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What Not To Wear (Med School Interview Edition)

November 11, 2012 19 comments

Yesterday I was going through my closet and separating out a lot of clothes that I no longer wear to give to Goodwill.  Among the many things I selected to never see again, I noted a tie that I wore to my original medical school interviews.  An wow.. it was a problem.  Did I really wear this?  I then decided to actually put together the outfit that I wore to my interviews.  And now I realize… its a miracle I ever got in.

I grew up in Oregon, where no one ever wears a tie, and no one ever dresses up.  When it came to interview for medical school, I truly had no appropriate clothes.  I consulted my father, who suggested the outfit you see here:

Note the tie that is missing the material in the back to allow the tie to line up.  No problem there.. just use a paperclip.  Really.  While my father was trying to lead me in the right direction, little did I know this was the same father who fifteen years later would wear a tee shirt to my wedding.

So basically, I walk into medical school interviews looking like this:

Note the rather ill-fitting sport jacket, Mathlete regulation length tie, and unmatched pants that are too small.  Ignore the pleats, they were actually in fashion then.

But how was I to know? I was a computer science major and a total geek.  This was dressing up big time.  I was fully expecting that when I went to interview I would be looking sharp.

Not so much.  When I arrived to my first interview at Baylor College of Medicine I found myself terribly underdressed compared to all the Brooks Brothers suits sitting next to me.   While I looked maybe all right, they looked good.  And more importantly, they all looked the same, and I looked different.

And perhaps that was my mistake, in that this was what I was actually going for.   I knew that a suit was the right thing to wear, but I had a rebellious streak in me that said ‘screw that! I don’t need to buy and wear a suit!  What matters is my brain and what I have accomplished!”  I also had a bloodstream that ran with Oregon blood, where most people respond to a person in a suit with the comment “so who died?” And so I proudly wore clothes that looked right out the closet of my University of Oregon math professor Schlomo Libeskind, who inspired my love for higher mathematics and modeled wearing beltless polyester pants up to his nipples.

Fortunately, I survived the process and indeed was accepted to medical school, though not as many as I thought I should have given my academic record.  As I was looking back in this during residency interviews, I decided that this time was not going to make the same mistake twice!  I was going to wear a suit!

And I chose this:

My mother had found it at a thrift store and extolled its beauty.  It was in fact a suit, and it was in fact from a fine Italian brand.  Furthermore, it was a suit that when new was quite expensive.

But what it was not was a suit that fit me.  It was way too big then, just as it is today.  Furthermore, being found at a thrift store, it was in fashion twenty years earlier, not at the time it was being worn.  It was also brown, which still set me aside from all the other blue and black suits that interviewed for residency with me.

I did get some “nice suit” comments followed by furtive glances to the side or floor.  As a person who now plays a lot of poker, I now realize that those comments were purely ironic.   I also heard “bless your heart” in the South a number of times, which by the third year of my residency in Charleston,SC I knew was actually an expression of kind condescension.

Fortunately, despite this suit, I got into the residency I wanted.  Apparently being the rare highly qualified male applicant to an OB/GYN residency was worth more than the ill-fitting suit cost me.   And at the end of my residency, the chairman took me to a fine men’s store with the invitation “Son… they’re having a sale.. and you need a nice suit for your faculty interview.”  “But I have a suit!”  “Son… you’re going to a be a faculty physician… you need more than one suit.”

* * * * *

At the time, I didn’t think this dressing up business was important, but now as a  faculty member I realize that it was.  There is no doubt that on the days that I interviewed in those clothes, the faculty were laughing about me at the applicant review sessions.   I have no doubt that at my medical school interview they were saying “how about that Fogelson guy with that sportcoat and no belt?”  And at my residency interview I’m sure it was “how ’bout that huge brown suit guy!”.  Of course, does that really hurt a person?  As a person who interviews and ranks applicants, I can say that it almost certainly does.  An applicant has only a few minutes to convince someone that on a very subjective level that they deserve to be in the medical school or residency.   In the end, you hope that your interviewer is talking about how smart and accomplished you are, and not about how you were dressed.   It seems so superficial, but that doesn’t make it not true.

So the truth is this:  When you interview for a job in medicine, your clothes should be invisible.  They should be well fitting, relatively conservative, and ordinary.  They should be neither particularly bad nor the height of fashion, leaving your interviewers nothing to comment on other that what really matters – the person wearing the clothes.

When I interviewed for medical school, I interviewed at 8 schools and was accepted at one.  I had great MCAT scores and way more medical experience than could be expected of any applicant.  If I had been dressed like this I probably would have gotten into a lot more schools:

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