Harnessing Psychology to Ace Medical School Interviews Part II

by Dr. Shirag Shemmassian

Part I
Interview Day
Coaching med school applicants to crush interview day is one of my favorite parts of working as an academic consultant because you can take advantage of various psychological principles to successfully navigate them.

I’ve been on both sides. Not only have I interviewed many applicants for Cornell (my alma mater) undergrad admissions, but I have used the same strategies I outline below to gain admissions to the top Ph.D. program in my field (UCLA Clinical Psychology; ~3% acceptance rate), receive the Soros Fellowship for New Americans (<3% success rate), and be hired for my current full-time position after their 18-month search.

Dress (Slightly) Different: The Von Restorff Effect
Medical schools interview a lot of applicants, and they have a hard time remembering everyone. Therefore, it’s important to stand out on interview day. In addition to providing great answers during your interviews, why not help your cause by wearing an article of clothing that most others don’t or won’t?

Why? The Von Restorff effect (a.k.a., the isolation effect) predicts that anything (or anyone) that stands out like a sore thumb is much more likely to be remembered. I’m not suggesting you wear an orange suit or one made out of meat, but it wouldn’t hurt to be remembered as “the lady wearing the light gray suit with blue shoes” or “the guy wearing a red paisley tie.” In a world full of black- and charcoal-suited applicants, it helps to look unique and be talked about.

Smile, Sit Up Straight, and Treat Everyone Politely: The Halo Effect
You hear the following two pieces of advice often: “Smile and sit up straight during interviews” and “Everyone you meet on interview day, including administrative and maintenance staff, is interviewing you and can provide feedback to adcoms, so make sure to be polite to everyone.” I will echo this advice, but why is it so important, beyond getting people to like you?

The answer lies in the halo effect, which posits that others’ overall impressions of us influences their thoughts about our specific traits. For example, if an admissions interviewer or secretary believes you are positive and like them (achieved by smiling), confident (sitting up straight), or polite, they will also be more likely to think you are intelligent, well spoken, and so on. A little effort up front to make a good first impression can serve as an ultra-effective lead domino for high interview scores. On the other hand, a negative first impression will force you to fight an uphill battle the rest of the time.

Match the Interviewer’s Emotion, Tone, and Energy Level: Mirroring
When a friend is feeling mopey while discussing a bad breakup, do you comfort them by smiling or speaking with high energy? Of course not! Doing so would probably make your friend feel like they’re not heard and that you don’t get their situation. On the other hand, matching your friend’s emotions and energy level will help them feel validated and understood.

Why not extend this communication approach to mirror your interviewer? For example, if your interviewer is calm, speak calmly, but if they’re excitedly discussing their research projects, respond enthusiastically! If you’re already effective at emotion and energy mirroring, practice mirroring their thoughts. For example, if your interviewer express dissatisfaction with medical school curricula not emphasizing diversity issues enough, respond with something like, “I agree, and I’m really glad to hear your program offers a lot of formal training in diversity issues.”

Make the Interviewer Feel Important: The Association Principle
People love talking about themselves, especially in tense situations. So encourage them to do so by asking questions about them and their perspectives. Who said the interview has to be all about you? Instead of focusing exclusively on speaking well, heed the great Dale Carnegie’s wisdom that attentively listening to your interviewer will be “one of the highest compliments you can pay” (I encourage everyone to read his masterpiece, How to Win Friends and Influence People, for more great tips).

When an interviewer is made to feel important and appreciated by sharing their thoughts with you, and by you thanking them for it, they’ll associate you with their good feelings. So, how do you break the cycle of only answering questions you’re asked? My two favorite ways to accomplish this are:

1) Finishing your response by asking the interviewer their thoughts on the same topic rather than waiting silently. Example if asked about research: “I’m definitely looking forward to conducting research during med school. How do you involve medical students in your stem cell research?” or “When do you feel is the best time for med students to start research and the best way to get involved in an ongoing study?”

2) Asking for your interviewer’s thoughts and advice when they open the interview for questions. Interviewers usually ask whether you have any questions near the end of your interview. Instead of asking about the first year curriculum, or anything else you can gather from the website or speaking with current students, solicit their advice on medical school. Example: “In your experience, what have you noticed to be the biggest challenge for first year medical students, and what advice do you have for someone in my position to avoid the same pitfalls?” Trust me, interviewers love this one.

Follow Up
After each of your interviews, I encourage you to write down one or two simple notes or bullet points to remind you about specific talking points that stood out during your interview, especially ones that your interviewer was particularly excited or gave you advice about. These notes should then be included in your thank you email to each of your interviewers.

I know it’s tedious to write individualized thank you notes to every single person you interviewed with, but these will all go in your application folder and strengthen your case when you’re being considered for admission. Sending a follow-up email no more than two days later to thank the interviewer for their time and for answering your questions shows sincerity, and it serves as the final memory with which an interviewer will write their review.

In your thank you email, include: 1) an expression of thanks, 2) the date you interviewed, 3) what you’re grateful for, 4) any insights you gained, 5) emphasis on wanting to attend their program, and 6) an invitation to contact you for any reason.

Final Thoughts
The med school application process is a long and tedious one, and the interview provides confirmation that you’re cut out to be a doctor. Best of all, it’s the final step before waking up to congratulatory messages from various adcoms! While it’s a stressful process, you don’t have to navigate interviews alone. In addition to Jason’s support to get in the door, you now have tried-and-true psychological principles at your disposal to naturally stack the admissions deck in your favor.

As a favor, please share the #1 thing stressing you out about med school interviews or any other aspect of the med school admissions process. Best of luck!
Dr. Shirag Shemmassian is the Founder of Shemmassian Academic Consulting and an admissions coach for high-achieving premed students and their parents. He received his B.S. from Cornell University and his Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from UCLA.
Dr. Shemmassian has significant experience helping medical school applicants prepare great applications and perform well in interviews to gain admission to top medical schools. You can get his guide: Medical School Interview Thank You Email Scripts for free.

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