“So tell me about yourself…”
How can such a simple question be so hard?
Think about it…when you’re asked this straight-forward question, it opens up doors to the abyss. Say too little and you risk walking out of the interview wondering if you said enough…
“Shoot I forgot to tell her about…”
Say too much and you risk having “word vomit” and the interviewer getting lost in your run-on sentences.
Medical school interviews are generally 15 – 30 minutes long each. You may have just one interview or multiple as part of your interview day, and you want to nail each one. No pressure, right?
It is very common for an interviewer to start out with, “So tell me about yourself.” It’s an easy way to start an interview and to gain a sense of who you are. In a way, it sets the tone for the rest of the interview.
Here’s a trick I use:
I assume that the interviewer hasn’t even looked at my application i.e. all they know about me is my name, which they may have forgotten by the time I sat down in the “hot seat”. It will be clear from the beginning whether or not they looked at your application if they ask a specific question, but I don’t expect it.
You cannot assume that whomever selected your application to receive an interview is the person who actually interviews you. Often, it’s not.
When I was in medical school, I interviewed medical school applicants and sometimes I only had a few minutes to breeze through an application or none at all; at times, I only knew the applicant’s name and it was up to him or her to “blow me out of the water” after I asked, “So, tell me about yourself.”
So, how in the world do you approach this question?
1. Write down your strengths and unique qualities.
From there, narrow the list down to about 5 – 7 things that are interesting about you; you want to hook the interviewer’s attention and leave them wanting more. Curiosity is good and intriguing. Give them just enough information about each topic to where if it’s not addressed further, they at least are aware of it but leave it up to them if they want to know more about something in particular.
Pre-med students sure can “look alike” on paper so what is it about you that makes you stand out? What are your accomplishments? What do you want the admissions committee to know? Really think about that.
The key is to give the interviewer a lot of “ammo” to work with in just a few minutes. It is much easier said than done, but that’s why it is important to prepare for your interviews and a great way is to think about the “must knows” I.e. what the admissions committee must know about you.
For example, if I was preparing for a medical school interview, I would jot these down on a scratch piece of paper to serve as my “ammo”:
Division I collegiate athlete (time management, perseverance, teamwork, hard worker, well-rounded)
Team captain (leadership role)
Double major (wasn’t “just an athlete”)
Graduated with honors (ready for the rigors of medical school)
Coming from a family of doctors (had a good idea of the day-to-day life of a physician i.e. the early mornings, long days, and busy schedules)
Mission trip to Kenya (international experience, stepped outside of my comfort zone, eye-opening experience)
Okay, so now we have our ammo, now it’s time to shine…
2. Let your personality shine.
I am pretty personable and talking is pretty natural for me. That’s one of the reasons I love podcasting and mentoring through DoctorGoals.
(Some would say that I talk too much especially when I start telling stories like when I…shoot, there I go again, I digress…)
Despite that, I still get a little nervous before an interview.
How do I calm myself down? Honestly, by just being myself. You know the saying:
“Be yourself, everyone else is already taken.” (Oscar Wilde)
…Well, it’s true in this case as well. The admissions committee clearly like what they see on paper, now is the time to seal the deal in person.
How do I overcome my nerves and let my personality shine? I like to throw in a little humor. There’s nothing more comforting than seeing your interviewer laugh at a funny story you tell. It just helps to break the ice.
Now, I am not saying to literally tell a joke. As I’ve said before, be you but be a professional you. You know what’s appropriate and what isn’t. I’m a goofy person at heart, so I let a little bit of that shine to not only lighten the mood but to just show that yes, I am very hard working and goal-oriented but I’m also down to earth and have a personality.
Remember, much of being a physician is the ability to communicate and work as a team. Robots, exit left…
For example, when asked, “So tell me about yourself”, I mention how I grew up in a big family and throw in a little humor:
“…I grew up with three brothers, one older and two younger who are identical twins and let me tell you, they lived up to the saying, “Double trouble”. The neat thing is that we were all collegiate athletes but it’s actually a good thing because my family can eat. If you add my Lithuanian side with my dad’s down south cooking, my family can have quite the feast. I warn people that my family can eat but people just kind of nod their head and say, “Okay, so do many people.” I actually didn’t realize how much we ate until I went out to dinner with another family in high school and they ordered one appetizer for six people. I was confused because when my family goes out to eat, we each get our own appetizer…and main meal…and a dessert is mandatory of course…”
*Chime in laughter*
It worked every time and it just helped to lighten up the mood, and all of a sudden the high stressed interview turns into a conversation and boom, time is up. Already?
Now, you do not have to be funny in order to nail an interview or be memorable. My point is to just let your personality shine. One thing that will separate you from the other applicants is…you. That’s right! Your personality. Just take a deep breath and let your personality shine.
3. Practice. Practice. Practice.
Do not memorize responses to commonly asked questions. You don’t want to be a robot or clearly sound rehearsed. It’s noticeable. Trust me. But you do want to be prepared and there is a difference.
Do NOT walk into an interview without knowing the commonly asked questions and at least thinking of how you you’ll respond. It’s very easy to ramble and lose your train of thought when you’re in a high stress environment. You wouldn’t walk into the MCAT without doing multiple practice questions right? Well, you shouldn’t. Same concept, different scenario. Preparation is key.
Here’s what I recommend (and what I actually did):
Practice out loud.
Just like many people practice giving a speech by holding a hair brush and standing in front of a mirror, practice your answer and work out the kinks. You don’t need a mirror or hair brush but I strongly recommend that you practice out loud. It’s much easier to think about your response in your head but it’s a different story when you do so out loud. You’ll see, it’s not so easy.
Do a mock interview.
Have a family member, friend, or even better, your advisor ask you, “So tell me about yourself” and see how it goes. Ask them for feedback. Did you ramble? Was it fluid? Etc.
Now, this isn’t the most exciting as many people don’t like to record themselves and hit the playback button. *Cringe* But it is a great way to practice and improve. You become the listener and all of a sudden those many “Ums” and “So ugh” become more apparent. Find areas that you can tighten so you don’t turn into a rambling machine. Make sure you are concise, fluid, and cohesive.
Preparation is key to this crazy road to “doctorhood”. If you want to get into medical school, then you need to maximize your chances by strengthening every component of the application process, which involves adequate preparation and time.
Remember, don’t be a robot in your interview.
Don’t waste your time or valuable brain cells memorizing written responses. Sure, make notes to help you think of stories to tell and to organize your thoughts (I did) but don’t memorize it. But be sure to practice so you have a good idea of how to approach this question and you don’t get lost in the abyss of “word vomitville” as you lose your train of thought and think, “Wait, what was the question?”
Be excited when you’re asked this question! Turn this “dreaded” question into an expected, “bring it on” question where you’re ready to go. After hearing these predictable five words, you should smile. It’s like showing up to an exam and you already know the answer to the first question because you saw it in a practice test.
Boom, 2 points!
If the interview ended right after you answered, “So tell me about yourself,” would the interviewer have a good sense of who are you are as an applicant and want more? If not, go back to the drawing board. Every little bit counts in this long, arduous pre-med journey to medical school…