Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Approach to Medical School Interviewing

I wrote this awhile back for a colleague's daughter, built on my experience and mentorship advice I've received..  I'd love to get feedback.

Approach to Medical School Interviewing
The first thing I would do is pick up a copy of "How to Win Friends and Influence People" by Dale Carnegie. While the title sounds a bit manipulative, the book is actually just a primer/reminder on how to be a good person and communicate effectively. It is a bit old (some of the stories are odd and almost all about men) but excellent stuff.

With regards to med school & interviewing, each institution will have a strange mix of recruitment and screening. Remember, they have plenty of applicants to their program and do not need you specifically. They do not even *need* to fill their class. With that in mind, it is your job to get across why you are special (you would be or they would not have interviewed you) while still remaining fairly conservative in your dress and manner.

Each day is fairly similar (and becomes tedious after enough of them).

7ish: Meet in the morning for mediocre coffee/pastries. If you do not eat these things, that is breakfast so plan ahead. This is the time when other interviewees will begin to psyche you out, intentionally or otherwise. I would spend your time learning about your colleagues and asking questions because:
1. No one actually cares what you have to say, they want your spot
2. People like people that ask them about themselves and you can break tension in the room

7:30ish-10:30ish: The dog and pony show begin. They will gather all of you to a seated position and some number of people, hopefully some medical students along the way, will come out and talk to you about why their program is great. They will hide logistical information in there about living, financial aid, class statistics, etc. They will ask if you will have any questions. You won't. Someone will have like 50. Again, don't be intimidated AND don't be annoyed.

10:30-noon  or 1-3:
2 choices here, flip flopping by institution
1. Interview time. You will have X interviews in Y places and plenty of time to get to them. You will not know your interviewer other than their name in your folder in the morning. (Protip: you can leave the folder in the main room and just take the interviewer paper & map, everything else is not essential and you look cooler without a goofy folder in your hands for the first handshake). This is just a thought, but if you have smartphone access, googling your interviewer may be helpful. Can't say, we didn't have 'em. I will talk about interviews later.

2. Tour time/Student time: The tour is a great way to learn about the institution, not because of the facilities, but because of how many students pass your tour, and how they interact with your group. Tulane's facilities looked like a 1950s high school pre- Katrina. But we could not go anywhere without students coming by, high-fiving the tour guide, joking with us and telling us how great it is. This kind of spirit cannot be faked and will be central to your experience for the next 4 years. Talk to the tour guide, other students, ask to see the lounge/cafeteria/starbucks where students go in between class. Again, you will haunt the same places and you want to know that there is love there.

With regards to interviews:
Stay calm and gauge your interviewer. The more they talk, the better you are doing (How to win friends...). Also, end every answer to their questions with a question that ties in with them/their research/the program so that you can keep them talking. Most interviewers decide in the first 30 seconds (or before) if they like you or not, and if they do, they will recruit you. If they do not, or are awkward themselves (rare in an interviewer but not impossible), they will ask you a bunch of stitled questions with no good answers:

1. Why do you want to be a doctor: Now, if 4 years of great work at college, pre-med, MCAT, applications are not enough to convince them that you want to do this, I am sure that your 4 minute answer to this question will suffice. Everybody wants to work with people/help them and incorporate science in that effort. That's because that's what medicine is. Just because it is common, does not make it a bad answer. Think a little about this one, but hope that you don't get asked this question because it is silly. End with a... "How did you get involved in medicine..." unless they cut you off with:

2. What is your greatest weakness? A terrible question. I was taught to answer this in the following manner. Talk about something that you have been improving, not an actually weakness or worse, a fake weakness like "working too hard." "Throughout four years of college I have really been working on my.....(research presentations). It is such an important skill that I want to really excel at it." Done. DON'T end this one with a question, just move on.

3. Tell me about yourself. You will be attempted to start with name rank and serial number. Try and start mid story. "Growing up in Boston in a medical family I...." "And for the last few years I have been working on..." Etc. Great time to ask them their story.

4. What kind of doctor do you want to be? Unless you know, it is OK to say you don't (you don't anyway). Great time to tell them what you are thinking, but then to launch into how they got into their field. Very useful both practically and for them-talking purposes.

5. Any questions for me? Good luck on this one, never was good at overcoming question-constipation.

Finally:
GET BUSINESS CARDS (or contact info)

12:00-1:00 Lunch. Pray for students. If they keep you from students (that are too busy for lunch!?!?!) consider not going to that institution. Ask students everything, living, going out, groceries, study environments, friends, things they do at school, away from school. This is your chance to get the information you really need.

3:00pm- End of day. Cue the Dean of admissions or appointed representative. This is the time for the final pitch on their end. You still won't have any questions. Thank someone in person, and if you have a specific interest or anywhere along the way you met someone, see about future meetings.

After the day: The topic of thank you notes is always sticky.
1. Thank you notes, handwritten: Classy, formal (get good stationery) and never unappreciated, but not opportunity for ongoing communication for your interviewer. Have something personal/memorable in there from your interview to jog their memory if possible.

2. E-mail: Less classy, less formal, easier, BUT they can e-mail you back, which can be priceless!

What to do? Both.
Buy Thank you notes prior to interview day. On your mode of transportation home, or at home that night, write them and mail them the next day. In 2-3 days time, send an email with:

At this time I hope you received my formal thank you, but just in case I wanted to be sure that I really appreciated you taking the time to interview me.

Now they can email you back and start a mini-mentoring experience which is exactly what you want.

Good Luck!

1 comment:

Joe Wright said...

A couple more:

1. If you've done research, make sure you have a quick story of what you've done, and how it fits within the larger field you're working in. For academic institutions or research-oriented interviewers, part of what they're trying to feel you out about is whether you showed up in a lab and did the work put in front of you because someone told you that you should; or whether you have your own scientific/research momentum and curiosity. Even if you hated your research experience, you want to be able to concisely explain what is basically the "background" part of the paper that would be written if your research had gone as excellently as possible. Also, you want to be able to summarize and explain what you actually did. So, in my case this was:
"My boss is someone who wants to find a Grand Unified Theory of the immune system. She argues that the standard self/not-self idea is wrong, because the way the system really works is... [one minute explanation]. My small project within that big agenda was to look at cells recirculating back to the thymus, to see the extent to which mature T-cells return and survey the thymus itself. We did this by [thirty second explanation of how the experiments were done]. Some immunologists argue that any T-cell in the thymus must be a new T-cell, and that has spawned a lot of other assumptions that may not be true, since we found a regular number of T-cells that are clearly recirculating back to the thymus." This description sounds pretty OK, right? The experiment itself never went anywhere--there was no paper that came out of it--and I was no master of the lab and have never worked in a lab since. But if you can give context to the research, you sound like someone who could one day run a lab... if you wanted to.

2. Questions for the interviewer: Most of my questions were best answered by students, but it is really good to have a question in hand even if you have question constipation like Dr Schutz does. (I agree that you don't want to be the person with 50 questions, but it is good to be the person with one or two.) One that I sometimes asked either in the school introduction/orientation section, or with some interviewers is, "How is the relationship between the med school and the surrounding community?" (If you're promoting yourself as oriented to the community, as someone who cares about primary care, etc, etc, this is an especially useful question to ask.) This sometimes yielded some fascinating answers; the answer is almost always tinged with some degree of embarrassment and feeling of inadequacy by the med school. I learned a lot about the politics of a place with this question.

It's also not unreasonable to ask, "What do you feel like the school is focusing on changing for the next few years?" Every med school has some kind of transformation initiative, often several simultaneously. This points to the current priorities--and what might be different by the time you are a second or third year student.