|a typically intimidating interview panel|
After one of my groups had completed a study session today (the over-achiever group with which I study; which other group would be studying the day after the exam?), the small talk over Chinese food (which wasn't all that authentically Chinese according to the Taiwanese-American student in the group) turned to the medical school application process through which we all went last year. Except for Matthew (who isn't exactly an overachiever but who gets to study with the group because he can study with any group of which I'm a part and because everyone always likes him anyway), none of us applied to more than ten medical schools, while most prospective medical school students apply to almost fifteen.
All of us but Matthew had sufficiently high GPAs and MCAT scores that we were virtually guaranteed of getting into one of our top three choices, and it isn't cheap to apply to a medical school, so it seemed like a waste of money and time to apply to the typical at least twelve.
One interesting thing was that all of us by sheer coincidence had applied to a particular not-incredibly-prestigious though not bad east-coast school as a safety net. Matthew was the only one of us to be admitted to that school. The rest of us were not even granted interviews. We assume the school didn't want to waste our time with the rest of us because they knew we'd get into better schools and wouldn't choose them, but who the hell knows? Perhaps we were not quite as collectively wonderful as we would like to believe.
I applied to six other schools besides the nameless safety net on the east coast. I interviewed and was accepted into all six of the other schools to which I applied. I didn't mess with early decision because a candidate is committing to attend that school if he or she is accepted and is also tying up his or her application until that school has made its decision, thereby reducing one's chances of being admitted elsewhere if the early decision school doesn't pan out. Furthermore, my first choice school doesn't even use the early decision process, so there was no good reason to hassle with the process. Early decision is worthwhile mainly if a candidate has compelling ties to a particular area in which there is only one medical school. If a candidate is young and unencumbered, he or she can attend medical school virtually anywhere.
Eventually the conversation drifted to the interview process and the types of questions most of us faced. In most interviews we faced panels of questioners, though each of us had at least one interview with a single faculty member. My interview with the sole interviewer was somewhat odd in that he didn't really ask me any questions. He told me to ask him questions. The questions I asked him must have been at least adequate, as I was accepted into the school. I asked about the backgrounds of the faculty, the specialties chosen by last year's graduates and this year's fourth-year students, the elective courses offered, the expected size of the entering class, the internship and residency programs into which its graduates had recently been accepted, and the rate of successful matches for residencies in recent years. I ended the interview by turning the tables on the non-interviewer and asking him why he went into medicine and why he chose to teach at that particular institution. The idea of the presumed interviewee being the questioner was, nonetheless, something of an awkward situation.
The two of us in the study group who had completed violin performance majors in addition to the standard pre-medical curriculum had been asked to play the violin for the interview panel. Neither of us had taken our violins along to the interviews because that seemed like a brazen thing to do, but the panels had violins ready. I'm not sure what they had hoped to accomplish by having us play the violin other than to ensure that we had been bona fide music performance majors and weren't padding our resumes with questionable qualifications from flaky music departments; if the musical qualifications we claimed were shaky, what else on our curricula vitae might otherwise have been embellished?
I was asked to play piano at two interviews as well, presumably for the same purpose as I was asked to play violin. In one case the piano was sitting right there when I walked in, so I half-expected to be asked to play. In the other case, the piano was concealed in a closet, and someone wheeled it out at the last minute.
In a particular interview with a couple of panel members who were familiar with my father, I was cut off in the middle of a Chopin work and asked instead to play something that would demonstrate that I was indeed the child of my father. I quickly transitioned to Night Ranger's "Sister Christian." Then another interviewer told me I could continue to play while I answered questions if I so desired. I don't know if they were truly enamored of my playing or if they were merely testing my ability to multi-task.*
Except for the non-interview at which I was told to ask the questions myself, we all reported that at every interview we were asked either why we wanted to be physicians or surgeons or why we wanted to attend the particular medical school or both. Both questions are relatively standard, so everyone had prefabricated answers which were at least fifty per cent bullshit. Only Matthew could get away with flashing his million-dollar smile and answering, "Because dentistry doesn't pay enough." He swears he actually gave that answer at one of the schools into which he was accepted.
Matthew and I had back-to-back interviews at the school we attend. I suspect the scheduling was deliberate because twins could be expected to share interview information with one another. It ended up not mattering all that much, because except for the basic "Why are you here?" questions, we weren't both asked a single identical or even similar question. I wonder about the panel's ability to differentiate between candidates when they don't ask us essentially the same questions, but they must think it works.
Kal Penn (not the real Kal Penn, obviously) was asked to sing his undergraduate school's fight song, which was possibly the single oddest request or question I've heard -- although my brother was asked if he could juggle and then asked to do so, which he had not put on his curriculum vitae, as one wouldn't ordinarily put that on a resume even if he or she had the ability unless one was trying to separate himself or herself from the pack by being funny.
Matthew was able to juggle, and Kal Penn knew Ohio State's fight song. He sang the alma mater for them as well. Ohio State's alma mater is probably second only to Cornell's in popularity. Even I know it. Perhaps the panels were trying to decide whether Kal Penn had been a hermit student or had actually emerged from the library to attend an athletic event or two. Then again, the panel may have been playing games with his mind. As far as Matthew went, perhaps the panel assumed because he had been a left-handed pitcher that he automatically should have the ability to juggle. I don't know about other left-handed pitchers and juggling, but Matthew's fourth-grade teacher had taught the entire fourth-grade class to juggle. Matthew was asked at another school to throw a dart at a dartboard. He says hit the bull's eye from fifteen feet, but then again, memory is often a most self-serving pseudo-organ.
Raoul was asked what his last meal would be if he could choose. He said he was tempted to ask the panel if they were profiling racially because they thought a Latino was more likely to be on Death Row, but he kept the thought to himself. He said he described a typical WASP indulgence of filet mignon and trimmings, and left fajitas and burritos and chicken mole entirely off his imaginary last meal menu. He said the panel seemed disappointed in his choices.
Taiwanese-American girl was asked what fruit or vegetable best typified her personality. She said she decided right then that she would not attend that medical school even if it was the only school to accept her. She said her answer was kiwi fruit. When the questioner asked the follow-up question of why, she said she didn't know and stared pointedly at the questioner.
I was asked if being left handed was an advantage in learning the piano. It actually is an advantage in my opinion, as virtually everyone who studies the piano other than those who take lessons for four months or less when they are six years old in addition to many musicians who have never studied the piano come out of it with the ability to play the right hand and treble clef of a fairly simple composition. The ability to play with the left hand, to master the bass clef, and to use both hands simultaneously is what differentiates those who master the piano from those whose parents essentially threw the money their lessons cost into a black hole. Lefties are also forced to do things with our non-preferred hands because we all live in a right-handed world, making us typically closer to ambidextrous or at least ambi-lateral than our right-handed peers. Lefties may also typically be more right-brained by nature, but I'm not sure that's an advantage in the note-reading aspect of producing music. I'm relatively balanced between left and right brain hemispheres, anyway. Regardless, it wasn't a stupid question; it was merely a peculiar one for a medical school interview.
All of us emerged from the conversation convinced that if we're ever on interview panels for prospective medical school candidates, we will be able to do much better jobs at vetting out qualified and unqualified candidates than did our interviewers.
* Current research suggests that the ability to multi-task is a myth. People who appear to have the ability to multi-task are likely just really good at switching from any given single task to another seamlessly as well as very rapidly.