Over the past year, I've had the privilege of serving on the Admissions Committee at Weill Cornell Medical College, conducting medical school admissions interviews. Understandably, several people have asked me for my advice regarding the interview process, as there is a great deal of anxiety surrounding it. It is an asymmetrical experience — a forced conversation that determines the success of your application to medical school.
So how do you succeed in the medical school interview? It’s actually simple. If you are being interviewed, the admissions committee already views you to be qualified for admissions. However, the interview is the crucial step to make sure you will succeed and fit in at the school.
Three general strategies are:
During the interview, the interviewer isn’t only listening to what you are saying; they are also observing your body language. When people are “themselves,” — being honest about their goals, motivations, strengths, weaknesses, challenges and interests — their body language shows it. Candidates must appear comfortable and relaxed, and while they may be nervous, they are already in a better place than those who are trying to embellish or overstate their credentials and accomplishments.
Embellishment is dangerous in a medical school interview for another reason — dishonesty is seriously frowned upon in the medical profession. As a physician, you will oftentimes find yourself in a position of power over your patients, and lying is not only unethical, it can oftentimes be illegal and even dangerous. Interviewers are quite good at sniffing out inconsistencies and inaccurate statements in interviews. Several interviewers I know, myself included, will do some background checking on statements made within the interview. Lastly, interviewers often don’t need a concrete reason to put an applicant in a lower priority pool; a simple gut feeling or intuition can be reason enough. Lying, embellishing or trying to present an image that isn’t true to yourself can leave a bad impression with an interviewer — the exact person that you want to have on your side.
A word about attire is warranted. Clothing is oftentimes something that people identify with a great deal, and as such, it is an important part of being oneself. That said, make sure that your clothing is appropriate for business settings, and if anything on the conservative side. That is one area where being yourself can hurt you in an interview. A good rule of thumb I’ve heard is be covered up from your collarbones to your knees.
People in medicine are driven. They embark on a difficult path that requires a great deal of study, hard work and sacrifice because they are inspired. This quality is intrinsic, not extrinsic — and it is something that is absolutely necessary (but not sufficient) to be successful in medicine. To that end, interviewers are going to ask you questions that aim to elucidate what’s driving you. One of the things that determines whether you gain admission is how dynamic you are in describing your passions, activities and interests. Not everything you’ve encountered has to be the most amazing experience of your life (see above: Be Yourself), but you should be excited about a thing or two you've done. A student who appears to be completely unexcited by his or her premedical experiences can come across as not really wanting to pursue medicine. They can seem like they’ve been forced into the application process, not like they’ve chosen it of their own volition. These are feelings to avoid provoking in your interviewer. Being excited about where you’ve been, what you’ve seen and overcome, and where your future is going is contagious in an interview setting and leaving an interviewer feeling excited about you will reap huge benefits.
Know What the Interviewer is Asking
I ask several questions during each of my interviews. They tend to have a specific purpose. I might ask someone, “What are your favorite three movies and why?” I don't actually care about what movies they are. I want to know that you watch movies and that normal people are going to be able to relate to you. Additionally, I want to know the reasons behind why you like or dislike something, because it tells me more about your personality. Another question I like to ask is what your favorite and least favorite classes were, as well as why and how you'd improve them. I’m asking this question, not to hear about why Math 220 was the best or worst linear algebra class on the planet, but to know what learning environments, styles and techniques are the best for you — so that I know what your chances of succeeding in medical school are.
This is an area where a lot of students can turn a stellar interview into one that yields less than ideal results. When an interviewer asks you to “tell me about yourself” it’s an open ended question that is seeking to have you describe yourself, while prioritizing the most important things about yourself such as values, interests and passions and your background. Telling your interviewer about your research for 15 minutes when he’s asked you to describe yourself, isn’t answering the question your interviewer asked, and may be counterproductive. If there’s something that you identify heavily with and are passionate about, by all means mention that. If there is something important they need to know about you that is missing in your application, mention that as well.
Finally, almost every interviewer I know asks the students if they have any questions. This isn't so much for your enlightenment about the school; it's a way of gauging how inquisitive you are and your level of preparation for the interview. It's also a subtle hint that the interview is approaching its conclusion. Ask a few questions, and allow the interviewer to politely end the interview.
Hopefully this helps and leads to great success with your medical school interviews. Good luck.
Andre Shaffer is a fourth year medical student at Weill Cornell Medical College. He is a member of the Committee on Admissions at Weill Cornell He can be reached at email@example.com. What’s Up, Doc? appears alternate Fridays this semester.