviewer is really quizzing you on -- whether you know who you are as a person. If you conduct research, you should know what you did, how you did it, and the implications your research. Know who you are and become confident in that person.
Telling People What They Want to Hear
I was speaking to the former Director of Research himself, and he had just asked me to tell him everything about my research. Somehow I could tell my answer would be one of the very few that mattered to him. At the beginning of the day, the Dean of Admissions raved to me about this interviewer, and I had spent the rest of the day hearing about multi-million-dollar research facilities and the perks of a mandatory thesis. Interviewing at a school whose Ivy vines dated back to before the American Revolution, I knew that it took both itself and its research very seriously.
Unfortunately, I did not. My first three years of college had spun by in blur of labs, PowerPoint presentations, and journal reading. I had sacrificed many hours to the gods of research -- pipetting, pouring, spinning, sorting, and even falling asleep once or twice on a microscope. Three years and three summers I spent in some sort of research or another. I searched for the drive that kept my colleagues in lab till dawn despite families waiting for them at home. I sought the passion that enabled them to have animated conversations about signaling molecules the same way some fans talked about their favorite sports teams. I was interested by my work -- at times I was even engaged. But I never shared this passion for research. After nearly four years, I felt that I had given research a more than fair chance to take hold of my heart. My heart would have none of it though, so I rationalized that my basic science background would offer me a better set of problem-solving skills. Hopefully these skills would allow me to do what I really wanted to do, which was to practice medicine.
That was going to be difficult if I couldn't get in to a medical school. Judging from the unpleasant look on my interviewer's face, I needed to start talking soon. So I launched into my best research presentation. After all my fumbling, expensive machine breakdowns, and some animal escapes, the research gods had taken pity on me. I at least had a decent amount of results to talk about. Finishing explaining my findings, I correlated them to human biology, development, and disease processing, hopefully conveying to him that I had some understanding of the ultimate implications of my work. Lastly, I told him about my work's current directions and hinted at ideal outcomes and ambitious future medical applications. I could tell that the Director was hooked and the clouds were clearing away from his forehead. My undergraduate institution was known for research, and I'm sure my school's legacy helped my story more than a little bit.
My luck was not to last though. The Director next asked me how research fit into my plans for the future. Since they really did not, I told him the truth. I wanted to be a caring clinician first and family man, which is also&well& tied for first. My contribution to research would be along the lines of developing new techniques or translating basic science findings to the clinical realm. I could tell that the Director, who had devoted decades of his life to basic research, viewed the pure clinician with a bit of contempt. This was clear when I was almost thrown out of my interview, which ended with a forceful, "do you even know about our research thesis?" After a morning of presentations, I obviously did, but that wasn't the point. Thus ended my misadventure for the day, and a few weeks later a thin envelope arrived.
Eventually things worked themselves out, and I entered medical school, despite my inability to tell people what they wanted to hear. It is important to maintain an open mind and explore new things, but eventually I had to be true to my personal convictions. If I disagree with a future interviewer about a strong belief, I hope that I will be able to tell them, and explain to them why.
What Were They Thinking?
"What's the capital of Mozambique?" the interviewer asked me. A few seconds passed as I struggled to first understand the relevance of the question and then to respond with an appropriate answer. Up until that moment, I thought that my interview day at Duke had flowed quite smoothly. The interview process at Duke is a day long process and early in the morning, my host had showed me the admissions office where I dropped off my luggage. I had my picture taken for my ID badge and met my fellow interviewees. Following lunch and several presentations extolling the virtues of Duke Med, the time of reckoning had arrived. Looking around the waiting room, I could see that the other applicants probably felt as I felt; we were not a nervous group, for everyone had experienced a few chats with admissions personnel. The atmosphere was calm and cordial. People around me engaged in idle chit chat; the kind that no one remembers a few minutes later but at the moment seems to be the most engrossing and engaging conversation ever. I sat in my chair and read the ubiquitous information packets given at all interviews. The interviewer showed up a few minutes later. I was his first interviewee of the day, and he gripped my hand in a strong handshake. And so it began.
The first few questions centered on my family life and why I was subjecting myself to the arduous process of applying to medical school. The mood of the interview shifted quite dramatically when he asked, "So what can you tell me about oxygen free radicals?" I attempted to explain free radicals in terms of electron pairing. Still not understanding why I was being asked to explain biochemistry, I tried to lead the discussion towards my research in genetics, hoping to converse about scientific issues with which I was more familiar. The interviewer was not to be baited, and I soon found myself racking my brain for information about antioxidants and the foods that contain them. As a genetics major, he probably felt that I should be well versed in the nuances of free radical research; however, my answers portrayed my ignorance of the topic. If there had been a mirror in the interview room, I am almost certain that I would have seen the color drain from my face as my cheery disposition gave way to perplexed incredulity at the direction the interview was taking. I stumbled my way through questions about statistics and economics. I learned that I had no inkling of where the Santa Maria might be docked today or even if it still existed. My thoughts about the city of Baltimore were examined, and I was asked to describe my favorite place to live and why. For a while, I thought I could keep pace with the interviewer and somehow answer the questions in a vague manner that was mostly correct if I left out the details; the interviewer did not seem impressed. He soon resorted to factual questions such as when the Magna Carta was signed and the reaction products of complex organic chemistry synthesis equations to which I had to admit my lack of knowledge. Even questions to which I thought I had general answers, the interviewer would press, "Are you just guessing or do you know for certain?" In light of such scrutiny, I often resigned myself to saying, "I do not know the answer."
After what I perceived to be hours of random and frustrating questions, the interviewer ended by simply asking, "Do you have any questions for me?" My instinctive reaction was, "What was that all about?" but I did not pursue that line of questioning. Back in the waiting area, I sat in my chair thinking about the frustrating and terrible interview that I had just endured. My pondering was interrupted by a first year medical student who walked into the waiting lounge and shared his interview experience with all who were present. I was surprised to hear him admit that he thought his interview at Duke was his worst one at any school. As I left the admissions office that day, I allowed myself to entertain the outlandish theory that if Duke looks for students who seem to interview terribly, then I must be guaranteed a place in the incoming class. Considering where I am today, I have realized that as an interviewee, I had no idea what the person across the table was thinking. Perhaps he wanted me accept the fact that I will not always have the answers to questions posed to me whether it be at a medical school interview or when a family member inquires about his or her loved one who is in the intensive care unit. He made me realize that it is all right to admit that you do not have all the answers as long as you are honest with yourself and others. Indeed, there have been many situations where I found myself out of my element, not knowing the answers immediately. Being true to myself, I did the work and sought out the answers, learning in the process that I am oftentimes my own worst critic. I have also discovered that the capital of Mozambique is Maputo.