How to make the most of your med school interview day - what to ask current students and why

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not actually a dog
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Mar 22, 2012
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Hi guys,

A lot of you are right in the middle of interview season and many of you are ultimately going to have to make a choice about where you're going to medical school, which can be an incredibly stressful decision to make. It's even more stressful when you really don't actually know that much about the school itself and what your life is going to be like for the next 4+ years. Yes, schools will feed you the standard pitch about why you should go to their school and why it's so awesome, but they often focus on things that aren't actually important, and many of the important things (or things you'll realize are important later) are never mentioned. School deans and administrators aren't going to tell you these things and most of your faculty interviewers won't be in touch enough to actually be able to give you the info you need. Fortunately, most schools have tours/lunches/etc with CURRENT STUDENTS who will be your most valuable resource for wading through the BS and getting the info you need. 99% of the time, these students will be VOLUNTEERS who like talking to prospective students and will be able to give you the most up to date info as well as their own personal take on what life at the school is actually like. They also will almost always not be affiliated with admissions, so you can ask them questions that you maybe would want to avoid in an interview setting. Here is what I would recommend asking about to ensure that you can make an informed decision about where to attend when the time comes!

DISCLAIMER: Please take this entire post with a grain of salt. This is an N=1 fourth year student who got bored of his hot Saturday night date with board prep material and probably had too much caffeine today and my post should not at all be taken as an end all be all for anything. My goal here is to help you get something out of talking to current students on your interview days and be set up well to decide on a medical school you'll be happiest at when that time comes.

First, let's detail the three types of students that you'll encounter on these lunches:

1. The preclinical student. This student is important because they'll be the closest thing to you and will be the most realistic picture of what you're going to experience when you first start medical school. Often, the lunch/tour/whatever students are going to be preclinical because they have the most free time and often the most enthusiasm for interacting with prospective students. They will be excellent sources of information for the preclinical years. They also will be able to tell you their own experiences which you can then compare to what the deans etc tell you and see how well the two stack up.

2. The clinical student. This student will be somewhere in their 3rd year and be able to tell you the most up to date information about how this VERY IMPORTANT year goes. This is especially important because most interview days will focus on the preclinical aspects of medical school and will totally ignore the clinical stuff, which seems counterintuitive but there's actually a lot of variance here between schools, and this isn't something that you generally think about going in. They can also help put the preclinical stuff into perspective and help you figure out which things you're worrying about in preclinical actually matter and which do not.

3. The post-clinical student. These are 4th years who are about to apply to residency and go through the match. They are the best people to ask about the overall experience of medical school and definitely the best person to ask about specialty specific stuff. They probably won't be able to give you any actual information about the preclinical phase, but they'll be best poised to tell you what they think actually mattered from that period.

There are a bunch of ways we can break the questions up, but I feel like breaking them up by phase is again going to be the most helpful.

The school will be able to tell you stuff about how many years it is, whether it's systems based or something else, grading systems, whether it's TBL, PBL, lecture, or whatever. That stuff you can figure out. The real game changer for preclinical is how flexible it is. That's it, that's the most important thing. Preclinical is a magical part of medical school that you don't actually appreciate until they're over. Everyone coming into medical school is a mature learner and capable of making their own decisions about how they best learn and allocate their time. People with different goals and different styles of learning will have different methods and priorities that they themselves are capable of creating. Smart medical schools have realized this and have structured their preclinical curriculum so that students can optimize their own learning. It is up to you to figure out a school that facilitates your ability to learn in your own way.
  • Ask preclinical students how much free time they have. How much time is spent going to mandatory class activities and how much time do they feel like they have to study outside of class? How do they spend their weekends? Do they take trips or do fun things frequently?
  • Ask about extracurriculars, and not just academic extracurriculars - fun extracurriculars too, especially ones you think that you might be interested in doing (whatever that may be). This helps not only figure out if people have time to do the things that you personally want to do, but can also help you feel out if there's a community of people in that medical school with the same interest.
  • A collaborative atmosphere is important during your preclinical years. A part of this is grading system - an unranked system is going to be more conducive to people supporting each other, but a ranked system doesn't necessarily preclude this either. It's still important to know, and students will give a more straightforward answer about it (I had one dean tell us that a school was pass fail but then on my tour, the student told us that yes it was pass fail but they were also internally ranked). Ask about the atmosphere of competition and ask for concrete examples. Do people share study guides? Study together? Review sessions?
  • Personal wellness is vital in medical school and begins as soon as (actually really before) you start. Ask about wellness initiatives at the school, how accessible they are, how often they're utilized, and ask for opinions about how successful students think they are. As some of our more senior members like to say, medical school is a furnace and when a fire is inevitably started, you want to have enough water to put it out or at least control it.
  • Ask about how supportive the administration is to students. Do the students feel like they're listened to and that the admin as their best interests at heart? Or do students feel like there is an antagonistic relationship between the deans and the student body? How receptive are the administrators to feedback and is that feedback acted upon?
You are least likely to have a clinical year student leading a tour or a lunch or whatever just because they have the least flexibility in their schedule. However, you can also ask 4th year students these questions and get effectively the same answers. There are a lot of issues inherent to the clinical years, but only a few that you should ask about before you even start medical school. I will touch on what I think is important to ask about here.
  • Ask about the standardization of the quality of clinical rotations. The quality of clinical rotations will vary by what rotation it is and perhaps more importantly where that rotation is located. Most schools have multiple sites where you can do any given clinical rotation and chances are you're going to be in different places throughout your clinical year. It's important to know that you're going to be getting a similar quality of training at one place compared to another. This is a question that might best be addressed to a 4th year or someone late in their clinical years.
  • How fair is the grading? This can be a sticky subject, and people who do well are going to be more apt to describing the grading as fair and vice versa. However, if you venture into the medical school forums of SDN it seems like every 5th thread is about how unfair a clinical evaluation someone got was. There is no medical school where this isn't going to be a problem in some capacity, but if you ask 4 people on your interview day if they think clinical year has fair grading and none of them say yes, that might be telling. Regardless of their answer, ask them why.
  • Again, flexibility is key. It's at a premium during your clinical year, but there will be some schools where you have more free time than others. Ask about how clinical students spend their weekends, whether they can take time to go to a wedding, whatever. You don't want to go to a school where you have to be working 24/7 during your clinical year. Some time for your personal life is important. You'll have to prioritize more than you did in preclinical, but you want to make sure that's actually prioritizing and not dropping everything completely. Ask about extracurriculars during clinical year with an emphasis on recreational ones. If you want to be a little sneakier, ask about how much time they have to spend with non-medical school friends.
  • Your clinical year is probably going to be overall your most intense part of medical school. Ask about wellness during the clinical years and see if people are happy. You're going to be stressed, that's a given, you're going to be tired, that's also a given, but you can still enjoy your clinical year, especially if you keep up with personal wellness and your school facilitates that.
I might be biased here because this is where I currently am, but there are things that I think are very important during this period that you should ask about. A lot of it is specialty specific but that's super important and honestly this is where the men are separated from the boys so to speak. This is where advising is the most critical and unfortunately also the most variable between schools. This is important no matter what specialty you're considering but also super important if you think you might be interested in something competitive. Honestly, a lot of this stuff is will take up a lot of time for someone to talk to you about, so it's probably best left to once you've been accepted, but it's still something you should consider before deciding on your school. The best thing you can do is ask to be put in touch with a 4th year currently applying into (or who has just matched into) the specialty you're interested in. Again, might be better after the accept, but I'm sure that most 4th years would be happy to talk to you about their specialty of interest.
  • Ask about specialty specific advising. If you want to go into, say, ENT, ask how well the ENT train is set up. You don't have to ask more than that - the person you're talking to will have so many opinions about this already that they'll tell you a lot of stuff that they think is important and you can sift through that to get a general feel about how useful the advising is.
  • Ask about how easy it is to set up away rotations. Away rotations are hard to set up in general and often don't match up between schools. Ask how annoying they were to set up and how receptive the administration was to working with you / being flexible during that time.
  • Ask about research years or dual degrees if that's your thing. How hard they are to set up, how they're funded, what the options are, etc will vary between schools. Skip if you're not interested in either of these.
  • Ask how easy it was to get involved with research that they were interested in actually doing (at any point during their career), again if that's something that was important to you. Schools will tell you "oh we have tons of research opportunities" but the accessibility can vary, even at super strong research schools
  • Ask if they would go to the school again. 4th years are old, jaded, and cranky (lol not really but a little) and generally don't care to justify their decisions to premeds. If someone had a bad time in medical school, they're more likely to tell you as a 4th year than as a 1st year. On the other hand, if they had a great time, they're also likely to tell you that and actually mean it.
  • Ask what they think the biggest problems with their school are. Yeah, this question has become cliche and people have different things that they think are the biggest problems, but it'll at least give you some idea.
This is mostly going to be specialty specific. Far and away the most important thing is if the school has a department for the specialty/ies you're interested in. If they do, you're pretty set. If not, it's going to be a lot tougher.

I see plenty of premeds looking at match lists and deciding that because School XYZ matched 15 people into ortho and 12 people into derm that they should go there. Nope. Here's the best way to evaluate match lists as a premed.
1. Don't look at any match list in isolation. Look at the last 3 match lists together.
2. For any specialty you might be interested in, did the school match someone into that specialty in preferably at least 2 of those 3 years? If so, great, you should probably just stop there. If you want to read more into it though, continue, but do so at your own risk.

Seriously, don't read past here. What? You really want to? Okay, your funeral.

Honestly, this shouldn't even be a datapoint when evaluating schools, but if I'm a big believer in harm reduction, so here's my version of a needle exchange.
3. In general, how many stated at their home institution, how many stayed in their local area, and how many went elsewhere? The interpretation of this depends on the schools. If you have The Medical School of West Dakota and most students stayed at West Dakota Regional, that's less exciting than if you have Princeton Medical School and most students stayed at the highly competitive Princeton-Plainsboro Teaching Hospital. However if you have Princeton Med matching a very low percentage of their students to PPTH, that could be cause for concern (do the students not like their home institution's clinical environment? Does the institution not like the students?). A school with a weaker / less competitive / less desirable hospital keeping most of their students at home could indicate that students don't have many other options (not necessarily, but imo the most likely explanation unless it's mission based or something else like that). The same school sending its students all over means that they at least have options. A school affiliated with a competitive hospital that keeps a lot of their students could mean that students get preference at the hospital OR that students generally liked their clinical experiences there and wanted to stay. Either implication is positive. The same school sending most of its students elsewhere could mean they didn't like it, but is imo a weaker sign than them keeping many students.
4. No one cares how many students they matched to Harvard don't use that as a criteria for evaluating a school.
5. Seriously, just use 1 and 2.
6. Vaccines don't cause autism

Anyway, I think that's it. Again, please take with an entire box of salt. I'm sure that other users have their own things to add (please do!!!!), but hopefully if you took the time to read this, you have a few more questions that you can ask on your interview tours/lunches that will help you make a decision about where to spend your medical school years.


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All good advice, I just want to add that for the pre-clinical students RE: workload, it would be a good idea to ask what undergrad was like for them. If you're trying to get an idea of how hard YOU will most likely have to work, you want to be asking someone who had a similar undergrad experience. There are plenty of people in my class who studied 24/7 in the pre-clinical years, but they are the same people who killed themselves studying in undergrad. If you managed to get an interview with a more relaxed attitude, it'd be much more useful to ask someone who took it relatively easy in undergrad how med school studying was for them. The answers you'll get from these 2 groups of people can be very, very different.

Keeners gonna keen, y'know?
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Great post! A couple additional suggestions:

Ask people where they live! Does the school offer housing? If so, is it worth it? If not, what neighborhoods do most students live in, and how do they get to school? Do they live alone or with roommates? In a lot of cities, you'll have to make tradeoffs between things like proximity to campus, proximity to things to do/see/eat, cost, roommate(s), proximity to other students for socializing, etc. I personally liked staying with student hosts to get a sense of what the norm for the school was, but you can also ask students at the interview day.

Also, if you get the chance, talk to some students who aren't officially involved in the interview process, and don't be afraid to be honest with them. Obviously still be on good interview behavior, but I think it's really weird when I'm chatting with an interviewee in the hall or the student lounge and they are really clearly trying to impress me. Since I'm not involved in the admissions process in any way, I'm probably talking to you because I'm bored/procrastinating and I genuinely want to answer any questions that you have. Go ahead and ask dumb questions!
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