If you're wondering how to answer the dreaded interview question: “Tell me about yourself?”, you've come to the right place. Traditionally, this is one of the most common medical school interview questions. It’s usually the first thing you’ll be asked when you sit down. And it should be one of the easiest questions to answer — because you can anticipate and prepare for it — but, just as commonly, it’s one of the most anxiety-provoking and confusing questions. Be sure to review our blog on how to prepare for your med school interview for the best strategies and techniques to help you succeed.
Here's what you're going to learn:
Part of any application process is self-reflection and self-evaluation. What values are important to you? What drives and motivates you? Why do you want to be a doctor? How do other people see you? How do you see yourself? What is unique about you? This is really the type of information that interviewers are probing at when they ask you to talk to them about yourself. All too often, however, applicants interpret this question as “Tell me about your application” and either recite their CV or how they came to apply to a particular program. It’s important to keep in mind that, if someone wanted to know about your professional background, they would be asking about that instead. You’ve already provided this information in your application. Paper applications allow you to demonstrate who you are as an applicant, but “Tell me about yourself” is your chance to demonstrate who you are as a person.
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You shouldn’t feel like you have to completely ignore talking about your professional background. In fact, probably a great deal of your academic and extra-curricular experiences have shaped who you are as a person. Still, it’s important to balance your personal and professional sides; provide insight into the kind of worker you’ll be and the kind of colleague you are. You can structure your response in just this way.
Check out our video on how to answer "Tell me about yourself":
“I grew up in a small town in British Columbia in a really baseball-obsessed family. My parents and older siblings all played and so did I. They’re a big support I draw on when I’m busy with a lot of things on my plate and their support helped me do well in school and balance sports, volunteering, and my extracurricular activities. Baseball was one of the things that bonded us closely together and we’ve always been really close. My mom was a big knitter and that was something that just the two of us had in common, even though we both looked a little goofy knitting on the bleachers during a game. Along with school and my extracurricular activities, baseball was one of the biggest parts of my life and I learned to really love being a part of a team, having goals for myself, and sharing goals with others. Having sports injuries and seeing some of my teammates work through their injuries gave me some experience with the healthcare system. It opened my eyes to a lot of opportunities to work with people having their own health struggles and I learned to appreciate and focus on my health while developing as an individual. I started to volunteer at the hospital in my hometown and this became almost as big a part of my life as baseball. Being thought of as someone that another person could confide in and trust and be able to offer some help and comfort was a really significant experience for me and motivated me to explore other opportunities to contribute more to the healthcare system. Always having an interest in sports, made human kinetics a fit for my university studies and I finished my program this past spring with honors. When I look back on my involvement with teams, my memorable experiences with patients, and my interest in the human body, medicine seemed like the natural next step for me personally and professionally and I’m really excited to be interviewing for your program.”
This would be a good response because it’s personal, memorable, and equally demonstrates the desirable qualities of a medical student (interested in the human body, goal-directed, etc.) and classmate (good team player). It’s not hard to create a similar response for yourself with enough time and thought. You’ll probably find that, with preparation, you’ll be looking forward to answering this question and can be confident that you’ll do a great job!
1. What is the best format I should follow for answering “tell me about yourself”
As previously mentioned, the very first thing you need to do to answer this question well is to reflect on your experiences. You'll need to be able to identify what makes you, you. In your response, you'll want to highlight a few experiences or key events (2-3) in your life that are significant, have helped shape you as a person or are part of your identity. With each experience or key moment, be sure to discuss what you learned from the experience. Lastly, you'll want to make the connection for how these skills or experiences will be beneficial in your future endeavors. Where possible, ensure your response is in chronological order so it's easy to both understand and follow.
2. How long should my response be?
You don't want to give a one-line response, but you also don't want to be rambling on about where you grew up, how many siblings you have, and that you enjoy long walks on the beach. As with answering most medical school interview questions, the quality of your response is much more important than the quantity. As a general rule of thumb, a response between 1-3 minutes would be suitable, but too much longer than that and you risk losing your audience's attention.
3. In which interview style can I expect to be asked this question?
“Tell me about yourself” is one of the most common interview questions so you can expect this question to come up in every interview format including traditional, panel, MMI, video interview, etc.
4. What is the most common mistake students make when answering this question?
The most common mistake students make is reciting their CV. The purpose of the “tell me about yourself” question is to learn more about you, what makes you unique and of course, every question is tied back to the often-unasked question: Are you a suitable candidate for our program? Do not recite your CV or other information that is easily found in your application materials. This is your chance to open up to the interviewers and allow them the opportunity to get to know the real you.
5. Why should I only talk about three experiences?
Remember, you want to share actual examples and SHOW the interviewers who you are. If you talk about too many experiences, you cannot really give specific details, and the quality of your answer will suffer. For this reason, we recommend sticking to a maximum of 3 experiences and talking about these experiences in some detail. This will allow you to give a concise but detailed answer.
6. What type of experiences can I talk about?
You can mention any type of experience you wish! When you look back on your life, which experiences or relationships stand out to you? Do you have a hobby that is a big part of your life, like cooking or working out? Do you speak a different language? Did you immigrate from another country to where you live now? Did a particular job, volunteering, research, or extracurricular activity make a particularly big impact on you? Maybe you have a role model or mentor who made a big impact on your life. You want to spend time reflecting and picking the 3 key experiences that resonate most with you.
7. Should I talk about medicine-related or academic experiences?
You certainly can talk about either of these, but don’t feel that it's required. As noted in the above answer, any experience can be a good one to mention here, and this is a great opportunity for you to stand out and be unique. Don’t be afraid to talk about something unrelated to your studies or to medicine (or whichever profession you are applying to). If you give details and show why it was important to you, your answer will be strong no matter what experience you talk about.
8. My answer sounds rehearsed. What should I do?
While this is a question you must anticipate and plan for, you don’t want it to sound rehearsed. You should brainstorm and create an outline of the experiences you want to talk about, but you do not want to memorize your answer word-for-word. Instead, if your answer comes out a bit differently each time, that’s OK! You should focus on relaying your experiences honestly, and simply keep your outline and the order of experiences in mind, rather than memorizing your answer. This ensures you come across as polished, but not rehearsed.
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About the Author
Dr. Ashley White is a former admissions committee member at McMaster and a family physician.
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