How to be Awesome (the competition killing strategy that works)

by     14 Comments    Posted under: Application, Interviews

how to be awesome at your medical school interview

Are you hoping to scrape into medical school through an almost closed door or do you want to smash through the roof, beating your chest and screaming at the professors?

Are you nervously surfing the internet? Are you glued to forums and information sources telling you exactly what you should be doing at each stage of your application?

If so you may be at risk of sounding like every other applicant and therefore failing at the first real hurdle in your application.

Most medical school applicants today turn up to their interview knowing everything at a superficial level. They can all answer questions asked straight off their personal statement and can tell me exactly what the benefits of my particlar medical school* are for them and why they have chosen to apply here.

However, the minute I ask a follow up question that takes a slightly unpredicted turn or a question on an surprise topic, the majority of candidates are reduced to mumbling, stuttering wrecks whilst the one or two truly excellent candidates begin to finally enjoy the interview and rise up above the competition.

It is for this very reason that I and other interviewers try to leave an unpredictable element to the interview.

The majority of todays students find themselves on shaky ground, unable to think on their feet and provide eloquent, well reasoned and well informed points about anything outside the usual, well oiled answers that everybody prepares for.

But every so often, there are one or two applicants who stand out above the others. They almost always display the following characteristics:

  •  They are well informed across a wide range of topics relating to medicine, healthcare and beyond and they can bring in other topics into any answer.
  • They can articulate an opinion in an argument or ethical debate that is well informed and reasoned.
  • They can see more than one side to any issue under discussion.
  • They have a good command of English and can construct concise answers.
  • They volunteer interesting, relevant information that they have come across in their wider reading or work experience to add to any point they make.

In this article I want to share some advice with you about how you too can become one of these very impressive candidates that leave no room for us as interviewers to reject them. (And that’s even if they score badly on some of the more routine elements of the interview.)

Step 1: READ!
“But I already do that” you’re probably thinking.

That’s true. The internet forces everyone to read. Some might read the latest gossip columns courtesy of the Mail Online and others might spend all day reading other peoples advice on a forum. Both of these will provide us with facts and gossip that we can regurgitate when needed. Whilst that is useful at times, it simply doesn’t allow us to sound like the very best candidates described above.

Those impressive individuals I mentioned, all read books and articles that contain deep and reasoned analysis of pertinent issues. (I know because I’ve always asked them)

Let me give you an example.
A common question at interview might be around the issue of funding for new hospitals, in particular the PFI scheme.
Now, if your reading simply involves looking up information about of a PFI scheme on google, you will be lucky if you’re even able to recall just the definition under the pressure of an interview. You certainly will NOT be making a single sophisticated point.

However, if your wider reading on health funding brought you into contact with this article or even better, this book, you will have some excellent points to make on both sides of what is actually a very hot topic that divides opinions sharply. You will be able to make subtle points that your interviewers have not heard before and what’s more, you can use some of these points and ideas in answers to OTHER QUESTIONS not directly related to PFI.

In short, if you’ve read this article and I’m on your panel you will not fail to impress me, and you don’t even have to read it more than once. A few notes made whilst reading it will suffice; the arguments are so clear, they will imprint themselves in your mind.


If you come across some new medical discovery in a newspaper, skim read it and don’t waste too much time on a journalists amateur (and sometimes delibrately cynical) interpretion. However, you MUST then find the original scientific paper that the article is based upon and read that properly!

I’ve only ever had one student who had clearly done this and she still sticks in my mind as one of the most impressive interviewees ever.



OK, here is my reading list that I give to those I personally mentor. These books are guaranteed to turn you from a person that looks for the superficial, easy answer to any specific question into someone that can impress an interviewer on any topic, however unfamiliar.

(Read these if you have more than 2 months to go before you are likely to face an interview panel. If you have less time than that it’s probably too late for you to become truly awesome. I would advise you focus on shorter articles and fill in missing gaps that way.)

1. What is This Thing Called Science? by Alan Chalmers
This can be read in a single sitting. No wasted words. Just a very easy and fun to read primer on the philosphy of science. Guarantees you will always be two steps ahead of almost any doctor in a discussion about science and the scientific.

2. Blood and Guts: A Short History of Medicine, by Roy Porter
Read through this little number and your brain will be full of fascinating anecdotes and historical examples which you should use to  freely fertilise your discussions with nuance and subtlety. Wow.

3. How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading, by Mortimer J Adler
An all time classic. Once upon a time any good student or scholar would have read this, but today nobody seems to have even heard of it. Be ready for a major shift in your reading ability and analytical skills.

4. A Country Doctors Notebook, by Mikhail Bulgakov
You will have plenty of “doctors first hand account” books recommended to you, but in my view this is by far the best. Set in Russia in the early 20th century, the author has to fight snowstorms and perform neurosurgery in his first year as a doctor!
The latter chapters deal with a colleagues addiction to opiates and are quite harrowing. Not only is this a rivetting read, but it’s a book I have repeatedly managed to refer to in interviews and discussions, and is much admired.

Order them now and get started. Remember most people get one shot at getting into medical school. Make sure it’s a good shot.

Still with me?
Well, there you have it. Don’t just try to imitate successful applicants. Become the very success that others will want to imitate. You have enough time. Even an hour a week spent with this material should be plenty. That’s my advice and I’m pretty sure nobody else will be telling you this.

Good luck, and let me know how it goes.



* This obviously cannot be divulged


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  • Jim

    Will be adding those to my reading list!
    Can you recommend anything on book on ethical discussion skills? These are hard skills that are simply not taught, especially in regular state schools.

  • Elaine Wu

    This is great, but is there anyway to leverage this for ones personal statement too?

    • Leo

      Good point. Yes I believe there is. Have a look at our template.
      For part 1 you have some artistic licence and can add quotes. Read the opening para of Bulgakovs book in the post for some inspiration!
      For the rest, you will find that you just automatically sound more accomplished once you’ve read the sort of stuff we’re recommending here.

      Any other recommendations anyone?

  • Fishdude

    Spending hours on forum? Yep that’s me alright.

  • Richard

    This is inspiring for me.
    I’m getting bogged down in the minutae prior to applying and if you as an admissions tutor have your values in the right place, I’m very happy.

  • Francis

    Chalmers book is a fantastic choice. Was forced to read it a few years back and the arguments come back to me frequently. Definitely makes you sharper.

  • Shabnam

    This sounds like a good reading list that I’ll get started on right away.

    Are there any particular medical topics that come up often (e.g. stem cells) in interviews other than the recent issues?
    If so, are there any particular books that would be a good read for such topics?

    • Leo

      Hi Shabnam, you are right, any issue can technically come up. You can’t be expected to have read up on everything.

      Concentrate on the recent issues, as these can be reasonably expected to come up. My point in the article is that if you are generally well read, (starting with the books mentioned) you will be able to handle anything they throw at you, expected or unexpected, with style.

      Also, we do have a nice strategy on dealing with any ethical questions coming up in a few weeks. (Hopefully sooner for subscribers as we’re working on it right now)


  • Leo

    Any other ideas anyone?

    We can get a wider reading list together and perhaps devote a page to it here.


  • Shazmeen


    What about Phantoms in the Brain by Ramachandran? It may not be really relevant to medschool applications, but it really provides a lot of interesting facts and provides a good insight in neuroscience. Nice crossover between patient history and critical thinking beyond motor ability.

    • Leo

      I haven’t read it but it looks like a good suggestion!

  • Mudit

    Has anyone read the man who mistook his wife for a hat or awakenings…by Oliver sacks? Brilliant books.