When you’re applying to medical school, it’s remarkable how much four years or more of intense work can come down to one single day. The medical school interview is high stakes: studies have found that interview performance is the most important factor in admissions decisions.
While your MCAT score and your GPA can help secure an interview invitation, it’s your interview performance that matters most when it comes to acceptance to medical school.
I’ve advised many students who are prepping for their interviews, and what I’ve found is that overall they’re great about avoiding certain common mistakes. They practice their handshake, know what to wear, and already researched the school’s interview format.
But I’ve found that many talented and highly accomplished applicants still make several other (very common) mistakes in their interview preparation. Here are five of the biggest ones that I see:
Mistake 1: Sounding just like every other applicant
It sometimes seems as though most applicants are reading the same blog posts (the first three pages of Google search results), or looking through the same discussion forums. That might help explain why a lot of students end up sounding like every other applicant.
And that’s a huge mistake. The number one rule for medical school interviews is this: the best response is one that could only have been given by you. Your goal is to craft memorable responses to common questions that serve to highlight your unique interests, strengths, and goals, as well as your fit with this school. Which brings me to the next mistake:
Mistake 2: A lack of evidence
The only real way to highlight your unique interests, strengths, and goals is to ensure that you provide “evidence.” By evidence, I mean examples or stories from your unique experiences that back up what you’re stating.
Let me give you an example. I’ve conducted a lot of interviews, and one of my favorite questions for applicants is, “We have a lot of great applicants. Why should we choose you?”
By the end of an interview day, so many of the responses I heard just blended into the others. “I’m a hard worker, I’m a team player, and I would bring my best every single day.”
Contrast that with a response that includes the applicant’s own experiences. “I am determined, and I work very hard to achieve my goals. When I was vice president of Organization M, we were able to accomplish X by doing Y. Even though it took six months of hard work, it was worth it because we accomplished our goal of Z. I would bring that same hard work and determination to my work here.”
At the end of the day, I remembered that student, which leads to the next mistake.
Mistake 3: Not spending enough time analyzing your own activities
Sometimes I would ask a student to “tell me about your research.” By the end of the interview, I had learned a LOT about a particular strain of knockout mice, but I hadn’t learned anything about the student.
The question is, tell me about YOUR research. I want to hear about how your participation in research reflects your interests, strengths, and goals.
That’s why it’s so important to spend time reflecting on your activities: they can highlight some important points or themes that can be used to support your responses to multiple common interview questions.
I have a worksheet that I give to my students to help them with this process. Essentially, you should think about before, during, and after your activity. Before: What drew you to this organization or this activity? During: What traits did you display, or what strengths did you develop, or what skills did you learn during this activity? After: How will this work impact your goals or interests for the future?
Mistake 4: Not researching the school
One of the key features of a strong response is that you could have only given it. The corollary is that the strongest responses are those that could only apply to this particular school.
Consider one of the most common med school interview questions: “Why did you apply to our school?”
This is a common question, and a strong response here is critical. The strongest responses highlight how well your strengths, interests, and goals align with the school’s strengths, offerings, and mission. That means researching the school, and I’ve found that most students don’t dig deep enough here.
If you were to answer this question by speaking about the strong faculty, the amazing clinical opportunities, or the state-of-the-art facilities, recognize that these responses could apply to many medical schools in the country.
Instead, you need to start by researching this school. You can start with a quick review of their website, but you need to go a lot deeper than that. Look over their stated mission. Search the news for their latest initiatives or achievements. Speak to current students about unique opportunities or features of their curriculum. Speak to alumni about how the school helped them achieve their goals. Ask your advisors what they’ve heard about the school.
Listen closely, and see what speaks to you. Make that the focus of “why did you apply to our school?”
Mistake 5: Not spending enough time preparing for the medical school interview
Just by reading this list, you’ve probably realized that this process takes a lot longer than expected.
In fact, I find that many applicants simply don’t give interview preparation the hours that it deserves. They spend years of hard work to achieve a strong GPA, followed by months of intense study to excel on the MCAT.
And then they spend just days preparing for the interview.
Reflecting on your experiences. Researching the school. Crafting powerful, memorable responses. Practicing your responses. Getting feedback, revising, and practicing again. All of this takes time. Make sure you plan ahead and give this process the time, attention, and consideration that it deserves.
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