Talking about your work experience without sounding lame
Interviewer: I see you’ve done two weeks of work experience in hospital medicine and general practice. So, what was the most important lesson you learned?
Unprepared candidate: Er… Well it taught me what it’s really like to work as a doctor.
If you’ve done any amount of work experience at all you can be sure you’re medical school interviewers will ask you about it.
If you haven’t done any work experience, you needn’t worry as you probably won’t be getting an interview. (Seriously, I would recommend you stop reading this article and head over here, and get some experience organised asap!)
The medical school interview will always have a few questions that you may not have expected. The majority of questions though will be predictable and therefore easy to prepare for.
One of the most straightforward questions, and the one you should be really hoping to have to answer is anything related to your work experience.
There are two reasons why as a good candidate you should be grateful for this question:
1. You are on safe ground as long as you’ve done your homework and have prepared some good points to make. Remember it’s YOUR experience and nobody can tell you you’re wrong.
2. You can leave leads in your answer, almost forcing your interviewer to ask you a follow up question for which you have a preplanned answer. This is a cunning technique, and is rarely utilised well despite being incredibly easy to use once you know how. Some excellent training on this is contained in our Medical School Interview Transcripts which many readers have managed to obtain.
Firstly what should you avoid saying?
Sadly many good candidates score badly in this area because they simply don’t know what is required. Try to avoid the following:
1. A short banal statement like the one the top of this page. Anybody can say that after a week of shadowing a doctor. Even a twelve year old.
2. Fabricating any element of your experience. We work in hospitals all day every day. We can spot lies and exaggerations almost before you utter them and we don’t like them.
3. Belittling any aspect of your experience. If the attachment was disorganised or you spent a lot of time with nurses or HCA’s, or GP receptionists, treat the experience with some respect and tell us what you learned from it. If you made beds with an HCA for a few sessions (I remember I did) there must be something you gained from it. If not, don’t mention it and concentrate on the more interesting areas.
4. Describing what you did without any reflective or evaluative statements. (see below)
What are the interviewers looking for?
As an interviewer I want to know that your work experience, is relevant and has given you a realistic idea of what the career ahead entails.
Now, no single experience will truly give you a completely realistic idea of a career as vast and varied as medicine. Therefore it is up to you to pick out experiences and for each one explain what exactly you learned that was relevant and important.
A simple formula I recommend is to state what you did, then describe what you saw and finally what you learned, in that order.
Here’s an example to explain what I mean (I hope the colour coding helps),
I spent two mornings shadowing the F1 doctor on the firm mainly on ward rounds and doing ward work. I was able to watch basic procedures such as phlebotomy, insertion of a venflon and prescribing analgesia, fluids and blood products. This provided me with some valuable insights into the role of a junior doctor. It taught me about the huge range of skills required at the very outset of a medical career as well as the considerable time pressures and need for careful prioritisation of tasks.
If this answer sounds a little mechanical, have a look at some real interview transcripts (or get some mock interview practice) to see how you’ll have to make it sound.
Here are some more ideas with the colour coding above. You should aim to make a few such points, covering a broad range of areas. Often you’ll be interrupted and asked a follow up question however.
Went to theatre — watched a hernia repair — surgical skills / running of theatre / roles of other theatre staff eg nurses and ODPs
Time spent on ward – made beds with an HCA — insights into auxillary staff roles and their importance in eg infection control
Consultant ward round — watched and asked questions – management of chronic lung disease / impact of social problems on capacity
GP reception — helped receptionists list appointments – appreciate running of a GP practice / relevance of government targets eg QOF
Spent time on labour ward — ward round with obstretician — decisions regarding medical intervention in Labour / role of midwives
The point in green is largely up to you to make and depends on what you found interesting or insightful. As you can see the most dull and boring experience can be turned into a good learning point for interview. Equally an exciting experience such as attending theatre can lose you points if you can’t make a good statement about what exactly you gained.
Most interviewers like to hear some medical insights but are also keen that you appreciate the roles of other auxillary staff and that modern medicine is a multidisciplinary process of which the doctor is just one important part.
Finally if you mention any condition, disease, or operation, make sure you’ve read up all about it. You may well get a follow up question and you can always use such an opportunty to show how hard you’ve been working. If you know the specialty of your interviewer, this could work in your favour!
And if you haven’t yet had your work experience, read the above again just before you do go and keep a notebook and pen at hand. Remember, ‘Everything is copy’!
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