By Michelle Finkel, MD
The following piece was written by Dr. Michelle Finkel. Michelle has been featured in our Admissions Expert series and is a former Harvard Medical School faculty member. She is the founder of Insider Medical Admissions.
With your medical school personal statement writing finally behind you, it’s time to start thinking about the much-dreaded medical school admissions interview. Please take a look at my last Varsity Tutors blog entry on medical interviews for pointers on how to let your story show your glory and the rationale for why you should learn to fake it until you make it.
In this entry and those that follow, I’m going to focus on the intricacies of the medical interview, so you have a leg up when you are seated across from Dr. Decision, the brilliant if nutty professor whose approval may well shape your professional future.
You Can Run. You Can Hide. But You Can’t Escape…
Not every applicant has a 3.99 grade point average or a 40 on her MCAT. In fact, one of the benefits of my years in medical school admissions consulting has been the opportunity to help some candidates get into medical school by both acknowledging deficiencies and providing persuasive evidence that they have successfully overcome these obstacles.
I still remember one bright advisee who had improved her grades considerably throughout her college career, but had, unfortunately, a less than stellar freshman transcript. After calculating her AMCAS GPA with me, she exclaimed, “I feel like my grades are a criminal record!” She was right; she couldn’t erase the grades. But she could address her GPA weakness in her interviews.
Being upfront about a major deficiency and demonstrating – with evidence from the remainder of your candidacy – that the weakness is not representative of your abilities is good strategy.
Although medical school application deficiencies are, of course, not real scandals, allow me an analogy: An otherwise respected politician conducts some business that may be viewed as skirting a regulation. She has two options: First, she can deny, await a media frenzy, and then (after the media has crafted their own interpretation of her behavior) do damage control. Alternately, she can acknowledge the episode, remind the public of her otherwise scrupulous record in office, and diffuse a crisis. Interestingly, the latter not only averts a disaster, but by addressing the problem head-on, she looks more responsible. The same principle is true with deficiencies in your medical school candidacy.
When describing a weakness during an interview, you should execute a three-pronged approach. First, make a true, strong, and convincing statement about your candidacy’s worth. You can start by noting that the deficiency in your candidacy does not represent your academic abilities nor your professional potential.
Next, you can briefly explain the circumstances that led to the problem. This part is tricky. Saying that your MCAT score does not correlate with the remainder of your strong candidacy because you aren’t a good test-taker will not fly with many interviewers. (After all, you’ll be taking countless tests in medical school.) If this is your excuse, it’s probably better to skip this step and move onto the next one. (See below.) However, if you have a justifiable reason for your deficiency (concomitant family illness, a job you took to support yourself that limited your study time, etc.), explaining that background will be helpful.
Finally, you need to give examples of the strengths of your candidacy to convince the interviewer that your deficiency is not an ill omen of your future medical school performance. Your MCAT score may be below the school’s average, but perhaps you can note that your GPA is above. Your freshman year may have been a bad time for you, but you can point out that you earned a 4.0 your sophomore and junior years. You may have been disorganized in college, but as a post-baccalaureate student, you were at the top of your class. As I detailed in my previous entry, your primary role throughout the interview process is to convince medical schools that you deserve a slot at their institutions. The best way to persuade is with facts, so giving evidence of your accomplishments will help convince the faculty member that your deficiency is an anomaly.
Consider rehearsing your sales pitch (and make no mistake about it, you are selling yourself) with a skeptical friend or an experienced mentor who is willing to play devil's advocate. Actively solicit feedback on which aspects of your pitch sound defensive or come across as flimsy excuses, and spend ample time reflecting on how the same information might be conveyed in ways that present you as a mature individual who has achieved redemption enough to warrant a slot in med school.
If you can persuade your interviewer with the above strategic steps, then when your candidacy is discussed in medical school admissions committee meetings, Dr. Decision will advocate for you, citing the examples you have given to demonstrate the strength of your application to her colleagues. Note, too, that by demonstrating a willingness to confront and discuss mistakes you have learned from, you may be perceived as having greater integrity than other candidates who remain evasive or fail to own up to their shortcomings.
Next entry, I’ll discuss additional subtleties of the medical school interview process and how to navigate them strategically.
The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Varsity Tutors.