During my recent experiences interviewing for med school, I learned that the best interviewers, like the best clinicians, focused on my comfort and let our conversation flow naturally. Such prioritizations promote deeper human connections
“Tell me about yourself,” my interviewer began, eyes sparkling behind her thick-rimmed maroon cat-eye glasses. Her head and shoulders blurred at the edges for a brief moment as she readjusted herself in her seat, Zoom background flickering with an image of the medical school.
“Here we go,” I thought to myself, taking a deep breath as I began to recount my usual spiel—my undergrad major, hobbies, and interests in medicine.
Before I got very far, she interjected with a knowing smile. “That’s all well and good, but I want to learn about you—about what makes you who you are. Go back to the very beginning. Start with the day you were born.”
This conversation went on to become one of my favorite interviews of the year. Interviewing at 19 medical schools during an unprecedented virtual application cycle, I experienced everything from “multiple mini-interviews” in breakout rooms, to one-way pre-recorded video prompts, to Zoom conversations punctuated by the occasional, “Doctor? I think you’re on mute.” With this range of technological experiences, I also met a range of interviewers themselves, observing what made a physician-interviewer stand out as kind, welcoming, and genuinely curious about my passions and what I would contribute to the field of medicine.
The best interviewers focused not on what I did, but who I was. Rather than going down my resume and asking me to talk about each involvement one by one, these clinicians chose two or three of my activities that resonated with them most and dove deep. It became clear quite quickly when an interviewer had taken the extra time beforehand to read my application thoroughly, and the more they had done so, the better the interview was. They had a holistic vision of my application and knew that I was specifically interested in bioethics, health policy, and medical humanities. We talked about pressing topics in clinical medicine as they related to my passions—the benefits and drawbacks of electronic medical records, the science of compassion, public health ethics surrounding COVID-19, various models of structural healthcare reform, and the role of a physician in community engagement.
“I’m going to pose to you a few more ethical dilemmas than usual, since I know you have a background in medical ethics,” one neuro-ophthalmologist said as he cracked a grin.
A liver transplant specialist remarked, “I saw you spent a few months in Denmark. I’m curious—what do you think they’re doing right with their healthcare system that we aren’t?”
Even when an interviewer had a completely different clinical background or area of focus than me, they tailored their questions toward topics of interest to both of us through the lens of my specific passions.
Upon reflection, I realized that the best interviewers used the same set of skills as in a clinical encounter. They bridged the interviewee-interviewer divide in the same manner as the patient-physician power differential. After asking me about a particular experience, they responded meaningfully to what I said and allowed a natural conversation to ensue about that same experience, rather than forcing onward to the next activity on the list. “I want to hear your story—to get to know who you are,” one interviewer affirmed compassionately. They laughed with me, commiserated with me, and pushed me further, getting to know me as a person rather than as a set of statistics on a page. Just as in a clinical encounter, they had an agenda and a purpose for the visit, but almost paradoxically, they accomplished that purpose more effectively by relaxing from an entirely rigid structure. These interviewers made me feel comfortable, which enabled me to open up and share more meaningful insights about myself, my experiences, my opinions, my passions, and my vision for my profession in medicine. In turn, this allowed these physicians to get to know me as a person, more effectively accomplishing their goal of deciding how I would fit at their institution and how I would fare as a clinician.
In conclusion, allow the conversation to flow where it may. If it strays away from your initial pre-set questions, this is ok—remind yourself that your primary task is to get to know your patient as a person. Rather than moving down a checklist of questions, dive deeper by asking, “Tell me more.” This will allow you to understand their story more thoroughly.
This piece expresses the views solely of the author. It does not represent the views of any organization, including Johns Hopkins Medicine.