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Facing the Final Phase: One Student's Medical School Interview, Med Times Copyright, All Rights Reserved. 2004-2005

By Jonathan Grein

I still remember the thoughts that ran through my head when I opened the letter. The return address read UCSF School of Medicine, and I knew what was inside would affect the rest of my life. The letter felt thick and heavy -- always a good sign. My anxious fingers unfolded the paper and my eyes jumped to the top of the page. I am happy to inform you that you have been selected for interview by the University of California San Francisco School of Medicine.

My initial reaction was one of relief, quickly followed by a feeling of joy and excitement. UCSF had been my top-choice school from early on. And now, they wanted to interview me!

Wait a minute, now they wanted to interview me? The panic set in. Filling out forms and applications -- although tedious -- was relatively stress-free. I had ample time to prepare, write, and review my answers. But interviews do not grant that luxury. Questions are candid and unexpected, while inappropriate answers are condemning and lethal. Reality sank in.

My largest concern was being stumped by the interviewer. To prevent this, I reviewed as many sample interview questions as possible. It did not take long, however, to realize that I could never memorize the answers to all of them. The interview was for them to learn more about me, and I knew me better than anyone.

Instead of worrying about the thousand possible interview questions they could ask me, I only prepared for the most crucial ones. I developed a list of three personal strengths and weaknesses, reviewed my reasons and motivations for going into medicine, and gave several attractive qualities about UCSF. Additionally, I read through my applications again and took some time to catch up with the current health care events. Other than that, I would try to relax and be myself.

I drove up to San Francisco the day before the interview, saving time to walk around the campus. Everything seemed so compact, as if the medical school tried to squeeze itself into the middle of a downtown city street. I became familiar with the buildings, which helped to calm my nerves. I went to bed early that night.

The next morning passed in a blur. After an informal briefing with the office secretary, we (the four of us being interviewed) were free to roam the campus at will, armed with maps and class schedules. This agenda surprised me. Interviews generally were more structured, but this casual approach was appealing. We were encouraged to stop by the student lounge to talk with students, as well as visit the recreational area and library.

After wandering on our own throughout the campus, the four of us met back in the office in time for our first interview. I could now feel my anxiety getting the best of me. In an effort to relax, I began talking with the three other interviewees. When I learned they were from Harvard, MIT, and UCLA, I only felt more tense. How can I possibly stand a chance with this competition?

At 9:30 a.m., my interviewer led me through a labyrinth of hallways to an office buried deep within the school. I learned he was an Ob/Gyn and had been up for the past 36 hours. This immediately worried me. The man whose decisions would impact the rest of my life hadnít slept since before I had even left my house the day before! We sat down, and he politely explained to me that he would be my advocate to the admissions committee. Based on his impression of me, he would argue for me while my application was being reviewed.

I was impressed with how easy he was to talk to. He first asked about my family and school life, and then why I wanted to go into medicine. We had spent considerable time talking about the health care situation in California. Fortunately, I had just read a couple articles on that topic, so I was able to contribute much to the conversation. He asked what I felt were the biggest problems the world faced, and how I would solve them. I cautiously stated my opinions, hoping to sound open-minded and educated.

Towards the end of the interview, I inquired about his field, the program at UCSF, and about what type of students the school attracts. He seemed to enjoy my questioning, and by the time we were done, an hour and a half had passed although it seemed much shorter than that. Despite his lack of sleep, he was able to remain alert and amiable.

For lunch we met with a fourth year student who told us about his clerkships, the boards, and life as a medical student. We then met with a third year student who took us on a tour of the campus. All of the health professional schools at UCSF were intertwined, which created an environment that seemed professional yet comfortable.

I was completely impressed with the variety of clinical opportunities available within such a small area. Moreover, the library was immense, the student recreational center was welcoming, and even the anatomy lab (on the 13th floor) had a beautiful view of the bay and didnít smell of formaldehyde. I began to understand why UCSF has earned such a distinguished reputation.

After the tour, the apprehension of that morning faded. My second interview, with a third-year student, focused mostly on my clinical experiences. I expressed how excited I was to be there, and asked many questions about student life. Every answer she gave increased my enthusiasm for the school.

I left that day with a phenomenal impression of the school. The campus, though compact in dimension, was teeming with clinical opportunities. Yet, what impressed me the most was everyoneís sense of modesty and encouragement. There was an atmosphere of mutual respect and support between the students, faculty, and administration. A sense of excitement resonated through the halls.

Overall, my interviews felt more like conversations. I had plenty of opportunities to learn about the school, and they learned much about me. Yet, I believe my understanding of health care issues is what helped me turn an average interview into a good one. Because I was able to give informed opinions about health-related issues, I left a more favorable impression.

When I returned home, I entered the most frustrating phase of the process -- the waiting. My blood pressure jumped every time the mail truck drove by. What did they think of me? Was I able to impress them? No matter how many times I replayed the experience in my head, I could not confidently find an answer to these questions. Then one day shortly before Christmas, my answer came packaged in a rather large manila envelope with the return address labeled UCSF School of Medicine. And it began with the words, Congratulations.