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Interviews: Pre-Med Drama

Admissions Decisions May Hang in Balance

By Zoe Argento

On campus these days, neatly groomed seniors dressed in dark suits can be seen rushing to recruiting interviews at top consulting and investment banking firms.

But while pre-med students may be more closely associated conducting research in lab, interviews are actually an important component of medical school admissions as well

Both consulting and med school interviews require students to be academically accomplished, articulate and graceful under pressure. But the different demands of each of the respective professions make the substance of the interviews much different.

While business interviews may test an applicant's ability to handle pressure, medical school say they interviewers look for a student's ability to connect with patients and their interest in helping others.

"A physician must show compassion, an ability to establish a partnership with the patient or the patient will not get well," says Theresa J. Orr, assistant dean for admissions and financial aid at Harvard Medical School.

Medical school applicants are tested on everything from their knowledge of health care reform to their ability to establish "chemistry" with the interviewer.

Just as a student applying to work at an investment bank might study that company's annual report, most medical students study medical-related issues thoroughly before attending their first interview.

Stress Questions

Consulting and other business interviews are notorious for asking questions to applicants requiring them to think on their feet, such as "how much pizza is served in the United States?" or "how much money would you make if you were the owner of the Border Cafe?"

To a certain extent, such stress questions occur in medical school interviews as well.

Sean M. Lin '95, a biochemical sciences concentrator from Winthrop House, says he told his interviewer at Stanford Medical School that he thought "everyone should have the right to health insurance."

According to Lin, the interviewer looked him pointedly in the face and asked him what he meant by "right." At some interviews, says Lin, the admissions officer would question every point he made.

According to Steven M. Kalkanis '93, a second-year student at Harvard Medical School, some stress questions ask the applicant to respond to a hypothetical situation.

For example, Lin says one interviewer asked him, "What would you tell a terminally ill child? Would you tell him or her that he or she is going to die?"

Not all interviews, however, are as intimidating.

"Of 110 medical schools, each one has a different philosophy on admissions," said Dr. Shah Khoshbin, a pre-med tutor in Adams House.

Harvard Medical School, for example, conducts more relaxed interviews during which applicants spend the majority of their time simply describing themselves.

But how well an interview proceeds may ultimately depend on who the interviewer happens to be, and whether the student can establish the right connection with him or her.

"I just happened to get an unusually tough interviewer at Stanford," Lin says. "If you're lucky, you just click. I spent half an hour talking about classical music at the Harvard Medical School interview."

Just as in any profession, medical students must face the pressure of trying to convince their interviewers to like them in half an hour.

In choosing among a field of applicants with similar grade point averages and Medical College Admissions Test scores, the ability to connect in an interview can be crucial to gaining admission-to a medical school.

"On a scale of one to 10 in importance, [where 10 is the highest], interviews get an eight," says Meril R. Kramer, admissions officer at the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School in New Jersey.

"At Harvard Medical School, interviews put a seal of approval on the applicant," Khoshbin says. "Most students look like they walk on water on paper so the interviewer must see if this is real."

Medical school admissions officers say they are looking for traits like enthusiasm, poise and an ability to communicate effectively.

"Applicants who do well show a certain degree of spark," says Kramer. "Who do you want taking care of your grandmother? You want someone very smart, ready to grasp complex scientific situations and explain them simply to a patient."

Khoshbin said med schools are generally "sensitive" to Harvard students, so applicants must show an interest in the school and exhibit a certain degree of humility.

"In medical school, they don't want to take people who are so engrossed in themselves they are not interested in service," he says.

And as in job interviews, garnering an interview for medical school requires an outstanding academic record, says Orr.

Only 1,000 out of 4,000 applicants to Harvard Medical School are invited for an interview, she says. And of those interviewed, only 190 are eventually given offers of acceptance.

In general, medical school applicants must go through fewer rounds of interviews than their counterparts in recruiting, making their performance in each interview relatively more important.

Dunster House resident Aparagita Ramakrishnan '95, who is going through business recruiting, says "One company flew me out and gave me ten interviews back to back." She missed almost a week of school.

Pre-meds, on the other hand, only receive two interviews per school on average, said Khoshbin. Applicants usually talk to both admissions officers and medical students during each visit.

While med school students may only have a couple of interviews per school, they generally have to pay travel costs as well.

It is not uncommon for a pre-med student to apply to 15 to 20 medical schools, so interviewing can become an expensive enterprise, even though airlines offer some discounts for medical school applicants.

Ed R. Renwick, pre-law tutor at Quincy House, cites high travel costs as a reason why law schools don't interview their applicants.

"The process of interviewing is inherently biased toward the wealthy," says Renwick. "The reason for this is that it is expensive to fly to all the cities where the law schools are."

Renwick also says studies with regards to interviewing for jobs show little correlation between success in the workplace and impression in interviewing.

Even so, interviews remain an integral part of the medical school admissions process. In the end, Khoshbin suggests that Harvard students just be themselves.

"I have to tell the kids to be themselves because Harvard students are very unique," he says.

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