via NASA/JPL/Cornell University, Maas Digital LLC [Public domain], Wikimedia Commons
By: Ryan Kelly
To the untrained eye, football is chaos: 22 bodies hurtling toward each other at full speed. Huge men mash helmets, and a slightly smaller one with a ball tries to find his way through the wreckage. A knee or elbow hits the ground, the ref blows the whistle, and then they do it again.
There’s order to the madness, though. Coordinators are paid good money to devise plays to keep the other team guessing. If they run the same play over and over, it will stop working; the other team will adapt. Coordinators also have to adjust between games to break tendencies and find new ways to make the other team wonder what’s coming.
Medical school admissions committees do the same thing. They have to find new MMI questions to throw at applicants during their interview, lest the applicants know what’s coming and adjust. Oh sure, they require you to sign a non-disclosure form, which is well and good for that application cycle. Eventually, though, word gets out about what the admissions committee asks, so the school has to come up with a new situation.
We devote this blog series to those devious coordinators of the medical school admissions committees, the ones who came up with truly strange situations and questions to throw at applicants. To protect their artistry, we have chosen not to replicate the exact prompts; rather, we’ve “spiraled” the situations presented. We’ll convey the essence of the dilemmas to give you a chance to develop your own playbook for how to navigate these MMI stations.
On the big day, you enter the first MMI station and shake the interviewer’s hand. After some pleasantries, the interviewer presents the prompt. You take a deep breath and focus:
For a second, you think you misheard the question. Maybe the interviewer was joking? This MMI prompt sounds like the tagline of a Tom Cruise movie, not a medical school interview question. By the time you recover from the initial shock, you’ve already lost about 20 seconds of the two minutes you’re given to think and formulate your answer.
Like most pre-meds, you’re not a big fan of surprises. You like to plan ahead and be prepared. You were expecting questions about patient confidentiality, treatment of minors, etc - not science fiction plotlines.
It’s true - certain prompts will be asked more or less frequently, but when it comes down to it, anything goes in this interview format. So, if you get a wonky MMI prompt, you must embrace the element of surprise, consider why a strange question is being asked, and make your answer stand out for the right reasons.
During recent mock MMIs, I asked three different candidates to answer the Mars prompt. I’d like to share and critique excerpts from their responses in order to evaluate why this question is asked and the best ways of answering it.
Safety would be my primary concern. We would need to build pressurized and heated habitats to protect ourselves from the cold temperatures and lack of air pressure. Even if we wore spacesuits, we’d need to limit our time outside the habitats to avoid radiation exposure and its health complications.
Then there’s the issue of water. We’d need to somehow extract water from underground, and use it to power our generators so that we can have breathable air. Once we eliminate the threat of suffocation and dehydration, we’d need to establish a steady food supply. Shipments from Earth would be extremely costly, so we’d need our own agriculture - plants that are high in protein, vitamins, and other nutrients. I’m fairly certain that Martian soil is toxic, but I think there’s a decontamination process that could make it safe for planting.
We would need regular shipments from Earth for spare parts and medicine until we can produce them on our own…
Although I’m impressed by Student A’s knowledge of Mars’s atmospheric conditions, the response sounded a tad robotic. “We’d need this or we’d die. Then we’d need this or we’d also die. Oh, and we can’t overlook that, or we’d die twice over.”
It sounded too much like a Martian Survival Guide, simply reiterating the necessary living conditions. This clinical breakdown would be helpful knowledge for anyone contributing to the colonization, but it almost feels like pre-requisite information. For example, we could back up even further and explain that we’d need to build a rocket, but isn’t that a given?
In Student A’s defense, it’s hard to know whether you should gloss over something like this, since it can be risky to make assumptions or leave something unsaid during an MMI station. However, it seemed unwise to use the majority of response time towards basic survivalism. I knew that Student A was more literal-minded, so I wasn’t that surprised by this strict pragmatism. The answer was safe and well-informed, but narrow in its scope.
Student A should have considered why the MMI question was being asked. It’s not testing whether you can outline the science and engineering needed for the physical colonization. It’s gauging your leadership style, foresight, and sense of priorities.
In this situation, I would draw upon my background in sociology and political science to address potentially overlooked aspects of the colonization: government and public policy. Much of the time, effort, and funds will be directed towards the technology needed for survival, but if the colony has upwards of one million citizens, as Elon Musk has envisioned, there will need to be an appropriate system of government to run a productive society.
There would many important questions to consider. Is this an American mission that’s operated by NASA? Or an international effort that relies on global cooperation? Would our colony essentially “own” the land on Mars, or could another colony lay claim to another part? What kind of… [laughs]... interplanetary regulations would we need? Would people need to apply for citizenship? Would population control be an issue?
It might be smart to use a system of government that citizens are familiar with, like a democratic or socialist republic, but it could also be an opportunity to test new or experimental forms of government, lawmaking, etc. For lack of a better example, libertarians often claim that their ideology has never been properly tested [laughs] - could we afford to let our Martian colony’s government fluctuate while we determine the best method?
When I was vice president of ASB, I campaigned for new policies I thought would benefit the student body as a whole, even though the changes rocked the boat and inconvenienced university administrators. As president of Mars, I would strive for a similar form of utilitarianism and keep general well-being in mind, as opposed to the path of least bureaucratic resistance.
I’m on the fence about whether you should bring up your own experiences or background in the MMI. On the one hand, it’s a way to make your answer more personalized and memorable. But some interviewers might want you to stick to the face value of the hypothetical prompt.
In Student B’s case, it’s unsuccessful no matter how you look at it; the response is comparing apples to oranges. I don’t think many interviewers would appreciate the comparison between ASB and the New Republic of Mars. It’s a stretch, and Student B doesn’t acknowledge its stretchiness.
Student B also poses way too many questions without giving any answers. I definitely encourage students to pose if/then conditional statements to help account for different possibilities, but Student B goes overboard. It was also a bit tangential at times, especially when discussing libertarianism. I think the sporadic laughter resulted from the rambling.
The response also raised some potential red flags. Without any reason, Student B brings up issues with university administration, using unchoice words like “rocked the boat.” I think the point was to come across like an advocate or fighter, but it ran the risk of sounding zealous, or worse, a nuisance.
Student B tried to create a distinct answer that highlighted personal skills and insights, but it went awry in several key areas. I think Student B was particularly surprised and thrown off by the gravity of the prompt (PUN INTENDED). Unfortunately, thinking on your feet is a skill that can’t really be taught - only practiced and honed over time.
This would be an exciting responsibility and a true honor, so I wouldn’t take it or its potential consequences lightly. Once we finished the long process of creating safe spaces for living and working on the planet, I would surround myself with trusted advisors - the top specialists in cutting-edge science fields - so that we can work together towards a better future.
For example, I would want an expert team that specializes in hydroponics, as well as solar and hydraulic power, which would probably be our most reliable energy sources.
I’d want a team to research the patterns of dust storms on the planet, so that we can protect ourselves and determine threats to our resource mining. It would also be smart to research potential lifestyle risks, like the effect of Mars’s low gravity on our bodies over the long-term.
It might seem like overkill, but I would want a team of geneticists who could experiment with genetic engineering to help future generations adapt to low gravity, higher radiation, and lower air pressure.
Along with changing ourselves over several generations, I could imagine making drastic changes to the planet itself. For example, I wonder if it’d be possible to release enough greenhouse gasses to warm the planet and thaw out its frozen water reserves.
Colonizing Mars is not a short-term endeavor. There would be immediate priorities to address, but I would want the colony to thrive, not just survive...
I really appreciated Student C’s response. It communicated a sense of accountability, humility, teamwork, ambition, innovation, initiative, forward thinking, curiosity, and many other qualities I am looking for in a candidate.
This MMI response manages to be balanced while covering several different topics, all under the general theme of creating sustainability in the long-term. It’s articulate and even includes a nice turn of phrase at the end.
Certain interviewers could accuse Student C of jumping the gun, but I think it’s okay to gloss over survivalist tactics so that your answer can expand beyond common sense and stand out from more generic responses.
So what would you do if you were president of Mars? Simple, right?
Remember - these questions are partially asked just to see how you’ll handle the pressure of something unexpected. Schools know that students prepare for conventional types of ethical dilemmas, so they ask wonky questions to get an unrehearsed answer from you and really assess your personality and poise.
I’ve written extensively about how to become a better interviewee and communicator:
Beyond strengthening your general skills as a rhetorician and toastmaster, my best advice is to think strategically about what these surprise questions are testing.
The goal is not to tell interviewers what you think they want to hear. Rather, the goal is to understand what qualities they’re assessing, so that you can cater your answer to those qualities while still letting your personality shine.
Stay tuned for Part 2 of my “Hardest MMI Stations” series. In the next post, I’ll come back down to Earth to discuss the tricky dilemma of receiving and responding to criticism (a pre-med nightmare?).