Is my answer relevant to this interview question?
November 1, 2013 6:24 PM   Subscribe

I'm a college student who's applying for a healthcare professional school. I went to a school interview today and was asked to address the following prompt: Describe a time when you had to deliver delicate information (verbal) and how did you go about handling this situation? What are the risks involved?

I chose to tell a story of when a student at my university asked for my opinion about a particular faculty member. I happen to know the professor very well and I'm also aware that this professor is among the least favorite professors due to the rigor of her course and her poor teaching style. However, I chose not to disclose this to the student who asked me. Instead, I told the student that everyone's opinion is different. I'd suggest that he goes talk to the professor in person about the course and see how the professor interacts with him. If he's really interested in the course, he might have a different opinion.

Is this really off topic? I know I can't change what I said but at least I'd learn from this. Thank you so much!
posted by missybitsy to Education (14 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Off topic for... what?

It sounds like you told a story about when you had to deliver delicate information and how you handled it. Your story showed that you handled it by encouraging your peer to rely on his first-hand interaction rather than on second- or third-hand information and by recognizing that not everyone responds to people in the same way.

If the interview committee was specifically trying to find out how you'd let someone know they had a terminal condition (which was the first thing that popped into my head on reading your question, but I'm not sure what sort of healthcare professional field you're looking into), I suspect they'd interpret your answer as an example of how you empower others to come to their own conclusions. They perhaps might see a negative in your not providing a great deal of objective information, but in the example you give, it's hard to know what that objective info might have been, so I doubt that'd be a big deal.
posted by jaguar at 6:30 PM on November 1, 2013 [2 favorites]

It shows that you can be tactful but I don't know that it entirely addresses the type of situation they're asking about since presumably if you have to deliver delicate information that include scenarios where you have to give them a straight answer in a delicate way, such as bad news about test results or something along those lines. I would have interpreted it more as have you ever had to tell someone something they didn't want to hear and how did you handle it.
posted by brilliantine at 6:30 PM on November 1, 2013 [4 favorites]

I don't think your answer was relevant. It sounds like the interviewer wanted to hear about how you conveyed difficult information -- something that could upset or alarm the recipient, or otherwise be received poorly if you did not convey it tactfully. I really don't think your answer was responsive to the prompt.
posted by jayder at 6:52 PM on November 1, 2013 [2 favorites]

I think they were probably aiming to assess a somewhat different skillset there, in terms of how you'd actually deliver some upsetting information. What you described was ducking the question instead of answering it, and I suspect "I would avoid giving people bad news" is not a great response in a future health care professional.

In the same sphere as what you were talking about, an example that probably more closely fit the model they were looking for would be, "A professor I'm close to asked me what everyone thought of her, and I happen to know that people think she's terrible, because her class is really hard and her teaching style is very poor. So this is how I gave her that feedback..."
posted by jacquilynne at 6:57 PM on November 1, 2013 [3 favorites]

To be frank, they want to know how you would handle telling someone that their loved one had died, or was going to die. (Or they, themselves.)

Your example doesn't work, because in the end you didn't deliver bad news. You punted.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 6:58 PM on November 1, 2013 [5 favorites]

You're asking the wrong question about your response (in my humble opinion, but I am in academic medicine so hopefully my opinion is useful).

You can make many responses relevant to the question. The relevance of your response is not as important as other elements of the story you tell. It doesn't matter precisely whether it's a story about your discussion with a student about taking a difficult class or a discussion with a person in a medical setting where you had to diagnose them with cancer - it matters how you tell the story and what you said..

What you really want to know is what you conveyed about yourself in your response, and how that reflected upon your ability to convey delicate information to others, and to assess the risks involved in such communications. I think you made it slightly more difficult for yourself by choosing a rather prosaic situation, but most undergraduates are not going to have a wealth of experience to tap in giving delicate news to other people, especially when put on the spot in a stressful interview situation. So you've got to do the best you can with the anecdote you use.

In this experience, at least you chose one where you are in a positive light - you are a student who knows a professor very well (which probably means that you're a good student who takes his/her studies seriously) and to whom other students come for advice on academic matters. So far, so good. Now I'll read into your anecdote assuming this is word for word what you said.

The student asks you what your opinion is of a faculty member. You choose not to answer the question, and instead to tell the student to form their own opinion of this faculty member by initiating a discussion with them about the class. The advice you gave was good advice, but it was couched in a strange way, because you stated that you deliberately avoided giving your own opinion after being asked for it directly. The underlying assumption is, I believe, that you thought you would withhold the information you had about this professor because you thought it would turn the student off to taking a class that might interest them. However, the student did not ask you whether they should take the class or not - they asked what your opinion was of this professor because they knew that you were very familiar with the professor and they wanted to take advantage of your knowledge.

To extrapolate this to the medical field, this suggests that you would take a paternalistic attitude with patients - not telling them information about potential downsides of treatments or diagnoses because you felt that it might adversely affect their choices or outlook. Patients come to you looking for specialized knowledge that you have gained through medical training, and you can't really just tell them to go read up on the issue and form their own opinion - well, you can, but then why would they pay you for that?

In any case, you then just end the anecdote and don't explain why you withheld information, what you thought about your approach to the situation in retrospect, or any response to the second part of the question - what the risks are in a situation where you are conveying delicate information.

You could have improved your response by reflecting upon your actions and showing thoughtfulness and maturity in your reflections. For example, saying something like "at the time, I thought that I should not discuss my knowledge about how difficult this professor is to deal with and how rigorous the course was, because I was afraid of dissuading her from taking a course that might really interest her. I enjoyed the course myself, and learned a lot from it, and didn't want the student to come to a hasty conclusion about taking it based upon the fact that some students think this professor is too tough. But, in retrospect, I believe I should have shared my knowledge about this professor and the course, in as balanced a way as I could, in order to give this other student as much information as possible to make their decision. I still would have urged him/her to come to their own conclusion about the teacher, but I realize they came to me as an authority on this professor and her course, and I could have explained better what most people's opinions of the professor and her course are, and why I think those opinions are valid or invalid, before ending the discussion with that suggestion. The risks of sharing the information I had were that the student might have acted on what I shared without taking the time to independently evaluate it - but the risks of not sharing the information were that he/she might regret taking the course, and wish that I had given them the insider knowledge that I had to help them avoid making that mistake."

That's my long winded answer, your interviewer may not have thought that deeply about your response at all. But I lay out my thoughts for you here because I encourage you to think not only about the relevance of a response you give to a question in a job interview, but also how the response reflects on your knowledge, behavior, and skills.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 7:01 PM on November 1, 2013 [12 favorites]

I think it was a fine answer. I work in a hospital, btw. When you get to your clinical rotations, and the school puts you in a healthcare setting, you are representing them. They don't want you making them look bad. In the year I graduated from pharmacy school, they told us a horror story about one student who said "Mr. So-and-so died? Good, then I won't have to do his chart." And said it in the hearing of Mr. So-and-so's family members. They don't want you to be that student. Your answer shows that you can be classy and professional and not gossip and show common sense. Win.
posted by selfmedicating at 7:03 PM on November 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

reading your question, it's obvious the interviewer is asking "how are you going to handle telling someone they/their loved one is going to die?" it's ok that you didn't think about it at the time, it happens.

the story did reflect well on you though. if you said anything strong either way you could have been seen as biased. that kind of conflict of interest handling is a good skill to have.

to me, if the interviewer were good, and had time in the interview, and really wanted to know how you'd handle giving bad news, they would have followed up asking you to tell them a time when you actually had to give bad news.

if you have the interviewers email it would probably be ok to say something like "thinking more about your question, i realize i should have said ..."

i say, don't worry about it, it takes a while to learn how to interview well, and you can only get better by doing it. there are many people in your same shoes, who probably messed up their interview a lot more, but i'm not really saying you messed up your interview.
posted by cupcake1337 at 7:05 PM on November 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

On preview, I disagree with other posters - health professionals do not have to give terminal diagnoses every day. It's important to be able to give bad news well - but that is a skill that you need to learn in health professional school, it isn't expected that you'll walk in the door knowing exactly how to do it.

We do have to give people information about less serious medical diagnoses and treatment options every day, and often have to give our opinions about what the right approach or course is to take based on the evidence available in the literature and our own experiences. As such, your anecdote could absolutely be spun in such a way that it is relevant to the question, and did not have to directly address your skills in telling people that they're going to die or might die - very few undergraduates would be expected to have experiences directly relevant to that.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 7:07 PM on November 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thank you everyone so much for your thoughtful responses! It was the multiple mini interview format. Now that I'm sitting at home, I can think of a ton of other options I could have picked. I did collaborate more on my answer. What I stated in the question was just the gist of my answer. I noted the risks were that it creates a bad image to the university and the professor. It's also not fair to give false information to the student or influence the way he/she make his/her decisions from just my opinion. Again, my answer was still around this topic but I just wanted to clarify my answer a little bit. I will definitely learn from this experience!
posted by missybitsy at 7:13 PM on November 1, 2013

a student at my university asked for my opinion about a particular faculty member ... this professor is among the least favorite professors due to the rigor of her course and her poor teaching style. However, I chose not to disclose this to the student who asked me. Instead, I told the student that everyone's opinion is different. I'd suggest that he goes talk to the professor in person about the course and see how the professor interacts with him.

Assuming that the student was asking about taking classes from the professor rather than what you think about them in general, I'd suggest that you not use this anecdote in the future - you didn't provide good information as far as the level of rigor and poor teaching style to someone who needed it. A one on one discussion with a professor isn't going to reveal the potential issues unless the professor is extraordinarily self aware. You obviously have information and an opinion on the professor and chose not to provide it because it was easier to avoid a delicate question. You didn't deliver, you dodged.

Having to deal with really hard and uncomfortable questions is part of medicine - I don't think that answer will make or break you getting into the school, but you might think of examples of hard conversations you've had in case you have similar questions in the future.
posted by Candleman at 7:18 PM on November 1, 2013

Regarding the risks - the bad image for the university/professor seems like it hardly would enter into the equation. After all, you were not acting as a representative for the university or professor. More to the point in this conversation would the the risks for yourself and the risks for the other student.

You also say "it's not fair to give false information to the student or influence the way they make their decisions just from my opinion." This makes it sound like you were confusing subjective information (your opinion) with objective information (actual facts). The student asked for an opinion, therefore as long as the answer you give reflects your opinion, you would not be giving "false information". This elaboration also suggests that you don't value your own opinion, even though it appears to be based upon significant knowledge.

Upon reading your follow up, I agree with Candleman - don't use this anecdote in the future. I think making it into a good answer to a question about difficult communication requires a level of finesse that you don't have - no offense meant - just use something more straightforward.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 7:30 PM on November 1, 2013 [2 favorites]

I think the answer you gave was adequate, and at least made you seem ethical. However, no, I don't think it was that relevant.

The prompt directed you: Describe a time when you had to deliver delicate information (verbal). In this case, you didn't deliver delicate information, you told the student to look for it elsewhere, so I don't think you did what they asked. You also structured it so that it was the student who had the difficult dilemma, not you; you're a supporting character in a story about this student trying to figure out how to get the best class schedule possible via a series of awkward conversations. Next time, try to use a story where you are the one setting the goal, you are the one who has to take the next steps to make that goal happen, you are the one who has to deal with the consequences of either attaining the goal or failing to do so.

The prompt also asked, What are the risks involved? Honestly, I'm not sure there are any significant risks, in the case of the story you told. The stakes in your story are so much lower than they would be in virtually any health care situation where a similar "how to convey this difficult information?" dilemma would come up. Choosing whether or not to take classes with a particular professor isn't really that high stakes, and you weren't even the person choosing (so the stakes were virtually non-existent to you). Next time, try to use a story where something that really matters is at stake, ideally for you, but at least about someone you love or are responsible for.

Next time, if you're having trouble figuring out if an anecdote is conveying what you want it to convey, maybe think about it from a storytelling standpoint:
-- Are you the main character?
-- Which of your character traits are being highlighted? (Are you likeable?)
-- What do you want?
-- What is at stake? Is something important in jeopardy?
-- What happens at the climax -- do you succeed or fail?
-- What are the consequences of your success/failure?
posted by rue72 at 9:29 PM on November 1, 2013

While this is not a bad answer, I agree that it did not really answer the question asked. They wanted to know how you would tell someone bad or difficult news, which in its most extreme forms might involve a terminal diagnosis or notification of a loved one's death, but it also relates to a number of tricky but not as dire situations. For example, you might need to tell someone about scheduling further diagnostic tests, beginning or changing a certain medication, making lifestyle changes (which can involve a person's weight, alcohol and drug use, smoking, an allergy, etc), exploring mental health issues, asking difficult questions about physical or emotional abuse, and so forth. Maybe thinking about all the challenging conversations you might need to have with patients will help you come up with a better example if you are asked a similar question in the future. I would try to come up with a scenario in which you were truthful while being compassionate, explained the context without alarming the person or downplaying the importance of what you were saying, and providing a solution or next steps so the person knows what to do with the information. I'm sure you've had to tell people things they wouldn't want to hear even if it's something as simple as a friend's ex is dating someone new or a loved one wasn't going to get something s/he really wanted. That may sound silly but the stakes do not need to be high to anyone else than the person receiving the news. Good luck!
posted by katemcd at 5:27 PM on November 2, 2013

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