By: Ryan Kelly
Pre-meds tend to have a lot of substance. They spend hundreds of hours helping patients in the hospital, countless more volunteering for good causes, and even devote themselves, unpaid, to developing research that benefits humanity. It takes character and drive to do these things, and we should appreciate how much good pre-meds do.
Because every pre-med has substance, it can be so difficult to stand out in the medical school interview. What have you done that other pre-meds haven’t? Maybe you’re one of the rare pre-meds who has given a TED Talk or earned a pilot’s license, but this type of activity is few and far between.
So, presentation and style are paramount in separating you from the pack. In many ways, it’s more about how you give your answer, then what you choose as your topic. With this in mind, I want to offer six tips and tricks for making your interview responses more memorable or interesting (often before you even give your answer!).
Medical School Interview Strategy #1 - Add fun facts about yourself (especially early on)
It’s likely that the first question you’ll be asked is, “Tell me a little bit about yourself.” This is a prime opportunity to pique the interviewers’ interest and establish yourself as distinct and memorable.
Let’s compare a few responses to illustrate the benefits:
Response 1: My name is Jane PreMed. I’m from Los Angeles and attended UCLA, where I studied biology, performed research, and led my medical student association. Besides mentoring others, I really enjoy running and staying fit in my free time.
Response 2: My name is Joe PreMed, and I’m thrilled to be visiting your city for the first time. I am an avid fisherman, so your proximity to water is really exciting to me. On the East Coast, I’ve caught 25 different kinds of fish and know that I can add to my tally here. This interest partially stems from my environmental science major and time spent studying coral reefs.
Which candidate do you like better? Jane’s response might seem more “relevant,” but it sounds generic and begs no follow up questions. Sometimes, something that seems tangential can make you relatable and intriguing, which will help you stick out in the interviewers’ minds.
Plus, throughout the interview, Joe will have plenty of chances to bring up all his pre-med activities and “relevant” involvements, so he can afford to warm his audience up a bit first.
Medical School Interview Strategy #2 - Use recent experiences
The reason I like this strategy is because it makes your answers sound less rehearsed, while also showing you as someone who is active, eager to learn, and constantly trying new things. This is listed as one of the seven habits of extra interesting people in Forbes Magazine.
The “tell me about yourself” prompt could be a good time for this - maybe an activity or food you’ve tried for the first time recently, or cool recent updates to your application like a publication or your high school mentees getting into their top colleges.
The rewards of this strategy can be great, but it’s good to proceed with caution. Don’t abandon your amazing, carefully crafted response about clinical volunteering for a story that’s too fresh. However, for certain kinds of questions, you can see the benefits of this approach:
“What are your hobbies? What do you like to do in your spare time?”
Response 1: I’ve been playing the piano since age five, and it has continuously returned as a stress outlet during my life. Playing helps me relax and refocus on my studies and obligations.
Response 2: For a while my exposure to cold weather came from snow globes, but when I moved north for grad school, I tried playing ice hockey for the first time. I suffered many bruises and embarrassing moments, but now I play as a regular starter on a club team.
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with piano. You could even argue that it’s more objectively “enriching” than ice hockey. But in this case piano sounds like a lifetime resume-stuffer, and you wonder if the student even truly enjoys it.
The second response shows self-confidence and a willingness to embrace failure for larger rewards. It also shows that this student hasn’t been resting on his or her laurels since graduating or submitting their AMCAS.
Medical School Interview Strategy #3 - Utilize the element of surprise (in a good way)
Just like in your primary and secondary essays, certain topics and responses will become cliche over time, leaving admissions committees bored to tears.
So, when possible, it can be smart to take a counterintuitive approach to answering the question. Essentially, if an element of an activity was surprising or unexpected to you, it can be a good place to start in shaping your answer. That way, even if you fit into a conventional topic, you’ll be personalizing it and defining it through your own terms:
“How will you add diversity to our campus?”
Response 1: I am the son of immigrants who has had to balance my dual identity as a second-generation American. I’ve visited my parents’ village in India and try to return their at least once a year to provide service. Back home in the states, I also have lots of experience with diverse, underserved populations, which will help me support your local disadvantaged patients.
Response 2: I feel that I can bring some diversity in the traditional sense, due to my mixed background of Thai and Lebanese and my time growing up in New Orleans, but I’m more proud of the intellectual diversity that I can offer through my many bioengineering projects and the medical device start-up that I co-founded. I think this will make me a valuable asset to the conversations and collaborative projects at your school.
The reason I think response 2 is better is because it anticipates what most other candidates would say (“traditional” diversity). It takes a brief moment to touch upon that aspect, but then moves into a facet of his or her application that is more distinct and less expected as a form of diversity. It pushes beyond what’s essentially considered a prerequisite (exposure to the underserved) and focuses on the student’s true niche.
Medical School Interview Strategy #4 - “Gloss over” expected answers before giving your own
Without saying it directly, this strategy conveys a certain message: “Most people talk about this stuff, but I’m going to zero in on something a little different.”
Let’s see how it could work with a response about leadership:
“What would you say is your most meaningful leadership experience?”
Response 1: My time organizing the 5k charity run for the Alzheimer’s foundation was my capstone accomplishment as a student and leader. I coordinated the actions of peers, faculty, administration, and outside donors to overcome obstacles and achieve collaborative success.
Response 2: My time spent on student government and as co-captain of the club tennis team were monumental to my growth, but in both cases, I knew what I was getting into. I had seen the role performed by others and could follow established guidelines for the most part. However, when I was called upon to serve as an orientation leader at the last minute, days before freshmen arrived on campus, I was forced to adapt and learn on the fly like never before.
Basically, the strategy is to create an angle for your answer that makes it special and distinct, before you even jump into the story.
You can think about this like a frame or hook for your response, which creates extra intrigue in the audience and gives you a “thesis” (adaptation and learning on the fly) that will help keep your answer focused.
Medical School Interview Strategy #5 - Tackle macro problems with micro answers
Sometimes, the scope of an interview question can feel staggering, especially when it focuses on the state of healthcare, problems for the underserved, or issues with policy.
Those questions are trying to trap you into taking a super broad approach, full of sweeping generalizations without much to back them up. A smart (and more interesting) approach is to zoom in and examine the question from a micro perspective. Let’s see how this can work:
“What’s the biggest challenge facing medicine today?”
Response 1: I think the biggest problem in medicine is the lack of access, especially for underserved populations in remote areas. The obstacles preventing patients from seeking care exacerbate their chronic conditions and remove opportunities for regular checkups and patient education. Some important first steps are alleviating the physician shortage and establishing more clinics in these underserved areas.
Response 2: In my discussions with physicians about healthcare’s challenges, there have been many common trends like lack of access, poor insurance coverage, and physician shortages. But one specific problem I’ve seen in-person while shadowing is a disconnect between physicians and healthcare administrators, with both sides missing key insights into the workflow and experiences of the other. Hiring more physicians in these positions, or finding new methods of communication, could help to fix the problem. This is partially why I decided to pursue an MPA in my gap year, so I can learn potential solutions for this dilemma.
The second response chooses to zoom in on a smaller, but still significant problem, while also acknowledging some of the undeniable existing issues in the big picture. I think this makes the answer more personalized and shows an extra layer of insight.
Medical School Interview Strategy #6 - “Open the umbrella” at the end of your response
It’s not always the beginning of answers that makes them unique or interesting. Sometimes the way you end your response can be just as important for its memorability.
You don’t want your answers to go on for too long (2-3 minutes at most), and sometimes this restriction causes students to end abruptly, letting their answers fall a little flat.
A smart move to avoid this pitfall is to “open the umbrella” and show the activity or event’s resonance in other aspects of your life. Essentially, you’re placing more experiences under the umbrella of that one activity. This can be a good note to add to your mental checklist - making sure you insert a “so what” factor before concluding your answer.
Let’s see how it works:
“What has been your greatest challenge? What did you learn?”
Response 1: In the first two years of college, I discovered that I had spread myself too thin, which caused a drain on my self-care and academic performance. Over time, I learned to balance my commitments without sacrificing my dedication to any one of them, including my own health. It took careful prioritization and time-management skills, but I’m proud to have eventually found a proper balance.
Response 2: Overcoming my fear of public speaking through 30-day social challenges and nerve-racking open mic performances was no easy task. I thought of myself as an “introverted extrovert,” but that label got put to the test. I gained many unlikely friends and now feel comfortable engaging with complete strangers, which has benefited me in my outreach efforts with the mentally ill and the homeless. It’s also been key in my role as Student Rep for my mentoring organization. My bolstered confidence and ability to relate to others will be valuable as a medical student and future doctor.
Response 1 is okay, but the second one gives a clearer sense of the challenge’s greater relevance in the student’s life. We can see the personal growth in action, and there’s a future projection at the end which gives it a more conclusive feeling.
If you’re on the interview trail, or about to embark, consider incorporating a few of these tips and tricks into your responses. Don’t overdo it, because any formula or angle for your answers will become transparent if overused.
But if you can work some of them into your repertoire and deliver them effectively, they’re bound to surprise the interviewers (in a good way) and make you more memorable when selection time comes.