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 with stressful situations is much harder to evaluate.
Nevertheless, these skills are absolutely critical in a collaborative and intense field like medicine—perhaps even more so than book smarts and biology know-how. 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, 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. Instead, your honest life experiences must come to light.
In this article, we’ll cover some common interview questions, as well as how you can respond to them in a way that makes you shine.
1. Tell Me About Yourself
This is frequently the opener of an interview. Consider it your first in-person impression.
It’s vital you 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 an entire picture of who you are and what you stand for professionally. Your interviewer should leave your conversation with a unique sense of your personality compared to others—and that means 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:
- State your current occupation/job: “I’m a senior at MIT.” Or, “Currently, I’m a lab tech at Beth Israel.”
- 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.”
- Highlight the important events in your background that have prepared you for the role. Feel free to throw in a quick personal fact: “I come from a tight-knit family. After witnessing my older siblings go through mental health challenges, I became interested in the questions surrounding mental health. In college, I took many classes on neurochemistry and anthropology and spent multiple summers interning for global health-related organizations, such as MSF and EMERGENCY ONG.”
- State why this role is the next logical step for you, and restate your enthusiasm and excitement: “I’ve known I wanted to go to medical school for a long time. I am excited to use my technical and interpersonal skills as well as my interest in global health and medical anthropology to be an effective doctor. Thanks so much for inviting me!”
2. What Are Your Strengths and Weaknesses?
Yes, this is a trick question. You have to be honest and confident yet humble when listing your greatest strengths, but you also can’t lie and say you don’t have a weakness. Interviewers are used to the standard cliche answer of “I’m a perfectionist” as both a strength and weakness, so don’t bother gaming the system. Be honest, but also be positive.
Think through your strengths long before your interview. Ask friends and family what they consider your strengths to be. Take some personal time to journal and meditate on what makes you uniquely you. What do you consider your strengths to be?
When deciding your strengths, make sure they fit into a broad enough theme that’s universally applicable, like “time management,” “organization,” or “facilitating compromise.”
When discussing your weaknesses, tell the truth. At the same time, be sure to emphasize how you combat your weaknesses and are working to be better. Don’t try to twist your weakness into a secret strength by saying something generic like: “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.”
3. What Inspired You to Become a Physician?
Interviews are about context. They’re about understanding the fabric that you’re stitched from, why you are who you are. In premed interviews, as well as in any job interview, you’ll be asked about why you are applying in the first place. What motivates you to want to be a doctor? What has inspired you to choose 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 okay to be 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 is in your blood. Even so, just like everyone else, there was inevitably a time in your past that made you doubt your life choices, sparking a mid-college crisis. But by the same token, there was also a reason you decided to continue as a premed.
Be authentic. 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 need of every younger sibling to fix and heal and better my family sparked my initial curiosity for medicine.
Form your answer into a narrative and communicate your story as authentically as possible.
4. Tell Me About a Situation Where You Were a Leader
Next you’ll be asked a sequence of questions designed to gather specific anecdotes of how you work under stress.
The first question, and the most common one, takes place when the interviewer asks 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 the process rather than the 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 better understand your interpersonal communication skills and how you bring a group together.
5. Tell Me About a Time When You Failed
Just like the “what’s your greatest weakness?” question, this one can be tricky. Respond with a professional failure rather than an extremely personal one.
Certain interviewers may find it uncomfortable to discuss sensitive topics, so play it safe. The key to answering this question is the same as coming up with your weakness—it’s all about personal growth.
Don’t speak about a time you only won silver 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.
6. 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, and at your extracurriculars. Then fill in the gaps with concrete anecdotes that were memorable and pivotal for your own personal growth.
For 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 showcase your technical chops surrounding biology and medicine. That said, include one or two stories that let your soft skills shine—this will demonstrate your bedside manner to the interviewer and show how you handle yourself under pressure.
7. 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 time frames. Five years is more short-term, as you will (hopefully) have just graduated from medical school. Do you have any inkling as to the specialty you’re interested in? What kind of doctor do you want to be? Are there other skills you hope to hone in medical school, such as clinical research experience? Make sure you’re thinking ahead throughout your premed.
The fifteen-year time frame 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 what 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 one can do with a medical degree. They just want to get an early sense of why you need a medical degree to accomplish your goals.
At the end of the interview, it’s okay to admit that you don’t know exactly 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.
8. 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 Google, like the number of students per class year.
The interviewer is uniquely qualified to answer your questions; take advantage of their expertise. It could be a way to gain a valuable mentor and supporter if the interview goes well.
Sample questions to ask the interviewer:
- 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 it 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 you had an adequate work-life balance in med school? How did you juggle the two?
Make sure you keep the possibility of future contact open. Casually ask whether you can reach out to them if you think of other questions. This way, you can always reconnect after the interview ends.
9. 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. It’s not a trick, so don’t treat it like one.
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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