Difficult Interview Questions and how to answer them

Updated: Jun 18, 2020

By Hithin Noble


If you want to be a healthcare professional, why don’t you want to be a nurse/ academic researcher?


  • Consider and appreciate the value of all healthcare professionals in the working environment of the multi-disciplinary team and how they bring their own expertise that ultimately could be important for a patient. Link this to your own work experience.

  • ·Also, you don’t know who is interviewing you- it could be anyone from a medical student, doctor or nurse. You don’t want to offend anyone.

  • Be aware senior nurse practitioners can prescribe, and share many responsibilities that doctors have.

  • Nevertheless, reasons you could give include:

  • Doctors have more leadership responsibilities within the team- something which interests you and link this with your experiences, where you demonstrated leadership.

  • A medical degree allows to gain a greater scientific basis when practicing within the NHS- as the degree is longer and hence more scientifically- oriented. This can then be linked towards experiences illustrating your interest in sciences.

  • Doctor vs Academic Researcher- like the concept of patient interactions and forming doctor-patient relationships based on empathy and honesty. This can be then linked to how you demonstrate empathy etc, via reflecting on your experiences.

What is your biggest weakness?

  • Take some time to really reflect upon this. It is easy to distinguish someone that has put some thought into it and has been honest, or those of whom who have said a generic wishy-washy answer. A great answer shows you are being humble with yourself.

  • Common answers to biggest weakness:

-I’m a perfectionist OR I’m too detail oriented.

- I’m a workaholic.

- I don’t have any weaknesses.

  • The top answers for this question show that they have taken measures to overcome this weakness, hence demonstrating resilience, and the willingness to improve themselves as an individual. With medicine, with its life-long learning structure, you should be always willing to learn from your mistakes.

  • Don’t shoot yourself in the foot- be honest BUT this weakness shouldn’t be anything that is crucial trait for a medical student. E.g. I struggle to be empathetic.

  • Great ways to start this answer include:

- I could use more experience in….

- I have had trouble in the past…

- I can lack confidence….

Example: ‘I have had trouble in the past being confident when public-speaking. I was rather shy in school, and the idea of speaking to an audience would make me uncomfortable. I guess I was afraid I was going to make a mistake, but nevertheless I didn’t really want this holding me back in the future. Henceforth, a year ago I joined my school’s debating society and have gone to represent my school in competitions. This was initially very daunting, but with patience and plenty of practice, I have learnt the valuable skill of how to convey information to an audience in an engaging and coherent manner’.

What do you think will find difficult part as a medical student/ doctor?

  • There are many similarities with the biggest weakness question. For instance, it is important to be honest, and show you have reflected on your own weaknesses, and how that might impact you in the future. Nevertheless, you need to show that you have only considered solutions to the problems you have raised, hence showing that you are both pragmatic and adaptable.

  • You need to show despite the difficulties, you are able to make competent decisions etc.

  • Also consider that you cannot definitively predict what you are going to find difficult in medical school but take some time to acknowledge that it is through your past experiences, that you believe that you are able to handle the situations discussed.

  • Examples include difficulty breaking bad news or struggling with night shifts and staying organised.

What is more important: empathy or sympathy?

  • Show you understand the definitions of both terms- sympathy is demonstrating that you feel sorry and compassion for an individual. Empathy is trying to understand how someone is feeling about a situation- ‘by stepping in their shoes’.

  • Evaluate the roles of a medical professional, and helps you identify why each term is important within a consultation. By being sympathetic, it shows the patient that the doctor is genuinely concerned for their well-being and is made to feel more comfortable and cared for within the consultation. By being empathetic, the doctor is able to ask the correct questions sensitively, and hence form a holistic, patient- centred course of action, which is more likely to satisfy the patient.

  • The important thing is there is no wrong answer here- you could argue both cases, but you need to illustrate that you appreciate that both empathy and sympathy are both important in a successful consultation between a doctor and a patient. Don’t just pick one immediately and give reasoning to that one term- as this just gives the interviewer an opportunity to counter your points, leaving yourself back-tracking.

  • You could even link an instance where you’ve seen empathy and sympathy in a healthcare setting.

  • A possible follow-up question: Can be empathy be learnt or is it built within you?

  • This is a tough question, but you need to have the methodical approach of understanding each option that is given within the question. First, like the previous question, you need to acknowledge why empathy is important to a medical professional.

  • Empathy is certainly something that is a part of one’s character- it cannot be switched on or off.

  • Empathy is something that doesn’t come from reading a textbook, but that doesn’t mean that you cannot improve how to demonstrate empathy more effectively to a patient. That is why you go on placements, to learn techniques and how to adapt your own communication skills, and hence is a skill that can be nurtured over time.

Scenario: What would you do if you are a medical student working in a GP, and a patient is angry that they have waited a long time to be seen. What would you say to them?


  • This could be a MMI station, where you could be asked to talk through what you would do in such situation, or could be a whole acting scenario, with you pretending to be a medical student.

  • This scenario is testing your empathy, and honesty as an individual.

  • A technique we use often in medical school, to demonstrate that we have been empathetic is ICE. It stands for IDEAS, CONCERNS and EXPECTATIONS.

  • In this case, the technique is centred on asking specific questions towards the patient, to understand the patient’s feelings and attitudes towards the situation on hand. Furthermore, it shows you have respected patient autonomy, and have encouraged a patient-centred approach to the conversation.

  • For instance, in this case, you can start by asking questions to comprehend the patient’s ideas into why they feel they have waited for so long. Furthermore, understanding why the patient is concerned to have been waiting for so long. For instance, they could need to pick their kids up from school, or they need to get back to work. You just don’t know. Finally, what the patient expects yourself and the medical team to do, in order to rectify the situation.

  • By taking the time to do this, you can really take the best measures to reassure the patient and form a solution that caters for the patient’s specific needs. Nevertheless, it is important to be honest with the patient, and admit when things have gone wrong.

  • For instance, promising them that they will be seen next is unrealistic, and you have not considered other patients in the waiting room. Instead, for example, you could apologise for their wait, as it has been busy today. Moreover, then letting them know that they would be seen as soon as possible, and that the medical team do know that they are there.

  • This shows you have been both considerate towards the patient, but aware of your own capabilities.

  • Avoid using medical jargon, and furthermore don’t be patronizing or angry towards the patient, even if they raise their voice, or start crying for instance. It is important you stay calm and approach the scenario- step- by-step.

  • The techniques above can be used to effectively tackle pretty much any scenario. They are really easy to make-up, and just practice applying the methods above to each case.

  • Examples of possible scenarios include:

- Your fellow medical student has been struggling to stay on top of work and is missing classes. What would say to them?

- You are working on a paediatric ward, and you find a consultant drinking alcohol within the store-cupboard. How would you handle the situation?

- You are asked to speak to a patient who is afraid to go to his attended colonoscopy in the afternoon. What would you say?

If your friends could describe you in three words, what would they say?

  • I know it is obvious, but answer the question, it is not three- phrases- it is three words.

  • Use this as an opportunity to showcase a wide range of characteristics that you possess. Don’t say for instance, you are tenacious and resilient, because they are essentially illustrating the same thing.

  • Back each word with an example which illustrates this: E.g. my friends describe me as organised because they have seen how I manage my responsibilities on my prefect team, my studies and effectively have a proficient work-life balance.

  • Make sure you pick words, and state that these are all relevant characteristics which you believe a good medical professional should possess and show your reasoning by linking these characteristics with your work experience. This henceforth illustrating one day, you too could one day be that healthcare professional. There is no point saying you are fun, because that doesn’t show your capabilities as a medical student.

  • Also show that you are willing to learn, you are not the finished article, and hence are always looking to improve your skill set.

What is more important: being a team-player or a leader?


  • It is crucial to illustrate initially why teamwork is important within the healthcare setting. This includes demonstrating the knowledge of the role of the multi-disciplinary team in effective patient care. Furthermore, another instance of teamwork is between the medical professional and the patient. This is essentially showing a duty of candour towards the patient, as you are working together to form a holistic plan, and henceforth the patient feels they are part of the decision-making process.

  • Link the importance of teamwork for medical students, with the guidance found in the GMC Good Medical Practice.

  • Also, it is important to illustrate why both being a leader, and a team-player are equally vital within a team- by choosing one over the other- you are essentially vulnerable to counter-questions from the interviewer.

  • Provide examples showing you understand what you believe makes a good team-player and leader. These examples could be someone that inspires you, someone you saw on work experience or a personal example from when you were working within a team.

  • Within these examples, don’t just state what happened in the example, but make sure you reflect upon specific attributes that leads to a good team-player or leader- just saying it isn’t good enough.

  • Many of these attributes overlap NHS 6C’s, which include:

- Care- acknowledging you are part of a larger collective and working towards a common goal.

- Compassion- show empathy towards your fellow teammates and understand people’s strengths and weaknesses.

- Competence- being knowledgeable, as well as being organised.

- Communication – being able to communicate coherently to fellow team members, as well as listening to guidance and criticism.

- Courage- willing to take risks and make effective decisions.

- Commitment- hard-working, and effectively fulfilling their assigned role.

How are doctors portrayed in the media?

  • You need to consider the both positive and negative portrayals of the profession within the media. This shows you are broad- minded, and competent: as it is great demonstration of critical thinking.

  • The media is not restricted to TV: this includes books, newspapers, blogs, radio etc.

  • It Is important to acknowledge that by understanding these different viewpoints- you are essentially acknowledging the different demographic viewpoints within the country.

  • POSITIVE: the latest scientific advancements (HIV Gene Therapy)/ NHS fight against Corona Virus/ Grey’s Anatomy and medical sitcoms/ Exceptional Figures within the field (David Nott- War Doctor).

  • NEGATIVES: Bad Examples of doctors (Harold Shipman)/ Highly public Medical Cases( Ashya King and Charlie Gard).

Why do you believe you are the best candidate here today?

  • You should always respect the other candidates - medical school is competitive for a reason. Many of the applicants have achieved highly academically, but also within other disciplines. Henceforth, you can never say conclusively say you are the best candidate, and furthermore that sounds arrogant.

  • Instead, you should instead state conclusively why you believe you are the ideal medical student for the specific medical school, you are applying to.

  • This question requires you to really demonstrate a broad range of characteristics that you possess, and hence show that you are the well-rounded individual medical schools are looking for.

  • This your chance to really express yourself- pick your greatest achievements, and best experiences to illustrate why you are an exceptional medical school applicant. They don’t want good. Exceptional is what they are looking for.

  • Make sure whatever you say- it is backed up by relevant examples, and furthermore make the answer clear to comprehend by structuring it effectively, and not just blurt out a paragraph.

  • What is smart to do within the question, is illustrate your enthusiasm, and knowledge for the medical school and the course.

  • Examples include:

  • I’m intrigued with the complexities of the human body, and my medical blog has illustrated that the field never stops changing- something, which a PBL- based course will give me the creative license to explore further.

  • Throughout school, I have both continued to excel academically, but maintain a good work-life balance. This is something I intend to do at university- by joining the wide- array of societies this university has to offer.

If you were not offered to place to study Medicine this academic year, what would you do?

  • This question is the perfect test of motivation and shows that you’ve really taken the choice of studying medicine not lightly. Furthermore, it shows your commitment, determination and pragmatism: essential traits for a medical student.

  • It is important to be honest- and illustrate to the interviewer that it will be disappointing to not get an offer. Nevertheless, show an appreciation that medicine is not a sprint, but a marathon.

  • Don’t swap your mind for a completely unrelated degree. Don’t just say you will take a gap year and apply again- a gap year can mean a lot of things, including sitting around at home, and binging on Netflix.

  • Examples:

- Asking the university for feedback for why your application was rejected and talk about your measures to rectify this.

- Undergo work experience, to understand the healthcare setting more, and appreciate the qualities a medical student should possess.

- Take time to travel and broaden your perspective on both the difference in attitudes towards health, and the differences in healthcare between both countries.

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