Podcast Episodes

Podcast Episode 26: Interview Strategy

Ben Robinson, a strategic advisor of Med School Coach, is here today to talk about a strategic approach to the interview process. Ben often hears about students wanting to get the right answer. There’s a sense that they want to do things right and don’t want to be incorrect, wrong, or set off flags. They want to ensure that schools think they are a good fit.

While a school may be considering whether you are a good fit or not, Ben thinks that these core ideas are not very useful for the interviewee in an approach to the interview situation. Ben talks about a strategic approach that tries to understand what the value of an interview is and how to optimize an interviewee’s ability to do well in these interviews. We learn about the real goals of an interview and how to achieve them while Ben provides example answers to common interview questions.

[1:33] The strategic goals of the interview.

For half of the interview, the goal is simply to have a good conversation; one that is fun, lively, and filled with curiosity for who you are, what the school is about, and how you might fit together. It’s the type of conversation that you might want to repeat again.

The second goal is to demonstrate the qualities of mind that the committee will think of as useful for a medical trainee and will eventually make for a successful physician. Some of these qualities of mind might include curiosity, empathy, critical thinking, judgement, skepticism, kindness, emotional stability, and organization.

[3:21] The approach to achieve these goals.

The first idea that can help is presenting an elevator pitch before getting into the long narrative that you might then proceed upon. An elevator pitch is based on respecting the person in front of you and giving your ideas in a coherent, condensed, and precise format, such that you can then be asked about parts of the pitch that the listener finds interesting. It then allows the listener to sit back and relax because they know the gist of what you’re going to talk about. They are an equal partner in this conversation and jump in if they want to. They already know that you’ve covered most of that you’re going to talk about, so there’s not the sense of them being polite and trying to let you finish the last of your ideas. This all opens the possibility for dynamic and engaging conversation.

A second approach to showing the value of yourself is another concept that comes from the business world. It’s called MECE, meaning “mutually exclusive, collectively exhaustive.” In simple terms, this means that if a question or problem defines a space, then divide it into mutually exclusive pieces of pie. This is useful with making big, vague questions comprehensible. You can think about each slice individually and allows you to think more clearly about each one. It also allows you to share, very quickly, the way in which you’ve structured your question and answer along the way to the people you’re talking to. Again, this makes their life easier because the know the framework of which you’re about to talk.

Ben likes to take these two ideas and apply them to a few hard questions that advising committees use to judge someone’s ability to deal with ambiguity and tough situations.

[13:16] An example of the “tell me about yourself” prompt.

Often when this question is asked students go running towards the question the expected to be asked, which is “why did you want to become a doctor?” That shows that they’re not really listening. What the interviewer wants to hear is what makes you unique, what your friends would say about you, and so on.

What you can do is talks about the reasons why you have the desirable qualities of mind. For example, if you are curious, you can talk about specifically why this is. If you do this, the interviewers will see that you have a roadmap for what you’re going to talk about. It sets everyone at ease, because now you can talk about it at length and you won’t run up against the clock. You’ve created all this value right up front, and then you get to follow up on it or they can ask you more. The interviewer won’t be concerned that you didn’t get to cover what you wanted to because of the nature of the conversation.

[16:22] The question “what questions do you have for us?”

A lot of students fail to create value for themselves when asked this. Students tend to ask incredibly soft questions such as what the interviewer’s best experience was and if students get along at this school.

As a student, you have a couple of things that are really important to you that you should ask about. One is how you are going to be spending your time for the first couple of years. Everyone these days has a teamwork-based curriculum or problem-based curriculum, but there are a lot of similarities if you go to their websites. However, the day-by-day implementation of that can be widely different between schools.

You might have a particular research focus or interest going into medical school, and you can ask what is being done in that area right now. You can also ask about where the money and mentorship are. You may have an outside interviewer that doesn’t know the answers, but it shows that your seriousness about the school and it creates value for you.

[18:50] The importance of practice.

Practice makes perfect, or at least practice makes permanent. Ben recommends practicing with friends and family, while also utilizing the practice resources at Med School Coach.

When practicing, students often think that they are ready after thirty seconds of preparing for a question. What Ben finds is that they have an idea of how to start but haven’t truly organized their thoughts. Even further, they haven’t thought about how to create the most value for themselves. If you have a rough idea in the first thirty seconds then that’s great, but use the remaining time to think about how to can create as much value as possible. Some of these questions lend themselves to this thinking more than others, but it’s always worth the shot.

There are millions of questions available on the web. Sit down with some, set a stopwatch for one or two minutes, and see if you can think of bullet points that you think will create the most value for yourself. Then, take a minute to express that elevator pitch as if you were in front of the committee. Thinking about it is one thing, but expressing it coherently and concisely is another.

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