‘What are the most important aspects of communication?’, ‘How would you rate your ability to communicate with your peers?’, ‘Tell me about a time when you, or someone you observed, had a difficult time communicating with someone.’ These are a few of many common medical school interview questions that focus on your ability to communicate with people around you. For some of you out there, you can find this rather challenging, because, how are you going to prove, and not just tell the interviewers that you are an excellent communicator without going in for the overkill?
In this blog post, I will talk about how you can use a structured approach to showing off your ability to communicate in both your medical school interview and personal statement. Note that although this article focuses on communication, it is also applicable to other aspects of interviews such as talking about your strength and weaknesses.
1. The significance of communication
Communication is very important in the role of a doctor. From communicating with your patients to communicating with your colleagues, both verbally and on paper, it is a key skill that every doctor needs and, in the context of applying to medical school, a trait that all medical schools are on the lookout for. Medical schools want students who are powerful communicators, whether be with their peers or patients.
A proportion of the interviewer’s impression of your ability to communicate will come from the way you present yourself and come across in the interview. However, the content of what you are saying can always be polished up as part of your preparation for your interview. Hopefully, at the end of this post, you will be able to get some ideas on how to do that.
2. What is effective communication?
Effective communication is getting your point across to another party by talking in clear and simple terms. It is also when the person you are communicating with listens actively, absorbs your point and understands it. Essentially, communication is a ‘give and take’ process and it is something you practice every day.
As mentioned above, how you come across in the actual interview will add to the interviewers’ perceptions of your ability to communicate, while it is important to speak with confidence, don’t forget to also display your ability to listen actively, that means, nodding and showing that you are listening when they speak- because communication is a two way process!
3. Reflection as a tool to promote yourself
Before we talk about how to share your reflections in a structured manner, it is important to understand the benefits of reflecting on your actions can bring. Talking through your experiences allows you to assess your own thoughts and actions. This can contribute to your personal learning and development. Looking towards the future, as a junior doctor in the UK or elsewhere, you are expected to continually update your e-portfolio with reflections on difficult situations you have faced in your practice and describe what you would do to improve on what has happened.
The General Medical Council (GMC) recommends that doctors regularly reflect on their own performance, professional values and contribution to any teams in which they work. Being a reflective practitioner is crucial, not only in bettering your practice as a doctor but also a good way for you to cope with the difficulties that you face in your practice. In my opinion, this is a way that you can comfortably ‘sell’ yourself as a proficient communicant. By talking through or writing about a reflection of something you have seen or experienced, you are giving the interviewers a better glimpse into how your thoughts are processed and what emotions you feel and why. This is a great way to demonstrate how you think and how they affect your actions rather than simply factually recounting an event that happened without explaining about your inner thoughts. Essentially, it’s like only giving the answer to a maths question without showing the work up to it- this may lose you brownie points! Read more about how to reflect in your medical school personal statement in our previous post here.
Now that you know the importance of reflecting, let’s talk about how to use this skill to sell your communicative abilities!
4. Being methodological
A very useful framework that I use to help me reflect is the Gibbs Reflective cycle (1988), as described in the flowchart below:
These six steps are a good way of describing your thoughts on what has happened in a situation in which you thought communication played a huge role. Bear in mind that this might not always necessarily have to be a situation in which you were directly involved in, you can also describe situations that you have observed, such as those that you see while shadowing medical professionals in your work experience.
Let’s go through what each step of the cycle means and how you can use them:
You start off by describing the salient points of a situation you have observed or been involved in. It is important to summarise this into less than two sentences because there is a lot more that you have to cover!
For example: ”During my work experience, I observed a physiotherapist interacting with an elderly patient who was struggling with her breathing. The patient was not very interactive and it took a lot of effort from the physiotherapist before the patient gradually warmed up. Towards the end of the session, they were both able to set a goal to be achieved by doing physiotherapy that they both agreed upon together.’’
Next, describe what sort of emotions and thoughts this situation evoked from you and briefly explain why.
Continuing on with the example above: ”I felt immense respect for the physiotherapist’s patience in building a rapport with the patient and the effort she put in communicating with him and in ensuring that he understood the importance of having physiotherapy.’’
Talk about what was good and bad about the situation that you have observed and what made you think that.
Example: ’’It could have been easy for the physiotherapist to go through the motions of the exercise session and not bother with engaging the question, but by building the rapport with the patient and communicating the importance of the exercise, the patient had a better understanding of how these exercises could improve his condition.’’
Describe what you thought about the situation and what sense you made of it.
Example: ’’If the patient had not been educated on the importance of these exercises in this session with the physiotherapist, he could be less likely to carry out the exercises he was shown on his own.’’
Summarise the situation and talk about anything else that you could or would have done.
Example: “The physiotherapist used simple, non-medical terms that the patient could understand and made sure she was engaging the patient in the session and this really improved the outcome of it.”
6. Action plan
Talk about what you would do if a similar situation arose again.
Example: ’If I was faced with a situation, I hope to apply the same patience and effort in ensuring that the session is focused on the patient’s ideals so that I can sufficiently engage them to form enough of a rapport with them so that we are working towards the same goal.’
From the example, you can see that by working through these six steps, you can show that you are able to bring across the message that you understand the importance of effective communication, what poor communication could bring in terms of a poorer outcome and also what factors helped in engaging the patient.
While it is a lot more to talk about than a simple ‘I shadowed a physiotherapist who, with her patience, engaged a patient, who was not very interactive at the beginning’, talking through these six steps give the interviewers better insight into how you think.
Don’t forget that this is applicable to other and most common medical school interview questions in which you recount an experience. Here are my key take away messages:
- While it is important to speak confidently, it is also important to show that you are listening actively, remember, communication works in both ways!
- Reflection will be an important part of your life as a medical student and a doctor, so learn it well and it will bode well for you in the future!
- Use the six steps - description, feelings, evaluation, analysis, conclusion and action plan - to practice talking about your experiences or situations you have observed, both good and bad!
Good luck with your medical school interviews and may your communicative prowess shine through!