Many students fall into the trap of providing a vague answer about enjoying science, wanting to help people, or always wanting to be a doctor. What they don’t realize is that most (if not all) applicants to medical school share these characteristics!
What differentiates you in answering the question is unique to your situation, so you’ll want to incorporate memorable specifics into your answer to help paint a better picture of you as an applicant. Answering this question provides you with a unique opportunity to put your journey to applying to med school into a coherent narrative. With a little thought, tailoring your answer can be a great way to highlight the strengths in your application or to shore up weaknesses. Here are a couple of thoughts on how to answer the question, and some pitfalls to avoid:
Share Your Resume, But Don’t Just Rehash It
Use your answer to highlight not only your interest in medicine but how you came to develop that interest. Applicants often highlight the origins of their desire to be a doctor but are short on details as to how their resume relates to the journey to applying to med school. It’s not enough to say you “always wanted” to be a doctor; show through stories what you did along the way to understand more about yourself and that desire.
Vague answer: “I always knew I wanted to be a doctor ever since I was a kid. I did some shadowing in high school and I volunteered in college at a hospital too, so I basically felt like I understood what doctors did every day and knew I wanted to be one.”
This answer doesn’t provide much information about the applicant beyond what could already be found on their resume. Your interviewers will want to hear more about you as a person that they couldn’t find out by reading the rest of your application.
Better answer: “I didn’t come from a family of doctors, but my parents say it was always something I was interested in. After one of my friends told me about how their dad, who is a doctor, used to be on call all the time and would sometimes miss holidays or birthdays from getting called to the hospital, I decided it would be a good idea to try to get a better sense of what it was actually like being a doctor. I asked to shadow him in high school, and it really opened my eyes to the fact that if I was going to do this, I needed to be really sure I was ready to handle the demands of the job. I started volunteering at our local emergency department in college to try to prepare myself even more. I learned a lot from being in the ED – not just about being a doctor, but about all the other roles it takes to successfully care for a patient. Now that I’m better informed, I want to be a doctor because there’s no other job where the sacrifice seems so worth it – you can make an immediate, life-changing difference for people, as I saw time and again when patients came in with strokes, heart attacks, and injuries.”
This answer adds detail that might not be evident elsewhere in the application. It shows that the applicant understands some of the demands of being a doctor (missing holidays and birthdays, acknowledging personal sacrifice) as well as highlighting an attempt to grow personally and gain clinical skills as a motivation for volunteering (rather than “checking a box” to show they volunteered). It also opens the possibility of the interviewer asking follow-up questions about what they saw in the emergency department that they liked or disliked, or what they learned from that experience.
Answer Why Medicine, Rather Than Another Career In The Sciences
There are many jobs where you can use science to help people other than being a doctor, and there seem to be more every day. This might have been your initial motivation for exploring becoming a doctor, but interviewers will want to know how you built on that motivation and decided on medicine specifically. Liking science and wanting to help people are great initial motivations, but interviewers will want to see more than that in an application. Be sure to use your answer to expand on why medicine specifically, versus another career in the sciences.
Vague answer: “I really enjoyed science in high school, and I knew I wanted to help people, so I decided to major in biology in college. I wasn’t really sure whether or not to apply to med school right away, so I took a gap year after college and worked as a scribe.”
This answer doesn’t sound as if the interviewee has put much thought into addressing the question. It might also invite some unwelcome questions about why the interviewee took a “gap year,” and prompt the interviewer to ask whether they’ve applied to medical school before and failed to get in, or about their academic record, which could present a problem if it is not stellar.
Better answer: “As a high school student, I was fascinated with my science classes. Someone suggested I consider biology as a major in college, so I gave it a shot. Even though I loved my classes and the research lab that I worked in, I wasn’t completely satisfied with how I was applying what I knew. Rather than trying to apply to med school right away, I decided to spend a year working with patients to see if it was right for me. I took a job as a medical scribe, and it really confirmed my suspicion that medicine was a better fit for me than benchwork would have been. Seeing the way the doctors in our clinic utilized their knowledge to help people every day in a tangible way showed me that medicine was the way I wanted to apply my skills. Having some patient contact scratched that itch of what I needed that I wasn’t getting from my benchwork: the chance to directly apply scientific principles to a person to help them in real time.”
This answer is actually from the same student, with more detail. It sounds more confident, explains the gap year coherently, and illustrates personal growth. An interviewer would be much more likely to follow up with a question about the applicant’s research background or clinic experience next, rather than trying to get more details about a gap year.
Consider Why You Want To Be A Physician Specifically
For some interviewers, it’s not good enough to say you want to go into medicine alone. Interviewers will want to know why you want to be a doctor specifically versus a nurse, physician assistant, physical therapist, or any other number of healthcare professionals who care directly for patients. Your answer should explain that you’ve been exposed to these possibilities and have a specific reason for choosing to pursue one over another.
Vague answer: “I spent a lot of my career as an operating room nurse, but after a while, I really wanted to prescribe medicines, call the shots, and make more money. That’s when I decided to apply to med school.”
Although this answer is somewhat exaggerated, it isn’t far off from real answers given by less-than-savvy applicants. This answer shows a lack of understanding of the roles of various health professions. Nurse practitioners and physician assistants can often prescribe medications, and in an increasingly team-based world, doctors aren’t the sole decision-makers when it comes to patient care. If autonomy were a big motivator for this applicant, there are better ways to express this.
Better answer: “As an operating room nurse, I loved the patient care contact, and I found myself fascinated by what surgeons did on a daily basis. As time went on, I realized I wasn’t going to be satisfied in my career unless I was able to actually perform surgery independently on a patient. While some of my colleagues went on to become nurse practitioners or physician assistants, I wanted to go the physician route because I knew I wanted to be performing surgery in the OR independently. I want to be a doctor because I want to be a surgeon, and there isn’t another way for me to achieve that dream.”
This answer shows a better understanding of team roles and scope of practice than the previous one. It still gets at the idea of autonomy, while showing an understanding of team roles. A followup question might include a discussion of the applicant’s nursing experience or desire to be a surgeon specifically.
There are as many ways to answer the “why do you want to be a doctor” question as there are applicants to medical school, so it pays to prepare an answer ahead of time. Use the fact that the question is virtually guaranteed to your advantage, and highlight elements of your application that aren’t immediately obvious on review of your resume. With some careful planning, your answer can set you up for success in the rest of your medical school interview!