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I spent yesterday back at my alma mater, helping to select the next batch of bright young medical students.

Back in the day getting into medical school basically meant having to top every class you ever did from kindergarten right through to high school graduation. In these more enlightened times, we like to tell ourselves that we value social intelligence as well as plain old book smarts, so there’s a few other obstacles to overcome, including The Interview.

It’s becoming a rather dusty memory now, but my interview involved a 20 minute chat with 4 fairly friendly people about why I wanted to do medicine, having to give an example of a time when I demonstrated caring for someone (they actually asked me that), and a problem solving question about what I’d do if my car broke down in the middle of the Australian outback. There was also a day-long group exercise where we role-played some first aid scenarios, which was actually kinda fun (fake blood and everything!)

Eight years later, they’ve been through a few iterations of the interview process, and have landed on a mock-tutorial situation, to see how the candidates perform in a group setting, and the a series of interview stations with questions on life experience, the old stuck-in-the-outback chestnut, enthusiasm for medicine, rural health issues, communicating to another candidate how to fold an origami frog, and a role play with an actor to evaluate social interactions (read: active listening/calming/reflecting etc).

After all the interviews I’ve been through in the last few years, it felt odd to be sitting on the other side of the desk, peering at candidates over the top of my glasses (they aren’t half-moon, librarian glasses, they just have a tendency to slip down my nose. So rather than do that nerdy constant pushing up thing, I pretend I’m actually not that shortsighted by looking over them). Almost all of them were nervous. There were some who had obviously been to a preparation course and were very rehearsed, not just in their answers, but the whole performance – like deliberately taking a moment to consider their answers, even when the answer was as glib as anything. There were lots of Key Concepts flying around – volunteer work and teamwork were the two that came up repeatedly. There were some who gave interesting accounts of their previous experiences, and others who were very vague.

If I had to give any advice to candidates sitting for medical school interviews (particularly in Australia because I suspect other countries will have different priorities), it would be, above all, to be yourself – the preparation courses are all very well and good, mainly in giving you the opportunity to practice being nervous, but what I wanted to hear from candidates wasn’t a rehearsed script filled with things they thought would sound good, but to see something of the human being behind buzzwords. Going through a verbal checklist of expected motivations (eg. want to help people, fascinated by the human body etc) sounds robotic – if those are indeed your reasons for wanting to do medicine thats great, but make sure you give concrete examples from your own experience.

It was a long day, from 9am til 6pm, six minutes per student with a couple of breaks for food in between but it has made me quite excited to be tutoring them next year. I taught piano during my university years the thing that made it worthwhile putting up with the kids who didn’t practice was how rewarding it is to see the other kids go from complete beginner and, well, a bit useless sometimes,  watching them develop their skills and knowledge to the point where they were playing pieces they enjoyed from memory. So I’m looking forward to getting to know these future doctors, and, hopefully, teaching them a thing or two.