One of the biggest sources of anxiety to many medical school applicants is the interview process – especially the ‘ethical question’ that may (or may not) be posed. Should applicants be concerned about this portion of the interview? Is there a chance they could offend the interviewer with their answer – or is there a way to handle such ‘hot button’ topics without ruining your chances?

We asked Senior Consultant Dr. Wayne Shelton about this aspect of the medical school interview. “The ethical question is important,” says Wayne, “but not so much as for the applicant’s ability to pick the ‘right’ position on certain topics.” Often times, the ethical question is used more “as an occasion to engage in a balanced and informed conversation with the student.” Wayne added that “there is no right or wrong answer to the question – but there is a right and wrong way to answer it.”

The key to handling such a delicate question that might deal with sensitive issues such as abortion, assisted suicide, and stem cell research isn’t coming down on one side or the other. “It’s especially not a good idea to answer immediately on the extreme end of the issue, either,” warns Wayne. “What an applicant needs to do here is show that they not only understand the issue from both sides – using well-thought out and informed arguments – but also show they can think critically as well.”

It is not uncommon for an interviewer to give ‘scenario’ examples of ethical issues patient cases as well, and continue to tweak the contextual circumstances of the example but not necessarily the medical condition. “These types of questions are done sometimes to see the clarity, depth and precision of the applicant’s thinking pattern. Are they fair-minded? Do they have a grasp of the nuances of the situation?” says Wayne. “Are they informed? All of this is to give the interviewer a greater understanding of the applicant and how they might think as a critically minded physician.”

Wayne notes that above all else, the interviewer is really looking at the student’s aptitude for a future as a health care worker. “It’s vitally important these students that are admitted are sophisticated, knowledgeable, and intelligent – and that they have the skills, dedication and attitude to be a physician,” says Wayne. “The numbers tell only part of the story – the interview tells the rest.”

The ethical question isn’t something to be feared or stressed over. “It’s just another tool admissions committees use to properly ascertain whether an applicant has what it takes to be a competent healthcare provider in today’s health system,” says Wayne. “So applicants should use this occasion to communicate their personality and character by responding with informed and honest answers. By showing you’re capable of making informed and intelligent judgments, you’ll show yourself to be worth the committee’s consideration.”

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