Former med school admissions interviewer reveals her best strategies to ace the most common types of interview questions!
Today, I’ll offer insights for successfully answering some of the most common questions encountered during the medical school interview. I have seen these types of questions appear during panel/traditional type interviews, modified personal interviews (MPI) and even multiple mini interviews (MMI). You will for sure see questions like "Why medicine?" and "Why do you want to be a doctor?" It is possible to prepare for these types of questions and other common medical school interview questions.
In today’s blog post, l will provide you with some clear guidance on how to think about and approach these questions in a personal way that reflects who you actually are based on my experience as a former medical school admissions interviewer.
Once your are done going over the following questions, click here to a comprehensive list of 100 sample questions.
Common medical school interview question #1: "Tell me about yourself."
This question serves to break the ice, but also to get a sense of whether or not you can provide an organized, meaningful answer to an open-ended question.
Start at the beginning, particularly if your beginning has some unique feature. “I was born in…” or “I am from…” are useful starts. Then, work on characterizing your young life with something that you enjoyed about your adolescence or something that really sets you apart from the crowd of applicants. This helps tag your experience, and your face, in the interviewers’ mind. For example, if you say “I grew up really focused on gymnastics and was a competitor until I began University,” then the interviewer will have a clear and quick association with you and gymnastics, which helps form the overall impression later.
Answer the “tell me about yourself” question with advice from our expert here.
Be sure to include in this section any landmark or life-changing events that helped build your character. You really need to take the temperature on your feelings around the life-changing event because you must always remain at ease during the interview. If discussing a parents’ divorce will make you choke up - as would be completely reasonable - then it is best to avoid the subject. If, however, you were really affected by moving with your family, at the age of 10, from your home country, then it is very useful to include this in your opening.
Then, include the obligatory sentence around where you attended undergraduate and, if applicable, graduate studies. If you studied a particular topic, then include the general area of study or the problem of interest that you examined in your research.
After the basic foundation, you should then start explaining who you are at a more meaningful level. You want to avoid simply re-capping or summarizing your CV; focus on discussing one or two key characteristics that you believe truly demarcate you from the rest of the candidates and that are often attributed to a good doctor. Demonstrate how you possess these qualities or characteristics through a story about your life. If the characteristic that you choose is empathy, for example, tell us about a time where you put yourself in someone else’s shoes and helped solve a problem or help someone cope better. You could start this part of the answer by saying, “I think if I had to use one word to explain who I am…” and then share the experience. It is important that you support your claim with an anecdote or explanation – it is not enough to simply say, “I would consider myself an empathetic person.”
- Where you’re from.
- Meaningful youth experience.
- Formal academic training (and previous careers if applicable).
- Meaningful characteristic and story.
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Common medical school interview question #2: "Tell me about a time when you acted unprofessionally."
Lack of professionalism is a very big deal in medicine. And it’s not just the obvious stuff like harming a patient unintentionally, lying, or being an awful colleague to the staff in the circle of care. Unprofessionalism is a lack of awareness about who you are serving when delivering care. It is not standing up for the patients’ best interest. It is not advocating for your patients. It is not following the standards of care.
Whenever you are answering this question, please know that whatever setting you describe will be automatically mapped onto the clinical setting by the interviewers. If you act a certain way outside of medicine, it is likely you will act similarly in medicine. As such, you want to be strategic in the example you choose, and be prepared to explain what you learned or how you grew from the experience. This is why advanced practice and preparation are key, so you are not caught off guard by such “negative” questions.
Examples of unprofessional behavior you may have encountered that would be ideal to share:
- Not standing up for a study group member with a disability and lacking inclusivity.
- Intentionally providing bad service to a table/group of difficult customers at a job.
- Missing an important meeting or being chronically late to important things.
- Cutting corners in the lab.
- Any situation where you put yourself first, instead of the customer, client, or beneficiary. This excludes situations where your life may have been at risk.
Whichever situation you choose, be sure that there was some resolution (e.g., you performed better the next time, you admitted your unprofessionalism and made amends, you picked up extra slack to prove your commitment, etc.). Ensure that you choose an experience that demonstrates self-awareness and hind-sight. Then, make sure you identify scenarios in the field of medicine in which such an issue could potentially come into play. You could say something like, “I can see now that this kind of situation may arise in medical school or in medicine. Though I regret how I acted at the time, I feel fortunate to have had the experience, so that I could reflect on it and make more intentional choices in the future, ones that benefit my colleagues and patients.” No one likes having to reflect on their times of failure, their weaknesses, their limitations, which is precisely why such questions are asked! Being able to maturely recount past mistakes and self-reflect on how to draw on those experiences to be better in the future demonstrates the professionalism admissions committees are seeking in their strongest candidates.
- Pick a real experience of unprofessionalism.
- Show the reflections you have made about it.
- Demonstrate course correction and what you learned.
- Discuss how it might apply to medicine.
Common medical school interview question #3: "Have you applied to other schools? Which ones? Why those schools?"
Breaking news: They know you’ve applied to other schools! What they’re asking with this question is whether or not you have an idea for the kind of training you know will benefit your learning style and best prepare you for your career. If you have only selected schools that rely on problem-based learning and social justice, say this. If you have only selected schools with strong MD-PhD programs in neuroscience, say that. It comes across as confident, planned, and structured.
If you have just applied everywhere, that’s okay, too. You can say that you have applied widely because you still have a lot of unanswered questions about the exact look and feel of your career in medicine. Also, emphasize that you know you’re adaptable, so you feel confident that you could hit the ground running wherever you go.
That said, don’t be overly complimentary towards other schools. If there are specific aspects of this school’s program, curriculum, or other opportunities that are particularly attractive, be clear about this.
- Answer honestly.
- Describe your strategy, or note that you have purposefully cast a wide net.
- Show how your plan connects to your a) vision or b) adaptability.
- Keep this answer brief and tidy.
Common medical school interview question #4: What should be done about the shortage of medical specialists and adequate resources in rural settings?
This question is asking for your perspectives on the following things, and your answer should respond to each of them:
- Do you know about the health disparities faced by rural areas?
- Do you know the drivers of these problems? There are health system drivers (e.g., lack of economies of scale, fewer specialist facilities for surgical care, lack of primary care practitioners, fewer specialist allied health to support efficient specialist care, limited resources from provinces, very few doctors actually come from rural areas themselves), and there are non-health system drivers (e.g. lack of access to reliable transit, poverty, limited educational opportunities, less access to social capital).
- Do you know some of the most commonly-touted solutions, from non-governmental and governmental organizations?
- Do you have an interesting, thoughtful take on these solutions?
This question isn’t asking you to solve this major problem. This question is asking if you know the landscape of this issue because it is a very real one that affects millions of patients and places great strain on emergency services in rural areas. As a future professional, you should be aware of some of the challenges facing the current system.
- Explain the disparities.
- Explain the root causes and drivers.
- Explain the commonly-cited solutions (pick one or two).
- Explain what your take is on the most important issue.
Common medical school interview question #5: "Teach me something that most people do not know how to do."
They’re asking you to be a real human and not an interview-bot. Relax and have fun, but be appropriate.
Good options for this question include:
- Teach them how to say hello in another, obscure language.
- Teach them how to sing something.
- Teach them how to multiply large numbers easily.
- Teach them how to line dance.
- Teach them the meaning of an appropriate gesture in another culture.
This is a moment of lightness in an interview that will feel heavy and intense. Take it. Roll with it. What is most important here is that you pay attention to the needs of your audience and give careful instruction with attention to detail. As you describe an element, check in with your interviewer to ensure they understand. How you teach is as important as what you teach in responding to this question.
- Choose a manageable, teachable skill.
- Embrace the fun nature of the question.
- Pay attention to detail.
Common medical school interview question #6: "If you could be any utensil in the kitchen, what would you be and why?"
This is also a moment-of-lightness question, but it also provides an opportunity to shed light on your character in a way that applies to medicine. Say something that will help them see you as a doctor.
For example, with a spoon, you can break things apart, gather things up and eat directly, so it’s probably the most adaptable. If you’re really into cooking and healthy living, you might choose something like tongs because you’re really into creative salads. You could also just say that your favourite utensil in the kitchen is your own hands because they’re the most tactile, most efficient way of getting from A to B, and you don’t mind getting your hands dirty.
Questions like this are meant to catch you off guard so the “real you” comes out. So, by all means, let the “real you” out! But, as always, know who you are - at least who you are right now - before you knock on that door, because they will ask you a question for which you have not prepared an answer and that’s when you’ll need to rely on your gut sense about yourself. In presenting your authentic self, ensure you’re offering your “best self”.
- Choose based on characteristics you want to highlight.
- Be authentic.
- Present your "best self".
Common medical school interview question #7: “Tell me about a time you did not get along with a superior.”
Interviewers love to ask questions like this. They want you to reflect on a time when you didn’t have the perfect relationship with teacher or mentor. Let’s be honest; we all have professors, colleagues, or advisors that we don’t see eye-to-eye with. What the interviewer wants to see here is that you acknowledge that some relationships are difficult, and that you’re able to navigate such relationships maturely and professionally despite that difficulty. They are looking for you to articulate the situation, using non-accusatory language, and explain how you approached the situation.
This is a question you should prepare for in advance, as some students may need time to come up with a suitable answer to this question. Reflect on the interactions you have had with faculty or even a boss. Chose a situation where you had a difference of opinion. When explaining the situation be careful to not assign blame. Speak in a neutral tone that isn’t explicitly saying s/he was wrong, s/he did me wrong, or I was right.
For example, you could use a time that a professor and you had a disagreement over a mark on an assignment. Clearly, state the situation. Say that you felt that x was the answer and you gave supporting information to back up your choice. However, your professor disagreed and explained the answer was y and then elaborated on his or her point. In the end, the professor does not change your grade and you came out of the situation with a better understanding of not only how to solve that specific problem, but how to approach a difficult situation wherein you disagree with someone in a position of power. It is important to reflect on what you learned and how you resolved the conflict.
- Prepare for this question in advance.
- Use neutral language and a non-accusatory tone.
- Explain the situation honestly.
- Describe how the resolution was reached and what you learned.
Common medical school interview question #8: “Have you completed any research projects or are you interested in research?”
While you might find this question redundant, as you would have listed it in your application, not every interviewer is going to have read your application, or – at least – not in full. They get thousands of submissions and may just know your name as you’re walking into the interview room. This may seem obvious, but if you have completed research, be prepared to talk about it. You need to know the entire project in detail. Know the statistics, sample size, results, and type of study. Be honest about your involvement in the project. They will know by your answer how involved you were with the project. So, if some time has passed since you submitted your research, read through your abstract again. Refresh your mind and have clear talking points.
This may also seem obvious, but if you did not complete a research project, do not lie about it. Some students try and pull one over on the admissions committee by embellishing or fabricating their involvement in research. I repeat, do not do this! It is dishonest and could really damage your career. Not having research is not the end of the world. So, if they ask you and you haven’t done any research, be honest. State that, while you haven’t had the opportunity to get involved with a project yet, you are looking forward to completing such research when you get to medical school. Come up with some topics you would be interested in exploring and discuss them with your interviewer. It shows interest and also displays your future plans.
- Review your research abstract (if applicable).
- Be able to highlight the main points of your research.
- If you haven’t done any, be honest and come up with a list of topics you are interested in pursuing.
Common medical school interview question #9: “Why should we choose you over other applicants?”
Resist the urge to humblebrag here. It can be tempting to talk yourself up, but there is a right way and a wrong way to do so. Speaking in superlatives and exaggerated language may inflate your ego, but this will definitely deflate the interviewer's opinion of you. You need to find the appropriate balance when answering this question. Remember, everyone who has gotten to this stage – including you – is accomplished and worthy, and it’s not necessarily a “winner-takes-all” situation.
Before the interview day, come up with a list of qualities you like about yourself. Pick ones that are easy to remember and that can relate to medicine. They do not need to be medial per se (example: I am an excellent phlebotomist), but should be able to tie into the theme of a medical doctor. Perhaps you are an excellent communicator and believe that communication is key to dialogue between patient and physician. Whatever you choose, keep it short and sweet. The point of having this quick list of traits is to be able to easily recall them and use them to explain why they should pick you.
When talking about the traits that you have picked that set you apart, be careful to not put down other applicants. Saying something like, “I get better grades than everyone and I have the highest MCAT score at my school,” will come off as boisterous and bragging. Talk yourself up without putting anyone else down. That’s the key to this question and it can be difficult for students. Highlight the things you want the admissions committee to know about you. Make them genuine and, if you do that, you will stand out from the other applicants.
- Create a list of traits.
- Explain why they set you apart without putting others down in the process.
Common medical school interview question #10: The “wrap-up” question.
Now, this question could be a multitude of things. It may be an open-ended question. It may be extra time for you to ask questions. They may give you time to tell them something that isn’t on your application. They may ask you an ambiguous question that doesn’t have a clear answer. Once, while interviewing, I was asked what I thought the definition of “still” was. For the osteopaths out there, you may have realized that it is the last name of the founder of osteopathic medicine and that was what they wanted to hear.
The last question could be any of these things. The best way to approach it, like always, is to be prepared. Research the institution, including the curriculum, unique opportunities, and its mission statement, so if they ask you a weird question about the founder of the hospital, you will be ready. Have questions ready to ask them. It shows that you are serious about the school and that you took time to come up with quality questions. Be prepared to tell them something that you didn’t cover and that wasn’t in your application. They may ask you an oddball question like the kitchen utensil question.
Whatever they throw at you, take a breath and give yourself a few seconds to think before you answer. If you need more time, repeating the question back before you answer will buy you a few more seconds to sort out your thought process. Counter-intuitive as it may sound, you must be prepared for the unexpected. The entire interview is assessing how you will react to common challenges faced by doctors and being able to answer off-the-wall questions is part of that. Knowing that you will have some of these questions already puts you a step ahead. Expect the unexpected. If you can do that, you are already halfway there. When you answer their last question, incorporate the big take-aways you want them to know about you. Use it as a way to leave them with the highlights of who you are as a candidate. Feel free to redirect it, so it can be more of a wrap-up of who you are and what you will offer as a member of their institution.
- Expect the unexpected.
- Think on your feet.
- Find a way to leave them with key points about who you are.
Give yourself time to answer these questions. Practice your answer and make sure you can say it fluidly and not like you are reading off a teleprompter. As with the other questions on the interview day, it is important to prepare. You’ve already done half the work, you got the interview. Now, go practice so you can ace your interview! Still looking for some interview help?
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