Describe a mistake you have made

This is a difficult question because it forces you to describe a failure. We all make mistakes. Every medical student, every resident, every attending. Though you are describing a mistake, you want to provide an answer that recapitulates your experience in a positive light.

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Basics

You have the opportunity to prepare for this question in advance and carefully select a mistake that doesn’t demonstrate gross negligence, poor effort, or inappropriate behavior. Don’t share a really big mistake that you have made that depicts you as a future liability to a program. Choose an actual mistake where you did something wrong, but select one where the damage caused or negative effects are marginal.

Like any answer in which you are asked to describe something about yourself in a negative connotation, you want to find ways to turn every negative into a positive. Yes, I made this mistake, but here is how I grew from it and why I am better today because of that experience. Doing so elevates your interviewing skills to the next level. Address their question, but pivot your response to focus on learning and personal growth.

Type of Mistake

There are different kinds of mistakes. Errors can be due to a variety of factors including gross negligence, incompetence, carelessness, inexperience, or chance. Pick a mistake that is forgivable and a mistake you made because you were trying to do something good or helpful. It is hard to find fault in an applicant who describes an honest mistake that happened despite his or her best intentions.

You can also describe mistakes that occur in different settings. When the question is posed very generally, it still makes sense to discuss a mistake that you have made in medical school, whether that be in an educational, research, or clinical setting. Discussing a mistake that you made in high school playing sports or in college choosing an area of study just seems too distant from the topic at hand: applying to residency. It makes sense to speak about a mistake that in some way involves your medical school training.

“Address their question, but pivot your response to focus on learning and personal growth.”

Dr. Carter J. Boyd, Founder, Med Student Edge

Example

I described a mistake that I made on my first week of clerkship rotations as a brand new third year medical student. I was on the renal transplant service and noticed on the first day of rounds that the attending was upset that the dressings were not already removed from the patients. Trying to be a helpful medical student, the next morning I removed all of the dressings on the patients while pre-rounding. When we got to the first patient on rounds, the attending was furious. “Who the hell took off a dressing on a POD1 patient?!?!”

Oops. That was me.

I went on to describe in my interview response that this mistake taught me an invalubale lesson. Taking down a gauze dressing on a POD1 kidney transplant donor is not going to cause major consequences. However, mistakes we make in healthcare can have drastic impacts on patient outcomes. This mistake taught me the importance of clarifying, asking questions, and being sure I understand when or why something should be done…or not done.

This is a perfect example of a mistake to discuss in an interview. It is clinical in nature, it did not cause any complications or problems, and there is a larger, broadly applicable theme that was learned from the mistake.

Summary

Choose a mistake wisely. Pick an event that you can turn into a positive and will not cast overtly negative attention to yourself in an interview process. Focus on what you learned and how you became better because of that experience.

Are you nervous about discussing mistakes you have made with interviewers? Why or why not? Comment below.

Back to more interview questions and structured responses.

Carter J. Boyd, MD, MBA
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