What is your greatest limitation? What is your number one weakness? You've probably heard this common medical school interview question. This is also a common interview question for pharmacy and dental school, and other health-related professional school interviews. But what's the best strategy to tackle these types of questions? Read our blog to learn how to ace this interview question!

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Article Contents
10 min read

Why having an up-close-and-personal experience with failure is a truly good thing Figuring out your best limitation or failure narrative Formulating that narrative effectively, and delivering it authentically An example of a limitation narrative about poor time management An example of limitation narrative about public speaking An example of limitation narrative about overcoming learning difficulties

A question about limitations is actually one about failure. You only fail at the absolute end of your capacity which, by definition, is your limit. Describing your failures is an opportunity to demonstrate character, self-awareness, and resilience. You will fail as a doctor. It will happen. So don't be fooled into thinking that medical schools want students with a track record of perfect success because these students struggle to rebound in the face of obstacles. It is true, however, that medical schools don't want to see immense, record-shaping failure. They don't want to see failed classes. They don't want to see criminal records. They don't want to see expulsions from anything.

They are happy to see healthy risk-taking, the pursuit of reasoned adventure and really good efforts at things that are hard. They would rather your original research fail brightly than for you to cover well-known, boring research ground with perfect results. They would rather have you try out for the varsity team and ride the bench than have no sports experience at all on your CV.

Why having an up-close-and-personal experience with failure is a truly good thing

Resilience is the ability to adapt to stress and adversity. In medicine, not only will you confront stress and adversity directly but you will also experience them vicariously through the lives of your patients. Resilience is the path through which you can continue to think critically, make good clinical decisions and hold real empathy for others despite exposure to mounting stress. If your entire identity is predicated on the idea that you are perfect and beyond failure, then you will lack resilience when the time comes to actually help people, or yourself.

Figuring out your best limitation or failure narrative

The best limitation narrative is one that doesn't raise red flags but does have actual merit as a failure. Be sure you understand how to prepare for your med school interview in advance, so when you're asked these questions, you won't feel caught off-guard. The time you got arrested on school property after final exams is not a good failure narrative. The time you earned a B+ instead of an A- because your schedule was overwhelming is a good failure narrative because there are many lessons embedded inside.

Your best failure narrative should be:

  • In the past, far enough back that you can reflect on it with some measure of maturity.
  • One that you've been able to remedy or replicate with more success.
  • Something that casts you as an earnest, hard-working student or employee.
  • Your fault, at least mostly. If you try to describe a failure narrative where things fell apart because other people dropped the ball, you're going to look immature. Choose something where your work was under the microscope.
  • One that doesn't reflect immoral or ethically questionable decision-making tendencies.

Looking for more on how to answer the question “What is Your Greatest Weakness"? Check out this video!

Formulating that narrative effectively, and delivering it authentically

If you choose to select a personal characteristic as a limitation, definitely have a clear story to use to describe where this characteristic fits in your limitation portfolio. If you choose to select an actual experience, be sure to tell the story well so that the lessons learned make sense.

Obviously, you don't want to just regurgitate the general principle behind limitations as promoters of resilience. You want to have a story from your own life that demonstrates resilience and to tell that story well. Use the SPAR technique to set up the story and describe how that failure set you up to be more resilient.

The SPAR technique is a simple acronym to help you tell clear stories. “S” is for setting: Tell us who was there, where you were and what your objective was. “P” is for problem: Describe where the conflict arose and where you personally failed to meet an objective, produce a piece of work, meet a deadline, etc. “A” is for action: Describe what you did to overcome the problem, try to fix the failure or what ensued as a result of the failure. “R” is for resolution: Tell us what you did to resolve the problem with some insight into how you plan on avoiding similar errors in the future.

An example of a limitation narrative about poor time management

As an undergraduate student, I thought everything on campus looked really fun. There were so many places to volunteer, places to work, sports to do and people to meet. Coming from a small town, I thought I needed to experience everything all at once. I was on the emergency first response team, and I ran the student government elections department and I joined the varsity rowing team. I planned large research trips in India for my third year and was taking a full course load. In the second semester of my second year, midterm season was so overwhelming. My non-school commitments were easily forty hours per week and I did not have a handle on the academic material. I shifted around a bunch of non-school commitments and was able to salvage my performance on three of four midterms. However, I scored very poorly on my physics exam and ended up with a C+ grade at the end of the year. As I progressed through my undergraduate degree, this score was a blight on my record that directly reflected my poor ability to say 'no' and to align how I was committing my time to my own personal values. It took that experience to show me that scholarship - above all else - was the reason I was in university. The rest was interesting and enriching, but it wasn't part of my purpose. Since that time, I've become much more clear on why I do what I do and what that means for how I spend my time. This doesn't mean that I never find myself too busy but that there is always a coherent professional or personal meaning behind what I do. I find that when I focus on meaning, it's way easier to say 'no' when I need to and to stay focused.

An example of limitation narrative about public speaking

I didn’t really have a sense of how much speaking in front of an audience terrified me until I got to X University. Like most freshman and sophomore courses, my intro to chemistry course featured a group presentation, and I simply froze when it was time for me to present my part of our paper. That failure really shook me, but it also kicked my blooming tendency toward introspection into high gear. I considered taking a specific public speaking course, but at the last minute before registering, I remembered that one of my best friends from high school, who also attended X University, had mentioned public reading as an ongoing part of his fiction workshop course. Since I had always enjoyed reading and had written a handful of incomplete short stories, I decide to register for the course and check off a required English credit in the process. Not only did this setting provide me with the safety and skill-building to increase my confidence, but I found that I actually started to enjoy reading my work both in class and at open mic nights.

That same semester I had another presentation in my cell biology course that, this time around, went incredibly well. Since then, I’ve continued seeking out opportunities to present my scientific research at undergraduate conferences, and even won last year’s undergraduate research travel award for a paper on nanotechnology I delivered at the International Conference on Composites or Nano Engineering. Of course, my stomach still feels like a bag of bees before I take a podium, but I’ve developed a reliable system for using that nervous energy to keep me focused and animated, instead of freezing up in fear. 

This response covers a number of important points. First, this writer is clear to not simply say “I am bad at public speaking.” Rather, they articulate their difficulty in terms of an internal hurdle that can be readily worked through. It’s not some sort of intrinsic inability, but a point of difficulty that could be clearly improved on through additional work. They go on to discuss what steps they took, and show both adaptability and an almost adventurous commitment to building this skill in a new environment. They mention repeated instances of success following their major steps to overcome their difficulty, all of which show not only their own comfort in public speaking but that others have also recognized their newly enhanced ability. Finally, they address an evolved understanding of their fear of speaking to an audience. They end by discussing that while they still experience nervousness before a presentation—and who doesn’t?—they now have a tried-and-true methodology for overcoming it.

If you would like to learn more about why failing can sometimes be a positive experience, take a look at this video:

An example of limitation narrative about overcoming learning difficulties

Like a lot of people who grew up “academically gifted”, I found schoolwork all the way through high school quite easy. I rarely studied, mostly kept up on readings, yet managed to perform well on assignments and tests alike. However, just like many others who had that kind of K-12 experience, I hit a big wall upon entering university that could only be overcome by properly developing the skills I’d only partially built throughout my childhood. I needed to cultivate cognitive discipline and the ability to productively immerse myself in new information. Basically, I came to college unable to really study challenging material, and I had to learn how in a hurry.

Of course, this is not a quick task, let alone if solely self-directed. So, I reached out to the instructor of my introductory philosophy course—with which I’d struggled—for guidance. I was pleasantly surprised when, after a lengthy discussion, she gave me a series of progressively difficult readings and notes that built on what I’d already covered in the class. I used these in conjunction with what I ended up calling academic meditation sessions. I would read a chapter or paper, making notes as I went, and then set aside time to meditate or actively contemplate what I’d read.

This was a crucial change, as throughout those early classes I’d gotten into the habit of “cramming” my readings and then writing a paper immediately after, which unsurprisingly resulted in very little information retention. Following my reading and note-taking, I’d either take a walk through somewhere quiet or simply sit in silence, and consciously process what I’d just read. My mind would periodically drift away from the topics at hand, of course, but I would gently reorient myself and continue sort of “sailing around” the material. After a while, this became an overtly meditative activity, and I found that this not only allowed me to retain more detail from these readings, but to let questions about them emerge through this silent, semi-structured thought.

Years later, I still approach new material in the workplace this way when at all possible. There’s often not time to sit in quiet contemplation in the office, but I utilize an evolved form of active reading and notetaking that I owe entirely to this early academic strategy. Likewise, my meditation practice has continued to include time and strategies for complex problem solving, which has made sustained focus and deep integration of information easy and effective. And while I’m proud of what I’ve done to develop these skills, I never take for granted how vital my professor’s guidance was, and how important skills like this are almost never built in a vacuum. 

Here’s an example of a response that takes the help of others into account, showing both humility and, implicitly, an awareness of needing to ask for help and collaborate with others. This writer tells a compelling and at least somewhat relatable story from their past, and shows a mature awareness of their earlier problem with laziness and lack of study skills. Laziness in general is a hard topic to broach in this context, and it’s one of the biggest red flags employers look out for. But if it’s the basis for an important and clearly transformative realization you can do so with care and specificity. That is, not mentioning laziness explicitly, but explaining difficulty with an activity you were ultimately disorganized or lazy in carrying out initially. It’s not “I was a lazy student,” but rather “I had trouble with focus and sustained study.” This writer’s way of being both careful and specific in wording shows an articulateness and informed understanding of their weaknesses.

Additionally, like the prior response, this writer also makes time to note how this strategy has grown with them as they passed through university and into the workplace, and that it’s an ongoing, evolving part of their approach to problem-solving and learning. It doesn’t just end on a positive note, but shows an ongoing commitment to continued improvement.

In summary, you should have a few failure narratives sketched out for your interview using the SPAR format. Practice them so that what comes out on interview day is smooth and relaxed. Good luck on your interview!

About the Author

Dr. Ashley White, a former admissions committee member at McMaster, former MMI evaluator, and a family physician.

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