Preparing for university interviews

RO Central Team - Thursday, November 28, 2019
Posted 6 months ago


Hi guys! A massive well done to everyone who has been invited to interview. I decided to write a blog post to give you a few tips. Although I have chosen to focus on medicine (as this is my speciality), the points I make will help people applying for all courses.

What to expect: Types of interviews

For medicine, there are two main types of interview: traditional/panel interviews and multiple mini interviews (MMIs). You can find out which style your chosen university employs from the admissions pages on their website. It is usually a selection of university lecturers, practising doctors, nurses, admissions tutors and current medical students that conduct the interviews.


Traditional interviews 

This may be with a single interviewer or a panel of two or three, and will usually take 20-40 minutes. The interviewer will ask questions about your application, the skills and experiences you have that make you suitable for the course, and your understanding of medicine as a career. The advantage of this style is that you can build a rapport with the interviewers and you have enough time to relax into it, so it can end up feeling more like a conversation than a series of tasks to complete. The disadvantages are that if you don’t gel with the interviewers, you can’t get away from them; also, if you feel like you are doing badly or get flustered, there is no opportunity to move on and start afresh.


Multiple mini interviews

This is the style now used by most medical schools. Applicants will rotate around up to ten stations, each no longer than ten minutes. These may be stations where you will be asked standard interview questions (e.g. ‘why medicine?”), to discuss ethical or problem solving scenarios, or to do written tasks, group tasks or role plays. As each station is marked individually, the advantage is that you get a new chance to impress at each one. However, you don’t get the chance to build as much rapport with the interviewers and perhaps don’t have the time to expand on your answers as much.
If you are still at the stage of selecting your universities, you may wish to factor in which type of interview would suit you best.


Some general advice:

Knowledge is power

It is wise to find out as much about the interview as possible beforehand. For example, some university websites specify the areas they will test you on, thus telling you exactly what to practise. You can also look at blogs, on student room and so on, to find out about past students’ experiences of interviewing there. 

Why here?

Make sure you know about the specific university that is interviewing you (in Newcastle’s case, they made sure all interviewees knew that you could be sent a long way out of the city for placement). Formulate an answer to why this university, thinking about what makes it unique. For example, you might talk about the city, the course structure, the exciting placement opportunities, etc. The most important difference in course structure is whether the course is predominantly problem based learning (PBL) or traditional: make sure you can justify why each suits you.

Including your personal statement

You can also find out from the online admissions pages whether the interviewers will have read your personal statement or not. If they have, you know that they might ask you about specific things that you’ve mentioned. If not, you know that you need to explain the points you made in your personal statement in detail. Also, if you don’t mention them, they won’t know, so don’t be afraid to repeat things that you wrote in your personal statement.


It’s been proven that under stress, we cannot think as logically. Therefore, planning your answers is critical. You should come up with model answers for common interview questions, but also a plan for what to do when you get unexpected.

Firstly, make sure you know the qualities of a good doctor. For each possible question, think how a model doctor would reply. Then, try and match an experience you’ve had to each quality (e.g. DofE expedition to leadership, being a first aider to responsibility, and so on). Even better, the same experience could work for multiple questions, making each one more versatile. For example, if you worked in a group to teach revision skills to younger students, this could demonstrate your teamwork, presentation skills, organisation or communication! (Of course, if you talk about an experience for one question, use a different one for the next question, to display breadth).

What do they want????

For everything that’s asked, think about what they’re really testing. For example, you may have prepared an answer to ‘Give an example of when you have used good communication skills’. But what if they ask ‘Can you learn communication skills?’ Don’t panic, it’s the same thing! I would approach this by saying something like: ‘Some people are naturally very good communicators, showing that a certain amount of these skills are intrinsic. I myself have always been confident communicating, in particular when talking to friends about their problems. However, it is also clear to me that communication skills can be taught. In my work helping adults with special needs, I found it difficult to communicate with them initially. However, after taking advice from the staff, I developed new techniques such as using pictures or using simpler language to aid their understanding. I also know that communication is taught as part of this course and I would be excited to develop my skills further in this formal teaching.’ Here, I have brought in everything that I would have said in the first question, and more.

On the day

As with any exam or ‘performance’, make sure you eat a good breakfast. Arriving early will let you find where you need to be and give you time to relax and gather your thoughts (it also minimises the chance of being late, which would not look good!) If you are anxious, try some guided meditation or mindfulness techniques in the weeks leading up and on the day of the interview. Finally, first impressions count for a lot: your dress should be smart, modest and professional. Your body language should be positive and don’t forget your manners.

Take your time

Don’t be afraid to take a few seconds to think about your answers before jumping in. This will help you to relax and keep your structure.

If you don’t understand, say so

It’s better to ask them to rephrase the question or clarify what they mean, than to guess and answer something completely different. Also, if they ask you about something you don’t know much about, be honest and don’t bluff it! Honesty and working within the limits of your competence are key as a doctor. If you really have no idea, you could say something like: ‘I’m sorry, I don’t actually know much about that. Please could you explain it a bit further, so that I can make an informed comment?’

Be curious

You will look very, very good if you prepare a question or two to ask at the end, specifically related to the course or university. Alternatively, if something is brought up in the interview that is new to you, you can express an interest in it. For example, ‘When you were asking me about my time in the diabetes clinic, you mentioned some new treatments for diabetes. I would love to read more about them, is there a book or a website you could recommend?’ (The only thing is, take care not to ask about something that you should know already! Saying ‘Wow, the GMC, that sounds so interesting, could you tell me what it stands for?’ is unlikely to go down very well…) For non-medicine applicants reading this the GMC stands for the General Medical Council 😊


Medicine-specific interview preparation
What are they testing?

For each university you are applying for, go onto their website and read their person specification, i.e. what they look for in a medical student.

In general, most universities look for:
  • Knowledge of the university and the course’s modules and structure
  • Motivation for going into medicine and a realistic approach to medicine as a career
  • Understanding of the core qualities of a doctor - found in the GMC publication Tomorrow’s Doctors
  • Evidence of caring nature
  • Ability to work in a team and under stress
  • Ability to multitask and communication skills
  • Medical knowledge (some, but not necessarily much, as they will teach you this themselves!)
How to answer: PLAN and STRUCTURE

After reading about what they want, prepare an answer that demonstrates each of those aspects (and make sure you get them into your interview somewhere!) So if they want people to be good at teamwork, ensure you can reel something off about when you worked effectively as a team.

Sometimes, your approach to a question (i.e. your structure) can be more important than the actual content. Some questions are designed to flummox you, and they want to see whether you can think on your feet. A solid structure will help with this.

Let’s use the example of ‘Why is teamwork important in medicine?’

-Start general

‘Teamwork between all members of the Multi-Disciplinary Team (MDT) is really important in medicine because…’
-Then get more specific - use examples!
‘For example, during my work experience in the hospital, I saw that involving the whole MDT in a case will bring a variety of knowledge and expertise, which no one person can have on their own. This ensures the patient is looked after holistically and all their needs are met, thereby improving their care. The healthcare team must be able to work together in order to deliver this care in the most efficient way.’
-Relate it to your own experience – do you have those skills?
‘I developed my own team working skills during my time as captain of the netball team…’ Then explain what you learnt and how teamwork helped in that situation.
-Finish off by reminding them why this would make you a good doctor.
‘This knowledge would help me as a doctor as it means I would be keen to work with other members of the MDT for the good of the patient, and I have the skills to do so effectively.’
For most questions where you have to express an opinion, you should keep a balanced approach (but always come back to the good). As teamwork is almost never bad in medicine, we’ll use a different example: ‘Does the working life of a doctor appeal to you?’

-Start by thinking about the good.

‘I like the idea of working hard and keeping busy, and of working in a team and working with members of the public.’
-Acknowledge the bad.
‘I recognise that it can be stressful, and that I will need to look after myself and manage my time well.’
-Return to the good.
‘However, experiencing the negatives would be worth it for the opportunity to make a difference in people’s lives.’

This also applies to things like ethics questions. You may have never thought about a topic in your life before, but don’t panic – give one point for, one point against, then weigh them up in a conclusion. Sorted.

Questions that cause anxiety (for the unprepared):


Why do you want to do medicine? 

You are almost guaranteed to be asked this, so spend time thinking carefully about your answer. To answer, you first need a good understanding of what being a medical student and doctor involves. Come up with three main points to expand on, to keep things succinct and avoid waffle.
These should include:
  • Both passion and pragmatism (thoughts about the every-day job)
  • Your desire to interact with and help people
  • Combining science and engaging with people
  • Examples from your work experience and/or personal life to back up your points. For example, you may have seen doctors caring for a sick relative, admired the qualities you saw in them and decided you wanted to be like that.
  • Reflection that is your own – make sure you give your own reasons and demonstrate you have done things yourself to find out if the career is for you.
Whatever you say, make sure you sound genuine, have knowledge about what you’re getting yourself into, and as if you are doing it for the right reasons (e.g. helping people, rather than for power/respect/being rich).
Why not nursing? (Or physiotherapy, pharmacy…)

This was the question I always dreaded! The difficulties are that it’s very easy to say something derogatory to other professions without meaning to, all the roles involve helping people and knowledge about the body and you need to know the differences between all the roles. This can be harder than you think – nurse practitioners can diagnose, prescribe, do research, have leadership roles and teach medical students, just like doctors do!

How to approach this question:
-DO YOUR RESEARCH. Make sure you understand the difference between MDT roles and the variations within each one (e.g. staff nurse vs nurse practitioner).
-Acknowledge that everyone’s role is equally important.
-Then, explain what is different about the role of a doctor and why these things appeal you to. Here are some key differences:
Ultimately, doctors have the final responsibility for the patients.
In medicine, you have more opportunity to specialise. Perhaps you want to do something that you can’t do in nursing, such as perform surgery.
Doctors spend years studying how the body works, and about diseases and how to manage them. In contrast, nurses are trained primarily in providing holistic care – this is what they will spend the initial part of their career doing. Only some will go on to a career as a nurse practitioner, where they might learn more about the workings of the body.


What is your worst quality?

You may well get this question, or a variation on it, as it is necessary for doctors to be aware of their limitation and have insight. Many candidates try to twist their weakness to make it sound like a strength (I definitely used the classic one: “I’m a perfectionist. This often works in my favour, but can be detrimental if I take too far.”) This can be okay, but what they’re really looking for is that you can recognise your weaknesses as true weaknesses, and show that you have taken steps to correct them. Remember to use examples!

For example, say you do some soul-searching and realise that you can sometimes be hot-tempered in arguments.

-Give an example of when this has happened to you.
‘I disagreed with my friend over our group project and ended up shouting to reinforce my opinion’.
-Then explain why this is not a good quality in a doctor
‘It is important not to do this when interacting with patients, as you need to be polite and professional, keep control over the situation and stay calm to avoid things escalating.’
-Finally, explain how you have managed this weakness.
‘I recognised that I was in the wrong and apologised to my friend. By staying calm and discussing the problem, we were able to come to an agreement much faster and without falling out.’
‘To prevent this happening again, I asked my parents for advice and researched techniques that I can use.
Now if I disagree with someone, I know to stop, take a breath and consider what I will say before replying. I am also careful to listen and try to understand other people’s views. This has definitely helped me to communicate and work with people more easily.’


Here is a website I found that gives a few more model answers to common questions:  


I hope you found this blog useful and I wish you all good luck in your interviews!