The first thing you should know about interview day is that for every opportunity, you take ownership. You got a B+ instead of an A—your fault. Scuff on your shoe—your mistake. And god forbid you misspelled something on your resume—you failed to proofread well enough. It doesn’t matter why or what the infraction was, they’re not looking for a perfect human being, they’re looking for a responsible one.
The second rule of interview day is to not make any mistakes. Failing to plan is planning to fail, and this is a time where the slightest infraction will mean your banishment to the waitlist.
This is a high stakes game, perhaps the highest—or at least this is what I thought at the time. Looking back, these rules I had created for myself seem ridiculous, but in the anxiety of the moment, I believed every horror story about medical school interviews. It was in this headspace that I arrived an hour early to my future institution.
In my mind, every misstep and every imperfect episode of my life was going to be drawn out and examined, and unless I conformed to their ideal mold I would be out. But that morning I was groggy and felt like I was in a fog. I had arrived late the previous night after driving the 50 odd miles across Nebraska farmland from my college town to Omaha. I was tense as a mousetrap and I felt like I would snap just as easily. But sticking to my long considered plan, I was trying to project confidence. I walked up to a group of people and sat right next to them. No one commented the bags under my eyes, but with each person I talked to I became more convinced that I didn’t belong. Every single body in that room had a Type A personality with a backlog of accomplishments that would dwarf that of the general population, and yet I knew that about half of us wouldn’t make it on to the next phase.
They had broken us up into 4 groups and while one of the groups was being interviewed, the other three were rushed off onto a tour of the campus or seminars on financial aid. My group was being interviewed after lunch and in the meantime, we followed a 4th-year medical student as she showed us to all her favorite study spots. I tried to keep up with all the names and to build a general map in my head, but after the second or third stairwell, I was completely disoriented. I was docile and friendly, but my mind was elsewhere. I had since noticed that my shoes were stained with droplets of dried mud and I had taken every halt as an opportunity to scrape off what little I could.
Lunch came and went and with it, all thoughts of conversation. Only the incredibly brave or cocky members of our group had the mental energy to carry on a conversation and I was not among them. I begged my body to stop sweating.
My name was next on the list and I had not succeeded in stopping my sweating. I took a few deep breaths and looked down at my shoes again. I had been able to remove most of the mud but in places it was obvious that I had not done a very thorough job. I reviewed my reductionist ‘rules of the interview.’ I would embrace each of my flaws but I would present myself with all the confidence and poise that I could muster.
Someone called my name and I rose.
I was guided along a narrow hallway past glass-walled rooms that contained my peers and future classmates. “We’re taking you to the back where no one can hear you scream,” a man said. I laughed in spite of myself and we sat down. “So, why do you want to become a doctor?”
This was a question I had expected and prepared for. I had practiced a half dozen iterations depending on the context I found myself in and knew that my answer to this first question would make or break my interview. I spun through my mental rolodex but after a moment I realized lamely that all my practiced answered felt inadequate and hollow. I swallowed. “Well, I really just want to help people.”