It turns out that small talk might not be so “small” after all.
By: Ryan Kelly
Pre-meds are often obsessed with looking good on paper, notably by accumulating impressive experiences to pat their resumes.
But these impressive experiences usually require soft skills like networking and relationship building, which both have their roots in the art of SMALL TALK.
Want a coveted research position? Odds are you’ll have to rub elbows with the professors and researchers.
Want stellar letters of recommendation? Then you’ll need to get to know your recommenders beyond a surface-level or transactional relationship.
Plus, even if your resume impresses the admissions committees, you’ll eventually have to interview at the medical schools.
So, you’ll probably need to be a great conversationalist if you want to thrive as a pre-med and achieve your medical school aspirations.
It turns out that small talk might not be so “small” after all.
When doing research for this article, I found two types of articles about small talk:
The problem seems to be a lack of middle ground – talking about the weather is safe but terribly dull, whereas asking about a person’s ideal Amazing Race partner is memorable but runs the risk of being too eccentric or random.
So, my mission will be to fill that middle ground, while also providing some helpful tips as a general framework for your small talk as a pre-med conversationalist.
Don’t worry – I’m not going to tell you to smile and “just be yourself.”
I want to focus on counterintuitive tips that will flip the script for you and remove the bad conversational habits that we all have.
In other words, I want to help you fight against your instincts and natural inclinations. Ready?
Small Talk Tip #1 – Don’t Talk About What You Love
I know it sounds crazy, but staying away from topics of expertise will keep you from dominating the conversation. Small talk is a give-and-take experience that requires just as much listening as talking.
People enjoy a little mystery, and they appreciate a degree of restraint, so save your obsession with Marvel superheroes or Civil War generals for a later time.
Passion is great, but not if it causes you to talk ad nauseam about an obscure interest that’s only important to you.
Small Talk Tip #2 – Don’t Think of It as “Small”
I’m an introvert who does not like mingling, so this tip hits home for me.
We all have a susceptibility to the “self-fulfilling prophecy.” In other words, if you approach the small talk with the preconceived notion that it will be petty or dull, then it probably will be.
Remind yourself that the small talk has the potential to become something much larger, like a new friendship, job opportunity, or meaningful connection.
Small Talk Tip #3 – Avoid the Temptation of One-Upping
Have you ever told someone about your awesome vacation or your tough conversation with your boss, only for them to reply by sharing a similar story about themselves? Isn’t that the worst?
It’s especially annoying if their stories dwarf your own in their stakes, consequences, or scope. People are self-reflexive, and we tend to process and respond to the experiences of others through our own experiences.
But it’s much more effective to validate the other people’s stories and ask them a follow-up question that shows how much you care about THEIR experience.
Small Talk Tip #4 – Preface Your Questions with Personal Confessions
You don’t want to overshare, but it’s smart to preface your quirky questions with personal confessions that make them less strange and more purposeful.
For example, it’s weird to randomly ask someone what Harry Potter house they belong in. But it’s a lot less weird if you phrase it this way: “I took this funny quiz online to determine my Harry Potter house – I thought I’d be a Gryffindor but I ended up being a Hufflepuff! Have you ever thought about your house before?”
There will be several examples of this tip in my list of questions below!
Small Talk Tip #5 – You Will Need to Improvise
Some articles will recommend coming prepared with a set of questions (including this one!), and others will tell you to avoid politics, religion, or sex at all costs.
I’m not saying that you should enter these situations blind or haphazardly, but having too many rules and formulas is a bad idea. The art of small talk hinges on your ability to improvise and tailor the topics to the people you encounter.
Sure, someone’s job, hometown, or favorite sports team will work for any conversation, but these topics are short-lived and forgettable.
People are far more likely to remember the conversations where you tap into some hidden passion of theirs, whether that’s vintage motorcycles, ice sculptures, or roller derby. Just be ready to listen and ask questions.
Questions that Require Little to No Prefacing:
1.) Working on anything exciting lately?
2.) What’s something you’re looking forward to in the next few months?
3.) Do you have a passion project or hobby that you’re really into at the moment?
4.) What was the highlight or your week?
5.) Did you grow up around here? What are the biggest differences you’ve noticed between the cities/towns?
6.) Do you have any pets? If not, what kind of pet would you want?
7.) What’s the most surprising thing about your job?
8.) What are some good restaurants around here? Any hidden gems?
9.) Where’s the next place you’d like to travel to or visit?
10.) What are some goals you’ve set for the short and long-term?
Questions that Require More Prefacing:
1.) My professor/mentor told me to make a bucket list the other day. What are some things you’d put on your life’s bucket list?
2.) My younger brother/sister just got his/her first part-time job. What’s the best and worst job you’ve ever had?
3.) I honestly can’t stop singing “Old Town Road” these days – do you have any guilty pleasure songs? Or guilty pleasures in general?
4.) One of my goals is to read a book every week, and I need a push – any books that you love that you’d recommend?
5.) I have a long commute these days, and I’m looking for good podcasts to listen to – do you have any go-to podcasts that you’d recommend?
6.) I saw some pictures of myself from my high school yearbook, and I couldn’t believe how different I am now. What were you like in high school?
7.) I’m helping my friend design her course syllabus right now – if you could teach any college class, what would it be?
8.) My niece told me today that she wants to be an astronaut AND a veterinarian – what was your dream job when you were a kid?
9.) It seems like everyone has some kind of “hot take” on the internet these days – what’s an unpopular opinion that you have?
10.) Sometimes I can’t believe that my sister/brother and I are actually related. Which of your family members are the most or least like?
Questions for Your Pre-med Classmates/Peers:
1.) What do you think is the most exciting research lab to join on campus?
2.) What’s one thing you wish our school had more of? Less of?
3.) I’d really love to create a new club or organization – what’s something that you think our community really needs?
4.) Do you like to study alone or in groups? Do you have a regular study partner?
5.) What do you think you’ll be doing in your gap year?
6.) How do you think medicine will change by the time we’re doctors?
7.) Do you have a daily or weekly routine that you stick to? What’s something you always make time for in your schedule?
8.) What do you do when you need to de-stress or decompress?
9.) What’s a cool elective class you want to take before you graduate?
10.) Do you know any professors that I should avoid/take if I can help it?
Questions for Your Mentors/Superiors:
1.) I’m curious about how you chose your job, research topic, or medical specialty – did you always want to do that? How did you decide?
2.) If you could give any piece of advice to a student like me, what would it be?
3.) What’s something you really need help with at the moment?
4.) What’s something you wish you knew before starting medical school, becoming a doctor, or pursuing your research?
5.) What was your college experience like? How have things changed?
6.) What’s something that students or younger people don’t know enough about? What should I be reading or listening to?
7.) Are there any upcoming projects or events that you’re looking forward to?
8.) Is the school/company/lab planning on making any changes in the near future? If not, what changes do you think should be made?
9.) What do you think is an underrated or overrated quality for a student, researcher, or pre-med to have?
10.) How do you think medicine or your field of study will evolve in the future?
I hope these tips and sample questions will ease your small talk anxiety and help you become a memorable, versatile pre-med conversationalist.
Feel free to bookmark this article and return to it before your next social mixer, party, work event, interview, or club meeting.
BUT this list should be viewed as a foundation to build upon, so please don’t hesitate to add new questions and make it YOUR OWN.
Any good questions that I left off the list? Let me know in the comments below!