How to avoid screwing up the most important interview question

by     6 Comments    Posted under: Interviews

So you’re finally sitting down facing the interview panel. The next ten to twenty minutes will decide whether or not you get an offer.
The preliminary questions about your journey here and the weather (aren’t these interviewers nice?) have put you at ease.

Next comes the biggest question of the day.

medical school interview

“So, why have you chosen to apply for medicine?”
Or, “Why do you want to be a doctor?”
Or, “why on earth would you want to join the medical profession?”

You’ve prepared for this moment for a whole year so you aren’t fazed. You’ve practised your answer in front of the mirror, learned to smile at the appropriate intervals and pause realistically to give your recitation that authentic spontaneous feel.

You give your life story willingly. From the death of your grandmother to your work experience in casualty and volunteering with the homeless. It all adds up to a perfect argument to let you in to study medicine.

There is however, one mistake that you are very, very liable to make here, and and that is overburdening your listeners with an answer that is too long.

Remember that knowing your luck, you will probably be the tenth interview candidate of the day. It may be mid-afternoon and post-prandial drowsiness will have set in amongst the panel. The longer and more complex your answer, the more members of the panel will switch off, stare at your lips and wait for you to finish.

It took me a long time to realise this but there is an optimum length that your answer needs to be to maximise its impact. Shorter than this and it looks like you have little to say for yourself. Any longer and your well prepared answer falls on half listening ears belonging to a bored professor who is actually trying quite hard to suppress a yawn.

Let’s be clear, your story is quite probably interesting and inspiring to anyone that doesn’t interview prospective medical school entrants for a living. Unfortunately, the interview is the only time and place where you risk overcooking things and losing out on the full potential impact of your story.

Think like an advertiser. You are the product on sale here. Give them glimpses of yourself. Don’t give them every single detail, because all that’s left to discover beyond that are the faults and holes in your argument.

If I am interviewing you, I firstly want a good reason or reasons that tell me how you ended up here. If you’re one of the better candidates, your answer should also entice me to want to know more about you. I will often ask you to go into greater depth if a particularly interesting aspect of your story piqued my interest.

So, what is the optimum answer length?
For this most important of questions, the ‘why medicine’ question, anecdotal evidence suggests that optimum length is 90 seconds.

That is actually quite a long time to talk uninterrupted if you are truly concise about each point and have a clear direction and focus to your answer.

The ‘why medicine’ question is one of those that you can guarantee will be making an appearance in some guise on your big day, so unless you’re a very experienced interviewee, I would suggest you script it out beforehand.

Avoid having a set of lines that you memorise and recite verbatim as that becomes very obvious under pressure. What you are looking for is a clear framework – perhaps using detailed bullet points – that you can use to guide the trajectory of your answer.

Once you have that sorted, practice answering the question and time yourself.

Most people speak a little faster when nervous so if your rehearsed answer lasts 1 minute 30 secs or just over, you should be hitting optium answer length without any problems. If it’s too long, cut lines ruthlessly. Remember, if it’s more than 90 seconds it’s too long, and if you’re having trouble working out which bits to minimise or sacrifice get some help. If desperate, email me.

By the end of the answer, someone listening should have a good idea about what you’re doing applying to medical school but should also find it difficult to resist asking you to elaborate on certain areas.

What if my answer is too short?
This is a less common scenario. Obviously a one sentence answer is usually bad, but technically, one can construct a very good answer than comes in at around the 45 second mark and leave leads for a follow up question. This is an advanced interview technique that I hope to cover in more depth at some point.

The main point I wanted to make here was that the big question is NOT a cue for you to go on and on until interrupted!

This is a terribly common mistake. Avoid it and we will probably like you.


  • Jenny Clarke

    Don’t they interrupt you if you go on too long?
    My fear is actually clamming up and being unable to go on beyond 20 seconds so it’s strange to hear that you come across people who don’t know when to stop.

    • Leo

      Interruptions are fine. Just be guided by the interruption and redirect your answer. People that ignore interruptions and carry on afterwards are en route to failure.

  • MJ

    90 seconds was pretty much exactly what I needed to get my main point out without repeating myself or being unnessecarily verbose.

    Doctors are used to precision in language and easily irritated by waffle!

  • Jwhaw

    Depressing thinking about going through all of this.

  • Sophie

    What about if this question is asked in a MMI format (eg. for graduate interviews). Sometimes, you can have 5 minutes per station, and they expect you to talk for that length of time. Should you just delve into more detail?
    I have also heard that usually in these situations the interviewer does not give any sort of response or feedback, but just listens and scores you.

    • Leo

      That is a slightly more artificial situation, where if you are given 5 minutes to score, you ought to use as much of the time as possible to make sure you hit as many key points as you can. Usually the question will be a bit more general than the one mentioned in the article so you will have a bit more to cover too.

      Without knowing exactly each scoring system works, it is probable that it is subdivided into categories that include: insights into medicine, a realistic idea of what the career entails, efforts made to gain exposure etc. There should also be at least a point for eloquence and argument structure. More detail is fine but keep everything very relevant.