Typical Interview Questions and How to Respond

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The behavioral interview is often the most befuddling part of any application process. Unlike your technical skills – which can be assessed through tests, research, and other accomplishments – your ability to work with others, adapt to new environments, and deal healthily with stressful situations is much harder to evaluate. Nevertheless, it’s obvious why these aptitudes are absolutely critical, perhaps even more so than book knowledge, in a collaborative and intense field like medicine. Interviewers will seek to learn about genuine experiences from your own life to extrapolate how you would react to unknown scenarios in the future. While this can seem frightening at first – what kind of experiences in school or research could possibly compare to the prospect of working against the clock to save a patient’s life? – the behavioral interview is actually an opportunity for your soft-skills to shine. It’s one of the few places in the interview process where checking a box is not enough, and your honest life experiences can come to light.

In this article, we’re going to go through some common interview questions and how to respond to them in a way that makes you shine. 


Tell Me About Yourself

Almost always the opener of any interview, this is your first in-person impression. Remember that you have been selected for this interview because of your credentials— the interviewer has already seen your GPA, coursework, and extracurriculars. This is your chance to fill in the gaps and paint a whole picture of who you are (professionally). Your interviewer should leave your conversation with a unique sense of who you are compared to others, and that means that you have to create a compelling narrative about who you are and why you do what you do. Here’s a general framework for how to answer the question:

    1. State your current occupation/job: “I’m a senior at MIT”, or “Currently, I’m a lab tech at Beth Israel.”
    2. Tell them about your main interest, which should connect to the job: “I’m a premed majoring in neuroscience and minoring in anthropology— fundamentally, I’m interested in questions of how we can build prosperous societies, and equip humans to be happier and healthier.”
    3. Give the highlights of your background which have prepared you for the role, and feel free to throw in a quick personal fact: “I come from a tight-knit family where I’ve witnessed older siblings go through mental health challenges, which is how I first became interested in these questions. In college, I took many classes on neurochemistry and anthropology, and spent multiple summers interning for global health-related organizations like MSF and EMERGENCY ONG.”
    4. State why this role is the next logical step, and restate your enthusiasm and excitement: “I’ve known I wanted to go to medical school for a long time and am excited to use my technical and interpersonal skills as well as my interests in global health and medical anthropology to be an effective doctor. Thanks so much for inviting me!”


What Are Your Strengths and Weaknesses?

Yes, this is a trick question. You have to be honest, confident, yet humble when listing your greatest strength, but you also can’t lie and say you don’t have a weakness. Interviewers are used to the standard cliche answers of “I’m a perfectionist” as both a strength and weakness, so don’t bother gaming the system. Be honest, but also be positive.

When listing your strength, think through this beforehand. It’s a great idea to ask your friends and family what they consider your strengths to be, and to spend some time introspecting as to what makes you uniquely you. Make sure that it’s a broad enough theme that it is universally applicable, like “time management”, “organization”, or “facilitating compromise.” When discussing your weakness, tell the truth, but make sure to emphasize how you combat it and are working to be better. Don’t try to twist your weakness into a secret strength (“I care too much about people!”). As an example, if you have trouble saying no to things or opportunities, consider the following response: “I tend to become overloaded and overworked because I have trouble saying no to people when they ask me to take on new tasks and responsibilities. I’m learning how to prioritize what’s important to me versus others and what my limits really are.”


What Inspired You to Become a Physician?

Interviews are about context. They’re about understanding the fabric that you’re stitched from, and why you are who you are. In pre-med interviews, and in any job interview, you’ll be asked about why you are applying in the first place. What motivates your interest in being a doctor? Why have you chosen this particular career path?

Interviewers have heard it all, so they’re not looking for a novel answer that’s completely new to them. It’s totally okay to be brutally honest. Maybe you originally went into medicine because it seemed like the natural fit after taking a few biology and chemistry credits. Perhaps you come from an esteemed line of surgeons and medicine was just in your blood. But there was inevitably a time you doubted your life choices and had a mid-college crisis like everyone else, and there was also a reason you decided to continue as a pre-med. Be authentic and talk about those moments of doubt and what made you stick with your gut. In my case, seeing my older siblings go through battles with mental health made me fascinated with both the mind and the holistic nature of being healthy and happy— that innate younger sibling need to fix and heal and better my family sparked the initial curiosity for medicine, and is also a telling tale about what’s important to me. 


Tell Me About a Situation Where You Were a Leader

Next, you’ll see a sequence of questions designed to gather specific anecdotes of how you work under stress. The first, and most common one, is for the interviewer to ask for an example of when you were a leader. This is a great time to accomplish two things at once: show off your extracurriculars, and talk about a moment that you’re proud of! The interviewer is likely more interested in process rather than results, so be sure to talk about how you became a leader and what you changed or revised during your tenure. Leadership in clubs, sports, and internships are likely more important than highlighting leadership in the classroom or even in the lab— this question is designed to understand your interpersonal communication skills and how you bring a group together. 


Tell Me About a Time When You Failed

Just like the “what’s your greatest weakness?” question, this one can be tricky. Stick to responding with a professional failure, rather than an extremely personal one. Certain interviewers may find it uncomfortable to discuss sensitive topics, so play it safe in terms of topic. The key to answering this question is the same to coming up with your weakness— it’s all about personal growth. Don’t say your failure was when you only won a silver medal at a competition rather than gold. Mention a truly low point— whether that’s missing out on a job or opportunity, messing up lab results, making a mistake at an internship, or even saying the wrong thing to a peer or boss. Then talk about how you dealt with the situation and what it taught you. Remember that your interview answers should all be building towards a general image of why you are the way you are. Each of your responses contextualizes a piece of you. 


How Has Your Undergraduate Education Prepared You for This Role?

This is your space to brag! Talk about your accomplishments— in the classroom, in the lab, at your extracurriculars. Then fill in the gaps with concrete anecdotes that were memorable and pivotal for your own personal growth. As an example, lessons you’ve learned from professors and other mentors are great preparation for life at large. In the context of medical school interviews, be sure to focus on a few tangible accomplishments that show your technical chops about biology and medicine, but also one or two stories that let your soft skills shine, which will tell the interviewer about your bedside manner and how you handle yourself under pressure. 


Where Do You See Your Career in 5 Years? 15 Years?

The goal of this question is to gauge where you think you want to be under two different timeframes. Five years is more short-term, and you will have just graduated from medical school. Do you have any inkling as to the specialty you’re interested in, or what kind of doctor you want to be? Are there other skills in medical school that you hope to hone in on, such as clinical research experience? This isn’t a trick question— it’s just to make sure you’re thinking ahead.

The fifteen-year timeframe is a bit more daunting. At this point, you’ll be done with your education and will have been in the workforce for quite a while. This is the time to divulge your true hopes and dreams and you want to do with your medical degree. Are you a practicing physician? Or are you more focused on the research? Are there pet projects you’ve dreamed of or charitable work that you want to accomplish? Do you have any interest in teaching? Do you foresee a transition into administration, public health, anthropology, or maybe something else entirely? Be bold with your dreams. Your interviewer will understand that there are many, many things that one can do with a medical degree. They just want to get an early sense of why you need one to accomplish your goals. 

And at the end, it’s okay to throw in a bit of cynicism and admit that you don’t know where life is going to take you because it’s unpredictable. Interviewers want to hear about your wildest dreams, but it’s okay to let them know that you’re grounded and realistic as well. 


Do You Have Any Questions for Me?

People often don’t realize how important this question is. Usually, your interviewer will leave a bit of time at the end of the interview so you can pick their brain. Make sure you are prepared for this. If you don’t have a long list of questions about the school or job, it shows you are unprepared or uninterested. You also don’t want awkward pauses in the interview— overestimate the number of questions you think you will need to fill the time, and always have one queued up to ask. Don’t waste time asking questions that are easy to answer with Google, like the number of students per class year. Make sure that the interviewer is uniquely qualified to answer your questions, and take advantage of the fact that you can gain a valuable mentor and supporter if the interview goes well. Here are some sample questions that are good to ask (tailor to your own needs):

  • What was your favorite memory of your time in medical school? What was your least favorite memory?
  • What advice do you have for me and those in my place right now?
  • What’s one thing you would have done differently in medical school?
  • How did you decide on your subspecialty? Was that difficult or did you have a process for it?
  • What made you want to be an interviewer for medical school? 
  • How has your career path differed from what you expected when you were in my shoes? 
  • Why did you choose this school? 
  • Did you feel like there was adequate work/life balance? How have you figured out how to juggle the two?

Make sure you keep the possibility of contact open— casually ask whether you can reach out to them if you think of other questions, so you can always reconnect after the interview ends. 


What Do You Do for Fun?

This is a question that people often forget to prepare for because they don’t expect it to arrive. This is not a trick! Don’t opt for a generic response like “Netflix” (unless you’re a Netflix master) or “cooking” (unless you love experimenting with new dishes). Think of a hobby that is uniquely you. It doesn’t have to be productive or even important— it just needs to be something that helps you relax and shows a little piece of who you are. Maybe it’s playing catch with your dog, doing face masks with your friends, drawing cartoons, or an IM sport. Just think of your favorite stress reliever that’s special to you and go for it. You don’t need to seem cool. You just need to seem authentic.

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