The following are notes written for a session I was asked to run with sixth form students about preparing for Med School interviews. I am quite sure there are lots of sensible suggestions that I have inadvertently omitted – please feel free to use the Comments facility to offer your additional advice.
Your personal statement: You’ve got an interview! Apart from anything else, that means you must have done something right in your personal statement. Even though it may be months since you wrote it, it is important that you re-read it thoroughly about a week before the interview to remind yourself what you said and then reflect on what questions this may lead onto. In particular, think about:
- What did you learn via the experiences you described? You’ve probably used time spent shadowing or participating in medical activities as part of your statement. You may also have mentioned a part-time job or being captain of a sports team. Your interviewers will not so much be interested in what you’ve done as to what you’ve learnt by the experience. For example, how have your attitudes been altered? What was it about the things you’ve been involved in that makes you more suitable to be a doctor than the next person waiting outside?
- Can you provide evidence for the claims you made? I am assuming that all the things you said on your UCAS form are true (if not, you are just setting yourself up for more problems – be warned, don’t make stuff up). There is, however, a difference between you yourself knowing something to be true and being able to demonstrate that to somebody else. Let’s take an example from my wife’s experience. She wrote on her UCAS form that she was a keen dress-maker. Somebody wisely pointed out that if she was going to put that in her statement then she ought to wear something she’d made when going for interview. It was good advice; at every interview she attended somebody asked if she’d made the clothes she was wearing. If you are not yet in the habit of collecting documentation to back up work experience, Saturday employment etc then start now – portfolios of evidence are a fact of life in lots of jobs but none more so than Medicine, where even Consultants need to log their Continuing Professional Development (CPD) activities.
Body language: It may seem unfair, but it is certainly true that non-verbal communication can have a huge bearing on people’s opinions about you. You may not be able to iron out all of your faults in this area in one go, but think about the following:
- Posture: the way that you come into the room and the way that you sit in your chair are important. Try neither to slouch nor to grip the top of your other arm so tightly that you look like a survivor in a disaster movie. Avoid looking defensive or disinterested. Ideally sit upright, with both feet planted on the floor and slightly forward in your seat so that your body, and your face, looks engaged in the whole process.
- Irritating habits: do you repeatedly make the same gestures in a way that will inadvertently wind up your interviewer? Do you flick or twizzle your hair every 15 seconds? Do you click the lid of a pen on and off? Do you jangle keys or coins in your pocket? I’ve seen all of the above. I’ve also been told about the person wearing a large gold cross on a chain around her neck who wafted it back and forth during the interview in a way that made it look like her interviewers were vampires she was trying to keep at bay. Seeing yourself on video can be a useful way to reveal habits of this kind, and also verbal ‘ticks’ you might have such as finishing each sentence with “you know” or “that’s what I think” (see Practice, below).
Current issues: New developments in biomedicine are constantly being reported in the media. Make sure that you are up to date on several recent issues. Keep an eye on the BBC health pages and maybe subscribe for the year to the student BMJ. The NHS choices website runs an excellent Behind the Headlines service that unpicks the reality from the spin in media accounts of new developments. You should try and think about whether there is more than one opinion on a topic, particularly if it has clear ethical dimensions. At the time of writing, changes to the law on assisted suicide would be a classic example. Be informed but not unduly dogmatic – do think carefully about what the majority view of doctors might be on the issue, but don’t assume that everyone conducting the interview holds that opinion. The Radio4 series Inside the Ethics Committee fleshes out different views on genuine controversial cases within the NHS. Listening to one or two episodes would give you a feel for some of the controversies, and how decisions about how to proceed are made.
Motivation: In the days when the Miss World beauty competition was deemed suitable prime time viewing, people used to joke that all the contestants claimed that they wanted to “help children and bring about world peace”.
Similar clichés can tarnish a Med School interview. When asked about your motivation for being a doctor, if you reply with a bland “I want to help people” then you are likely to be rebuffed with the suggestion you should become a nurse, or a social worker, or a bin man. They all help people. Try to think about some more sophisticated reason for your application, something that shows you’ve truly understood what it means to be a doctor.
Other typical questions: Each institution is likely to have a fairly standardised set of questions they ask at interview, but these will be different for each university. Two areas that may well crop up, however, are Changes in the NHS/Medical training and some element of Self-reflection.
- Changes in the NHS – as I am sure you are aware, graduation from Med School does not mean that your training is complete. You have many years of additional study and exams to come (although you will at least get paid whilst you are doing it!) You may well be asked about your knowledge of the further training required to become a GP, or perhaps a hospital anaesthetist. You might also be asked about the impact of the (European) Working Time Directive – recently implemented legislation limiting the number of hours anyone can work in a given week. There are mixed feelings about this; the WTD ought to have brought an end to dangerously long shift, but fewer hours at work may also mean less clinical experience.
- Reflection about yourself: demonstration of an ability to be self-reflexive is another big theme in Medicine as a career. Interview questions may start to tap into this, e.g. by asking “Give an example of a time you were under pressure and how you coped” or “What would you say were your weaknesses?“. It is very common to say “I have a tendency to overwork” in response. Try to think about something that is more creative (and honest). For example, “I’m bad with names, so I’ve had to come up with a system to help me remember them”.
Practice…: If you can do so, try to organise a practice interview with someone you do not already know well. Alternatively (or additionally) try to make a video of yourself in an interview setting; there is nothing like seeing yourself on film to highlight body posture, repetitive behaviours and verbal mannerisms that might be off-putting to an interviewer.
…but don’t be ‘rehearsed’: It is a weird thing to observe, but students in interviews, and also in talks, sometimes start to speak in a robotic and detached way. Subconsciously they slip into an automaton mode which says – irrespective of the words coming out of their mouth – “I thought you were going to ask me that question and this is the answer I prepared”. This phenomenon can be particularly embarrassing when the student loses their train of thought mid-sentence and either comes to an abrupt halt, or starts again from the beginning of their ‘script’.
You do need to think carefully about the sort of things you might be asked, but avoid becoming overly wedded to a fixed set of phrases. Perhaps memorise a few key words instead – and don’t beat yourself up if you fail to cover all of the points you hoped to make.
Relax: Above all else – and in spite of all the things above (!) – try to relax. For the most part the interview will not be like any police interrogation or court scene you may have seen on telly. The rottweilers employed to cross-examine the candidates in The Apprentice will not be conducting your interview. It is rare these days for interviewers to be deliberately trying to catch you out, and if they are I would seriously question whether their institution is an appropriate place to study. They are trying to see whether or not you are the sort of person they want to engage with and invest in during the next four or five years prior to your becoming a significant asset to the health service.