The Challenge of Giving a Great Medical School Interview
The young man (in his early 20s) had never read in this magazine about the top-rated doctors in Connecticut. Indeed, the Maryland native had never even been to the Nutmeg State before. But there was no doubt that a top-rated doctor—specifically a primary care physician—was something Nicky wanted to become.
A few weeks ago, he arrived in North Haven in his best gray interview suit, a white shirt and a silver-and-yellow tie—suitably traditional for New England. Within an hour, Nicky was escorted into the office of the associate dean of admissions.
“Welcome to the Frank H. Netter School of Medicine,” said the dean, gesturing to the seat on the other side of his desk. Until a few months earlier, Nicky had not heard of the school, and for good reason—it hasn’t yet taught its first student.
In Connecticut, in terms of medical schools, there’s Yale and there’s UConn. But soon, this newcomer, part of the fast-growing Quinnipiac University, will join their ranks. It won’t open its new state-of-the-art labs and lecture rooms until August, but it has been busy interviewing prospective students—about 400 of the 1,700 first-year applicants—only 60 of whom will be accepted into the inaugural class.
Nicky knew the odds. He knew that every one of his fellow applicants had done well in the sciences—but hoped he might have an edge, as he’d started his own business.
What Nicky didn’t know—because the school hadn’t yet expressed it publicly—was that instead of paying $50,000-plus a year for tuition, he might qualify for a free ride. That’s because QU hopes to address a shortage of primary care physicians by making full scholarships available to candidates willing to open such practices instead of going into much more lucrative specialties. (Neither Yale nor UConn have such a generous program.) Raising the funds to do this is another matter, however. At this point it remains an amibitious objective.
Nicky’s goal was a spot in the first class. He had applied to 20 medical schools, but few had offered an interview. So he’d driven up I-95 the night before, and stayed at a nearby Clarion. He’d needed a good rest to be able to dazzle associate dean of admissions Michael Ellison. In the old days, grades and tests had been enough for medical school entrance. Nowadays, authorities are interested in prospects who can think in the interview chair.
I asked the school’s founding dean, Dr. Bruce Koeppen, if I could sit in on Ellison’s conversation with Nicky. Koeppen was appointed the school’s head after serving 28 years on the UConn medical school staff. One of the things that drew him to QU is that he could start with a clean academic slate and make his own bold decisions.
Indeed, he could make one now: Let a columnist in on the most intimate part of admission decision-making. Though I hoped to give readers a sense of what it takes to get in, I wouldn’t use the applicant’s last name—it wasn’t my intent to embarrass anyone.
So during the interview, I was a fly (with a laptop) on the wall. I don’t know what I expected, maybe a conversation about microbes. What I heard was a spontaneous sparring. Michael Ellison wrote down the applicant’s answers on a legal pad as Nicky shifted in his chair.
As you read this informal transcript (a few words cut to avoid repetition or unintelligible phrases), decide where young Nicky went right, where he went wrong, and how you would have answered.
Dean: You’ve lived in Maryland your entire life. Why do you want to come here?
Nicky: I looked at the website. It puts emphasis on the holistic approach. Something that really resonates with me.
Dean: What kinds of things do you currently do to make Nicky a more well-rounded, more complete person?
Nicky: I like to balance my work and my play. I play piano. I am a horrible painter. I read about Chinese medicine. I want to get diet books on theories. I’m taking a year off to do what I didn’t do in college.
Dean: Tell me more about your business.
Nicky: Tutorial support—test-taking. Montgomery County had four tutoring companies. I advertise on double-sided billboards. I have 27 tutors.
Dean: Quite an entrepreneur. When you start medical school how will this continue?
Nicky: I’ll train my younger brother.
Dean: You think it’s your younger brother’s passion?
Nicky: It will be. He doesn’t mind the money, either.
Dean: How do you see the entrepreneurial background blending with medicine?
Nicky: I know how to open a business. It also helps to have experience.
Dean: As an undergrad you majored in biology and physiology. What did the experience for marketing come from?
Nicky: This comes out of communication skills. In college I took leadership positions.
Dean: Moving to medical school from undergrad career—what do you think the difficulties would be in transitioning?
Nicky: My only problem is my younger brother. I’m only going to see him once a month.
Dean: No concerns about academic rigor?
Nicky: I come from a family of doctors, dentists, engineers.
Dean: As an undergrad have there been obstacles?
Nicky: My sophomore year first semester I tried to take on more—17 credits, pledging a frat, taking an internship. It wasn’t realistic.
Dean: So your weakness is?
Nicky: I tend to take on more than I can handle.
Dean: Are you a team player?
Nicky: (Pause). I was a good mediator, student leader.
Dean: Do you ever feel wrong about anything?
Dean: What if you fail your first exam?
Nicky: Well, I . . . will keep trying.
The conversation continued, but I put my laptop in its case and thanked the two for letting me sit in. As I walked to my car, I thought that Nicky was obviously a smart young man who had dug himself a hole. The dean’s questions probed, but each gave Nicky a chance to respond in a way that would be both confident and humble.
But when the dean asked if there had been concerns about the academic rigors of medical school—the key question—and Nicky pointed out only that he had relatives who’d done it, it seemed he lost his chance right there. He might instead have said, “I’m coming here to learn what I don’t know, which is plenty, and I’ll work so hard that you’ll be glad, in the end, you chose me. Primary care is at risk, but together we’ll help fix that problem.” Oh, hindsight is so easy.
(At least Nicky didn’t commit the felony of a previous candidate: consult his cell phone while shaking hands. If he did that with the dean, what would he do with patients?)
Several weeks after his interview, Nicky received a letter that said QU could not offer him a place in its first medical school class. He was hardly in despair. He’d been accepted elsewhere—and might be on his way to becoming a top-rated doc. Though probably not in Connecticut.
Dear Readers: This is my last column for Connecticut Magazine. I have felt privileged to write in this space over many years. I invite you to my blog at larybloom.net.