ADCOM Q&A (learning from your mistakes)

by Lorien E. Menhennett

Everyone makes mistakes. Even pre-medical students. And one trend I’ve noticed in the medical school interview questions I’ve looked at (this applies to job interview questions as well) is that the interviewers quite often will bluntly ask you about those mistakes or other shortcomings. For example, there is the infamous “What is your greatest strength and weakness?” question, which I have been asked in multiple job interviews. A similar medical school question I found online literally begins with these words: “What has been your biggest failure … ?”

Clearly, though, if an applicant goes on for 10 minutes about how badly he did in organic chemistry, that’s not going to go over well. That’s why the question about your “biggest failure” ends with these words: “… and how did you handle it?”

So if an applicant did poorly in organic chemistry, explaining why he didn’t do well — such as that he didn’t have good study skills — and then what he gained from the experience — such as that he developed better study skills as a result of his failure– would be a much better answer.

ADCOMS want to hear us pre-meds admit that we’re not perfect, and then talk about what we have learned from our mistakes, shortcomings, failures, weaknesses, and other “problem areas.” Because failing is part of life (as much as I hate to admit that). It’s what you do after you fail that sets you apart from other people.

The reality is, everyone falls down sometime. The question is: Do you get back up?

My answer is: YES. And here’s an example from my childhood.

(Let me preface this example by saying that I was homeschooled from preschool through the end of fifth grade. So when I talk about my mom giving me a test … it’s because my mom was my one and only teacher from age 4 to age 10.)

When I was about 7 or 8, my mom gave me an impromptu spelling test. You know the kind — the ones that are supposed to gauge where you are and where you need improvement. They’re called diagnostic exams, I believe. As someone with something of a failure complex, I hated these exams because I never did well on them — you’re not SUPPOSED to do well on them. At the time, this point escaped me.

Anyway. I miserably failed this spelling test. I don’t remember the number of right and wrong, and it’s probably better that way. I was distraught at first. I had failed! What was I supposed to do? Then my mom sat me down and explained the purpose of this “diagnostic” exam. Her explanation brought some comfort. And in the end, while I was not necessarily happy that I had failed, I understood that the test pointed out some areas where I needed to improve.

And so I made it my absolute mission to become the best speller possible. I learned all the rules. I memorized the exceptions. I practiced spelling words until I was practically murmuring them to myself under my breath in the bathtub.

Then came time to take the exam again. And I aced it. All that work paid off — I had learned what I didn’t know, what I needed to work on, and I made it a point to not make the same mistakes again.

And guess what? When I attended public school a few years later, I went on to win several school spelling bees, and even a district spelling bee.

To this day I am a fantastic speller, and in my previous jobs, earned a reputation as such. All because I failed an elementary school spelling test and made up my mind that wasn’t going to happen again.

And while I still don’t like failing (although who does?!), I try to remember this example when I do. Because it proves that you can learn from your mistakes. And perhaps, that without making mistakes, we wouldn’t learn quite so much.