For the majority of questions an interviewer can throw at you, you should be aiming to follow roughly a set format for each answer you give.
Let’s look at an example.
What are your main strengths?
I’d say my biggest strength that I find it easy to connect with others. Over the last year, I worked at a special school for disabled children, and although it was, in a way, a challenging experience – the kids could become quite violent, throwing toys and equipment – it was really fulfilling to slowly win them over, and to find ways of connecting with them, whether it was through painting, telling jokes or just rolling around on the floor. So yeah, I’d say that’s one of my main strengths and I’m hoping it’ll help me out when I (hopefully) become a doctor.
Our Suggested Answer Structure
You’ve probably come across something like this in English lessons at some point, and when you did, maybe you groaned a little because it seems quite simplistic/childish. We know we certainly did. But the structure is really quite useful for interview questions, and we’ve found ourselves using it for interview practice while at medical school, and for the ‘Clinical School’ interviews that some of us had to do in our 3rd year at Cambridge.
Anyway, here’s the structure – PEL:
This approach is quite powerful because it forces you to prove or provide evidence for every point you give. Why should you prove every point you make? Because anybody can say anything about themselves, but unless they provide evidence, it doesn’t hold any real value. This applies even more to medical interviews because the scientists, clinicians and professors who’ll be interviewing you will have interviewed hundreds if not thousands of students – they’ll know straight away if you’re talking rubbish and will expect evidence-based answers.
The PEL Method
1. Point – Don’t feel rushed to give an answer straight away. Take a breath and think about the point you want to make first. Hopefully, you’ll have an idea from brainstorming and drafting out answers to the common questions.
2. Experience – Once you have a point in mind, always be prepared to provide an anecdote or experience that backs it up.
3. Link – The end of your answer should always link back to the question so that you can end on a confident note.
A quick note on ‘Linking back’
The L in our PEL method says you should link back to the question. We’re not saying you should link everything back to being a good doctor.
This is something we see in a few other interview books, and it’s something we disagree with.
Look/think back to our example question asking ‘What are some of your strengths’. The L in our answer was as follows:
So yeah, I’d say that’s one of my main strengths and I’m hoping it’ll help me out when I (hopefully) become a doctor.
This is fine. We’ve linked back to the question, we’ve ended on a nice note, and we’ve added a touch of humility/cheeky humour with the ‘when I hopefully become a doctor’.
Now consider what it would sound like if we tried explicitly linking it back to the qualities of a good doctor.
I think this is an important quality in doctor because doctors work with people – people from all backgrounds, and the ability to connect and demonstrate empathy is something I feel patients value.
There’s nothing majorly wrong with this, but if the question didn’t explicitly ask, and if a student was consistently linking their answers back to being a good doctor, an interviewer would get a whiff of ‘over-preparation’.
That’s the tricky thing about interview preparation – we want to do it well enough and intelligently enough that our answers don’t come across as robotic/formulaic. The danger of trying to link everything back to being a good doctor is that you might sound formulaic. It’s a minor point, but it’s something to keep in mind when practising.
Be Confident and Concise
We want you to keep this in mind for every question you answer in your interviews: respond confidently and concisely.
You’ll be more confident and convincing with your answers when you know you have a good list of experiences you can pull out, and also in knowing the attributes and qualities that go along with them. Of course, practice is important too, and you don’t always need to have a partner – you can easily run through the common questions by yourself and judge how confident you are at them. If you’re a bit shaky, it means you don’t quite know what to say yet, and you should keep reviewing your database.
Being concise with your answers isn’t always easy, and with practice you’ll know when shut up and when to give a bit more information. A concise set of evidence-based points isn’t only a pleasure to listen to – it shows confidence and that you know what you’re talking about.
If you get a weird question (more on these later), don’t be afraid to stop for a few seconds to think – you should carefully consider what the question is asking, and this will help reduce the risk of you rushing in and giving a poor answer. It helps to structure the points you want to make in your head beforehand and then run through them systematically, always providing evidence for what you say. Although must be able to work under pressure, that doesn’t mean not taking the time to think something out before doing it.
The Balance between Arrogance and Confidence
We’ve interviewed quite a few students, and there’s a tendency for some of the answers they give to come across as a bit arrogant. This is hard because the aim of the game in many ways is to show and prove to the interviewers that you do have the qualities and skills they’re looking for, but doing so in an arrogant manner can be a huge turn-off.
The trick is this: don’t tell them what you are; tell them what you’ve become. To better explain that phrase, check out these examples.
What you are:
“I am a confident leader – I led our school football team and we won the Essex finals.”
What you’ve become:
“I think I’ve developed into a confident leader through captaining the school football team – we won the Essex finals this year, which was pretty awesome (smile).”
What you are:
“I’m a strong communicator – I’ve taken all the LAMDA exams in Speech and Drama and have acted in several school plays.”
What you’ve become:
“Through taking LAMDA exams in Speech and Drama along with acting in plays at school, I think I’ve developed into a pretty good communicator.”
Another point is that you should always be moderate with your language. Try not to be absolute with every answer you give: using phrases like ‘I think’ or ‘I feel’, can take off the weight of an answer that could come across as arrogant.
On that note, we don’t really like the phrase ‘I believe…’. Something like ‘I believe I’m a strong communicator’ sounds a tad robotic, and not the sort of thing you’d expect a teenager to say out loud. Check out the ‘Outer Game’ chapter, and the opening to the ‘Common Questions’ chapter for a discussion about being conversational vs being formal.
Remember, although it’s vital to be confident, there’ll be interviewees who’ll convey an air of self-inflation, arrogance and over-confidence: don’t be one of those people – these are traits that medical schools will pick up on in seconds and some will refuse to give an offer to students who show any indication of these characteristics.
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You hopefully realise now that the way you phrase your answers can say a lot about you: even a subtle difference can make an impact. So far, we’ve discussed practically how to come across as a humble person, but it’s also important to actually cultivate an internal attitude that shows that you really do have humility and that you’re a person who is successful on many levels, but remains humble of those successes. More on this in the ‘Inner Game’ chapter.