Interview season is upon us. For those of you booking flights and frantically scheduling visits to graduate programs here are a few pointers to boost your confidence and send you off to your interviews feeling prepared and ready to make an impression.
First off, what does the interview process for genetic counseling programs really look like?
The night before:
Most graduate programs offer an informal dinner with the current students the night before the interview. This is generally optional but is a great way to learn more about the student experience and get a chance to ask more directly about the relationship with program staff. This is also the time to start keying into the vibe of the program – How do the students interact with one another? Do you see yourself fitting into a similar group? Do the opinions expressed about the program line up with what you hope to gain from your graduate education? Taking advantage of this opportunity to ask questions of the students can also give you some insight into topics you may want to address with your interviewers the following day. While this type of interaction is not meant to be a formal part of your program interview, it is always a good idea to be respectful, engaging and involved in the conversation.
Interviews are a blur – long days, meeting a lot of people, being fully engaged in conversation and needing to think on your feet. Generally, programs schedule short 15-30 minute interviews with all available program staff. You should expect to speak directly with the program director as well as the medical director, rotation supervisors, research advisors or other program personnel. Most likely, you will be emailed or given a copy of your interview schedule beforehand. This gives you the opportunity to research the individuals you will be meeting. You might consider looking into their research interests, their role within the program or their professional and teaching experiences. Remember, you may only have 15 minutes with some individuals so prioritize your message and your questions. Some programs vary the structure of their interviews and may have short group discussions where they ask the interviewees to review a case or an ethical problem. This gives the program a chance to evaluate your group interactions and your ability to advocate for your own viewpoints while respectfully acknowledging and responding to the viewpoints of others. In my own experience, one of my interviews even included a timed, handwritten response to a given prompt. Keep an open mind – the program wants to get to know you and any seemingly odd experience or question may really be an effort to do just that!
What do you wear to a graduate program interview?
As many interviews include a tour of nearby clinics or hospitals, comfortable shoes are a must. If you choose to go with a higher heel, carrying flats in your bag can be a great compromise. While keeping professionalism in mind, try to show your personality. You should be considering a blazer, tailored dress or a blouse and pants but don’t feel restricted to the color black. Keep jewelry to a minimum or to pieces you know will not be bothersome or need adjusting during an interview. You want to feel confident, not uncomfortable. Carrying a bag is perfectly acceptable and programs will generally make arrangements to store your luggage or other belongings throughout the day. Finally, a portfolio is a great place to store extra copies of your resume and take notes about the program.
What types of questions will I be asked during graduate program interviews?
This is generally more difficult to pin down as different programs may focus on different things. However, most programs will be looking to assess 1) your understanding of the field 2) if you are the same accomplished and hard-working candidate they saw on paper 3) how your experience and interpersonal skills have prepared you for graduate training 4) if you fit with the current program staff and students.
So, what can you do to prepare?
As standard advice: take advantage of mock interview or other preparatory services offered through your current institution. You should also become familiar with what is unique about the programs where you are interviewing. Familiarity with the program website, rotations and program staff shows your level of interest and can allow you to have more meaningful exchanges with interviewers.
Prepare to talk about the experiences listed on your resume. More than a general overview, consider what was most valuable about each experience and think of examples which highlight your skills or ways in which you have grown. In doing this, think how you could use these examples to answer common interview questions (e.g. When is a time you have worked with a team? Tell me about a time you handled a difficult person or situation. When have you managed multiple time commitments at once?). You may want to make a list of these “highlight” experiences and add to it as you prepare for your interviews. Having a strong stockpile of examples to pull from can help you respond to similar interview questions with fresh insights.
Back up your weaknesses with examples of growth. It is safe to assume that during your interviews you may encounter a question about your weaknesses. It is okay to be honest and upfront when answering this question but make sure you can provide examples of how you have addressed your shortcomings and how you continue to grow and learn from your past experience.
Prioritize your message. In genetic counseling, we often talk about “take-home messages.” I think this concept applies quite nicely to interviews. Consider what it is you want most to communicate about yourself as a program candidate. Are you driven? Curious? Ambitious? Preparing your “take-home message” will make it easier to build upon these themes in your responses to interview questions and give you a quick go-to when offering your final thoughts.
Questions! Don’t forget this is your opportunity to evaluate the program. Think about what is most important to you in a graduate school experience and prepare some standard questions to help you evaluate programs in these areas. Open-ended questions generally get you better responses. These are questions that start with “Tell me about…” or “What do you think about…” or “What is important for…”, etc. As an additional point, don’t run out of questions! The more you ask, the more interested you appear. You can guarantee each interview will end with the question, “What questions do you have for me?”, so come prepared! And finally, don’t be afraid to get to know the person sitting across from you – questions do not have to be restricted to information about the program.
Be genuine. I’m sure you have read this advice elsewhere but it is worth the emphasis. You do not want to come across as anything other than yourself. This might mean feeling free to joke a bit with your interviewer or really answering questions honestly without a rehearsed feeling. Of course, be cognizant of the tone the interviewer sets, but don’t be so afraid of saying “the wrong thing” that you censor yourself. The people who get involved with training programs are generally very nice people. So, try your best not to let nerves get in the way of your authentic self.
You may find lists of interview questions specifically for genetic counseling posted online. I would say that some of these lists have useful information but I would not use an online list as your sole means of interview preparation. You are likely going to get more questions directed at you and your experiences. The interview is about getting to know who you are and that means questions about things you should have complete confidence in answering. Some programs choose to ask questions that might take an interviewee off-guard or might get at their opinion regarding an ethical or contemporary issue in the field. Again, this is likely meant to gauge your response and how you handle a little bit of pressure or unease as opposed to if you can give the exact “right answer.” In this situation, it is okay to feel a little bit flustered or to ask for a second to think through things. Take a breath and remember to be honest and diplomatic in your response.
Is there interview etiquette for genetic counseling programs that I should follow?
Yes. First off, do not try and gather information about questions from students or other interviewees. Beyond being inappropriate, this really defeats the purpose of the interview which is to evaluate your honest responses to questions. Second, play nice with everyone. Programs are small and one bad interaction with the front desk staff might get back to the admissions committee. I assume any person applying to a genetic counseling program is both mature and kind-hearted but it doesn’t hurt to remember that any interaction (big or small) can be a part of your evaluation. This also applies to email. Third, stay off of your cell phone. Obvious – just don’t do it; you have only a day or two to get to know the people and the program, so spend that time engaged and being respectful of others by giving your full attention. Finally, send “Thank you” notes to the programs who invited you to interview. Scheduling interviews can be a difficult process from the program’s perspective so showing your appreciation is a very nice touch. Additionally, it provides you one last opportunity to include a thoughtful detail or remind your interviewers of an enjoyable interaction you shared.
Best of luck on interviews from all of us at Maps & Genes! Have other questions? Just ask!