Episode 3: The Interview Day

A discussion with Dr. Darrel Waggoner, Associate Professor of Human Genetics and Pediatrics and a Chairman of the Admissions Committee at the University of Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine, about some important issues regarding the interview day.

If you have questions for us, please send them to pritzkerquestions@gmail.com.

Embedded Links:
Dr. Waggoner’s Physician Profile

Episode 3 Transcript

Ben Ferguson: Hey folks, this is Episode 3 of the Pritzker Podcast and I am Ben Ferguson, joined as always by Mary Bister. Hey Mary.

Mary Bister: Hey Ben, how are you?

BF: Good, how are you?

MB: I’m great.

BF: We are fortunate to be joined for this Episode 3 by Dr. Darrel Waggoner, who is an Associate Professor in the Department of Human Genetics and in Pediatrics here at the University of Chicago Medical Center, and he’s also one of three chairmen of the Admissions Committee–there are three Admissions Committees here; he’s a chairman of one of them–and so he is intimately involved with interviewing applicants and evaluating applicants who have been interviewed. And so we are very fortunate to have Dr. Waggoner join us. Hey Dr. Waggoner.

Darrel Waggoner: Hello! I’m glad to be here.

§ “An Introduction To Dr. Waggoner”

BF: Yeah, thanks for taking some time to be with us. Dr. Waggoner, I think, we’re just going to talk a little bit first about your background, how you ended up at Pritzker and teaching at the University of Chicago, and then we’ll get into some of your roles on the Admissions Committee and some interviews specific stuff. So, can you just tell us a little bit about your general medical background–how you ended up here?

DW: Sure. So I went undergrad at St. Louis University and afterwards worked for several years in a research lab in genetics as a research tech, and during that time period, got exposed to genetics, both from a research basis and a medical basis, because of the PI that I worked with was a clinician. And I befriended all the fellows and nutritionists while I was in the research lab and would spend a lot of time with them and became very interested in medicine as a career and in genetics, particularly, at that time. So it was based on those experiences that I went to medical school at Washington University and then eventually went on to do pediatrics residency training at the University of Chicago and a chief resident year at the University of Chicago, and then went back to Washington University, to the original lab that I had started in and the same group of people to do my fellowship training. And I did, at that point, one clinical year and three postdoc years in the lab, in human genetics, and became board certified in medical genetics through the American Board of Medical Genetics, which is a subspecialty of medicine, and then at that point took my first faculty position, which was here at the University of Chicago as an assistant professor–a junior faculty person–and have been here ever since.

BF: Cool, yeah, it sounds like you went sort of back and forth but you ended up at the right place.

DW: Right.

BF: And then what sorts of things do you do? Do you teach or do you just see patients aside from your role in the Admissions Committee?

DW: So, as is the case, I think, for most people who stay in academic medicine, I do a number of things. So I am involved in patient care and about half of my time is spent in providing patient care, both on an inpatient and outpatient basis. We have active clinics as well as do a number of consults across the medical centers–so both in pediatrics, adults, surgery, OB-GYN–all disciplines. So about half my time is spent on clinical medicine, a quarter of my time is spent on education–and that’s through actually teaching; I’m the director of two classes at Pritzker, one in the basic sciences year, the first year medical genetics class, and also a fourth year class, which is a scientific advances class, a classroom class you can take in your fourth year, as well as I give intermittent lectures throughout the medical arena in pediatrics as part of education, and I’m also involved at Pritzker through curriculum work, some of the committees on promotion and curricular review, and then also my work on in the Admissions Committee at Pritzker. And then about 25% of my time is spent on administrative activities. I’m the director of two clinical labs and the director of PhD and medical fellowship training programs, so there’s a fair amount of administrative work that goes into those type of programs. So I think that’s reflective of most people who are in academic medicine–that you wear multiple hats–and one of the things that I think is quite attractive about a career in academic medicine is that you get to do a number of different things and so everyday is a new challenge and a new opportunity to learn, and that’s what I do here.


MB: I was just wondering what do you like about being here at Pritzker?

DW: So, to me, the thing I like about being here at Pritzker is the camaraderie and collaborative approach that most of the people take. The institution is relatively small and the departments are relatively small compared to many institutions, and based on that, then you come in close contact with people in your own department as well as multiple departments and you meet people who are doing all types of research and those conversations around the coffee shop, the school where all of our children go–these types of opportunities exist for us to provide collaboration through the work that we do. So, to me, that’s the biggest advantage at Pritzker is its size allows you to get to know and meet people, which is very interesting to learn what other people do but then also to see how that interacts with the own work that you do. The other thing I like is my work with the Pritzker School of Medicine. I think that Pritzker–I really enjoy working with medical students. I work with the administrative staff of the medical school, and I really enjoy the opportunities that I have to meet them and learn more about the recruitment process, the admissions process. I went to medical school at Washington University in St. Louis, and at least at that point, back in the late ’80s. It was a very competitive environment, and I like here at Pritzker that the–for a variety of different reasons–there’s less competition and it allows the students to take a more realistic, I think, approach to learning. So those are the two things that I think standout the most about my work at the University of Chicago.

BF: Dr. Waggoner, I have to ask, since you spent so much time in St. Louis, are you a Cardinals fan?

DW: No. I grew up in the South so I’m an Atlanta Braves fan, actually.

BF: Oh okay, well that’s a little bit better then.

MB: Yeah, that kind of transitions into a question I wanted to ask, so when it comes to the interview process, is the applicant’s favorite baseball team an important factor or THE most important factor?

DW: Well, it depends clearly on who you’re doing the interview with. So if you walk into a faculty member’s office and the walls are covered with baseball paraphernalia and pictures of favorite baseball players, then clearly that may be considered a very important factor. But for some people, I don’t think I would jump off the first thing that I did was starting to talk about baseball because there maybe some people who won’t find that nearly as important.

MB: Once you get to Dr. Waggoner’s medical genetics class, you will understand the supreme importance of baseball. It takes absolute precedence in the classroom.

DW: Certainly, baseball is the thing we start off with every day. I’m trying to emphasize that there is more in all of this than just lectures and learning, and life still comes into play here.

MB: Absolutely. And it’s a lot of fun.

§ “What should I *not* do during an interview?”

BF: Dr. Waggoner, in your experience of interviewing all the students you’ve interviewed, is there a tip that you have for students who are coming here, sort of some things that you shouldn’t do in an interview, in your experience?

DW: Well, I think that, clearly, there are some things that you should not do, I think, and most of them are just–make a basic sense. Rarely does it occur, but sometimes people, I think, try to project a comfortableness or casualness by coming dressed less than a suit and tie for males or a nice dress for females and that certainly does not work. You want to look professional when you arrive and you want to be on good behavior. I think that–so don’t let any ideas that that’s important become too strong. I think, when you’re here for the interview day, most people, I think, are very nervous about interviews, but as much as you can, I think that you should try to take an approach that’s being honest–being yourself–is really the right way to go, and no one here at Pritzker, or I think in general in the interview process, is trying to put people on the spot or to make this process more stress-inducing than it already is. So try to relax, but also remember that while you’re at a medical school interview, and especially at Pritzker, the whole day is a reflection of you as a person. So, from the moment you arrive in the morning–and your interactions with other candidates throughout the interview process, with faculty members, students, tours, the types of questions you ask–the attitudes that you have will be observed and reflect on you, and I think sometimes people can make a mistake by feeling like they’ve had their two interviews for the day; they’ve had their student interview; perhaps, now they’re on a tour, and then, sort of relax a little bit and inadvertently may say something that they wish they hadn’t, or make some comments that retrospectively they wish that they hadn’t.

So just remember that the whole day is important, and keep that in mind when you’re at an interview. I think that you should not try to be controversial. You should not try to say things that are going to point you out as different. I think that, sometimes, people get advice on the interview process that you need to do something that makes you different from all the other people that have been interviewed that day or that week or that month. But, certainly, you don’t want to say controversial or different kinds of things that are going to–because that will make you stand out but not in a positive way. And I think those are “basic sense” kind of things to think about, of things that you should not do during an interview.

BF: Right, that’s good advice. Do you have any advice, also, on how students should prepare for an interview, in terms of knowing their own application, knowing about the school, and so forth, that they are going to?

DW: So before we talk about that, perhaps, I should turn around and ask you guys as you think back about when you’re doing interviews, can you also think of advice to give people about what not to do, or things that you observed other people doing that you thought to yourself, well, I’m glad I didn’t do that?

MB: Hmm. I guess it kind of boils down to “don’t be a big jerk” is the best advice that I could give. And I think that’s, like you said, it’s pretty common sense. It was pretty clear–you’re sitting in the rooms with all different groups of people and sometimes you see the same people over and over again on the interview trail, and you get to know pretty quickly who’s a personable, friendly person and who’s just really not, and I think that probably comes through in the interviews as well.

BF: Right. And for me as well, when I was actually being interviewed at medical schools, I was, at first, extraordinarily nervous and the advice that you had, Dr. Waggoner, was good–that you should just take it a little bit easy and that’s how your personality really comes out, and you can give a school the appropriate information about yourself that you want to convey and they can sort of take that away without having to look through the obvious signs of distress in your face, I guess. But also in my experience of interviewing students who are applying to Pritzker, for me at least, it’s extremely easy to see right off the bat if someone’s telling the truth, if they’re being realistic about their experiences, or whether they’re just telling you something that you want to hear. And it’s a little bit annoying, honestly, to ask a very honest question and have someone sort of fabricate their answer just to make themselves look better. So, my advice to anyone who is interviewing is just be as real as possible about your prior experiences and just present yourself in a very honest way, I guess.

DW: No, I think that that‘s a good point to follow up on a little bit. One of the things that we look for in candidates as we’re reviewing their applications–and this is from the Admissions Committee’s side, not the candidates that I’ve interviewed–but it has become obviously very competitive for students to get into medical school and now requirements are more than just grades. It’s the requirements so that you demonstrated social service work, that you demonstrated community activity, that you’ve worked in the hospital setting or a clinical setting to be exposed to medicine, and all of these things are looked at. And we don’t look at the number of things that you’ve done, and there isn’t a magic checklist of, oh, they did two things but not three; we looked at how much you threw yourself into the activities that you did. Did you do them from heartfelt desires, and did you really throw yourself into them with all of your energy? And so, if you–I think that one of the things that you’re saying, Ben, is if you come in and try to grandiose the things that you’ve done, it becomes very clear in the interview process that you aren’t really speaking from a true in-depth experience, and that you’re trying to just make things sound better than they are, where if you‘ve really been involved in activities, then you focus on those things, and you talk about them, and if that means you may not have done 12 different volunteer things, that’s perfectly fine, as long as the ones that you did, you really put your efforts into in an honest way.

§ “How much do interviews count for? Why three interviews?”

BF: We touched on this a little bit in the previous episode with Joni Huff, but I’d like to ask you as well: How much does the interview really count for, in terms of its percentage of the total application? Is it looked at as a more important part or less important part than the other components of the application?

DW: Well, I don’t think that–we certainly don’t have a formula where the interview accounts for a certain percent in all candidates and so that is not the way that it looked at, and so it is really on an individual basis. Certainly, if an interview goes poorly, especially if multiple interviews go poorly–so if multiple people who interviewed the candidate during the day felt uncomfortable with that candidate, got bad vibes from that candidate–then that is an incredibly powerful and highly weighted piece of information in this competitive process of applicants. So at that point would be a huge percentage of the decision, if there are multiple experiences in an interview went poorly. For a candidate who otherwise is quite competitive and has all the criteria and components to make a good fit for Pritzker, interviews that went fine play very little–that won’t be the thing that tips it over the edge for you to get in or not. For candidates who are sort of on the bubble, so to speak, who people are interested in but there’s some component that’s not putting them solidly into the acceptance range, then the interview would take more precedence and certainly be considered higher, especially if it was a positive interview. So a bubble person who meets with a faculty member who can really get a feel for that person and speak highly of them, then that will be weighted more. So, in these different scenarios, the interview plays a different weighted role in the decision process. It isn’t just standard from one thing to the other, the most important thing being, it’s very important to try to have a good interview. I think that’s-

BF: Stop there?

DW: Yeah, stop there.

MB: I think it’s interesting that Pritzker chooses to have three interviews for each candidate and I’m wondering if you could talk a little bit about why you have each one of those interviews.

DW: Well, so the interviews here are done by an administrative staff from the Office of Medical Education–the Admissions staff–and one interview by a faculty member at the University of Chicago, and one member by a Pritzker student, which, early in the years, typically fourth year students. And the reason for multiple interviews is, in part, what I just commented on is that, we recognized that not every person will get on fabulously in an interview setting with every other person. So occasionally, they’re just circumstances or faculty members who just rush in from a huge lab experiment problem or whatever, in a very stressful situation, and that interview might not go as well, not because of any problems with the candidate but just because of the circumstances. And so one good thing about having three interviews is that then you get a feel for that. And we see, not infrequently, that one of the interviewers says, I just didn’t get a good feel for this person; I wasn’t quite sure, and obviously, they just didn’t hit it off of them very well, whereas the other two interviews went fantastic, and so, we tend not to put too much weight on just one experience when the other two are very positive.

But if, as I said, all three interviews say this was a great person or there was some problems or concerns then you feel more reliable in that. So we aren’t just placing decisions based on one interaction with one person, so that should make candidates feel comfortable that the pressure isn’t to perform in this one interview. It’s really going to be looked at throughout the day. The reason why we have three different people meet is the Office of Medical Education staff are very well-versed at reviewing all the candidates. They’ve all had experience as advisors at the undergraduate level to medicine in the past. They bring great insight into looking at a candidate’s performance, the schools they went to, the opportunity–they have a lot of knowledge about what kind of opportunities were available at those schools, and how did these candidates take advantage of those opportunities, so that staff brings that kind of information to the table.

Faculty at the University of Chicago, obviously, should be able to provide the candidate with information about the University itself, the environment, the medical environment, the Pritzker School of Medicine, from a faculty perspective as well as it brings a different perspective at interviewing the candidates and evaluating them from the standpoint of how do they feel this person will perform in the clinics later, and how sociable did they seem to be, knowing that this is a stressful time. How do they respond to that? And if a candidate simply just can’t get over their fears or concerns or stressful situation and relax and move on, that would be reflected. And medicine is a stressful situation. Taking care of patients is a stressful and you have to be able to control those things and move on.

And then the students, we think, are incredibly valuable part of the interview process that have been committed as–which is not at all schools don’t have student interviews–but we feel it’s a very important process. The Pritzker students one are a very valuable voice to promote the school and can help candidates to really get a feel of what it’s like to be a student at Pritzker, and to understand the unique things and the reasons why they enjoy the Pritzker environment, as well as they’ve been to this process before, and often are some of the toughest judges on the candidates, and as you can well imagine, they’ve done a lot of successful things to get to the point where they are and they want their classmates to be just as successful and just as good people. And so they’re very tough on candidates in trying to determine who would make a good classmate for them, and so that’s a very useful piece of information as well. So, I think, each of the three interviews brings a different perspective that’s very important.

§ “Is less more? How should I prepare for interviews?”

BF: Dr. Waggoner, there’s always a lot of advice flying around the premed world about what to do in certain situations when you’re asked a certain question in interviews, and two of those questions are: A) “What else would you like to tell me about yourself?” (at the end of the interview) and B) “Do you have any questions for me?” Do you have any advice on what to do in those situations, whether it’s okay to just sort of leave those alone or whether it’s sort of obligatory to say something at that point?

DW: No, I think you’ll be well served by having something to say in those situations, and you have to remember that the person you’re interviewing with doesn’t know what questions you’ve already asked throughout the day. So, at a minimum, if you have two or three questions that you’ve already asked two or three times today, at a minimum you just ask those two or three questions again. What I hear from people is like, “Oh no, all my questions have been answered.” And what goes through my mind is, I have no idea how many questions you asked, I don’t know what those questions were, and I don’t know what kind of information you wanted. And even though they may have been great questions and you’ve got great answers to them, I’ve now lost out on an ability to judge your thought process by you not asking those same great questions. So even if you don’t have any new questions at that point, ask the same questions again. You’ll get a unique perspective from each different person, so it won’t be a waste of time and I think that’s very valuable. When asked about, “What, you know–tell me something about yourself”: Be prepared. And it doesn’t necessarily have to be anything great. I mean, say, “I did a triathlon,” or say, “know how to build a campfire.” Come up with something, and all I think that people are trying to do is open up the opportunity to spark some conversation, now, about something different to have an opportunity just to learn more about you, and if you have no response, it doesn’t reflect well.

MB: Oh, I hate to say that I don’t have any further questions now but a…

DW: Got to come out. No, earlier, Ben, you had asked about what should you do to prepare for an interview day and I had to cut you off, and we didn’t address that.

BF: Sure.

DW: And I think that there are things that you should do to prepare for an interview day. At least when I’m interviewing a candidate, I think it reflects well when the candidates come with some knowledge about the institution. Certainly, if someone, a candidate, says to me, “Oh, well I don’t know anything about Pritzker School of Medicine or the University of Chicago. Why don’t you tell me about it?” And my reaction to that is, didn’t even look on the internet or the Web about information that’s available, or things that were provided or mission statements that are clearly available on internets for medical schools. And so, it seems to me that then the lack of–that projects itself as a lack of sincerity and interest in that school. So at the minimum, explore the websites of the medical schools. Read their mission statements about what their ideals are. Think about them and, on the plane ride, in the 10-minute taxi ride from wherever you’re staying to school, reflect on those things. And if you do that then that will show in your interview process, and if you address those kind of issues and especially incorporate them into your questions, then it reflects that you’ve thought about things, that you–and so that projects that you are truly interested in that particular school. I don’t think that people should worry so much about trying to prepare medical facts like–on a rare occasion, you probably will have an interview where someone may ask you some specific scientific knowledge piece of information, but there’s no way you can prepare for something like that and that’s just sort of inappropriate. For the most part, people are going to ask open-ended questions that what they want to hear is honest reflection on your part about those responses.

All too often, I think, candidates have a list of questions that they get from interview books–oh, why do you want to go into medicine?–and they write out a scripted response and they memorize it and then in the interview setting, just sort of spill back on this pat response, and I would advise against that. You should reflect on those issues and you should be prepared to talk about them, but don’t give just a pat, same response that you give to everyone because then I’m going to challenge you, if I detect that’s the case, and ask you some of kind of questions off the beaten path to try to get reflections of what you think about things that may not be from some prepared question that you have because I want to know how you perform in those situations–what your thought processes are. Have you really thought about medicine in a broader sense? So thinking along those kind of lines is very helpful.

§ “Should I be prepared to talk about research?”

BF: And related to that, in terms of students talking about their own research if they’ve had that experience, is that something that, in your experience, something that tends to be asked about during interviews here at University of Chicago?

DW: Yes, I think that, certainly, I ask about those things and it seems to be a common thread amongst the interviewers that we read their reports, is that if you have done some basic sciences, people will ask you about that. And the main reason why they’re asking you about it is to try to assess how immersed did you get into the research and how well did you understand it, so superficial answers that don’t reflect deep understanding or comprehension of what you were doing will not be viewed well. That doesn’t mean that you need to have a 12-page manuscript prepared and to read that manuscript to someone. Often, the people you’ll be interviewing with won’t have any background in the research that you did, and so it won’t be a scientific discussion about those issues but they’re just interested to know what did you do. Why was it interesting? What did you find? And they want you to be able to talk about it intelligently and succinctly so you need to be prepared to discuss you research, but you have to think about it in advance. You can’t just start rambling on for 25 minutes about your research project. You need to think about what you did, what were the implications of it, why was it important, how do you went about doing it, and be able to answer those questions in depth but succinctly, and that’s a very important part of the interview process, at least at Pritzker.

§ “Final Thoughts”

BF: Dr. Waggoner, anything else you want to add?

DW: No. I think that’s–this is a good starting point about the interview process and I think as we’ve already said, just to reinforce that you should try to remember that no one’s purpose is to bring out deficits or to torture people, so try to be as relaxed as you can, be as honest as you can, don’t be try to grandiose your responses, and think about these issues before you come and then, I think, the interview process will be an enjoyable one. It’s also the opportunity for you to learn about the institution so some of your questions should reflect that–that you want to know from the people that you’re meeting with about the institution itself and what are some of its values, and the reality of the education that you’re going to get there, and then it should be fun.

BF: Well, thanks, Dr. Waggoner. Thanks again for taking the time to join us. It was fun.

DW: No problem.

MB: Yeah, it was great to have you here.

BF: Well, again, this was the third episode of the Pritzker Podcast. Again, we are joined by Mary Bister and Dr. Darrel Waggoner. We’d like to remind you, once again, that if you have questions or suggestions for the show, you should email those to pritzkerquestions@gmail.com and look for future episodes and upcoming months with the other two chairpeople of the Admissions Committees, Dr. Karen Kim and Dr. Anthony Montag. So long!

MB: Goodbye!

§ “A Clarification From Joni”

BF: So Joni, if you’ve had a chance to listen to the most recent episode with Dr. Waggoner–what do you think?

Joni Huff: I thought it was a wonderful conversation, and I think, definitely, Dr. Waggoner’s personality came out and he has such good advice for applicants, which I think is really, really important. The only thing that I would clarify, just because I know, especially women we have so many choices with our wardrobe, that can really make things very complex. That, certainly, for women, it is absolutely fine to wear a dress, a skirt, a pant suit, a pair of dress pants, and a nice sweater set–I mean, whatever is professional wear is completely fine. So I just wanted to clarify so that people weren’t feeling as though they had to run out and buy a dress. Certainly, women can wear pant suits as well. And the only other thing that I would just add something to, given the number of applications that I have the opportunity to read and the number of applicants I have the opportunity to meet on their interview day, when Dr. Waggoner was talking about people who are a little bit too different or a little bit too controversial in their interviews, I think definitely a lot of people get advice that you want to leave an impression, and we often see essays that are kind of more of a creative writing example than they are a professional piece of communication And we certainly celebrate people’s differences and we really want to get to know the true person and understand all of the unique qualities that everybody brings to the table. But the point basically that Dr. Waggoner was trying to make is that you don’t want to be different just for the sake of being different. You don’t want to capture our attention by doing something kind of so out there that we’re, a little bit, wondering about your professional behavior. So starting an application essay where it starts with, “‘Wow!'” she said.” Okay, it captures your attention but it’s not necessarily the professional piece of writing that we would go for. Having someone try to stir up controversy during an interview, just because maybe it makes you look more interesting or insightful or something like that, I guess I wouldn’t necessarily go with that either.

We certainly want you to be yourself but I wouldn’t say that you want to walk into an interview–you know, I had somebody who made a religious slur during an interview with me and, although I definitely remember that person to this day and it happened three years ago, it was not–that’s not what you want to be remembered for. So I think, definitely, paying attention to differences is one wonderful but you don’t necessarily want to be forcefully outlandish because you think it will capture our attention.

MB: I think that’s definitely good advice.

BF: Okay, well thanks, Joni. Thanks for the clarification. We’ll have to make sure that Dr. Waggoner is down with his female attire lingo before we invite him back.

JH: I know his wife will probably kill me for saying that.

BF: We’ll give him an exam before he comes.

JH: Yes, that would be perfect.

BF: Okay, it sounds good.

JH: Excellent. And then I just wanted to mention, too, for anybody who’s listening to this podcast, we know that our applicant status portal can cause some interesting questions, so I will be chatting with Ben and Mary to help explain the portal and what all of those decisions mean as well in an upcoming episode.

BF: Indeed. Coming up! Stay tuned.