Table Of Contents
What are communication skills and why are they important?
So, what are communication skills?
Most people will refer to them as “soft skills”, but I think they are “strong skills” because you want to be a strong communicator, not a soft one.
As a medical student, these will be your super-powers.
This is no joke.
Having good communication skills opens many doors, you will be an excellent person to include in any team and a hit once you start talking to patients. Communication skills are not solely for medical school interviews and medical school itself; they are vital throughout a doctor’s entire career.
If you had a patient in front of you, your goal is to make them feel confident that you are awesome at what you do.
Communicating in the correct manner can be reassuring, demonstrating that they are in safe hands.
At an interview we urge you to express that message, it shows you understand how powerful these skills are. This makes the interviewers’ jobs super easy – which is a triple plus in our books as they’re the ones that can give the medical school the thumbs up to welcome you in.
The first thing to learn is this:
change ‘communication skills’ to, ‘conversational skills’.
When you are at an interview or with a patient, it is no different than what happens when you hang out with a friend.
Okay, yes, there are some differences…but strip it away to the foundations and what do you have?
There is you and another human having a chat. What medical schools want to see is that you have what it takes to be lovely, chatty, and able to build that ever-so-important rapport!
You have all of these things and we know that once you finish this article (and practice a lot) you will be A-M-A-Z-I-N-G.
SUMMARY CHECK: WHAT ARE COMMUNICATION SKILLS?
Types Of Conversational Skills
To help understand what conversational skills are, we can split them into two categories:
- The things you say.
- The things you do not say.
As this expertly drawn diagram below shows, there are sub-categories to these two parent categories.
Each of them plays an important part to your conversational skills.
We’ll start by going through the first, more obvious category, which is the things you say.
Let’s dive in!
[Category 1] The things you say
This refers to your verbal skills which can be divided into what you say and how you say it (please take a look at the flow chart as it is going to get very wordy, sorry!).
How you say it
This means the tone of your voice and the speed at which you speak: to be effective you need a balance of these. We feel it is best to opt for a slow rate with a soft but confident tone. This helps with making sure you have time to think, aids your structure, and if you are nervous (which is completely okay) it helps you relax into the setting.
There are some big no-nos, such as:
Monotony. Let’s get out of that metronome-like way of speaking and inject some vibrancy into your answers. Definitely record yourself and ask your family whether you sound monotonous or not.
If you receive the feedback that you are (which is completely cool, but it will not help you build rapport with your examiner(s) then try exaggerating the way you speak (ever so slightly, please do not become Cali from the valley, please). This technique can help show you how versatile our voices are and could become your biggest weapon in the interview.
Speaking at 150 words per second. Interviews are not a race; it is not a rampage to see how many points you can make in the time allocated. However, you do not want to talk at a snail’s pace either!
This skill is a balancing act between these two ends. Pace yourself, speak at a rate that is comfortable and enables you to make clear, concise points.
What you say
This refers to language. This is not your dialect but your choice of words.
A good acronym for understanding this is K.I.S.S: Keep. It. Simple. Stupid.
When practicing, imagine you are explaining your answers to a 5-year-old. To get them to understand your point you must never, ever, EVER use jargon.
Put yourself in the 5-year-old’s shoes and think, “how can I get my message across? Do I understand the message well enough to do this?”.
One final point, please do not take this too literally – don’t start speaking like a 5-year-old…it may not go down too well.
Stick to a structure. In a medical school interview, you will feel pressure – that is totally normal! With the right preparation, you can thrive in this environment and make it one to relish.
Having a solid structure to answer any question helps. It stops you ending up like Eminem who seems to forget the things he writes down. The structure, as you will see, is very simple. We definitely advise turning it into something that suits you and the way you want to express yourself in the interviews.
So, what is this game-changing structure (hey, that’s what your thinking)?
Beginning, middle, and end (crazy, I know).
- Introduce yourself and the topic, this could be a summary of the question in your own words. This helps you start the conversation, get over the first hurdle and off you go.
- Explain your answer. Try to separate your points as it is easier for the examiner to follow.
- Summarise your answer into its key points.
This may not work for every station/question, but it is mouldable and stops you from remembering an answer off by heart.
However, please do understand and learn all the content as best you can. This, alongside the structure, will only make you more amazing than you already are at communicating.
Remember, the medical school is asking you for a chat. They want to get to know you better, so do not hide your awesome personality.
So, that is done and dusted. Here’s a quick summary check (in case you’re a skimmer).
SUMMARY CHECK: tHE THINGS YOU SAY
We then have…
[Category 2] The things you do not say
These are the subtleties that medical schools look for. These may not be as obvious as what was mentioned above, but they are SUPER IMPORTANT.
Undertaking a medical degree means you will meet patients – this is arguably the best part of the experience.
You must dress appropriately when on the wards/in clinics.
What you wear to the interview communicates that you represent an image of someone that fits what the medical school is after.
Imagine you are trying to professionally “woo” the medical school of your choosing. The recommendations are for men to wear a suit and ladies to wear smart office-appropriate clothing.
This point cannot be stressed enough!
Maintaining suitable eye contact confers so much confidence and it helps portray an image of a strong communicator.
How do you know if you need to improve this? That is a tough question to answer and there is a spectrum. However, one approach is to record yourself explaining a question/MMI station (this could be to a friend/family member/teacher) and count how many times you looked away.
Over time you will develop patterns that feel right for you. This may involve consciously looking away every couple of sentences (when it feels right) as to not put someone off by being “too intense” or “starey eyed” as a teacher once, so eloquently, put it.
Conversations are a two-way street (whether you like it or not) and the interviews are a perfect example of this.
The interviewers will/may interact with you, please listen when they do!
A fundamental active listening technique is nodding your head when someone is speaking to you. This does not mean you become the Churchill dog from those adverts on TV and start selling car insurance.
Nod at a controlled pace and every so often. Sprinkle a few ‘mhmm’s or ‘okay’s on top of that and you are showing the signs of a great active listener, yippee!
One final point that does not fit into the idea of a typical chat is that SILENCE IS NOT A KILLER.
In medicine, giving patients space is advised.
If you can show that you know when silence is appropriate that puts you in great stead. Speaking at a controlled pace assists this.
Additionally, if you run out of things to say that is perfectly fine or if the interviewer stops talking that is fine too, you probably have smashed the station and there is nothing more to ask you.
These skills are fundamental to medical school interviews and in life! You want to build rapport with your interviewer.
The way I remembered this was, build a rapport to leave them wanting more (catchy right?).
To improve on your conversational skills, try recording yourself answering mock questions.
Ask for constructive feedback from friends/family/teachers, reflect, and repeat! Make sure you feel comfortable with your approach.
Another tip is to imagine you are a doctor with a patient: what lasting impression would you want the patient to have?
This is the key to successful communication at medical school interviews.
SUMMARY CHECK: tHE THINGS YOU DO NOT SAY
How are communication skills tested at medical school interviews?
This is a difficult question to answer.
You cannot pin it down to a specific type of question. In reality, this is fundamental for any interview station/question.
For example, in either a panel/MMI interview definitely do not switch in and out of different personas (one showing great conversational skills and the other not).
It would make you memorable, but for the wrong reasons.
Therefore, establish who you are and how you want to come across. Maintain that throughout the interviews and you’ll be soaring (flying, there’s not a star in heaven…sorry, sorry it’s so hard not to make the reference).
Now then, how will your conversational skills be scored?
In a medical school interview, regardless of whether it is panel or MMI, most of the examiner(s)/actor(s)/medical student(s) will be focused on the skills we just discussed!
Each university has its own way of scoring these skills. Nevertheless, they form the foundations for many interview questions and stations. So, spend a lot of your preparation on them.
They are actually really fun to practice too as you are basically just chatting lots on interesting topics.
Check out the summary, then let’s jump onto some examples.
SUMMARY CHECK: HOW IS COMMUNICATION TESTED AT INTERVIEW?
Example MMI Station Communication Question & Answer
In this bit, we’ll go through two fairly typical MMI communication stations and how to answer them effectively.
An actor will impersonate your friend in this station. You are picking your friend up from the airport, for the last week you were looking after their pets. Explain to your friend that you broke their crystal vase during this period.
- Say hi welcome back and say that the pets were a delight. Then ask them how the trip was.
- There will be a prompt, something like, “did anything happen in the house when I was away?” This is when you will explain what happened.
- Important points to note here. Be empathetic -> soften your tone, explain how sorry you are and that you want to do whatever you can to replace it. How you do in the station depends on how you react to your friend’s comments and questions
- Typically, the actor will round it off. But you can say, “Is it okay if we summarise, I want to be clear on my next steps to rectify this.” Then give your summary.
Demonstrate how to fold a piece of paper into four squares and teach the interviewer how to perform this task without using your hands.
Channel your inner monk here, you are in for a toughie.
The aim of this is to explain the task as simply as possible.
The interviewer will do everything they can to not follow your instructions.
However, the clearer your instructions are the harder it is for them to not follow. In this station, use the time wisely, do not jump straight into it.
You can say that you are taking a couple of seconds to gather your thoughts.
Have a go at this, you will see it is challenging and you really need to be clear with your words. Do not show any signs of frustration or panic! You are a shaolin monk that has found inner peace and can be phased by nothing!
Example Panel Interview Communication Question & Answer
Although a panel interview isn’t split into stations like an MMI interview, it’s still super likely that they’ll test your communication skills, either directly or indirectly.
Here’s how it might go.
Tell me about a situation where you used your communication skills, what were the skills and how did they help you?
Here we would definitely use the proposed structure.
“When I was a hospital porter (flexing on my work experience here), there was situation where I needed to use my communication skills. When taking a patient to the operating theatre the lift was stuck.”
“The patient was going for an elective heart operation and was incredibly scared. In the lift it was only me and the patient. The patient was distressed by the situation. After asking how the patient was doing I gave the patient space to talk freely. During this I was nodding my head and displaying signs that I was listening and responding to any questions he had about how long this was going to take. Using a calm tone and not showing any distress I was able to help the patient into a more relaxed state.”
“If I had not started a conversation, given the patient space, and showed that I was listening, then the patient may have become more distressed. This experience taught me the value of communicating properly with patients.”
Can you learn communication skills? Why are these skills necessary for a doctor?
This is an interesting question. Like with the previous questions, there is no definitively right or wrong answer. If you use the points from this article and structure your answer logically then this station will be a breeze.
How have you developed your communication skills?
Similarly, this question has no right or wrong answer. This is a perfect opportunity to talk about your work experience.
Make sure to link them to the question.
A helpful tip is to constantly use the phrase ‘communication skills’ so you do not steer the ship off course!
SUMMARY CHECK: MMI & PANEL EXAMPLE QUESTIONS
Our top tips to ace Communication stations & questions
Here are our top tips;
Practice, practice, PRACTICE!
Making this second nature will help you in the long-run. This skill is bigger than the interview and will be the biggest asset for you as a future doctor.
Seek out feedback on how you come across when answering these questions. Learning to reflect will help you in everything you do. Learn more about yourself through this process.
Ask people around you how they communicate.
Ask your teachers for advice on how they communicate with students. If you know a doctor or a different type of healthcare worker, ask them for tips. Everyone has their own way of explaining these skills, but they are universal.
Find your way of having a conversation.
Know what pace you want to speak, the tone you will use, how to build a rapport (to leave them wanting more)…the list goes on.
On the day, take a deep breath in, take a deep breath out and believe in yourself. We know you will do amazing, now it is time for you to believe that you will do amazing!
We hope you have a better understanding of what skills come under the vague title of, “communication skills”. There are lots of resources on the 6med website regarding practice questions, how to answer questions and the interviews themselves. However, the moral of this story is be who you want to be on this stage. We know you have the skills, now show the medical school you do too!
We wish you the best of luck with your preparation and hope you smash it on the day!
As always, if you want some extra support, 6med are here to offer exactly that! Plus if money is a roadblock for you, we offer super generous bursary schemes 🙂