How to Ace Your Medical School Interviews

Time-Tested Approaches to Making Faculty and Staff Love You and Sealing the Admissions Deal

Medical School Interview Shemmassian Academic Consulting.jpg

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Part 1: Introduction

One of the most nerve-racking aspects of the entire medical school admissions process—more than writing your personal statement, AMCAS Work and Activities section, and those pesky secondaries—is waiting to receive interview invitations.

Therefore, when you finally receive an interview invitation, you typically breathe a sigh of relief and feel validated for all of your hard work throughout your college and perhaps post-bacc years.

Soon after your quick celebration, however, the anxiety creeps back in. What happens during a typical med school interview day? How will you answer common questions like, “Why do you want to be a doctor?” or “What type of career do you intend to pursue?”, let alone tricky Multiple Mini Interview (MMI) questions or ones about the current state of the US healthcare system?

Fortunately, as with every other part of the application process, there is a systematic way to do stand out during medical school interviews. This article was written to show you exactly how to make that happen, from understanding why medical schools interview you to sending follow-up thank you letters, and everything in between.

Why medical schools interview you

Many premed students with whom we discuss interviews jump straight into the nitty gritty of how to answer certain questions or to whom they should send a follow-up thank you letter (we’ll address both of these areas later in the article).

Before we get into those details, however, we take a step back and ask our students, “Why do you think med schools want to interview you in the first place?” After all, medical schools can learn so much about you throughout your application materials, including your:

The answer is straightforward. Medical schools want to learn the following three pieces of information through your interview:

  1. That you’re sociable and easy to get along with. You’ll be interacting with people—patients, nurses, colleagues, etc.—every day as a physician, so you have to be likeable and personable.
  2. That you don’t have significant interpersonal difficulties, such as arrogance or major social awkwardness. Few people want to be around someone who is incredibly full of themselves or unable to hold an engaging conversation.
  3. That you seem as polished and fit for medicine in person as you come across on your application. With unlimited opportunities to write, rewrite, and edit your essays, it’s possible to submit error-free application materials. On the other hand, it’s much more difficult to cover up obvious blemishes during a live in-person interview.

These three pieces of information highlight two powerful insights about how to think about and approach the med school interview process:

  1. If you’ve been invited for an interview, you’ve made the academic and extracurricular cut. In other words, if they were going to reject you based solely on insufficient stats or extracurricular experiences, they wouldn’t have invited you for an interview. Therefore, you should go into the interview with confidence that you’re academically “good enough.”
  2. You should pay just as much attention to the way you answer questions and interact with interviewers and school staff as you do to the actual content of your answers. If the faculty and school staff like being around you, they’ll overlook minor missteps. On the other hand, if they find you off-putting in some way at the start, it will be tough for you to recover and impress them, no matter how perfectly you answer interview questions. (To learn more about how to get your interviewers to like you beyond simple etiquette, read our med school interview guest article on KevinMD: Use the power of psychology to ace your medical school interview)

Once you reframe the interview as an opportunity to authentically engage faculty, students, and staff instead of a showcase of your academic prowess, you’ll be able to maximize your impact on interview day.

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Part 2: Before Interview Day

When interview invitations are sent out

Interview invitations are sent out on a rolling basis, until all spots are filled at a given school. Some students begin receiving interview invitations as early as late July, yet others receive their first invitation in January. Nevertheless, the majority of interview invitations are sent out between October and January.

It’s also important to note that each school handles invitations differently. For instance, some schools employ a truly rolling process (i.e., they send invitations one by one as strong candidates make the cut), whereas others invite students on a rolling basis in chunks (i.e., invite their favorite applicants who applied in July, followed by their favorites who applied in August, etc.), and yet other medical schools wait until a certain date before extending interview invitations in bulk (e.g., no invitations sent out until after all applications received by October have been reviewed).

There are many rumors discussed among premed students in person or on sites like Student Doctor Network and Reddit about certain dates by which you receive interview invitations or acceptances; otherwise, you should give up hope. One such cutoff is the “Turkey Day Rule”, which posits that if you don’t hear back from a school by Thanksgiving, all is basically lost. Our 10+ years of experience supporting hundreds of students who have received interview invitations after Thanksgiving or other “cutoff dates” pretty much destroys these types of rumors.

There is, however, one trend that we’ve consistently observed with regard to admissions success relative to interview invitation dates. Specifically, students who receive interview invitations earlier tend to get in somewhere at higher rates than students who don’t receive any interview invitations until months later. Moreover, the sooner a student receives multiple interview offers, the more positive the omen. Neither of these trends are surprising, however, given that ultra-competitive students are more likely to receive earlier and greater numbers of interview invitations than their lower-achieving peers.

How to navigate interview logistics

You should confirm your interview date as soon as possible after you receive an invitation to demonstrate strong interest in a program and make an overall positive impression before you ever arrive on campus. In addition, you should aim to select the earliest interview date that you can to maximally take advantage of the rolling admissions process.

Whenever you confirm your interview date, make sure to politely express your gratitude for the opportunity and excitement to learn more about the program. Your “interview” comprises every interaction you have with a given school, that is, every email, phone call, or conversation before, during, and after your actual interview date, so be your best self at all times. Moreover, treat everyone with the highest level of respect, whether you’re interacting with faculty, students, or administrative staff. Several of our team members have served on admissions staff and can attest to the fact that med school admissions committee members are open to positive and negative feedback about specific applicants.

Once you confirm your interview date, book your travel and accommodations as soon as possible to lock in the best available prices. Make sure to arrive at least a day early to your destination, and aim to book a direct morning flight to minimize the likelihood of delays. This latter point especially applies if you’re flying into, out of, or through a cold-weather location.

Some schools may send you your interview day agenda before you arrive on campus, yet others won’t provide much information beyond the location you should arrive to on your interview date and your start time. Regardless, you should aim to minimize your stress on interview day as much as possible. To do this, arrive at the school early to find parking and the location of your interview. Better still, you can drive or walk by the interview location during the evening prior. Hospitals, where med school interviews may be housed, can be notoriously confusing to navigate, and you want to avoid showing up frazzled and sweaty.

How to prepare for your medical school interviews

Research

The first step you should take in preparing for your interview at a given school is to study your AMCAS and secondary application inside and out. If you listed a certain detail or covered a specific experience on your application, you should be ready to discuss it in more detail during your interview.

When you’re asked about why you want to become a physician, or why you want to attend a certain school (more on these two questions later), you should aim to respond in such a way that’s consistent with your application. While adding new information is acceptable, stating reasons during your interview that are dramatically different from what you wrote on your application may raise red flags.

Once you know your application cold, you should visit the school’s page on Student Doctor Network (SDN) and click on the gray “Interview Feedback” tab to see a list of questions interviewees have been asked there, whether interviews are held one-on-one or in a group format, whether interviews are held open file or closed file, etc. (For example, here’s Yale School of Medicine’s SDN page) In addition to practicing generic questions, you should religiously study and practice answering the questions that students have been asked at that institution.

Next, you should visit the school’s website and carefully read through multiple pages of content. Pay special attention to what they repeatedly mention on their site (e.g., diversity, research), because those are likely areas that the school is particularly proud of or known for, and demonstrating fit with those aspects of their school culture or programs will help you be seen as a great candidate.

If you receive the name of your interviewers ahead of time, you should definitely look them up online. If they’re faculty, spend a few minutes reading through their research and clinical interests, in case you want to ask questions during your interview about their work or how to get involved in research. While asking either of these questions is not necessary, it’s nice to have them ready in your back pocket.

Practice

It’s a good idea to go through several rounds of mock interviews before your first interview date. However, you should be selective about the people you ask to interview you. Good candidates for mock interviews include:

  • Your premed advisor
  • Your school’s premed committee (i.e., the same folks who may have written a committee letter for you)
  • A friend who has successfully gone through the med school admissions process
  • A medical school admissions consultant

When going through a mock interview, ask your reader to give you feedback on content and social skills, include eye contact, speech volume, speed, and clarity, and ease of conversation. Moreover, when you get feedback, don’t just jot down notes for next time. Instead, role play in the moment to reinforce the feedback you receive.

There is such a thing as too much practice. Specifically, some students who rehearse certain answers too many times, or insist on memorizing their responses, may come off as robotic during an interview. It’s best to have a strong idea and flow for what you’re going to say, but make sure you’re conversing naturally.

One advanced practice tactic is to go through at least some of your mock interviews under stressful conditions. Students tend to practice their interviews in the comfort of their bedroom or another familiar setting, wearing comfortable clothes, and having had sufficient rest. On the other hand, the actual interview can be very stressful. You may have gotten less sleep than usual and are experiencing racing thoughts and jitters. By practicing under stressful conditions, you can recreate your interview day experience more accurately.

Some approaches to creating stress for your mock interviews include:

  • Intentionally sleeping less than 6 hours the night before
  • Consuming significantly more caffeine than you typically do
  • Wearing slightly uncomfortable clothing
  • Watching an intense movie just prior to raise your heart rate
  • Interviewing in an unfamiliar location

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Part 3: Interview Day and Beyond

How to answer interview questions

Answering medical school interview questions essentially boils down to the following:

  • Be consistent with what you wrote on your application
  • Have your answers progress clearly and directly address the question
  • Take a firm position on an issue, when necessary
  • Prioritize patient needs above all else
  • Make appropriate eye contact and use appropriate speech volume, tone, etc.
  • Exhibit the appropriate emotions (e.g., smile when it’s appropriate to smile)
  • Update your interviewer on anything you’ve achieved since submitting your original application

However, just like canned admissions essay writing advice (e.g., “show, don’t tell”), these rules will not benefit you without examples of how they’re applied the right way. Therefore, we’ve selected a few common questions and provided strong sample responses for each.

“Tell me about yourself.”

A common misconception: Many applicants think they “have to” immediately get right into medically relevant experiences when answering this question out of fear of not being seen as serious enough about medicine (we’ve discussed this misconception in the following article: A Common Struggle That Every Medical School Applicant Needs to Overcome).

How to approach the question: Describe your background—family, upbringing, interests—and then transition to medically relevant experiences. That way, you’ll humanize yourself and your answers rather than seem like the typical premed student.

An effective sample response: “I grew up in an Indian American family of six just outside Minneapolis. I’m the youngest of 4 girls, and I’ve always cherished my access to strong role models. However, there has always been a major academic disconnect between my high-achieving sisters and me. Specifically, whereas I’ve long leaned towards the sciences, my sisters all preferred the humanities (laughs). But I’ve actually come to see this as a blessing, because it’s forced me to carve my own path rather than follow in their footsteps. In high school…” [describes science experiences and transitions to interest in medicine].

“Why do you want to become a physician?” or “Why are you interested in medicine?”

A common misconception: Applicants routinely tell us that they’re worried about sounding cliché when answering this type of question. For example, they shy away from discussing their passion for the sciences or for helping people. Moreover, they’re concerned about sounding repetitive with their personal statement.

How to approach the question: Retelling stories from your personal statement is actually a good thing because you’ll be consistent about your reasons for wanting to pursue medicine. On the other hand, if you tell an entirely new story, the interviewer may wonder whether or not you’re being authentic.

In addition, it’s important to remember that if we distill medicine, it’s essentially applying science to improve people’s health. Therefore, your interviewer hopes that you enjoy the sciences and helping people. How could this be a bad thing?

An effective sample response: “When I arrived to college, I really wasn’t sure about what career to pursue. All I knew is that I enjoy the sciences, so I signed up to work in a biology lab during my freshman year to study olfaction in mice. After a semester in the lab, I started thinking a lot about how the work I was doing could be applied to humans. I also found myself increasingly wanting to work directly with people. That feeling led me to apply to volunteer at the university hospital. Right from the start, I was helping patients in the neurosurgery department recover from their tumor procedures…” [tells story about helping a specific individual, the insights gained from that experience, and subsequent activities pursued.]

"Why do you want to attend X school?"

A common misconception: Some students feel that the way to answer this question well is to be overly complimentary of the school and its offerings. Unfortunately, they’ll end up citing generic perks of attending that school, such as world-class faculty, a great hospital, small class size, etc.

How to approach the question: While researching the program, you should identify specific reasons why that school will be an excellent fit for you, and vice versa, so you can highlight these points during your interview. In other words, your goal is to convince your interviewer that the school was made for someone like you.

An effective sample response: “One of the biggest reasons I’m drawn to Stanford is because of its strong emphasis on conducting research from the get-go. I love how students become involved in a lab during their first year, and also that many students complete a research elective between their first and second years. Although I’m not yet sure what specialty I’ll end up going into, I’m very much interested in exploring a career in academic medicine, and I’m confident that Stanford will be the ideal school for me to do that.

The second reason I’d like to attend Stanford is because it promotes diversity as one of its core values. As a Jamaican American student who grew up in the Bronx, being surrounded by, and learning from, people of different backgrounds and cultures is very important to me. It allows me to widen my perspective on how people see the world, including health care. I want to continue learning from my diverse peers and apply flexible thinking when approaching my own patients during medical school and beyond. I would also look to become involved with the Center of Excellence in Diversity in Medical Education to conduct advocacy work in the Bay Area as I did during college in Boston.”

[Discusses third primary reason, etc.]

"What do you see as the biggest problem with health care in the United States?" or any other policy or current events or future events question

A common misconception: There are perhaps no questions like these that send shudders down premed spines. Students believe they have to frantically read everything they can about Obamacare in order to answer questions effectively and not seem like they’ve been buried under a rock. Moreover, they think they have to take a specific position; otherwise, they will get automatically rejected.

How to approach this question: First off, these types of questions rarely come up—although they’re a bit more common during MMI interviews—so you shouldn’t spend too much time worrying about them. Regardless, your interviewer is more interested in how you think than the actual position you take. (Unless, of course, your position is something radical or extreme, like, “I think people who can’t afford health care don’t deserve it.”) Therefore, before you state your position and provide your rationale, explore both sides of the issue to demonstrate thoughtfulness. Based on your considerations, you should then take a position and humbly stick with it.

An effective sample response: “Solving the US health care crisis is clearly a very complicated and charged topic. On the one hand, I understand that individuals who support our current system want to maintain their choice when it comes to whom and where they receive care from. After all, they understand their families’ needs best. Unfortunately, our current system is too expensive for families with low socioeconomic status, yet these individuals have just as much of a right to sound health care as people with more means. While I’m not sure where our health care system will ultimately end up, it’s difficult for me to see health care in our country appropriately addressed without moving to a single-payer model…” [discusses limitations in their conclusion, but reiterates position]

What questions to ask your interviewer

At the end of most interviews, you’ll have the opportunity to ask your interviewer some questions. But before we discuss good questions to ask, let’s briefly cover the types of questions you shouldn’t ask:

  • Information that can be clearly found on the school website (e.g., “How many students make up a typical class?”)
  • Anything that would be better answered by someone else (e.g., don’t ask a faculty member about the student experience)
  • Canned or quiz-like questions, such as, “What do you see as the strengths of the first-year curriculum?”

On the other hand, powerful questions include the following:

  • Deeper questions about specific opportunities (e.g., “Could you please tell me more about the physician-scientist training program? Do students have to get admitted into the program before their first year, or are there opportunities to apply after matriculation?”)
  • (Our personal favorite) Soliciting advice about navigating medical school (e.g., “Based on your years of experience, what have you observed to be the most common struggles for first-year students, and what advice would you be willing to share for someone like me just starting out?”)

Sending follow-up thank you notes

Unless a school explicitly asks you not to send thank you notes, you should send one to every single person who interviewed you, including current students, within 48 hours. Sending thank you notes by email is perfectly acceptable.

The first opportunity you have to take notes about your interview, jot down the person’s name and a few bullets about what you discussed during the interview. Make special note of any advice or guidance they provided, because you should incorporate those notes into your letter. Here’s a sample thank you letter template you can use to email your interviewers:

“Dear Dr. [Interviewer’s Last Name],

I want to thank you once more for taking the time to interview me for admission to [Medical School] [note about the date, e.g., yesterday, specific date]. Throughout my interview day, I was impressed with [a few reasons you enjoyed your visit, whether the people, facilities, culture, etc.), which aligns with [some quality or aspiration that is important to you]. In addition, I appreciate your candid [advice/insights] about [topic]. Since the interview, [something you thought about or researched, and your insights gained].

My already strong interest in [Medical School] was only confirmed by the interview day, and I would be honored to attend there. If you would like any other information from me, please reach me by phone at [number] or email at [address]. Otherwise, I look forward to hearing your decision.

Sincerely,

[Your First and Last Name]

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Part 4: The Multiple Mini Interview (MMI)

Each year, an increasing number of medical schools are moving away from traditional one-on-one interviews and toward MMI. During an MMI-style interview, you’ll be asked to go through six to ten short interviews that are designed to collectively measure your verbal and nonverbal communication skills. The interviews typically take place across a number of “stations.” At each station, you will be given a prompt and then invited to the interview room, where you will be have about eight minutes to answer a question or complete a task. Every interviewee will encounter the same staff member at a given station to ensure consistent performance ratings.

The reason more and more schools are moving toward MMI goes back to what we discussed near the beginning of this article. Specifically, med schools believe they are able to more reliably assess your intangibles (i.e., the information they can’t necessarily get from polished essays) through MMI relative to a traditional interview format. Moreover, by going through a larger number of shorter interviews, schools can better minimize any impact of bias from individual interviewers.

MMI questions can include a wide variety of scenarios, including:

  • An ethical dilemma (e.g., how to handle your patient’s use of alternative medicine despite no empirical support)
  • A situation that mimics what you will be asked to do as a physician (e.g., qualities to look for when hiring a physician to join your practice)
  • Interacting with an actor (e.g., a patient in pain expressing dissatisfaction with your work)
  • Working together on a task with a fellow interviewee (e.g., developing a new hospital initiative)
  • A question about healthcare policy (e.g., how to manage a patient in a persistent vegetative state)

While it’s difficult to prepare for every scenario you may encounter during an MMI interview (you can view some sample MMI questions here), there are certain qualities you should always aim to exhibit in your behaviors and responses, including:

  • Ethics (i.e., autonomy, beneficence, non-maleficence, and respect for human rights)
  • Respect and politeness
  • Thoughtfulness and reflectiveness (see the section on answering policy questions, above)
  • Effort

Given that MMI-style interviews are a new experience for most med school applicants, it may be tough to know how you did. Nevertheless, if you can exhibit the aforementioned qualities, you’ll probably do well enough.

Final Thoughts

The medical school interview process may be the most anxiety-inducing aspect of your application cycle. However, we want to remind you that getting invited to an interview serves as validation for your years of hard work, and confirms that your application up to that point is “good enough” to help you get into medical school and pursue your dream of becoming a physician.

Understand that schools are looking to get to know you on a human level during your interviews, to gauge the social and interpersonal qualities that are difficult to fully glean from your well-edited essays. Therefore, study each school’s background, practice effectively, and clearly demonstrate your fit to seal the admissions deal.

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Part 5: Frequently Asked Questions

Question: Under what circumstances should I send an update letter to medical schools, and what should I discuss in them?

Answer: There are four circumstances that warrant sending an update letter to medical schools:

  1. Two or more months have passed since you submitted your application and you have noteworthy updates to share (e.g., continuing to collect hours as a volunteer or researcher, completion of a service trip, launching a fundraising initiative)
  2. Two or more months have passed since you interviewed and you have noteworthy updates to share
  3. You have a major achievement to share (e.g., significantly higher MCAT score, research publication)
  4. You have received a letter of acceptance from one school but prefer to attend another you interviewed at

Your updates should be sent as a formal business letter, with the following paragraph-by-paragraph breakdown:

  1. Brief discussion of who you are, when you submitted your application or interviewed, and a note that you're updating the medical school with information that you would like included in your file.
  2. Your updates and achievements since applying or interviewing.
  3. Restating your interest in attending their school and how your updates have boosted your fit with their school.
  4. Expressing appreciation for their consideration and details on how to contact you for additional information.

Question: Will sending an update letter improve my odds of getting invited for an interview?

Answer: Sending a thoughtful update letter certainly can't hurt, but sending an update letter just for the sake of "moving your application back to the top of the pile" may annoy admissions committees. The key is what you include in your update letter, not whether or not you send one.

Question: At what point do medical schools stop interviewing students?

Answer: The majority of medical schools complete their interviews by mid-March, though they will keep going until all spots have been filled. A few schools will continue to interview students through April or later.

Question: Is there a point in the admissions cycle at which I should just assume I'm going to be rejected if I haven't yet heard back from a school following an interview?

Answer: As a general rule, with each month that passes post-interview, the likelihood that you will be accepted at a given medical school decreases. However, it's impossible to know how many spots have been filled there, and there's always a small chance that you will get in anytime through the end of Spring.

Regardless, you should continue to develop your extracurricular profile and address any weaknesses in your application while you wait for admissions decisions. That way, if you have to reapply during the following admissions cycle, admissions committees won't be able to hold any "down time" (interpreted as lack of commitment to medicine) against you.

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