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Medical School Interview Tips

In my position as Associate Dean for Admissions in the College of Medicine at The Ohio State University, I have screened thousands of applications, presided over admissions committee meetings in which the disposition of, collectively, hundreds of student applicants have been decided, and personally interviewed many applicants to our College. One of the most frustrating experiences in this job is to watch a student with excellent credentials, who I strongly suspect will make an excellent physician, go down in flames in the interview. It is clear that some students have been coached on the interview process and others have not. It is definitely an advantage to put some serious thought and preparation into the interview, since medical schools generally only extend interviews to students who appear to have the right stuff to succeed. Translation: if you get offered an interview, there is a chair in that school’s first-year medical school class with your name on it. Based on your performance in the interview, you will either claim it or give it away. With that in mind, here are some tips that I think will be helpful to you on your upcoming medical school interview.

Good luck!


Dr. Quinn Capers IV, MD
Associate Dean for Admissions

Medical School Interview Tips

Sit up straight (posture counts)

Slumping or letting your shoulders sag may feel comfortable, but it sends the following message: “I’m bored, disinterested and unimpressed.” Obviously not the message you want to send. Think military here: Back straight, chin up! But you don’t want to look stiff; it makes you look tense and uncomfortable. While keeping your back straight, lean forward a bit, toward the interviewer. It makes you look interested.

Make eye contact, but not too intensely.

Poor eye contact gives the appearance of dishonesty or low self esteem. It also may be construed as a lack of interest in what the other person is saying. Again, clearly not the messages you want to send when you are interviewing for acceptance into medical school. Look the interviewer in the eyes when they are speaking, and look them in the eyes when you are speaking. On the other hand, you don’t want to burn a hole in the interviewer with your gaze. Don’t stare; it is acceptable to avert your eyes for a second or two. Blinking is also acceptable.

The best answers are a combination of rehearsed fragments tied together by extemporaneous connectors.

There are certain questions that you can assume will be asked at any medical school interview. You will most likely be asked some version of “Why do you want to be a physician?” or “If you don’t get into medical school, what will you do?” or “What do you consider your main strengths/weaknesses?” I disagree with some interviewers who seem to hold with disdain the answer that sounds canned or rehearsed. Rehearsing is fine; in fact, I recommend it. The trick is, you want to sound conversational, not like you are reading a script. How is that achieved? More rehearsing. When I interviewed for medical school, I practiced my responses to questions that I thought I was likely to be asked. Of course, it is impossible for you to anticipate every question that may be asked, so you will have to do some adlibbing. That’s OK. Be yourself, and enjoy the experience. Oh, and try not to let out a loud “Whew!” or look too excited when you are asked a question that you practiced for. Pause for a second, stroke your chin, and say “Hmmm, it seems to me…”

Look enthusiastic and happy to be there.

Being a physician is the greatest job in the world, and I truly believe that it is the second most noble profession that you can undertake, second only to being a religious leader, clergyman, minister, priest, etc. As stated earlier, if you are invited for an interview, that medical school has decided that you probably have the goods to succeed at their institution. So, be excited! You are on the cusp of something great and your dreams are within reach. Leave your interviewer with the impression that you are happy to be there and grateful for the opportunity. Even if it is your last-choice medical school, approach the interview with gratitude and humility, and imagine yourself walking those very same halls as a medical student. Because, well, you just might.

If the interviewer continues to repeat the same question despite the fact that you have answered it, he or she likes you but did not like your answer, and is giving you the opportunity to modify it.


Interviewer: “So, why do you want to be a physician?”
Candidate: “Because medicine is such a challenging field, and I have always loved challenges.”
Interviewer: “OK. But what really attracted you to a career in medicine?”
Candidate: “I am very curious about how things work, and I really love science!”
Interviewer: “So why not become a research scientist? Why medicine?”
Candidate: “Medicine is dynamic, and more suited to my personality”
Interviewer: “OK, thank you for clarifying that. Now, on to something else. So…why do you want to be a physician?”

In this example, the interviewer does not like the answer and is giving the candidate a chance to give the “correct” answer. If the interviewer did not like the candidate, he or she would have simply noted the answer and moved on. So, if you have the impression that the interviewer keeps repeating the question, unless it is your life’s mantra, I suggest you modify your answer.

Your “Why Do You Want to be a Doctor?” answer should include something about your desire to help your fellow man.

Most medical school admissions committees feel that the most important reason for practicing medicine is to serve mankind. So, while it is OK to mention your love of science and technology, and the fact that you love challenges, and the fact you have never really wanted to do anything else, it is a mortal sin of omission to not state your desire to help your fellow man as the main reason that you want to be a doctor. We regularly reject students with perfect GPAs and near perfect MCAT scores if we are not convinced that they have a serving heart.

It is better to take a brief pause before answering a question to gather your thoughts than to dive right in and “find the answer” in your ramblings.

Some candidates begin answering the question the instant the last word rolls off of the interviewer’s tongue. Some of these same students have not clearly thought out their answers, and ramble while they are getting their thoughts together. Finally, they decide how they feel about it, and answer the question directly after many unrelated sentences. I think this is because candidates feel that an awkward silence is uncomfortable and to be avoided at all cost. But a brief pause before answering a question is perfectly acceptable, and makes you appear thoughtful. It is much better to pause for a second or two and gather your thoughts than to blurt out a stream-of-consciousness response that takes a circuitous route to the answer.

Arrogance is a mortal sin

I like confidence; I think most people do. A candidate who has put in many long hours and has learned that hard work results in success is refreshing. Medical schools want to admit students who believe in themselves and who think they can do the work. However, avoid sounding arrogant, which is how the candidate can sound if they stress their personal successes too much. Example: if you started a new pre-med club at your college, that shows exemplary leadership, and the admissions committee will see that as valuable. When describing it, it would be better to be humble, acknowledging the role that others played (“…my fellow biology majors were very helpful in this endeavor.” ) rather than making it sound like you did it completely by yourself. Another example: If you are complimented on the fact that you got straight As in your honors humanities courses, don’t respond, “Piece of cake!” In particular, medical student interviewers (some medical schools have medical students serve as interviewers and members of the admissions committee) are quick to detect arrogance in a candidate, and tend to be very harsh judges when they perceive this trait. Feel good about yourself; you’ve earned the right to feel confident. Just remember, there is a thin line between a hard-earned swagger and arrogance.

The best answers to “What if You Don’t Get in to Medical School this year?” always include some variation on this theme: “I will find out why I did not, address the shortfall, and then reapply.”

Persistence can be admirable. Many medical school admissions officers look favorably upon the re-applicant who applies himself and specifically addresses his shortcomings. For this reason, when the interviewer asks what you would do if you were rejected, he is trying to ascertain how committed and passionate you are about being a physician. Even though it is wise to have a backup plan, if you answer the “What will you do if you do not get into medical school?” question with “Well, I've always liked kids and teaching. I would probably get my teaching certificate and become a high school science teacher,” you may be perceived as lacking a commitment to pursue a career in medicine. When there are many other candidates who will let nothing stop them from realizing their dream of becoming a doctor, you don’t want to come off as though you will happily move on to plan B if medical school doesn’t work out. Those who truly hear the high calling of medicine will find a way. This means finding out why you were not accepted, correcting this shortcoming, and applying again. This is the kind of passion that admissions officers want to hear.

Ask informed questions about the medical school at which you are interviewing.

Approach your medical school interview the same way you would prepare for an organic chemistry quiz: study for it. Prior to visiting the medical school, you should, at a minimum, be familiar with the segment describing that school in the annual AAMC Medical School Admissions Requirements publication. Additionally, you should do some online research, to find out what is new at the school – perhaps new expansions, new initiatives, etc. Asking informed questions will leave the impression that you are truly interested in attending the school, and therefore likely to come if you are accepted. Admissions officers tend to look more favorably upon students who they think will accept an offer of admission than those who they think will not.

The “ethical question” should always be answered with the following bent: “I will put the patient’s best interests first, and do whatever is best for the patient.”

Though falling out of favor, many interviewers will still ask a question or two meant to evaluate your ethical decision making. Questions in this variety include queries about how you, as a physician, would respond if you encountered a drunk surgeon prior to his performing an operation. Another favorite is the question that asks what you would do if you witnessed a medical school classmate cheating on an examination. The golden rule in medical ethics is to always put the patient’s best interests first. Thus, the “correct” answer to any ethical dilemma posed is the one that places the patient’s welfare above all else.

Advice for Medical School Reapplicants

Being notified that your medical school application was rejected can be a painful blow. Be aware that many current physicians are familiar with that pain, but it is a memory that is overshadowed by the joy of ultimately gaining acceptance to medical school. Before reapplying, ask yourself some tough questions. When you close your eyes and imagine yourself in a long white coat, what aspect of being a physician leaves you feeling good inside? Is it the fulfillment of a deep desire to help your fellow man by curing, treating and preventing illness? Is it the high esteem in which doctors are held, or imagining how proud your family will be? Is it the lucrative pay? Although the years in medical school and residency training can be exhilarating and filled with incredible, life-affirming encounters, these years can also be quite arduous and exhausting. You are making a commitment to years of sacrifice and service; be sure that your motivation will sustain you on this journey.

So, you have asked the tough questions and you are back where you started. You want to be a doctor. Then, by all means, reapply. Some of the best physicians practicing today were rejected the first or even second time they applied to medical school. Your destiny may very well be protecting the health of the world's citizens and fighting disease with a blend of science and compassion. It starts with reapplying. Every year, Ohio State University accepts around two hundred future doctors into medical school. Each year, some of these students are repeat applicants.

There are some definite "dos and don'ts" to keep in mind when reapplying. Below are some tips that I hope you will find useful; they represent my thoughts after reviewing many repeat applicants, some of whom we interview and ultimately accept. I wish you the best of luck, and I look forward to receiving your application here at the Ohio State University College of Medicine.

Find out where you went wrong

It is your responsibility to find out why you were rejected the first time around. Now is not the time to be shy. Call the admissions office and ask to speak to someone who can read the admissions committee notes to you and tell you what your shortcomings were perceived to be. If you are in the same town as one or more of the schools to which you applied, make an appointment to discuss the notes with you face to face.

You may have applied at the wrong time, waited too close to the deadline, presented an application that was light on community service or research or was not competitive in terms of your GPA or MCAT scores. Maybe your essay did not make it clear that you are passionate about becoming a physician, or maybe you did not strike the admissions committee as being well-rounded. Maybe you simply did not impress during your interview. Medical school admissions offices keep all of this information and have a written paper trail indicating why your application was not deemed to be competitive.

It would be a big mistake for you to reapply without having a conversation with those medical schools. Listen well, take notes and don't be defensive; this is a golden opportunity for you to gain insight into ways to strengthen your portfolio.

Act on the results of your fact finding mission

After contacting the schools by which you were rejected, solicit their advice on ways to strengthen your application. Draft a plan with their input, then . . . FOLLOW THAT PLAN. To reapply without following the plan that an admissions officer helped you formulate would not only be foolish, it would be an insult to the school that took the time to counsel you.

An example comes to mind. I recently met with a rejected applicant who wanted to discuss reapplying. We went over his application and the admissions committee deliberations. It was clear that his undergraduate GPA was the problem. He had excellent experiences, including volunteer, community service, leadership and research. His MCAT score was only slightly lower than our school's average. His interview performance had not been stellar, but it was not bad either, and he would have had a significant chance of being offered an acceptance were it not for his low grades. The admissions committee liked him overall but was concerned that he would not be able to handle the medical school curriculum.

I advised him to enter a one-year master's degree program in biomedical science, retake the MCAT and wait to reapply until he had completed the full year of graduate study. Performing at a high level in the courses, with at least a 3.5 GPA, would prove to admissions committees that he had the cognitive ability to master graduate-level biological science work. Studying these graduate science courses would also be excellent preparation for the MCAT, and would likely result in a competitive score. This path would give him a very good chance of getting into medical school. Even though this route was going to delay his medical school matriculation by two years, he was receptive. I wished him good luck and gave him a firm handshake; we had a plan!

I was surprised to see him back in my office not quite 12 months later, this time seeking advice after being rejected by medical school a second time. So what had happened? Sometime after our meeting, he decided that he just couldn't wait that long to reapply. Instead of heeding my counsel, he took an upper level undergraduate organic chemistry course, retook the MCAT, then reapplied to medical school, all in rapid succession. This time, his MCAT score was even lower than his first attempt. He was rejected a second time. I repeated the advice that I had given him earlier. Somewhat red in the cheeks, he stated that he would follow the advice this time. I hope so. Seeking the advice is the first step; following it can be the difference between achieving a goal and continuing to daydream about it.

Allow enough time to positively impact your portfolio before you reapply

One "Golden Rule" of reapplying is to time it right. The reason you were not offered an acceptance is because the medical schools perceived shortcomings in your application. Most shortcomings are remediable, and given proper emphasis, your weaknesses can become strengths. You want it to be obvious to anyone reading your file that you made a turnaround. To maximize the chances of giving off this perception, you must allow enough time before reapplying. This will undoubtedly be the hardest part of the process, but be patient; if you rush it, you may join the ranks of those who are applying for a third time. The strategy mentioned above, where the unsuccessful candidate enrolls in a Master of Science degree program in order to improve his academic record (which, by the way is also excellent MCAT prep), only works if you complete the full course of study, so that the grades of your graduate program show up on your AMCAS application.

If your plan is to improve your chances by engaging in a meaningful research project and you obtain a full time research assistant position the summer after your unsuccessful attempt, wait at least one year before reapplying. One year of full time, meaningful research is very powerful, and you may have the opportunity to present your research at a meeting, or, more impressively, co-author a scientific publication. Even if you do not publish or present at a national meeting, performing research for one solid year will give you plenty to discuss during your interview. If you reapply immediately the next cycle, when (if) you get an interview, you will still be too new in the research lab to have developed a sound knowledge of what you are doing.

Another example. Let's say you were on a medical school waiting list until a week before classes start in August, before you were finally rejected. You decide, with the school's input, that a higher MCAT score will make you competitive. Some candidates in this position retake the MCAT the very next time it is offered so that they can immediately reapply the very next cycle. With this rushed approach, it would be unlikely that the MCAT score would improve much. It would be wiser to forget about the very next cycle and plan to take the MCAT in January or the next spring after months of preparation, possibly including a formal MCAT prep course and/or a course or two in advanced biology that will hone your skills at problem solving and reading comprehension of scientific passages. Then apply the following summer, which would be for an entering class two years after your rejection. I do understand the feeling to "get on with it, already"; but, as I often say to students preparing to reapply, when you are retiring after a distinguished 30- or 40-year career as a physician, an extra year or two on the front end will feel like the batting of an eyelid. The bottom line is that all of your hard work will be for naught if your "improvements" are not readily visible on your application. So, take my advice and be patient.

Change your essay

One of my personal pet peeves is when a reapplicant submits the exact same AMCAS personal statement, word for word. You don't want to be a "boomerang applicant" — someone who responds to a rejection by simply sending out the same application the very next cycle — the same experiences, the same personal statement, the same grades, the same MCAT. This is disrespectful to the medical school to which you are applying, and gives the impression that you do not care about the process. It is also a missed opportunity to show what you have learned. Even if you do not apply to the same medical school, the admissions committee will likely know that you were unsuccessful the last time around.

You have an excellent opportunity to take the negative and turn it into a positive. Since being rejected from medical school, what did you learn about your perceived shortcomings? What have you done to improve upon them? In the interval between your medical school rejection and your reapplication, what did you learn about yourself? Maybe you learned that you are an "overcomer," a person with resilience and persistence, someone who simply will not give up on his/her dreams. All of this is GOLDEN material for your essay -- use it. Many applicants in this position never mention that they were rejected the first time around. I understand this; it is not a pleasant memory, and it is easy to ignore, or at least not dwell upon.

Some mistakenly think that the medical school reviewers are unaware of this fact, and that if you don't mention it, they will never know. Most of the time they will know. In fact, if you are reapplying to the same school, they will likely review your old application and your new application side by side to see what you have improved upon. Step up to the plate, bare your feelings about being rejected, and paint a picture of how you methodically went about improving your portfolio. The addmissions committee will likely be positively impressed.

Use the interview to show how you have improved as an applicant

Should you receive an interview, you can be sure that you will be asked about your medical school rejection. If you have followed the advice in numbers 1 and 2 above, this is the time to talk about it. It is uplifting to hear a reapplicant describe how he/she methodically went about preparing to reapply. When you describe how you contacted the school(s) that rejected your application to find out where you went wrong, you sound mature, like someone who is on a mission and who will not let one bump along the way stop them. Talk about how you drafted a new plan and put it into action.

Compare and contrast the following two exchanges I had in the last year with two medical school reapplicants.

Case No.1

Me: "So why do you think you were unsuccessful when you applied to medical school two years ago?"

Reapplicant #1: "I called the admissions office at the University of _____________ and made an appointment to speak with Dr. ____________. I was told that I applied relatively late in the cycle, and that the biggest weakness in my application was a lack of community service and a borderline low MCAT. Since then, I have been working with Habitat for Humanity for a full year in addition to volunteering at the Free Clinic two evenings a month, and I have learned a lot about myself and about the true meaning of service. Also, I retook the MCAT after taking a prep course, and as you can see, this time I scored in the 80th percentile. Oh, and this year, I submitted my application on the first date that applications could be submitted!"

Powerful stuff. Who wouldn't want to give this applicant a second chance?

Case No. 2

Me: "So why do you think you were unsuccessful when you applied to medical school two years ago?"

Reapplicant #2: "I don't know (. . . silence . . . crickets chirping . . . he looks at me . . . I look at him . . . crickets chirping . . . more silence . . . more crickets . . . )."

Me: "No? Oh. Uhh, okay, then. Next subject . . ."

Not good.

Get the picture? Your chief goal in this round of medical school interviews should be to inform the interviewer that you are passionate about becoming a physician, that you were methodical about finding out why you did not get accepted before, and that you are both persistent and resilient. At our admissions committee meetings, when a reapplicant is presented for discussion, you would be surprised how many committee members are rooting for the candidate, including the author of this essay. You can almost hear the cheering squad inside the heads of the committee members as they sit up in their seats, waiting to hear a great underdog story. This positive energy in the room is immediately deflated if the candidate sounds like a student who made no effort to find out why he or she was rejected, or spent no time reflecting before blindly reapplying.

I hope these tips and examples will help you prepare yourself to reapply to medical school. I'm sure you will find that the extra time you spend in building your portfolio of experience and learning is well worth the effort in achieving your goal of entering one of the most rewarding careers in the world – that of a physician.

Thank you and good luck.

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