Friday, July 24, 2009

How To Ace Your Medical School Interview: Smart Practice Pays Off!

Receiving the much coveted interview invitation is a little victory. You got your foot in the door with the school. Now it’s up to you to ace your interview.

Early applicants (AMCAS submitted in early June, secondaries completed by early August) typically receive interview invitations starting in late August-early September. I received all interview invitations by email.

Scheduling an Interview
Most of my interview invitations arrived in September. I scheduled my interviews for October, figuring it will give me a month to prepare. I knew that my interview performance would play an important role in the admissions decisions, since my grades and MCAT scores were average (I did have a killer essay).

I was so excited to receive an invitation from Yale, that I made a huge mistake of scheduling it for September 15th. This left me with less than two weeks to get ready. I would recommend against doing this! A number of things went awry on my interview day and I was not well-prepared to deal with them. But I will get to that later.

Try to schedule your interview on a Monday or Friday. If time and money permits you to stay an extra day (before your scheduled interview) – definitely do that. Walk around the medical school complex (it’s usually pretty enormous), figure out where the admissions office is located. Most schools are pretty bad with giving you directions to their admissions office. Once you’re there you will receive the most detailed beautiful maps and friendly explanations from the office staff. But you’re on your own getting there… Walking around is also useful for gathering strategic information. Make notes about the cool things you find. Walk through buildings and note names of authors on posters that appeal to you. Note loyalties to local sports teams.

A great thing to do is to email one or two current students in advance and ask them for a tour. You will gather a lot of otherwise inaccessible intelligence this way. The admissions office will send you a list of contacts if you wish to stay with a student. You can use this list to find a student willing to show you around. Take your student guide out to lunch and be very nice and appreciative!!! You are doing all of this so you can have some unique, interesting things to say about the school. Interviewers always ask you “What can I tell you about our school?” Ask them about something you learned while walking around (even if you already know the answer). You won’t be taken aback by an unexpected question like that.

Practicing Questions For Your Interview
I discussed this item in detail already: see this post

Dressing For Interview
You have to get a business suit. If you’re interviewing in December/January you will also need a long dark professional-looking jacket. Don’t wear open-toe shoes, don’t wear jewelry, and don’t smell like anything. Don’t do make-up and don’t paint your fingernails. I actually thought that men looked very professional everywhere I interviewed. Sadly, I cannot say the same about women.

Free your hands. Don’t have Gucci bags with flashy buckles. I really liked that most men showed up with a dark leather folder. I lugged around a bulkier version of that, which was silly and useless. All you really need for your interview is something so squeeze in your hands and something to hold personal cards with. That is, a pocket in your pants would suffice. Have a pen, too.

In most places you will have to do a fair amount of walking, most of it indoors. Some schools will take you on a tour around campus. Make sure you don’t wear stilettos – you’ll be clacking indoors and falling over outdoors. Pants are way more comfortable than skirts (in my opinion) for this reason.

If you’re interviewing in North Carolina in October, you are likely to encounter 90-degree weather. Your suit will kill you. I have no suggestions to improve this state of affairs, but do bring an extra shirt and go for a dark suit.

Do not change back into your normal clothes until you leave the school!!!

Your Interview Day
(This applies to most schools, but NOT HARVARD!) You will show up at the admissions office and greet the people who work there. The staff are so friendly and nice -- it makes you feel much more relaxed. Most good schools study your file in great detail. You will be surprised by how much they remember about you! At Yale, I was casually greeted “Hi, how is Schering-Plough stock doing?” – I work for SP. Be prepared for that!

You get your name tag and proceed into some conference room where you will meet with the dean and (at some point) a financial aid representative. There is typically a one-hour introduction by the dean, and an overview of events for the day. You also get your interview day packet.

Open the packet immediately and look at your interview times. Most schools conduct two interviews. Boston University, notably, has only one. Of the two interviewers one could be a student, or both could be done by faculty. If both of your interviewers are faculty members, you just landed a jackpot. I’ll say more about interviewing with a student later. I got lucky like that only twice: at Harvard and at Yale. You will never have two student interviewers.

Your first interview tends to be in the morning. Once that’s done there is usually lunch, a student tour, more information sessions, and then another interview.

Some common things that can go wrong:
  • Your interviewer does not show up (make sure your cell phone is charged and you know the admissions office telephone number)
SOLUTION: Call the office, you will get a replacement interview. Insist that you do get one!
  • Your interviewer is on the other side of town and you get lost getting there
SOLUTION: Spend money and get a cab immediately. Call the admissions office.
  • Your first interview is running late, and you realize you won’t be able to make it to your second one on time. But your interviewer is talking and talking…
SOLUTION: Before you begin your interview politely (and with a smile) mention “they” scheduled your interviews very close together

I should mention that at Harvard, interview day does not proceed according to this neat plan. The school does nothing to convince you of its grandeur. I wrote in some detail about my interview day at Harvard here:

There is no reason to feel competitive during your interview day. That is not the nature of the interview. There is a very real chance you might be meeting some of your classmates on this important day. Cutting each other off and running in front of each other in lines does not help you get in. Be nice – it’s the smartest play by a long shot!

I suggest that during the one month before your interview you obtain a video camera and tape yourself answering questions. You will discover (hopefully) a lot of embarrassing and funny things about yourself and will promptly correct them. When you tape yourself dress up just as you would for the interview. Suits are so uncomfortable to sit in! Practice every single day until you reach a comfort zone answering questions like “Why should we accept you?”

Read, read, read. The more you read, the smarter you will become. The smarter you feel, the more comfortable you are at your interview. Nothing makes you perform worse than being nervous. It’s alright to be a little nervous – keeps you vigilant. Make sure that you have followed the news for at least one week before your interview. I suggest some good reads in one of my previous posts:

When you meet your interviewer, shake their hand and introduce yourself. Smile and be friendly. Remember your trip around the school and maybe mention something funny about it. In general your interviewer will be incredibly friendly.

Interviewing with a student is tricky. To succeed with a student interviewer, follow these general guidelines:

1. ACT VERY PROFESSIONAL - err on the side of seeming boring. We naturally relax around our young peers. An interview setting is not appropriate for that.

2. TALK ABOUT WORK AND RESEARCH - ask them about their work and their research. Prepare some questions in advance. For example, "Did you consider doing a combined degree program?" or "What do you think about the five-year medical scientist training program? Do you know anybody who is doing it?" Have at least five of those questions ready.

3. BE SOMEWHAT COOL - students will ask you what you do in your spare time. I suppose they could be evaluating how you would fit into their community. You want to sound interesting, but don't say "I party all the time until I'm blue in face". Don't say anything you would not say to your mother-in-law. Interesting activities could be collecting pho recipes, traveling to see ancient images of Caduceus, or enjoying political posters. Something edgier than gardening…

When you interview with a faculty member, look around their office. Do you see books that you’ve read? What journals do they have on their desk? Use anything you can as a conversation starter. Say you read that article last week and what do they think about this and this point in it? Take charge. Don’t wait for them to ask you questions. If you’re lucky and they have a cultural item in their office that you recognize then ask about it (if it can lead to an interesting discussion). Pay attention to what your interviewer says about themselves! It adds a wonderful personal touch to your thank you notes if you say something specific to indicate you cared about your conversation. “Good luck with your residency at such-and-such hospital” or “Congratulations on your recent submission to such-and-such journal”.

At the end of your interview ask for their card. It’s actually quite useful to have their email in case you have to update your application. If you’re interviewing at a non-rolling school you will have plenty of time before any decision is made. Lots of things could change. A contact on the admissions committee is very useful.

Interviews are stressful, but they are so much fun! I have the fondest memories of my interview season. I’m very grateful to have visited so many wonderful medical schools.

In my interview preparation I used some techniques mentioned in this article for managing stress and remembering material: "Who Wants To Be A Cognitive Scientist Millionaire". If you're curious to know more about the research Ogi does go here:


  1. Hi Med Girl,

    I am going to give my mcat in a few months pls give me some tips



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  2. Filter out distractions as best as you can. I studied about 3 months in advance. I lived in the library committing the concepts to memory while taking both practice passages and full length practice tests. I used Berkeley Review for Physics. I got TPR Hyperlearning books from a friend who had taken the class the year before. Those books are awesome for every subject but VR. Verbal should involve daily practice of at least one passage, with a full length VR section about once a week if you're disciplined. I used ExamKrackers 101 passages in VR. Took Berkeley Review and AAMC full lengths. Stay confident - it's normal to doubt yourself (especially for this test) but confidence will help you enormously - especially on test day.

    Best of luck,


  3. Hi there,
    I'm the editor of a guide to help minority college students get into med school and would love to talk with you about adapting this article for our magazine. Could you get in touch with me?


  4. Hi

    I read this post 2 times. It is very useful.

    Pls try to keep posting.

    Let me show other source that may be good for community.

    Source: Medical interview questions

    Best regards

  5. Any reason in particular why we can't change out of our suit when we're done with interviews, especially if we have to catch a train for a long ride directly after leaving the school? I only have two suits, and I don't want to travel in them/have to get them dry cleaned before the end of interview season.

  6. Hey,

    Your posts have been a great resource. I was wondering how long the faculty interview generally lasts for?

  7. Good evening,
    I live in the UK and would like to continue my further education at Harvard University. Please, do you know if I need to sit any entrance exams to get in? In the UK, we have the BMAT and would like to find out if this is sufficient for applying to Harvard or whether I have to prepare for a different examination as far as Harvard is concerned.
    Thank you very much.
    God Bless you,

  8. Hi Harvard Med Girl,

    Are you originally from the UK? This kinds of advice is invaluable to students. I'll subscribe to the RSS, hope you update this blog in future.

  9. Hi Harvard Med Girl,

    I was recently invited to interview at Harvard Med and stumbled across your blog. The insight and tips are extremely helpful - thanks for creating this page! :)

  10. Acing your med school interview questions is the best way to make sure you get in.


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