My first interview for residency was at the University of California San Diego. It was an anomalous rainy morning in San Diego that had dampened my suit and sufficiently ruffled my hair. After a light breakfast and presentation on the program, we were divided into two groups. One group would begin interviewing while the second group would tour the hospital and educational facilities. My name was called for the interview group, and my stomach cringed. I immediately began sweating profusely and had acute onset of dry mouth, nausea, and fulminant anxiety. My thoughts were racing. It was finally happening. I was finally interviewing for residency.
Over the course of the morning we would have six 15 minute individual interviews with the chair, faculty members, and chief residents intermixed with breaks. There was a secretary helping keep the interviews on schedule and escorting us to the correct room at the appropriate time. With a last name that appears early in the alphabet, I was up in the first cohort to interview. Nerves and anxiety skyrocketed. I took a deep breath and walked into the room. I was met by two faculty members sitting behind a desk. I shook their hands and they asked me to take a seat.
After brief pleasantries, they opened up a manila folder. I could see my official ERAS photo printed on the top page. One of the faculty members, scribbled some notes while the other began the interview. “Carter, why don’t you tell us about yourself?”
I’ll pause here in the story to really dive into this question. From my experience and preparation for interviews, this was by far the most commonly asked question in interviews. Even more common than why I wanted to be a plastic surgeon! I was asked it in all six rooms at UCSD that day, and over the course of all of my interviews answered some rendition of this question around 100 times (including 14 times in one day at the University of Southern California…talk about exhausting). Based on cursory advice I had received, I knew it was coming. But that did not make it necessarily any easier. It is an open ended question and there are so many directions that you can spin this into. That is what makes this question so daunting as an applicant, but also so valuable to interviewers. Can a student succinctly summarize who they are, where they have been, why they are here, and what they want to do? Your first step in interview prep should be to write out how you would want to answer this question. You can update and refine the answer to this question throughout the course of your preparation. After you have an initial draft, have friends or family look over it.
Here was my initial notes/draft that I wrote when preparing to answer this question:”I’m an MD/MBA candidate at UAB School of Medicine. Grew up in Shreveport, LA and went to Notre Dame for undergrad. At UAB, I’ve done well academically and been involved in numerous organizations including student senate and the diversity advisory board. I’ve been fortunate to have great mentors and have had the opportunity to be involved in numerous research projects. Initial interest in urology, but throughout all this, really fell in love with plastic surgery as a discipline and am looking for a high-volume center to train for residency and a place where I can be exposed to all aspects of the field.”
This ended up being very similar to the response that I gave in interviews when posed with the prompt, “Tell me about yourself.” I certainly didn’t memorize and recite this response. I don’t recommend that for interview prep. Reciting a memorized response comes out too rigid. Your answers will seem more natural if you give your answers spontaneously. But preparation and thoughtful consideration of what you will say beforehand helps the spontaneous and natural flow of your answers to be direct, succinct, and on message for showing them why they should rank you to match at their program. Think about answering this question like it is the synopsis on the back of a book or an abstract to a research paper. You want to draw the listeners in, provide some substance that can be expounded upon later, and keep them enticed for what is to come. All that being said, you don’t want to spend 10 minutes talking about yourself. Most individual interviews are 10-15 minutes. I would aim to keep your response to this question below two minutes erring more on the side of one minute. Many of the points you mention, you will likely have the opportunity to explain in more detail later in the interview and can get more into the specifics then.
I am going to break down my response to this question into four parts, and this can serve as a guide to you when devising your response to this question.
“I’m an MD/MBA candidate at UAB School of Medicine.”This is your introductory statement. While they know that you are a medical student already, tell them where you go to school. This may help remind them of faculty members or contacts they know at your home institution). One point I also wanted to highlight in my interviews is that I did a dual degree program receiving my MBA while in medical school. If you are a dual degree applicant, I think this is a great place to bring it up. If there is another defining quality or experience that set’s you apart or makes your application unique, have it in your opening line.
Contextualize Your Experience
“Grew up in Shreveport, LA and went to Notre Dame for undergrad.”Tell them where you have been. This should be very succinct, but gives them an idea of your journey through life and contextualizes your experience as an applicant and human being. Many people would ask me directly if I knew a plastic surgeon that practices in my hometown whom they were friends with. I also discovered several connections by mentioning my undergraduate institution. I also learned that a lot of faculty members in the plastic surgery community have quite strong opinions about Notre Dame football which were shared with me and discussed. While I went directly from undergrad to medical school, if you took time off in between undergrad and medical school, that might be something you want to briefly mention. They will likely ask you about gaps in your educational career, so be proactive and address it directly.
Medical School Performance/Activities
“At UAB, I’ve done well academically and been involved in numerous organizations including student senate and the diversity advisory board. I’ve been fortunate to have great mentors and have had the opportunity to be involved in numerous research projects.”Give them an idea of what medical school was like for you. This is really the substance of your answer to this question. This is your opportunity to set the tone for the remainder of the interview by highlighting what you think were the greatest experiences or accomplishments in medical school. For example, I wanted to emphasize my academic success in medical school. Now I never told an interviewer in answering this question that I was 98th percentile on Step 1, Junior AOA, and had received various other academic honors, but instead I just mentioned to them that I had been very successful academically. I think more important is how I framed that statement. I have been very successful academically, but haven’t just been sitting in the library 24/7 during medical school. I’ve also been super involved with leadership on top of all of this. Building a response like this demonstrates to interviewers many qualities in one mega-packed sentence: intelligence (strong academic performance), time management (balancing coursework and activities), leadership (being involved in student organizations). This is what you want to do in answering this question. Let your words not only tell of your accomplishments and journey, but also let them suggest the qualities that programs are seeking out in future residents at their programs.
What if there are major weaknesses in your application? How would you go about answering this question? Let’s use an example. Maybe you didn’t perform as well academically as you would have liked either on your board scores or clerkship rotations. That’s okay. This is your chance to put yourself in control of the conversation. Let’s consider a hypothetical scenario where a student didn’t score well on Step 1 but knocked Step 2 CK out of the park. A good talking point to include here might be, “While I didn’t perform up to my potential on Step 1, I worked hard and drastically improved my Step 2 CK score by hard work, focus, and preparation. That is the same dedication, focus, and level of performance that I am going to exude as a resident.” You addressed a weakness in your application on your own terms, contextualized it for the interviewers, demonstrated why they shouldn’t worry about it when ranking you, and focused their attention to the future. That is the key with any weaknesses that may be on your application. Take control of the conversation and frame them to highlight your strengths. That takes us to the next and final part of answering this question.
Look to the Future
“Initial interest in urology, but throughout all this, really fell in love with plastic surgery as a discipline and am looking for a high-volume center to train for residency and a place where I can be exposed to all aspects of the field.”Take control of the interview and refocus it on why you are applying to this specialty and why you are interested in this program. Finishing your response in this manner gives you the opportunity to, again, establish the tone and can demonstrate to them that you are an individual with goals, vision, and purpose. For example, if you were to read over my CV when I was applying, it read a lot like an application to urology and not plastic surgery. I started a Movember fundraiser for prostate cancer, was urology interest group president, received an AUA research grant, and the majority of my research was on kidney stones. I needed to explain why I wanted to be a plastic surgeon despite all of these non-plastic surgery experiences. The reason for including it as a detail in this open ended prompt is to do so on my terms. Oftentimes, interviewers would loop back later in the interview and ask for me to discuss in greater detail about my transition from urology to plastic surgery which I was happy to provide them. Instead of hiding those experiences, I framed them to demonstrate how they helped me in deciding to apply for a plastic surgery residency.
I also think that it is great to discuss what you are looking for in a program, and you may want to tailor this to where you are interviewing. For instance, don’t say to a program with a required research year that you don’t want to do research and want to just go straight into private practice. Also, don’t say how important research is to you if the program has zero research output. While you want to be yourself and find the best program for you, you also want every program to rank you as highly as possible. Blanket, safe statements are okay. The line I used was, “I want to train at a high-volume center and a place where I can be exposed to all aspects of the field.” It is very hard to criticize someone saying that they want to work really hard and be well-rounded.
The “Tell me about yourself” question can be asked in a variety of manners. “Tell me about yourself.” “Why don’t you start and tell us about your background?” “Who is (insert your name)?” “What should we know about you before we get started?” “Do you have any remarks before we get started?” You should be expecting this question and be prepared for it. Write out your response to this question today and spend time thinking on it. Your answer to this question is more times than not the first impression interviewers will have of you. Make your words count and tell the story that you want them to hear.
What questions do you have about making your opening statement? Leave a comment below or contact Med Student Edge directly.