11 ways to ace medical school interview questions
A medical school interview is a very anxious time for every candidate. The process of selection for medical school can be a rigorous and challenging experience. Depending on the academic institution, the interview can take a variety of formats. The types of questions asked to candidates can also vary greatly, and it is important to familiarize yourself with the selection policy at the university you are applying for.
The topics on which they may pose you questions may range from your work experience, to your academic record, to your desire to do medicine, your extracurricular work, your admission essay/personal statement or general questions about yourself. In the following text, we discuss ways that you can improve your odds of success, and frame your approach to each question.
- 1. Presentation and communication
- 2. Standard questions
- 3. Personal statement/essay questions
- 4. Ethical questions
- 5. Work experience questions
- 6. Research questions
- 7. Breaking bad news
- 8. Questions about the health service
- 9. Deductive reasoning/memory questions
- 10. Teamwork questions
- 11. Questions about the university
1. Presentation and communication
There are 5 essential components that you must have in place for any interview. Make sure that you have all these in place well in advance of your interview date:
Dress smart. Do not wear jeans, or casual clothing. Wear a suit and tie: this will give the impression that you are serious about gaining admission, and are not taking the process lightly.
Stay calm- An important point of advice I can give you is to stay calm. Nerves are the main reason people underperform at interview. If you cannot control your nerves, you may regret it later. Learn to relax yourself, through breathing, calm and patient thoughts, and remembering that this is not a situation of life and death! You are likely a very intelligent person if you have been invited to interview. You can always reapply after a gap year, or even after your first degree. The more pressure you put on yourself, the more likely you will crumble on the day.
Speak Clearly- Some applicants mumble, have deep voices, or speak quietly. This advice point goes out to you specifically! DO NOT FALL INTO THIS CATEGORY. If the interviewers cannot understand you, they will not offer you a place. If you speak too quickly, you will look nervous and worried (not characteristics they want in applicants). Project your voice! Ensure that everyone in the room can hear you clearly. Pronounce your words clearly and with confidence (practice talking to the mirror, and perform as many mock interviews as you can with family or friends). DO NOT USE SLANG. Words like ‘gonna,’ ‘should’a,’ and ‘wanna’ should be replaced with ‘going to,’ ‘should have,’ and ‘want to.’ Use of slang gives the impression that you are not taking it seriously.
Remember to smile- Always smile when you walk in, and when you are not talking (unless the topic being discussed is somber or serious). Smiling in an interview is a sign that you are in control, and are confident in yourself. You may feel confident and calm, but if you do not smile and make your calmness known to the interviewers, they may find you serious, somber and not an all rounder.
Open body language- Sit up straight in the chair. Do not slouch, cross your arms or lean forwards too much. Do not tap your hands or feet nervously, or clench your fists in worry. Keep an open body language, and if you feel able, move your hands while you speak, to accentuate your words.
2. Standard questions
These are questions that are likely to be asked at all interviews. Universities will expect you to be well prepared for them, as they go to the heart of any candidate, and assess their suitability to study medicine. Read each question, and answer the question yourself, before you practice with someone else, and well in advance of your interview.
- Why do you want to do medicine?
The answer to this question is a highly personal one. Almost all candidates will have some combination of a) to help others b) I enjoy science c) It is a varied and exciting career. In order to stand out from the rest, it is important that you personalize your answer. Following the generic areas I have detailed above will provide a reasonable answer, but not an outstanding one. More personal answers to this question include:
a) I was ill as a child and was amazed by the way the doctors treated me
b) I have been in a caring role before i.e. caring for a relative, or close family member
c) I was inspired by something I experienced.
Do not make up or invent reasons, as the interviewers will see straight through you.
- Why medicine and not nursing, or biochemistry?
You must think through your answer to this question, as it is a tricky one to answer. It is essential that you do not denigrate nursing or other healthcare related professions, as some on the interview panel may be of those professions! Complement the other professions in healthcare, and emphasize that medicine is a team activity. Focus on the positives of medicine rather than the negatives of other careers. You could say
a) I have a passion for science
b) I want to work in a team, and lead the process of healthcare
c) I want to work in a rapidly developing profession.
- Give me a time when you have shown leadership.
Everyone who applies to medical school should be able to recall a time when they have shown leadership. This is very commonly in the realm of sports, or clubs at school. If not at school, then outside school e.g. charity work, extracurricular activities. When you answer the question, focus on what characteristics and skills you employed in that situation. For example, 'I was the captain of the football team in my final year at school. I lead the team and inspired my fellow players through a 15-match season. I supported and encouraged others to reach their potential and insured that all players felt included and valued.'
- Give me a time when you have shown teamwork.
The answer to this question is similar to above. You have to think, and recall a time when you have employed teamwork skills. Sports teams are an excellent way to show teamwork, as well as school clubs e.g. debating club, charity committees, prefect roles, etc. Emphasize the importance of communication, of listening and responding. Describe a time when you helped a teammate or supported someone. Think outside the box, and remember a specific experience, rather than a generic one i.e. 'We were losing 1-0 at halftime during a football match, and we rallied during halftime, and won the match 2-1.' This answer is better than: I played in the football team.
- Give me a time when you have had to solve a problem?
This answer requires some thought. Problem solving is a skill, and you may need to reframe the question to reflect your skills. It is important to set the scene in a few brief sentences, in order for your interviewers to understand the situation you were in. An example of an answer would be: 'At my part-time job, a customer was being difficult, and we had to explain that we were doing all we could, and de-escalate the situation.'
- Describe a time when you have had to overcome a difficulty or challenge?
Everyone faces challenges, either at school or at home. An example of an answer would be: A younger student was being bullied, and I had to step in and prevent it escalating. Another example is: I remember a student in my class was struggling. I took the time to help him with his homework and work as his tutor. His grades picked up after we began working together.
- Describe a weakness of yours.
This question is a potential trap, as you may end up talking about what you are bad at instead of what you are good at (the purpose of the interview). When you discuss your ‘weakness’ you need to immediately flip it to become strength. An example would be: 'I often take on too much, as I am enthusiastic and hardworking. Inside and outside school, I have understood that delegating helps with the end result, and am working on developing these skills further.'
- Describe a strength of yours.
This question may seem easier to answer than the above question, but it can also be a trap. You must not brag, or seem over-confident. But you must seem confident and at ease. An example of a question would be: 'I am a great communicator, and really enjoyed being a member of the debating team at school. We went on to win the national championships, etc.'
3. Personal statement/essay questions
Many medical schools will ask you to submit a personal essay, or statement. The content of this essay would be about yourself, why you are suited to medicine, what work experience you have done etc. You should know every detail of your personal statement, and be able to talk in detail about any area that you are asked about. The key skill with answering your questions is learning to highlight your strengths. All the experiences mentioned in your statement should also be in the forefront of your mind. This includes the patients you have met as well as the things you have learnt on your work experience.
If you are asked about a specific element of your statement; e.g, when you shadowed a gastroenterologist at your local hospital, you should be able to recall and reflect on the experience. What you learnt from the days you were there, as well as demonstrate that you had a clear interest in what was going on around you, and engaged well with the staff and patients. These questions can seem very personal, as they address the things you have stated in your personal statement. Always keep calm, smile and answer with confidence and composure.
4. Ethical questions
Almost all medical schools have an ethical question in the interview process. The key principles to remember are that:
- The actual answer to the scenario is not the main thing the interviewers want from you. Ethical decisions are difficult to negotiate even for senior doctors. What they are looking for is your thought process. They are looking for your values and your abilities to reason through the scenarios. You should always state that you would never discriminate between patients, and that every patient has the right to the best healthcare. Always state that you would consult your supervisors and senior colleagues.
- Do not begin your answer to the scenario with an immediate answer. The decision or judgment you make should come at the end of the answer.
- Don’t fall into the trap or taking the obvious answer (See question one below). One of the choices is made to seem very obvious, and you may be tempted to select that as your answer immediately. You cannot do this. You must reason through the question, state you would treat all fairly, and that the decision would be made without prejudice or discrimination.
Here are some examples of ethical questions or scenarios:
A liver has become available for transplant. Three patients all need a liver transplant urgently. They have all been on the waiting list for 3 months, and all will likely die if they do not receive this liver. The first patient is a 40-year-old mother of 2, who has been an occasional drinker throughout her life, and is suffering from liver cancer. The second is a 60-year-old man, who suffers from chronic alcoholism. The third is a 2-year-old child, who has a congenital disease. Who would you give the liver to and why?
You may be tempted to say the child (as they may live the longest following the transplant, but not necessarily). You may be tempted to state the woman (as she has two children). You may immediately disregard the alcoholic, but you should not do this. You should explain that you might decide the liver should not go to him if he continues drinking. Always state that you MIGHT decide that, not that you WOULD decide that. Certainty in these matters can be a delicate thing, and a doctor who does not listen to colleagues and others can be dangerous.
A patient has been diagnosed with AIDS. He says he will continue having unprotected sex, and will not be informing his partners. What would you do?
The essence of this station comes down to confidentiality. The ethics of this situation are complex. If you keep confidentiality, and allow him to continue infecting his partners, many more may contract the disease. If you do break confidentiality, this will break patient doctor trust. There recently was a case, where this situation occurred, and the patient successfully won his case against the hospital in front of the European court of Human rights. Again, do not deal in certainties. There are merits of breaking confidentiality (protect the community at large), as well as keeping confidentiality (protect patient doctor trust). State that you would discuss with seniors and come to a decision after trying first to convince the patient to inform his partners himself.
5. Work experience questions
Work experience is your way of showing that you are serious about medicine. It may be stated in your personal essay, and should be a few distilled sentences describing your experiences with patients and doctors. Do not ramble on about what you have done without a focus. Your answer should follow this schema: 'I did work experience at x hospital/clinic for y number of days/weeks. There I saw z, which taught me x, etc.'
Listing what you have done is not an effective way of impressing your interviewers. If you have the time then you can, but use what time you have wisely, and bring the experiences you had on placement to the fore.
- What work experience have you undertaken?
List your work experience on a sheet of paper. Rank it in terms of importance, or write what you learnt from each experience. It does not have to be related to medicine, it could be a caring role (nursing assistant), a role in another healthcare setting (community clinic or hospice). Your part time work may also be mentioned here if it relates to communication, teamwork or leadership skills (especially if relates to medicine).
- What have you learnt from your work experience?
When you have your list of work experiences in place, you should reflect back on what you have achieved and learnt from them all. If you have not achieved or learnt anything from some of them, then do not mention them, or mention them very little. Speak about your exposure to the multidisciplinary team, the teamwork involved in medicine, the leadership shown by members of the team, interesting things you saw, etc.
6. Research questions
These questions are your opportunity to show what you have been reading, and what areas of medicine interest you. This could be a disease, a drug, something in the news, or a new surgical procedure you know of.
- Talk to me about an area of research you have read recently?
This your opportunity to show that you keep up to date with medicine. You should be confident in discussing a recent treatment, a disease, or a new development you have read about. The more information you know the more impressed your interviewers will be. However, do not attempt to fluff the answer by making things up. The interviewers will see through you and will not rate you highly if you come across as unprepared or careless.
- What research excites you about medicine?
This is your opportunity to SHOW ENTHUSIASM. Make sure the area you select is an area you really are interested in. If it is a chore for you to learn about it, this will come across to the interviewers.
- What area of medicine are you interested in?
You do not have to feign an interest in an area of medicine. But you should have enthusiasm for the subject. If you have enthusiasm for cardiology, or for surgery, you should show this to the interviewers. Explain the reasons for this interest e.g. 'I am amazed at the ways we have to treat diseases of the heart. I think the heart is an amazing organ and its role in the human body is pivotal, etc.'
7. Breaking bad news
There may be an actor in this station, and there will be a scenario. This may be that the actor is your neighbor and you have run over their cat, or that you have failed to deliver their wedding cake on time. The key is to relax, and apologize. Accept responsibility, but offer some kind of alternative; e.g., 'I would like to arrange a wedding cake to be made in the next few days.' Do not shirk responsibility, or appear like you don’t care. You should show you are apologetic, are trying your best to correct the situation.
8. Questions about the health service
There will almost certainly be questions about the health service of the country in which the medical school you are interviewing for is. Read a little bit about the structure of the health service, the organisation of it elements, as well as the problems that it faces.
- How would you improve the health service?
Be careful to denigrate the health service of the country too much (doctors and nurses may be interviewing you!). Things you could talk about here are: efficiency savings, cut wastage in the health service (reduce missed appointments by sending reminders to patients), improve standards where possible, reduce hospital acquired infection rates (careful antibiotic prescribing and more and frequent cleaning). There are many other areas so get reading!
- Why is the health service failing?
Most often, this is a result of demand and supply. The world population is ageing, growing fatter, and living longer. Each of these factors places a higher burden on the heath service each year.
9. Deductive reasoning/memory questions
You may be shown a picture and asked to remember as much as you can. Focus on as many areas of the picture and remember specific things e.g. number of cars, number of birds etc.
You have been given £20 by your employer to travel to another city with your disabled colleague. Which option would you choose and why?
- You arrive 20 minutes late but within your budget.
- You arrive 10 minutes late with your colleague but £10 over budget.
- You arrive on time and on budget but without your colleague.
The answer you give here should not discriminate against your colleague, so rule out the third answer right away. You can weigh up answer 1 and 2, and come to a conclusion after explaining your thought process (there is not usually one right answer. They want to see how you think, in terms of problem solving, and that you think fairly).
10. Teamwork questions
Teamwork is essential for medicine. You must speak about examples of this to your interviewers. You can speak about playing for sports teams, working on committees, clubs and societies. You should be able to think of numerous examples, not just one.
- Describe when you have used teamwork?
An answer could be: 'I played for my school cricket team for three years, and captained the team in my final year. We played 15 matches and won 9, working well together and enjoying the sport.' Think of examples of specific things, e.g., 'a fellow team member was injured and had to leave the field, a substitute player came on and was very nervous. We supported him in his role, and we succeeded in the game, etc.'
- Why is teamwork essential for medicine?
Speak about the holistic nature of healthcare. It’s not just about giving a drug, or doing a surgery. Patients are human beings. They have families and homes, fears and worries. They need to be treated HOLISTICALLY. This requires multiple members, and multiple viewpoints. No one person should be infallible. Things such as basic self care, cleanliness, mobility, wound care, etc. all requires help from other professions (nurses, physiotherapists and occupational therapists, etc).
11. Questions about the university
Why do you want to study here, and not elsewhere?
Research the institution carefully. What is its curriculum? Is there early patient contact? How is teaching delivered (problem based learning or lecture based)? Is the university known for something in particular? The university may do cadaveric dissection, something they will be very proud of and something you SHOULD mention. To some extent you need to compliment and admire the institution, and you have to show that you want to get in.
We wish you the best of luck with your interview. Stay calm, relax and speak clearly, confidently and fluently. You have been invited for an interview, so you are good enough to get in!
A medical school interview is a very anxious time for every candidate. The process of selection for medical school can be a rigorous and challenging experience and the types of questions asked to candidates can vary greatly. However, there is a standard that almost every interview/selection process contains. Here's what to expect:
- The importance placed on presentation and communication
- Standard interview questions
- Requirement for a personal statement
- Ethical questions and scenarios
- Questions about work experience
- Information about any research that you have undertaken
- Breaking bad news
- Questions about the health service
- Deductive reasoning
- Teamwork situations and examples
- Questions about the university that you are applying to
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