Last year, while I was interviewing to get into medical school, one of my interviewers asked me: “What was the most difficult situation you ever faced, and how did you deal with it?”
I started talking. It was not the first time I shared this particular story – or even the first time it had come up during an interview – but as I became immersed in telling it, I felt tears coming to my eyes. Oh no, I thought. I stopped talking and looked at my interviewer. Embarrassed and unsure what to say, I went with, “um… I’m sorry.”
She didn’t miss a beat. “It’s OK,” she said gently, reaching for a tissue. “We can talk about something else.”
And we did.
Later, I called my sister. I was feeling something worse than embarrassment: guilt.
“I feel like I used [my situation],” I said. “And – I think my interviewer liked me more because of it. What if that helps me get in?”
It felt exploitative. I felt exploitative.
I had not gotten teary intentionally, of course. I had answered my interviewer’s question honestly. It seemed a natural reaction to the topic at hand.
I also cannot imagine I was the first to feel unease in response to that question. Not long after that experience, a fellow medical school applicant and friend of mine expressed a similar sentiment to me as I had to my sister. My friend had lost her father at a young age, and many schools asked her about it. She felt extremely uncomfortable discussing it at all, for fear she “use” an intimately painful situation for practical career gain. Losing her father had nothing to do with her decision to go into medicine, nor, she thought, her potential as a future physician.
Medical schools are looking for many things these days. They want to see that you are compassionate. They want to see empathy. They want to see that you can deal with challenges and stress – that you are experienced, emotionally mature, and will not splinter under pressure.
I fully support this ideal. Medicine is a field that requires two categories of attributes. You need to know how to solve problems and reason through information. And, you need to know how to relate to people.
But is there a way to find those qualities without making applicants feel exploitative?
I think there is an important distinction between probing for a relevant emotional history – and a contrived attempt to solicit depth. That is, sometimes an applicant’s answer to the “most difficult situation” question is directly related to her interest in medicine. There are many cases in which obstacles shaped someone’s choice to pursue a life of caring for patients or helped him develop the skills to do so. There, I can see the appeal of the question. It contributes to painting the complete picture of the applicant’s motivations and aspirations in medicine.
For others, the question is less relevant. This was the case for my friend and me. Enduring our difficult situations had nothing to do with our subsequent decisions to go into medicine. Our situations were simply incidents that happened to punctuate the narratives that are our lives.
That is why talking about them in the explicit context of trying to gain acceptance into graduate school felt sleazy.
I had another interviewer who, after asking the same question, handled our conversation with less sensitivity. She wrote down my answers without once looking up. As though she was checking off criteria I was supposed to have to become a competent doctor. Check: there was hardship. Check: I dealt with it in a healthy way.
“And… how do you think that will impact your ability to take care of patients?” she asked next, as though reading off a template. I don’t know. Maybe it won’t. There are other things in my life, things I chose to do, that I think will impact my ability to take care of patients. Can’t you ask me something else?
To medical school interviewers: it is perfectly acceptable to pursue emotional depth. I do not think the “most difficult situation” question should be tossed completely. But if you choose to use it, please do so cautiously. Stay within the bounds of what is relevant and what the applicant wants to discuss. And, if that emotional line is crossed, please be aware that the tone of the interview has fundamentally changed. Please handle the interaction with the same sensitivity you are asking for from applicants who will very soon be on the other side, asking similar types of delicate questions to vulnerable patients.
“It’s OK. We can talk about something else.”
I wish she knew how much I appreciated that.