How Changes to Medical School Interviews May Affect Applicants

The new interview model requires applicants to think quickly and reactively.

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Many of you are probably thinking that the medical school interview is hard enough as it is. Being shuffled around multiple medical centers can make the interview day seem pretty intimidating.

However, according to a July 2011 New York Times article, there is a growing movement to change the way aspiring doctors are evaluated during interviews. Medical schools are increasingly selecting doctors who they feel are effective and empathetic communicators with patients and other hospital staff, the Times reports.

How might this affect you?

A number of medical schools have modified their admissions interview process in response to concerns that applicants may not always have the appropriate communication skill set with their patients.

At some schools, there was a perception that focusing on grades and test scores—factors used as a screening tool at some institutions—could be putting future medical students at a disadvantage in their clinical years, when many say communication skills become more important than test scores.

[Learn how to prepare for a medical school interview.]

According to the New York Times article, Stanford University, UCLA, and the University of Cincinnati are among the medical schools that use an interview method known as the M.M.I., or multiple mini interview. This technique was said to be pioneered by the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine, the nation's newest medical school, which also uses this interview format.

In the M.M.I. format, which has already spread to top U.S. universities and 13 Canadian medical schools, applicants are given a synopsis of an ethical dilemma shortly before walking into a brief interview. The interviews, which are the backbone of the admissions process at schools like Virginia Tech Carilion, only average about eight minutes in length.

Studies have shown that the M.M.I. format assesses the following:

Thinking on your feet: Medical schools using this technique are interested in assessing how well candidates deal with presenting an answer to the ethical dilemmas posed to them just two minutes prior.

Ability to listen: In the new format, an applicant's initial answer is not as important as how the applicant deals with new information posed by the interviewer or a potential disagreement. Interviewers prefer applicants who seek and integrate new information rather than ones who jump to conclusions or seem overly opinionated.

Collegiality/rapport: Interviewers look to see that applicants respond appropriately to the social dynamic of the interview. Interviewers prefer candidates who respond well to disagreements and ask for more information, as research has shown that this format is predictive in assessing whether candidates will work well in the team-oriented atmosphere of medical education.

[Avoid these medical school interview bloopers.]

McGill University in Montreal has made available a FAQ sheet with more information on the logistics of the interview and some insight into the research behind its development.

Most notably, the FAQs note that in the traditional interview, the variability in scores given by multiple interviewers to one applicant was substantial—up to 56 percent. They also note that most medical schools already require students on clerkships to take an Objective Structured Clinical Examination (OSCE) conducted in a similar format.

Though only a handful of medical schools have implemented the M.M.I. interview model to date, it is probably reflective of a growing trend in medical school admissions and education. Schools are concerned about communication; a survey by the Joint Commission, which accredits academic medical centers, showed that poor communication among medical staff was one of the leading causes of the approximately 44,000 to 98,000 annual deaths due to adverse events in the United States.

It is important to be aware of emerging trends in the medical school selection process wherever you may be in contemplating a career in medicine. Being familiar with these new formats is valuable in making decisions and preparing for the medical school admissions process. 

Ibrahim Busnaina, M.D. is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine and coauthor of "Examkrackers' How To Get Into Medical School." He has been consulting with prospective medical school applicants, with a special focus on minority and other nontraditional candidates, since 2006.