One of the Most Important Ways to Improve your Medical School Personal Statement and Interview
Recently, one of my mentees “Rebecca“ approached me and asked for assistance with her medical school application. As I was reading her personal statement, I noticed that it felt flat. It felt like just a recitation of her different volunteer, research and extracurricular activities, as opposed to a statement that provided insight into her personal qualities.
Which was a shame, because Rebecca was a fantastic applicant with many of the qualities that medical schools are seeking. Unfortunately, her personal statement just didn't reflect that. I knew that she needed to update her application, or she wouldn't be successful.
How did I advise Rebecca on how to improve her application materials? I told her that she first needed to have a better understanding of the qualities that are valued by medical schools. Then she could work on highlighting her own qualities that were present on this list.
What do patients want from their doctors?
Before we go into the qualities that medical schools are seeking in their applicants, let’s first look at some of the research on what patients want from their doctors.
Multiple studies have asked patients what they want in their physicians. Patients rarely mention knowledge base. Essentially, most patients assume that their doctors will possess the necessary knowledge base. Instead, patients focus more on other qualities.
They want their doctor to listen to them, to understand what they’re going through, and to support them through the challenging times in their lives.
Think about your own experiences with physicians. As I think about one of my primary care doctors, I really appreciate the fact that she takes the time to listen to all of my symptoms. As she’s doing the physical exam, she always explains what she’s about to do, and she’s very gentle as she’s performing the exam. When she prescribes a medication, she takes the time to provide instructions and to review potential side effects.
While I appreciate that she’s up-to-date on the latest medical recommendations, I also really appreciate these other qualities: her easily apparent empathy, her compassion, and her communication skills.
What do medical schools look for in interviews? What qualities do they seek in their applicants?
During the med school interview, medical school admissions committees are evaluating for the presence of certain qualities.
Essentially, med schools look for the same qualities that patients are looking for. While knowledge base is important, medical schools are also looking for evidence that their applicants possess the non-cognitive qualities that patients value.
The Importance of Non-cognitive Qualities in the Application Process
What are non-cognitive qualities and why do they matter so much? Cognitive skills include abilities such as logical reasoning, verbal reasoning, and critical thinking. Non-cognitive qualities encompass a wide variety of skills and traits. And these qualities are highly valued in the med school admissions process.
In fact, one survey of admissions officers was very revealing. These admissions officers were asked about which personal characteristics they sought to evaluate during the admissions interview. Of this group:
98% were seeking information on motivation for a medical career
96% were looking for evidence of compassion and empathy
92% were seeking evidence of personal maturity
91% were evaluating oral communication skills
89% were evaluating service orientation
This Chart Below is a Summary of the AAMC Survey of Admissions Officers and the Traits that They are Evaluating During the Admissions Interview.
Taken from AAMC Survey, available at www.aamc.org/media/5921/download
How do admissions officers evaluate these non-cognitive qualities?
The admissions committees at medical schools have different ways of evaluating these non-cognitive qualities. They’re looking for evidence of these in your past experiences: your work, volunteer, research, and extracurricular activities. They’re looking for what you say in your description of these activities, as well as what you say in your personal statement.
Much of their evaluation of these qualities, however, comes down to your medical school interview.
The Medical School Interview is One of the Main Ways that Schools Evaluate these Non-cognitive Qualities
Whether it’s a traditional interview or an MMI, your interviewers will be evaluating you in these different areas. As you’re preparing for your medical school interviews, then, it’s important to be aware of the qualities that medical schools are seeking. It’s also important to think about how your activities and past experiences reflect your possession of these qualities.
Because these non-cognitive qualities are so important, we have our advisees fill out this worksheet. The worksheet lists these qualities in descending order of importance.
It's important to take the time to reflect on your previous activities and experiences, and to think about how these demonstrate your cognitive and non-cognitive qualities
I call it the most important Venn diagram of your application: What qualities do you possess that are also valued by medical schools?
It’s important to highlight that intersection of qualities that medical schools are seeking and qualities that you possess.
Articulating these qualities, however, is harder than it might first appear. Medical schools aren’t going to assume that you possess these qualities. You have to highlight them in your application materials and in your interview.
For More Information on How to Approach your Medical School Interview and How to Highlight these Qualities, Please See our Resources.
We’ve written extensively on this topic. If you'd like to learn more, please see:
Our signature course that helps applicants quickly and confidently prepare for the med school interview with expert strategies: Medical School Interviewing 101
The bottom line: Your medical school interview preparation should begin with an understanding of the qualities that medical schools are seeking in their applicants. As you learn more about these qualities, it’s important to start thinking about which qualities you possess, and how you can best highlight them during your application and interview.
Dr. Rajani Katta is the creator of Medical School Interviewing 101, the course that teaches students how to ace their interviews. She is also the author of the Multiple Mini Interview: Winning Strategies from Admissions Faculty, the Casper Test Prep Guide, and The Medical School Interview. Dr. Katta is a practicing dermatologist and served as a Professor of Dermatology at the Baylor College of Medicine for over 17 years.
Dr. Samir Desai is the author of The Clinician's Guide to Laboratory Medicine, The Medical School Interview, and Multiple Mini Interview: Winning Strategies from Admissions Faculty. He is an Internist, on faculty at the Baylor College of Medicine, and has served on the medical school admissions and residency selection committees at the Baylor College of Medicine and Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.