After you’ve submitted your secondary applications, the waiting game begins. Interview invitations can start as soon as your application is received, or as late as April. Let me preface this by saying: if the weeks are ticking by and you haven’t received any invitations yet, don’t panic. If you’ve already been rejected by your fallback schools but haven’t heard back from anywhere else yet, don’t panic. If all your friends who submitted at the same time you did are getting invites but you haven’t yet, don’t panic. Really, don’t.
It’s difficult to try and explain what goes on behind the admissions committee meeting doors. It’s not the same as applying to undergrad, where if you had a certain GPA/SAT score, you were more or less assured a position in a university class within your range. Med school applications are different. Far more goes into a decision than GPA/MCAT scores. A lot of it comes down to your personality, and whether or not the school thinks you’d be a good fit there. Not just whether or not you’ll be a good doctor. In regards to the timing and logic of it, it’s difficult to say where the lines between II (Interview Invite) and rejection get drawn. As I’ve mentioned previously, I know a Harvard MD who got rejected from a lower-ranking state school. It’s not at all uncommon to get a lot of rejections before you get your first interview invite.
I’m going to dedicate the rest of this chapter to the actual interview: what to wear, how to schedule, how to act, and so on. I’ll also talk about the different types of interview, and give you some example questions you will need to be prepared to answer.
When schools send you interview invitations, they will do so by email. If the school hasn’t asked you for a picture yet, they will at this time. It doesn’t have to be a passport photo, but it shouldn’t be a picture of yourself at a party either. Pick something wholesome, clean, and professional— preferably a headshot. As I mentioned earlier: for mine, I was wearing a nice jacket and a pretty scarf, the backdrop was an ivy-covered brick wall at my university. It was typical headshot format, shoulders and up.
When you get your invite, you’ll likely be directed to a website that has information for the interviewees. Directions, hotels they have discounted rates at, how to arrange student accommodations, and contact info for important people can all be found here. You’ll also be asked to select your interview date. Most schools offer interviews on select weekdays, and you’ll be asked to pick one. Not all interview dates on the calendar will be open; if you get an invite late in the cycle, sometimes you’ll only have two or three dates to choose from. Different schools may also offer multiple sessions per day, and ask you to choose between morning and afternoon sessions.
There are differing schools of thought as to how to best lump your interviews together. It might seem easier to try and schedule several interviews back-to-back over your winter break, but also be mindful of the time you will need to recuperate between them (and the time to absorb the unique details of each school.)
If you’re still in school, you’ll have to re-arrange your class schedule around your interview. Most professors tend to be fairly accommodating, and if you explain the nature of your skipping class, they will usually be happy to arrange alternative assignments or reschedule tests and quizzes for you.
How to Dress
Wear a suit. In my experience, charcoal was by far the most common color suit. It’s technically okay to wear a sensible gray or navy suit as well (I wore navy). You’ll want to go light on any perfumes/colognes, no need to give the interviewer an asthma attack. Additionally, if you wear jewelry, go easy on that too. Wearing something like professional looking ring, a simple chain, or a modest pair of earrings is okay, but if you have additional piercings, tattoos, or a wild hair color, you might want to temporarily hide that. You have to understand, many of your interviewers will be conservative older doctors, and they may not understand newer trends.
A lot of people have asked if it’s okay to wear a nice pair of slacks or a skirt with a dress shirt. I wouldn’t recommend it. I’ve only seen one person doing that on any of my interviews, and they stood out (not in a good way.)
That said, you want to look clean cut, mature, and professional. Look like the type of person who you would entrust with your grandmother’s health, and make sure to carry yourself with the confidence to match. Good posture, a pleasant resting face, and a generally happy demeanour can go a long way to help you stand out in a sea of stressed out applicants. At all of my interviews, I was amazed at how many of my fellow interviewees were staring off into space, and failed to smile or chat with the AdComs. These are the people you have been trying to impress for your entire college career. Don’t pass up this opportunity to be the same impressive person that matches your application. So keep your chin up, ask questions during the presentations, and be engaged with your surroundings!
So, depending on where your interviews are, you might be able to drive there, or you might have to take a flight/train ride. If you’ve applied to multiple schools in the same area, sometimes you can request that the other nearby schools evaluate your application early, for the ease of scheduling multiple interviews at the same time.
If you need to take a flight, it’s usually a good idea to arrive in the city at least the day before your interview. Also, be sure to pack your suit and any other interview necessities in your carry-on, lest an unfortunate baggage mix-up force you to interview in jeans and tennis shoes. You can spend the night in a hotel, or arrange accommodations with a student. Don’t forget to bring everything you need to be comfortable (use your own pillow and bring your favorite comfort foods), the interview can be very stressful and you are going to want to feel as relaxed as possible. Make sure you have a good breakfast, something with lots of protein. I really wouldn’t recommend trying to fly in on the day of the interview, in case flight delays, traffic jams, or just exhaustion from a rushed trip interfere with your ability to perform well.
I can’t stress enough: give yourself plenty of time to get there, and then some. Being late or lost in an unfamiliar city is unnecessary added stress on top of an already stressful day.
Once You Arrive
Once you arrive to your interview, you’ll be directed to a waiting area with the other applicants. Most of the other applicants are just as nervous as you are, so try not to stress out too much. And don’t let yourself get psyched out if everybody starts talking about where they interviewed, and all of their fantastic accomplishments. Even if you do have credentials that exceed theirs, it’s still best to avoid those conversations. It’s not nice to make other applicants insecure either. Know that at this point, you are all essentially equal in the eyes of the interviewer, and that’s all that matters. Don’t compare yourself to anybody else.
In the waiting area, there will likely be snacks and bottled water, as well as nametags and school folders. You will also have a place to store your coat and luggage, if you have any. Inside the folders will be a daily schedule, the names of your interviewers, and some information about the school (such as the residency match list, or notable alumni.)
Your Interview Day’s Schedule
The schedule will likely look as follows:
Diversity in the Student Body
Tour Group 1/Interview Group 2
Tour Group 2/Interview Group 1
During the initial presentations, you’ll receive lots of information about why you should go to that particular school. It’s worth bringing a nice leather folder to take notes in, so you have some talking points during your interview. It’s hard to pay attention to the details when you’re being bombarded with so much information, but the information they present there will prove very useful when it comes down to making your final decision.
When they discuss the curriculum, it might be easy to space out. After all, how much difference can there be between medical school curriculums? In essence, all schools are aiming to prepare you to excel on the first of your Boards Exams, the Step 1. Your Step 1 scores are the most important factor in determining where you will place in residency, and the school’s average scores can tell you a lot about the place. Having a 100% match rate, with higher than average Step 1 scores is a mark of quality for a school.
That said, there’s many ways a school can go about preparing you for Step 1. Some schools teach by theme or unit (where you have nothing but classes in one subject, such as Endocrinology, for several weeks, take a test, and move on to the next subject), while other schools have a more longitudinal approach, learning multiple systems alongside each other. Many schools combine those methods, teaching some things as units while having year-long longitudinal courses in other subjects, such as clinical skills. There’s also organ-based learning, system-based learning, and problem-based learning. Which teaching method is the best for you is something that you’ll have to decide for yourself, based on your learning style. There will be more information about the differences in curriculums in Ch. 7: Picking the Right School.
One thing I look for in a school is how early they expose the students to hospital work. Some schools get you experience with real patients as early as the first week, while others have you practice on standardized patients (actors) until your third year. Personally, I believe that seeing patients early and frequently is a good way to keep yourself grounded, and can provide a nice break from the monotony of studying.
At the end of the first round of presentations, you’ll have a short break. Use this time to freshen up at the restroom (it might be worth packing a few items like mints, a toothbrush, some wet-wipes, and a stick of deodorant in your bag). If you have a smart phone, googling your interviewers and brushing up on their area of research can be a great way to make a good impression.
When it comes time to attend the financial aid talk, you should really pay attention. It may seem like you’re in a situation where you can put the financial burden on future-you, but when you’re talking about loans at 8% interest rate, even small scholarships and grants can really make a difference. Check out what scholarships the school offers, and the percentage of students that receive additional assistance. If it’s >50%, you might be in a good place to receive some form of aid in addition to your loans.
During the lunch session, you’ll be given some sort of free food, usually wraps or sandwiches. As you eat, you might have a speaker come to talk to you about his or her research, or you might have the opportunity to mingle with the students. Take advantage of information the students have about their school. Ask them what the social environment is like, and if they’re happy with the curriculum. Ask them if they have friends at other medical schools, and how their friends’ experiences compare with theirs. Observe their demeanour, do they look happy? Do the other students you pass in the hallway look happy? Do they look like the type of people you are compatible with? Because in the event that you do attend this school, you’re likely going to become very close with your classmates. Make sure the school recruits easygoing students that you can enjoy, not high-strung people who rip pages out of library books and poison the community coffee machine.
The tour is one of the more relaxing parts of the interview day, where you get herded around the school by a group of medical students. You’ll be shown the classrooms, the anatomy lab, the simulation lab (if they have one), the medical library, the student resource offices, and many of the other amenities the school offers its students. Pay attention to the quality of the facilities, and the attitude you see among the students and doctors. During the tour is also a great time to ask the student guides any questions you may have been too nervous to ask during the morning sessions.
One thing I will say about the tour: wear comfortable shoes. If you happen to be female, don’t wear heels. And if you must wear heels, make sure you can walk for an hour in them, through snow if the situation demands it. You don’t want to go into your interview with bleeding heels and a look of pain on your face.
The Actual Interview
So, you’ve made it. You’ve survived the tour, the talks, and the free sandwiches. Now, comes the scariest part. While you’re probably running through all the hypothetical interview questions and trying to remember why you actually do want to be a doctor, the most important thing you can do for yourself is to calm down.
Have you ever had a mentor that you just wanted to trust? Somebody who had a quiet, calm presence, somebody intelligent and confident. Somebody that you would trust to make an important decision for you. Think of that person (even if they’re fictional), and try to emulate them. Focus on being the type of person that people want help from. Be trustworthy, be rational. And be yourself. You’ve gotten this far in the process by being yourself. Your professors who wrote you letters of recommendation were impressed with who you are, and the AdComs think you have what it takes. At this point, they’re just trying to make sure that you’ll get along with the rest of the class, and that you’re not secretly a serial killer.
So take a quick bathroom refresher, look in the mirror, and breathe. You can do this.
There are multiple types of interview formats, the most common are the traditional conversational interview, and the MMI (Multiple Mini Interview.) There’s also the odd AdCom who believes in the Stress Interview (where they purposefully act unpleasant or put you in a stressful situation to see how you handle yourself), but those are few and far between.
In the unlikely event that you find yourself in a stress interview, the most advice I can give is to keep your cool. Don’t let anything they say rattle you, even if they flat-out insult your character. If you feel like you were treated unfairly, you can report it afterwards, when they ask for your feedback. Keep in mind, you might get an interviewer who is just having a bad day, and keeping your cool in the face of their emotions might make a good impression. I know many students who walked out of interviews that they felt went terribly, but ended up receiving glowing remarks and acceptances. So definitely use your best judgment when determining whether or not to report an interviewer or ask for another interview.
Stressful topics aside, the much more likely scenario is that you’ll have a chat with a doctor or student about your resume and your interest in the field. “Why do you want to be a doctor?” and “Tell me about yourself.” are some of the more frustrating questions to be asked (after all, how can you sum up a lifetime of experience into a few sentences!) but they are things you must be prepared to answer. Be prepared to talk about difficult experiences you’ve overcome, and provide examples of leadership in your extracurricular activities. Know your faults, and be able to discuss one that you’re currently overcoming. Most importantly, know yourself and be confident in your strengths. Work in a few buzzwords like “teach” “learn” “communicate” “understand other cultures” if you can, but don’t push too hard to direct the conversation. If you get an interviewer who wants to spend the whole hour talking about your year as the Capitan of the Varsity Swim Team, let them. If they walk out of the interview having enjoyed their conversation with you, they’ll give good marks. If you pinned them down to force-feed them your very impressive resume and reasons why you want to go to that school so very much, they probably won’t give you high marks.
Some additional questions that commonly come up:
“Why this school in particular?” (It’s good to know program details that distinguish them from other medical schools. If they have a unique thesis requirement, good research opportunities, or any stand-out factors, know them! It’s also a good idea to connect aspects of your personality to things that their school encourages. If you’re an artist, and you love that the school has a center devoted to art based therapy for PTSD patients, it would be a good idea to mention this.)
“In this hypothetical ethical dilemma, how do you behave?” (For example, there are two transplant patients, one is a young drug addict, the other is an older successful member of the community, who does the transplant go to? Or, you have a patient with religious beliefs that prevent them from wanting a transfusion, but without it they will die, what do you do? etc.) You may want to brush up on the AMA’s ethical guidelines (linked in the resources chapter) to prepare for these types of questions.
Hint: for the first question, the answer is whoever needs it most, or has the higher spot on the list. For the second question, if the patient is a child, you get a court order to get them transfused anyways. If it’s an adult, they have religious freedom and right to refuse treatment.
“Tell us more about: (one of your extracurricular activities, a detail from your essay, a particular life experience, etc.)”. Know yourself well, and know your application well. The AdComs want to make sure that you didn’t falsify your application, and that you are who you say you are.
Have some questions to ask the interviewer at the end. When I prepared my questions, I actually did a bit too much research, and the interviewers didn’t know the answers. Then, they felt pressure to go find somebody to answer my question, and it was just awkward. I’ve found the best questions to be personal ones.
Questions such as:
“How did you end up in your specialty?”
“How do you like working/going to school at ____ Medical School?”
“How does the undergraduate medical education here compare to yours?
“Can you tell me more about your research?”
are good, as they demonstrate your interest in their personal opinions.
Finally, when the interview is completed, give the interviewer a confident handshake, and thank them for their time. If you have the opportunity, rehash a thesis at the end:
“I know I mentioned this in the interview, but I wanted to re-iterate how impressed I am with this school. I really love the ____ program, and it sounds like exactly the type of environment I want to study in. Thank you so much for interviewing me and taking the time to tell me more about ____ Medical School.”
Thank You Cards
If you don’t have the time to say that at the end, write it in the thank-you card/email.
Many people are starting to lean towards thinking that thank-you notes are outdated and superficial, but I say it’s better to be safe than sorry. As soon as you get to a computer, send emails to the Dean of Admissions, and both of your interviewers to thank them for their time, and rehash your interest in the program. You probably won’t get a response, but at this point, you can rest knowing that your work is done, for now.
The MMI is an alternative interview format; it started at McMaster School of Medicine in Canada, but is becoming increasingly popular in US schools for a number of reasons. Unlike the traditional interview, which can have varying results depending on how well you click with the interviewer (and how the interview is feeling that day) the MMI uses many different interviewers, in short segments. You’ll be given a short prompt, a minute or two to think about it, and then you’ll walk into the room to discuss your prompt with your interviewer over a few minutes. Unlike the traditional interview, the MMI is designed to address your problem-solving ability, your personality, and how well you handle challenges. So, depending on the school you visit, you might be asked to take on a character and act out a scene, to solve a hypothetical problem, or to just engage in a 5-minute version of a traditional interview. After one station is done, you’ll move on to the next, and your interviewer will rate you. All your ratings are averaged, so the school gets a better picture of how you perform overall. Additionally, your results are graded against the others from your interview day, so you won’t be unfairly compared with students who had different questions and interviewers than you did. In addition to the sample MMI prompt I wrote below, I have linked to a list of prompts in the resources chapter.
An example MMI prompt might be:
You are a teacher, and your school has a strict no-cheating policy. One of your students is normally a very good student, but you have noticed that her grades have been falling and she has been acting out in class, causing a distraction to her peers. You ask around, and become aware that her father has recently passed away. During an exam, you see that she is using her cell-phone to look up answers. The school rules mandate that she fail the course and be suspended for this. How do you handle the situation?
Now, the say that there’s no right answer for an MMI. To an extent, that’s true. But your answer does matter. What they’re trying to assess is how you think, and how you will handle patients. Will you show them compassion? Will you exercise judgment in the best interests of the patient? Is your moral compass guided by the rules, or is it guided by an internal understanding of right and wrong? Do you make allowances in difficult situation?
In the case of the prompt above, I can offer my answer, and an alternative one that I believe would also score well. Yours might be different. The best thing you can do is answer honestly, because if you get into a medical school without being true to yourself, chances are that you won’t be happy in the environment.
My answer: In that case, I make an allowance because she’s going through a difficult situation. I understand that it’s hard to study when you’re grieving, and that circumstances outside of her control have dealt her life a very difficult blow. I pull her aside after class, and talk to her about it. I know she’s falling behind, and I encourage her to stay after class daily to attend tutoring. I also encourage her to start speaking to the school psychologist, if she isn’t seeing one outside of school. I give her emotional support, and tell her that there’s nothing wrong with the way she’s feeling, and that I understand why she felt the need to cheat. I’m not going to turn her in this time, but I let her know that if it happens a second time, I am going to have to follow the rules. In the meantime, she leaves feeling that I’m on her side, and that the school is offering resources to help her through this difficult time.
Now, when you answer a similar question, you don’t have to answer like I did. You can say that you would have turned her in the first time. And if you can justify it, you can still get a good rating. The most important part of the MMI answer is the justification. If I just answered “Nah, I’d let it slide.” with no discussion, I wouldn’t get rated well. If I answered “I’d turn her in, she broke the rules.” I wouldn’t get high marks. However, the following alternative answer would probably score just as high as the first one.
Alternative answer: “While I understand the situation she’s in, I would turn her in, because I believe that’s the best thing for her. One of my friends went through a very similar situation. His father walked out on him and his mother when he was thirteen. He started having a very difficult time in school, and his teachers were very lenient with him. He took that as permission to act out, and became more difficult. He ultimately ended up in Juvenile Hall, and it took a strict probation officer to help him get his life back on track. I know that if his school had been firmer with him from the beginning, he would have been better off.”
Once you give your answer, the interviewer might challenge you. They might change the situation a bit; say it’s actually the girl’s second time cheating. They might say she’s cheating for no reason, or propose an alternate situation where her father hasn’t died. You have to then change your answer in accordance with the new information, and prove your ability to think on your feet.
Personally, I think MMIs are fun. I found them less stressful than traditional interviews, and I think they represented my critical thinking abilities far better than a discussion of me resume. While it’s difficult to send a thank-you note to all your MMI interviewers, it might be worth sending a note to the admissions office to thank them for interviewing you, and note a thing or two you liked about the school.