How to Ace Your MedSchool Interview: An Open Letter

Hello all,

I’ve terrified many of you already in medical school with stories about what’s awaiting after graduation: SGR, limited GME, student debt, but I’d like to spend this edition talking about something that focuses on an earlier stage of the process: the medical school interview.

Full disclosure: I have interviewed at multiple medical schools when applying for med school, and have interviewed somewhere around 75-100 students applying at my school.  These comments and thoughts are my own, based on seeing the process from start to finish and hearing the admission discussions.  Take them as you will.


Don’t Be Afraid to Stand Out


One of the easiest things you can do is look different than all the applicants around you.  Clearly I’m not advocating showing up in flip flops and jorts, but you would not believe how monotonous the see of black suits gets after even a few days of interviews.  Wearing something professional, and not black, is a very simple way to be remembered before you even open your mouth.


Know Something about the State of Healthcare

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In my interviews, everyone is asked something about the healthcare system.  It will pervade every aspect of your professional life, and it raises questions when you have no knowledge of something so intrinsic to an institution to which you claim to want to dedicate your life.  If you want a 30,000 ft view, check out some of my other posts, or if you have a month to kill you could read the PPACA, but do something.


Don’t Look a Softball in the Stitches


If a question seems very straightforward, it usually is.  You’ll know when the interviewers are diving into the inner depths of your psyche, so if asked about your hobbies or a class you took in college, answer it like you would a simple question from anyone else who controls your future.  In general I, and most interviewers who have been on a panel with me, will start with some easy ones to get you to relax and allow the catecholamines to breakdown a little before we jump to the hard stuff.


Show Your Passion

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From an interviewer perspective, nothing is worse than back-to-back candidates who differ only in having a BS in Chemistry with a Biology concentration vs having a BS in Biology with a Chemistry concentration.  For such students my comments have literally included “has a good background in science”, which your transcript could say just as well.  The application is designed as a filter based on objective metrics; the interview is the chance for you to talk about the years you spent farming the ocean floor, to show the “you” that the numbers can’t, so do it.


More Is More

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There is nothing worse than sitting in the room for the allotted time, pulling teeth, trying to get an applicant to answer a question.  Those of us who do interview (mostly) do it because we love the institution and want to ensure a strong legacy by meeting with potential students.  We volunteer our time to do this, and I spend enough hours using a herd of wild horses to drag answers out of patients that I can’t expend the same energy trying to get you to talk about yourself.  It is the rare exception that when a one-word answer will suffice it should; our questions are geared to get you to talk about yourself, but we can only open the door.


Answer the Ethical Question As Yourself


I want to spend a bit more time on this aspect of the interview because it always seems to be what students the most pause.  Yes, the dreaded point in the interview where we on the other side of the table stretch your soul to its breaking point and then peer into your very core.  I must admit, I ask some pretty intense questions, and nine times out of ten I see the applicant get that dawning look of realization as they consider the implications and wonder just what it is we want to hear.  Because that’s what the interview is all about, right?  Telling us what we want to hear?   Wrong.  The reason people sweat the ethical questions so much is that, unlike so much in science, there is no right or wrong answer (well, there are some really wrong answers I have heard over the years, but that’s a story for another day).  Some simple advice: if you need a minute, take a minute.  We know the questions are hard, we ask them to see that you can think through a problem, argue for your side, and stand your ground.  If I start picking apart your argument it’s because I want to see that you’ve thought through your position and can defend it.  I am more impressed by someone who can disagree with me and support it than someone who agrees but cannot articulate why.  You are not going to offend me, again, with those outlier exceptions, by answering the question, because I may agree with your opinion and I may not—but you’ll never know.  Either way I’ll play a little devil’s advocate to keep the conversation moving.


End With a Few Questions

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This should go without saying, but always have a question or two to ask when given the opportunity.  All doctors are egomaniacs, right?  So if you can ask your interviewers their opinion about something related to the school you can’t go wrong.  Ask whatever, but ask something.  Except how we think you did.


At the end of the day, those of us who interview have a charge to put together the best possible class for the school.  There are all sorts of “holistic” measurements that go into the decision, and that’s why showing all your different facets is important.  You need to be your strongest advocate and make a case for what sets you apart.  Medical school admissions are getting more competitive as more students are applying, so it really is up to you to stand out and be remembered when you are in that room.  The last thing I can offer is that not every school will be a perfect fit, but no school will be a fit if they don’t know who you are.


Originally published July 30, 2014

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Josh Lesko, MD

Josh Lesko is a flight surgeon based in San Diego, California, writing about health policy, organized medicine, and whatever else comes across his news desk.

1 Comment

  1. Very helpful! I like the advice about standing out; we’re all so used to being judged by the same metrics that we forget that it’s OK to be a little different.