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?
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.
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."
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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