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The First Interview Question—It’s Always the Same!

Wouldn’t you like to start every exam by knowing the first question ahead of time?

Of course you would!

When it comes to the applicant interview, I know what the first question will be—best of all, I can tell you ahead of time so you can prepare.

It’s not enough just to know what the question is. You must know why the question is asked and what essential elements you should include in your answer.

The interview is intentionally sneaky. Interview panelists are not going to come right out and ask the questions they want answered. They can’t! Sounds cryptic? Keep reading…

Professional school interviews are intentionally sneaky and mysterious...

Professional school interviews are intentionally sneaky…

In his book, The Medical School Interview: Secrets and a System for Success, Jeremiah Fleenor explains the inherently sneaky nature of the medical school interview. The very same principle applies to optometry school. This interview is very different from a job interview where past performance is a predictor of future potential. For the professional school interview, there is no history of past performance so that interviewers must use speculation. They must speculate on your potential. They don’t ask direct questions but rather, they ask speculative questions and extract the information they seek. Still sounds cryptic? Keep reading…

So what exactly are these sneaky questions that interviewers want answers to? I’ll illustrate with two of the questions Fleenor cites in his book:

#1 Are you doctor material? Are you one of us?

#2 Do you have the motivation it takes to get through four years of a demanding program?

Interviewers cannot ask these questions directly, so they do it indirectly.

Ahead of time, the smart applicant will understand the rationale behind why these are the questions that need answering and prepare accordingly. For example, after reviewing your Curriculum Vitae, an interviewer may ask, “I see you played the violin competitively in high school. Tell us about that.” You say to yourself, “Are we talking about violin music now?” NO! The savvy applicant would know that we’re talking about providing an answer to question #2! The interviewers ask that question because they


know playing the violin competitively involves several skill sets that will serve you well in optometry school: dealing with the stress of competition, juggling your schedule to accommodate regular rehearsal, and not giving up when encountering the challenges of a steep learning curve. The prepared applicant doesn’t answer this question for its face value but rather, forms a reply that addresses the qualities needed to answer question #2. The answer might sound something like this, “I played the violin competitively during all four years of high school. Taking into stride a demanding practice schedule, the stress of competition, and balancing a performance schedule against my studies, I was still able to maintain a high GPA.” You’ve not only supplied the answer to question #2 but more fundamentally, you tipped off the interviewers and let them know that you understood why they asked the question by the answer you supplied without prompting. Home run! If you’ve played team sports and get asked about that experience, the same logic applies—answer the question by giving examples of how that experience prepared you for the rigors of a professional school education.

Let’s get down to the topic of this article: what is that all-important first question–the very first interview question that will be asked? Besides knowing the first interview question, I hope by now you are also asking, “Why do they ask the kinds of questions they ask? Besides answering that first interview question directly, how do I also answer questions #1 and #2, the indirect questions?”

Downloaded from iStock.comThe all-important first question is always the same: “Why do you want to be an optometrist?”

I’ve witnessed many interviews, and it’s always this same opening question. Knowing what you know about the sneaky nature of the interview, you should design your answer, your opening statement, with a one-two punch by answering questions #1 and #2. Your opening statement is also that important first impression—an impression that you only have one chance to make.

Good doctors have great people skills and high emotional intelligence. Ideally, their communication can be commanding enough to take charge of a doctor-patient encounter. You must demonstrate this ability so you have to be inspired when making that all-important opening statement. Think “Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.,” specifically his speech, “I Have A Dream,” where he communicates his vision for our nation, what he hopes will be the future of race relations and subsequent peace. He knew how to be commanding and inspirational!

You need your own vision for your future in the profession! You should use word pictures, demonstrate pathos, and show commitment to your goal. Put it all out there! With your opening statement, if you demonstrate that you have compelling communication skills, you have fire-in-your-belly, and that you will do whatever is necessary to achieve your goals, you’ve provided effective answers to both questions #1 and #2.

Don’t forget to substantiate your claims—this is where your shadowing experience comes into the picture. In your opening statement, you should beat the interviewers to the punch before they ask about shadowing experience and describe yours. Shadowing experience explains your exposure to and interaction with the profession making it germane to the “why do you want to be an optometrist?” question . By correctly explaining what actual experience you’ve logged shadowing, you help the interviewers to understand exactly what makes up your dangling carrot, what motivates you to be so fired up to be an optometrist.

Your shadowing experience should not read like a laundry list: “I put in 40 hours of shadowing with 5 different doctors.” Telling about an experience this way doesn’t explain anything.

Instead, your shadowing history should be told as if you’d completed a meaningful journey: explain how each encounter shaped your impressions of the profession and even more importantly, what you learned about yourself—your own hardwiring—at each of the shadowing encounters.


For example, it may sound like this: “I first shadowed with Dr. Smith. She practices general optometry. I learned a lot from watching her care for patients—I especially liked the way she worked with children. This inspired me to examine my own preferences. Perhaps I would like to practice pediatric optometry? I decided to follow-up on that possibility by arranging to shadow with Dr. Jones, a pediatric optometrist. It didn’t turn out to be what I expected. I found I wasn’t as comfortable as I thought around children. My next experience was shadowing with Dr. Green who sees many ocular disease patients. These patients tend to be in the geriatric age group. I made a discovery about myself: I liked working with older people. I learned from Dr. Green that, aside from ocular disease, these patients have special challenges such as depression which factors into treating their ocular conditions. I’ve thought a lot about myself since that encounter and have even read up on geriatric psychology. Even though I know I’m just beginning my own journey in optometry, I think I most likely will be interested in studying ocular disease.”

This is the way to effectively recount a shadowing experience, that is by always relating it back to your own innate hardwiring, by relating what you learned about yourself as a result of the encounter.

Don’t memorize your opening statement but rather, commit to memory its form. Picture a bulleted outline of your talking points in your head which will keep you on task as you deliver your opening statement. Practice it in a mirror. If you perform it correctly, if it has all the essential ingredients, you’ve got most of the battle won!

At SCCO, it is mandatory that a clinic faculty member be one of the interview panelists. Clinic faculty are responsible for, among other things, teaching you the people skills necessary to successfully interact with a patient. By crafting your opening statement and before the interview gets underway, by demonstrating these skills up front, you’ll be way ahead of the game. Don’t be that unprepared applicant who is caught off-guard and answers the first question too casually, who doesn’t prepare an opening statement. Instead, show them your people skills, your motivation, your pathos, the fire-in-your-belly! You’ll answer both the actual questions and the sneaky questions too!

Bibliography: Fleenor, Jeremiah. The Medical School Interview: Secrets and a System for Success. 2nd ed. Denver, CO: Shift 4 Publishing 2011.

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