Interview Communication Skills

January is over, most med school interview invitations are out. If you have an invite to interview at a medical school, congratulations! The first thing you should do is read my previous post on interview preparation. Now that you are done reading about the types of interviews and how to prepare for each one specifically, this post is going to deal with one area of interview preparation many students underperform in: communication skills.

I personally assist many different premedical students prepare for medical school interviews. I have seen a wide range of different skill levels, but what makes individuals stand out is less so their answer, and more so their communication skills. The interviewers are seeing many students of different backgrounds and unique experiences, but many of the answers to the questions will share similarities. Most will correctly answer the ethics question, most will have experience with conflict, and most will have a good reason for wanting to be a doctor. What differentiates individuals at the higher level is how the information is presented and how it is perceived. The interviewer is human. They are not in the student’s head and may have had a long day listening to many people interview. The best way to ensure that your point gets across and that it is seen favorably is to ensure you are communicating properly. This reduces the chance of your point being misinterpreted or misheard and maximizes the chances that it comes across in a positive manner.

How can you improve your communication skills? The best first step is to watch good public speakers. Go on YouTube and look up various historical speakers as well as corporate marketing events such as product launches. You can also watch great public speakers who run Ted talks. When watching speeches ask yourself questions such as, how many times are the speakers adding in “uhh” between their words? What is the speed at which they are speaking? How much hand movement are they using? How are they adjusting their tone? These should all be in your mind as you watch these speeches. Another bonus would be to reflect on speeches you thought were excellent by writing down what they did that made them so good and how you can learn from them.

The best way to learn is through failure, and it is always better to learn through someone else’s failure than your own so here is a list of my “top 5” communication blunders I see students struggle with the most.

1 – Speaking too fast

If you are interested in medicine there is a good chance your mind is running at 200km/h and you feel like you want to get to the point. Take a deep breath in and slow it down. Speaking too fast makes it difficult for the individual interviewing you to follow you and increases the odds of them getting lost in your phrases. This makes the value of what is being said diminish. So, if you know you speak too fast normally (I am very guilty of this) you need to be aware of it and make an active effort to slow yourself down.

2 – Saying too much

Sometimes less is more. I have heard students when interviewing fill up their time slot and throw in tons of content. This usually goes hand-in-hand with speaking too fast in that they want to fill up the time they have with as much of their ideas to try to maximize their potential “check boxes”. When it comes to interviews, sometimes less is more. You do not need to fill your entire 8 minutes of an MMI scenario speaking at very fast rate without breaks or gaps. As with speaking too fast, sometimes you need to take a breath, pause and then continue on but do not ramble. If you feel like your point has been made, wrap it up since any further speaking will diminish the value of the words that have been spoken prior.

3 – Monotone

The tone of your voice is so crucial to your communication. You do not want to be monotone, but you also don’t want your tone moving all over the place. Change in tone should be used to emphasize points and key ideas you are trying to communicate. Use it appropriately to avoid being monotone and to keep your dialogue interesting, but don’t abuse it.

4 – No structure

While an interview answer does not need to, and probably should not, be perfectly structured, having an overall frame and relative direction can really enhance it. I like to follow the general essay format when trying to answer ethics related questions, which I highlighted in my previous blog post. When it comes to personal responses, I tend to paint a narrative with a structure involving relevant background on the topic, my personal experience and anything related to it, and then a summary at the end in a chronological-type order. You need to determine a way to organize the information you wish to communicate so that it is best heard. There is no right way to do it but use the time before you start talking and answering the question to quickly build a frame of reference and roadmap of where you are headed once you start. This also brings me to another issue students tend to do. They start talking immediately after a question is asked. It is much better to leave at least a couple seconds of silence before you start talking for most questions and if you are stumped, ask for some time to think about the question first. There is no penalty for taking time, and it demonstrates you have really thought about the question while also ensuring that you are ready to answer before you start talking. The end result is that it makes your answer tend to sound better than individuals that just start talking immediately after they are asked a question. Now this varies based on the nature of questions, and if it is a follow-up question with a very quick response, this does not apply, but if you are in a panel and they are asking you a new question, you should take a moment and think before you start talking.

5 – Non-verbal communication

Remember that most of what is said is not actually said through your words. From how you are dressed to your posture to your facial expression, it all plays a role. During your interview really be aware of your body, the position you are seated in, and your facial expressions. Try to smile as much as possible, keep good posture and ensure that you are dressed well. Also use hand gestures, although do not abuse them. As with tone, use them to emphasize points. These are all factors that will adjust how your answers are perceived and while they won’t “make or break” your interview, they are modifiable factors you have direct control over and should attempt to optimize.

Be human and stay calm

One of the biggest things to remember is to be human. I made my interviewers laugh at numerous stations in my MMI and MPI, I would demonstrate my passion for certain topics by bringing emotion out in my speech without letting it rule my dialogue, and I would just be a friendly person. At the end of the day, what everyone involved in the process wants is someone that will be a good physician. Your grades proved you are smart enough to be a doctor, your application make you look well-rounded on paper, now the interview is trying to see if you are a person that other physicians would want as future colleagues or members of the community would want as their future physicians. While some interview formats provide more of an opportunity to be human (arguably these will also more successfully determine who is a better fit), try your best to just sell yourself as a human that cares and is passionate about medicine, but most of all helping people. Try your best not to be nervous by attempting to enjoy the process. I loved my interview dates, I found them stimulating because I got to share my story with so many different individuals, got to see the different medical schools and got to chat with so many other students interested in medicine. In between interview stations I would do squats and loosen up a bit and joke around with the volunteers to try and keep my energy levels up. If you can learn to enjoy the interview process, you will far less nervous and that will help you really ensure you perform the best you can.

A final piece of advice

I think the biggest piece of advice I can give to students reading this blog is do not see the person interviewing you as an obstacle standing in your way, see them as a human trying to help you get in. If you change your frame of reference this may alleviate some stress, and allow you to really show them who you are and why you deserve to be there.

Good luck!

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