Episode 5: Students’ Interview Experiences (Part 1/2)

Discussions with four current Pritzker students about their experiences on the interview trail, memories from their own interviews at Pritzker, and some advice for those of you interviewing in the near future.

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

Episode 5 Transcript

Ben Ferguson: Hi again everyone. Welcome once again to the Pritzker podcast. This is episode five and today, we’re talking to our fellow students about their own interview experiences. This one is a little bit different in that Mary and I went out into the field, so to speak, to do the interviews one-on-one. We asked each of the students to speak briefly about their backgrounds before having come to Pritzker, to tell us any interesting stories that they have from their experiences on the interview trail, and to tell us about their own experiences during Pritzker’s interview day and if they had any advice to give to prospective applicants and interviewees at Pritzker.

§ Laura Hodges

I first spoke with a brand new student in the MS-11 class, Laura Hodges.

Laura Hodges: My name is Laura Hodges. I’m an MS-11. I went to New York University in Manhattan and graduated from there in 2000, so I have been out of school for several years, and after I graduated, I went into the world of libraries and I worked as a library assistant for several years, for about four years, and didn’t know that I wanted to be a doctor when I was first in school and my major was film production so it really had nothing to do with science, but working in the library where I was, a medical library, got me interested in medicine and I quit my job after four years, went back to school, did the post-bacc thing, and now I’m here.

The interview experiences that I had were all surprisingly a lot more laid back than I thought that they were going to be. I was kind of prepared for that. I was prepared to just kind of be myself and not really be too staged with how I presented myself, but I was still expecting to get thrown a few curve balls and I really was surprised at how that generally was not the intention of anybody who was interviewing me and I was pleasantly surprised by that. It was just a lot of opportunities really to get to know the people who were interviewing me, and obviously for them to get to know me but in a much more casual–not like kicking back and having a couple of drinks while we’re doing it, but in a lot more free-flowing conversation style than I was expecting, so it was nice.

Pritzker was one of the few schools that I was interviewed by a student–I think it was one of the first-year students–and that was really nice because it gave me the opportunity also to ask questions and get a sense for what my interviewer’s impressions of the school were like.

I’ll say what I did to prepare which was I went over my resume before I went out and just refreshed myself with maybe a few of the details of things that I’d done a few years back just to be prepared to answer any questions in case anybody asks me about my application and my experiences. But other than that–I really didn’t spend a whole lot of time doing that. Other than that, I just was ready to go in and be myself. I just wanted to be as genuinely me as possible. I got the sense that that was what they were looking for anyway, so it kind of worked out in that respect.

I would say for things not to do–I don’t know, it was good–it is good to be prepared for a couple of questions, things like–I did get thrown a couple of curve balls at a few places, like “tell me what your biggest weakness is” or “what is your greatest strength”, really traditional interview questions, and I think it’s good to go over some of those. You can’t prepare yourself for everything and part of it is just being able to go with the flow, and I would say just relaxing and resting before the interview day and just being comfortable with where you are in your application, I think, is the key in a lot of ways.

§ Colleen Plein

BF: Next, Mary talked with a second year student, a fellow student of hers named Colleen Plein and she started off with talking about her own background before coming to Pritzker.

Colleen Plein: A bit more about me–well, first, let me apologize for being so hoarse and a little bit under the weather. A little bit, I guess, of my quick story is that I did my undergrad at Northwestern University. I graduated in 2006 and came straight here to Pritzker. I also was not a science major; I didn’t major in biology or chemistry. I was actually a psychology major and took a little bit of a different route with my undergraduate work, kind of like Mary did.

Probably the only funny thing is that my very first interview actually, they interview multiple people on the same day and so there was this girl and we were kind of talking the whole day and then we were talking about maybe sharing a cab ride to the airport but it didn’t work out. I never saw her again obviously until I came here to Pritzker, and she is a member of our class now, and so when we saw each other, we were like, “Wait a minute. Didn’t we interview together over at that other school?” So yeah, so I guess you never know who you might meet on the interview trail; even if it’s at other schools, they might end up–you know, it’s kind of one small group of people.

I wouldn’t label it as horrible, but at one school, I went into an interview with one of the physicians there, and it was very clear–maybe did this with everyone–but he had already made up his mind like, “Being a doctor is really, really hard, and you sort of need to prove to me that you can do it.” So he started out from this thing of well, how are you going to handle this, this and this and all these things in your life, and he was very stern about it but then I don’t know I guess I must have said the right thing because by the end of the interview, he was very positive. He was like, “Oh, I think you can do this.” Different interviewers–most interviewers, they are very personable and they want you to do well and they want you to succeed but every now and again, you’ll get those hard-nosed people that are like, “You need to prove to me that you can be a doctor,” so I think you just have to be on the look out for that.

I thought the whole day was really great. I loved the day. I kind of knew right away, within the first half an hour or so, I was like, okay, this is where I want to go to school, and it wasn’t my first choice before I got here. The interviews themselves, though, I honestly didn’t think that they went particularly well; I didn’t think that they went badly, but I didn’t walk out of there being like, “Oh wow, I knocked their socks off.” So I don’t know. To me, I sort of feel like I kind of got lucky. So I guess the lesson to all of you out there is sometimes how you think it went and how it actually went–maybe you think you totally bombed; odds are, you probably did fine anyway.

When you arrive here, they sort of sit you down in the conference room and they give you this little spiel about the kind of student that they’re looking for and I think the biggest thing that struck me was they talked about not just wanting students who were satisfied to learn what there is to know and move on. They wanted people who were going to push the envelope, who wanted to know more and make medicine better, not necessarily that you could effect huge change like that as a student, but that your goal for your career was not just to learn and then practice but to make medicine better, to go further and do more and go beyond, even if that means–one of the things that they have here is they’ve always been very, very nurturing of, like you said, the liberal arts thing, so if you’re into the social sciences aspect of medicine, you’re encouraged to do that just as much as you would be encouraged to do basic science. I think that’s one of the things that’s really unique about Pritzker is because you’re surrounded by the university setting and have access to so many great people, you can take your interest in any direction and it doesn’t all have to be “this protein” or “this molecule” and that’s just as encouraged.

There are a couple of interviews that I didn’t go on that I think maybe I should have gone on in retrospect, just to go to those schools and see what they were like. I don’t know. It’s tough for everyone because you have to balance–you’re spending money on airline tickets or hotels or time. I was in my senior year of college, so I was taking away from classes, so it was hard to balance at what point was I going to say no, I’m not going to go or things like that. It’s also I think maybe–I didn’t really spend a whole lot of time researching schools because I was more interested I guess–I’m from Chicago and I really wanted to stay in Chicago–so my focus was more geographical than it was on individual schools. I didn’t do a lot of research into whether a school was PBL or what kind of curriculum they had. I waited till I got there for them to tell me but then in the interviews, the interviewers would be like, “Well, why do you think this curriculum would work for you?” I sort of had to think on my feet and make up an answer because I hadn’t thought that far ahead, so I think it’s good to know at least a little bit about schools you’re going to and what their vision is of how medical education should be and how they go about that and how you would assume you would fit into that.

Mary Bister: Any other advice you would give to an applicant who is going on their first couple interviews?

CP: Don’t stress. I think if you’re at the point where you’ve already gotten an interview, you’re already, I think, past the biggest hurdle if you’ve gotten an interview. Be yourself. Don’t be who you think they want you to be. That being said, I don’t think you should never be disrespectful or arrogant or any of those sort of thing but you’re at that interview because that admissions committee has looked at your application and said “Okay, this is someone we want to get to know.” Anything that you can do to help them get to know you better or see who it is that you are is going to help you. So, I wouldn’t be all focused on giving them the answers they want to hear. I think the more open and honest you are and the more yourself you are, the more it’s going to help.

MB: Yeah. It’s a lot easier said than done, especially before you have your first acceptance.

CP: Yeah, that’s true. And maybe have a list of questions that you have a friend or parent or something give you a mock interview. That always helps. Another big piece of advice would definitely be: Have questions–when you are in an interview with someone, they’ll ask you, “Do you have any questions?” I always think it’s a great idea to have a question. Even if you ask that same question of multiple people, they’re not going to know and it makes you appear–not that you aren’t–but it makes you appear like you’ve done your research, like you’re interested, and I think makes you more engaged in an interview if you have a question that you can ask.

Here, when a student is interviewing you, they’re looking to see how you would fit into our community here. They don’t really care–I mean, we don’t even get access to what your grades or your MCAT scores are, and we don’t really care too much about what your research was or anything like that. We are looking to see are you someone that we want to have as a classmate. I think especially if you’re interviewing with another student, again, the point is just don’t stress, be yourself. It’s not an exact science and so there’s nothing wrong with trying to feel your way through and no one is going to be 100% perfect all the time and no one is going to be totally awful all the time because if you were totally awful you probably won’t be interviewing in the first place. So yeah, just relax and breathe and enjoy the process because it goes really quickly and it’s a very unique experience, I think, that is unique to going to medical school.

§ Becky Bielang

Ben Ferguson: Later, I spoke with Becky Bielang. She’s a fourth-year right now and she’s currently doing her internal medicine sub-internship. I should mention here also that for Becky’s interview as well as the next final interview, I’ve inserted some sound effects to remove the names of specific schools that the students mention to avoid any possible negative connotations that the students may have mentioned on their specific interview days, and so that’s why you’ll hear some random beeping in the next two interviews.

So could you tell us your name, please?

Becky Bielang: My name is Becky Bielang.

BF: You’re a fourth-year?

BB: I’m a fourth-year.

BF: You’re doing a sub-I right now.

BB: I’m on my sub-I.

BF: Do you like it?

BB: I love it.

I went to Kalamazoo College. It’s a small liberal arts school in Michigan. My graduating class was like 400 people. I majored in biology there and then I moved to Chicago right afterwards to work in a research lab here, and I had taken the MCATs and I had not done very well and was reconsidering my career path, but I really came back around to the decision that I want to go to med school, so I took the Princeton Review course and reapplied–well I didn’t reapply; I never really applied in the first place–I applied again and worked in the lab in those two years and just kind of relaxed and took a break from undergrad. I think that was a really good decision because I could put a lot more energy into applying, I could study more for the MCATs and give my brain a rest from all the course work as an undergrad.

I had fun on the interview trail. I was surprised at how quickly you get tired of interviewing. I think I interviewed at a total of five places and then I stopped because I found out I got in here and I knew this is where I wanted to go right away. But overall, I was really excited. This was my first place, University of Chicago, so I was terribly nervous.

BF: Join the club.

BB: I was surprised I even got an interview here; I had just gotten back from Europe with my friends so I was a little jet-lagged but I had my suit; it was really, really ugly and conservative. I lived in the neighborhood already so it was pretty easy for me to get here, so I didn’t have to stay overnight with anybody or anything like that. So being familiar with the campus, I think, made me feel a little bit like I was on my own turf and that gave me a little bit of confidence.

I really honestly–really honestly–only have good things to say about my interview here. It was great from the moment we came in. I think there were 10 to 12 of us and there were a couple of people that had already been interviewing and this was like September 12th, so it was pretty impressive–they were throwing around big-name schools and the rest of us were rolling our eyes. Then Sylvia Robertson and Herb Abelson I think came in and gave little introductory speeches and they made everyone feel really welcome. I remember one thing that was nerve-wracking was we asked out of how many people here, how many would be accepted just on your numbers and she was like, “Probably four of you.”

BF: Out of the 12.

BB: Yeah, so it was like “Oh my god!”–there was an air of competition for sure and everyone was on their best behavior. I had to go on my faculty interview first and it was in the bowels of the hospital; it was Dr. Schwab’s old office. I found it and I was 10 minutes early and so there was a bathroom across the hall so I went to the bathroom and checked my hair and my teeth.

BF: Good idea.

BB: I made sure I didn’t look off-kilter. He was really, really laid back, as you’ve probably met him and know he is. I felt like he was really trying to sell the school to me more than interviewing me at all. He knew [redacted] was one of my other schools and was telling me, “Oh you’ll just feel like a number there. It’s such a big school and we treat everyone here as individuals.” We just talked about some of the stuff that was on my resume. I wasn’t in the spotlight at all, and I left there feeling really surprised that it was that easy. Then I think we had a lunch, those of us that weren’t on interviews, and a tour and that was really fun. I remember Swami give us the tour–who’s now the chief resident here, so it’s been nice to see a familiar face throughout the years. I interviewed with a student who was an MSTP student, and she was super nice and friendly as well. She asked me a little bit more about my research experience as an undergrad and before med school. Again, I was just expecting the ball to drop somewhere and it never did. I felt like it went really well and I left here feeling great.

I had a really bad interview at [redacted]; they do the panel interview there, so they take three or four students at a time and I was with two other boys who–we were the last group to go so it was kind of nice; we got a chance to sit and get to know each other a little bit before we went in there. Then, there was the three of us sitting on one side of the table and then on the other side there were a couple doctors, an administrator, and a fourth-year med student. It just felt really artificial–they’d be like, “So Candidate A, what do you to alleviate stress?” Then they would sometimes ask the next person the same question–“And how about you?”–but more often than not, they would just ask a completely different question. I felt like the questions they asked were just so contrived and didn’t really give me a chance to say who I was. Then we had to do a little group activity and solve a problem–that was kind of dumb. It was like, “What are the five qualities you would look for in a physician that you would recommend to a friend?” I mean, we had to agree on them. I guess they wanted to see how you worked together as a group and I guess that made sense but it was hard to take it seriously, and I did, and I actually had fun the rest of the day, so it was interesting. The students all seemed really nice and the hospital obviously is beautiful but I definitely didn’t feel like the interviewers got a chance to know me. I actually remained friends with the people I interviewed with. We were on the same interview trail so we carpooled to a couple of other places. So there wasn’t anxiety between us; it was more of the stuff I felt by the interviewers.

So I think the thing I was most anxious about was the kinds of questions I was going to be asked. One thing I was worried about was having to talk about medical ethics–if they were to ask me what I thought was the biggest ethical problem, and I did get asked that. I tried to read a book that wasn’t really captivating. I think just conversations with other people, like with my parents, with people I worked with in the lab, and most importantly a doctor who was sort of a mentor to me, someone I had job-shadowed once as an undergrad–I would just call him up on the phone and he said, “Well, they might ask you this,” and I think I got the most out of just having a casual conversation with him. So that was good preparation for that. I would know a lot about the school; look at everything on their website or brochures they send you. I think the really important thing is also to know what questions to ask. I think they have lists of things like that in the back of those Kaplan or Princeton Review books, but it would never occur to me to think to ask some of the questions that I learned to ask on my own–things like financial questions or how well their students match at residency. That wasn’t something I was even thinking about–it was so far off.

BF: Right, so far in the future.

BB: Yeah. I was like how about if I just get in first and then worry about residency, but that’s an important thing to know, I realize now. We have a really good setup graduating from here for residency and I didn’t realize how important that was as a pre-med.

I think there’s only one person I remember that didn’t do super. They bring really good people here to interview for the most part. She just didn’t feel very sincere and I don’t think she was an insincere person; I think she just had trouble just talking to me; it felt very formal. I didn’t think she wasn’t going to be a good student. I said in my evaluation I think she’ll be a remarkable scientist and doctor but she’s probably not someone I’d invite to a dinner party because she didn’t seem that interesting.

§ Erin Kirkham

BF: And finally, Mary interviewed Erin Kirkham who’s a fellow second-year student of hers.

Erin Kirkham: My name is Erin Kirkham. I graduated from Amherst College with a degree in neuroscience in 2004. Shortly thereafter, I moved to Chicago with my then-fiancé-now-husband. He started school at Northwestern and I did two years of research at Northwestern in a neurophysiology lab before I got to Pritzker.

When I interviewed at [redacted], it was Halloween and so I thought it would be a great idea to wear cat ears to my interview and actually I wore them to the interview and then I was like, you know, maybe it’s a bad idea. Then when I got there, the women who were conducting the interview at admissions both had costumes on so I decided that I could whip out my cat ears for a little while.

MB: And how was that received?

EK: Oh, pretty well.

MB: Were you ultimately successful?

EK: At getting in?

MB: Yes.

EK: No, I wasn’t. Oddly enough, I was not accepted to [redacted].

MB: I wonder if the cat ears…

EK: Yes, I think the cat ears must have. Maybe they’re just aren’t cat people.

On my first interview, I went up to [redacted] and I was very nervous so I woke up and immediately tore a hole in my pantyhose. I was staying in the suburbs so I had to drive over to Walgreen’s, get new pantyhose, and then on the way trying to get back, there was a freight train so I was stopped and I had to wait 20 minutes for this train to pass and I was freaking out. So I arrived fine and then I went to my first interview and the interviewer was asking me about an experience I had volunteering on the cancer inpatient ward at Northwestern and I got suddenly really emotional, I think, because I was so nervous and I just started crying in the interview. I did get accepted there, however. Maybe no cat ears but crying is okay.

I didn’t really know that much about the medical system so I read a few books to just get oriented to insurance and the more economic aspects of medicine. I read a book, I believe it was called Critical Condition, about the emergency situation that insurance is in the United States; it was a good book. I also read, what’s his name, the surgeon at Harvard?

MB: Atul Gawande?

EK: Yeah, Atul Gawande’s book, yeah, so just to get a sense of what medicine was about a little bit. I also knew my application in each place before going in. I think that’s really good because you write so much and often so much different stuff on each application that it’s really important because they’re going to draw from that to ask you questions, so I think it’s important to know what you told them going in.

I will say that there was one school I went to–one interview really did grill me about–it’s hard to say–he asked very strange questions and even reading those books, I still didn’t have answers to them. It was the same interview in which I cried incidentally, and I’ve heard from others that school is ugly. Sometimes schools just have a different vibe in the way they interview you, and I think that sometimes they will ask you really tough questions just to see your reaction. So, in getting back to your original question, the books were enjoyable but I don’t think that you’re expected to know tons of stuff going into the–don’t be worried about the holes in your knowledge when you’re in the interview process. Just try to talk about what you know, talk about yourself because a good school and a good interviewer–that’s what they will be most interested in.

I think that I made a mistake in not showing much interest in the general sessions. I was writing thank you notes to other schools while they were talking at us. I don’t know, that’s the only other thing I can think of. I mean I would definitely demonstrate an interest in the school, ask a lot of questions, and be enthusiastic.

As student interviewers, the way that I always look at an applicant is would I want to interact with this person every day. I think that in an interview, you should focus on, and in your application, be yourself and try to be a person that someone might want to interact with every day. Don’t worry about impressing. I’m sure that everyone out there is someone that people would want to interact with, and I think be that person, be the person you are to your friends, but, of course, be professional.

As I recall, I interviewed in October and I remember, not in great detail, but I remember it as being very positive and I think from the beginning–even the beginning email that we got from Pritzker just thanking us for applying to the school set it apart from other schools. It was so open, welcoming. The people seemed excited to get to know me and get to know the other applicants and my student interviewer was very laid back and he answered all of my questions and tried to give me–I didn’t feel like I was being grilled or challenged. He just was trying to get to know me and also show me the school and talk about some of the opportunities that Pritzker offered, which were many, many, many. So I think that definitely go in with questions because I definitely got a sense at Pritzker that people were really warm and welcoming, that they were a school apart, and also that there were tons of opportunities to be had.

I definitely needed to stay in Chicago so I had a very limited pool of schools and when I came, I was really excited about the prospect–it was definitely my top choice after I interviewed here and it was just a relief to know that there was a school in this small pool where I felt like I could definitely go there and I would want to be around these people every day.

MB: Do you still want to be around these people every day?

EK: Definitely. Definitely.

MB: See, it doesn’t fade.

EK: No.

MB: You just fall deeper in love.

EK: Yeah, exactly.

BF: So that’s episode five. Thanks for listening. We want to remind you again to email us with any questions or suggestions for future episodes. Our email address is pritzkerpodcast@gmail.com. Also, take a few moments to comment on the show on the iTunes page and that will help to give us some feedback as well. Take care.