The Hardest Med School Interview Question

November 7, 2011
Jeff Koetje

“So tell me about yourself.”

It’s not even a question.  It’s a request, and in the opening moments of your medical school interview, it may sound more like a hostile command.   But it is perhaps one of the most common ways in which your med school interviewers may invite you to join in conversation with them.  How would you respond to this non-question question?  It doesn’t seem easy, as I’m sure you’re well aware.  Because it’s so open-ended, we tend to hem-and-haw and sputter out the first thing that comes to mind, and our response usually starts with, “Well, I was born in…”  Ugh!  No!  You’re missing the point of the interviewers’ request.  They don’t care where, when, or how you were born; or where you lived until you were seven; or that you currently own a hamster.   (On the other hand, if you and your hamster have achieved world fame as a banjo duo, then you might want to mention that.)

What is the point, then, of this non-question question that so often gets us out of sorts? Well, that’s actually sort of the point:  they want to see how you respond to an unstructured situation.  Rambling on, creating one big messy non sequitur, or – worst of all – asking of your interviewers, “What do you want to know?” all point to the same problem:  a lack of both forethought and reflection.  Both are essential for being prepared to effectively manage unstructured or ambiguous situations.   You mistake their intention if you believe that they really only want to get to know you personally.  Sure, this is an opportunity to share personal information (more in a moment on what that means); but what you opt to share in response to the invitation reveals as much – if not more – about you as the actual details of your response.  Let me provide an example, but one that is so extreme, I’m guaranteeing you’ll get my point.  Saying, “Well, I love to get raging drunk every night.” reveals something about you.  And actually deciding that it would be appropriate to say, “Well, I love to get raging drunk every night.” as your opening line in a med school interview also says something – far worse – about you.

Med school interviewers rely on “So tell me about yourself.” because it is unstructured and open ended, and they know that how you respond will reveal not just some of your life details (no matter how banal or interesting) but also some of your character and values.   So give some forethought to your response by reflecting on the personal qualities you possess that are most appropriate to share with your med school interviewers.  Keep the following in mind:

1.  Your med school interview is a job interview; it’s not a first date.  Make sure the information you share is relevant to the primary goal of the interview:  to determine whether you and that medical school are a good fit.

2.  This is only the opening moment of the interview.  Keep your response short and to the point.  It should only take a minute or so to answer this question.  Like a good movie preview or a well written prologue, your response should capture your interviewers’ attention, draw them in, and get them excited to hear more from you.

3.  You can take control of the interview conversation by sharing information relevant to topics that your interviewers will be compelled to return to later (because you’ve given them a hint of something interesting about you that they just can’t wait to know more about).

4.  Remember that the interview is a continuation of a conversation that began months earlier with the AMCAS primary application, the personal statement, the secondary application essays, and the letters of recommendation.  Of course depending on whether your interview is based on an “open” or “closed” file, your interviewers will already know a lot , very little, or nothing at all about you.  Regardless, highlight a few accomplishments or qualities and illustrate them with a couple of short memorable stories.  People love stories, but only if they’re told well, so practice telling your stories before your interviews.

You’re going to be faced with this question.  Don’t fear it!  Look forward to it, and be prepared.

So, now that you know more about this question, tell me about yourself.


Jeff Koetje

Jeff Koetje A 10-year veteran instructor for Kaplan, I've worked with pre-health students across the country to help them achieve success as future health care providers. As assistant director of pre-health programs, I'm responsible for managing the academic experience for students enrolled in our MCAT, DAT, OAT, and PCAT prep courses. I earned my BA in Biology from Johns Hopkins University and my MD from Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. When not working with premeds I love to spend time cooking. I also enjoy collecting - and wearing - vintage and custom-made bow ties.



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