Smrithi Upadhyayula, a senior at the University of Texas at Dallas, was already resigned to the fact that her email inbox would stay packed for the rest of her medical school application cycle. Every day, there seemed to be updates from one school or another about transcripts that needed to be updated or rec letters that needed to be resubmitted.
It was to the point that, when she received her first interview invite, she described feeling unsure if it was real in an interview with The News-Letter.
“I was like ‘I definitely read this wrong,’” Upadhyayula said.
After applicants submit both a primary and secondary application to a medical school of interest, the medical school often chooses a small subset of applicants to complete a live interview. For example, the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine only invited 12.7% of applicants to interview for their class of 2026. Among those interviewed, approximately 49.8% were ultimately offered a seat.
In an interview with The News-Letter, senior Eesha Verma described her own experiences of waiting for interview invites.
“I do feel a little nervous about having to wait to hear back, but I think at this stage, I’m mostly just relieved to be done,” she said. “I’m staying motivated just by trying to not think about the interview process right now, so I don’t get too overwhelmed.
Verma also described her backup plan should she not be accepted into medical school this cycle.
“I am preparing for job interviews, so hopefully skills I learn from practicing those carry over into medical school interviews too,” she said.
In 2019, a medical school interview invite might have meant Upadhyayula would need to pack her bags and catch the next flight to any school in the country. It would have meant Upadhyayula would need to coordinate with family members in the area for a place to stay for the night or book a hotel.
However, since the COVID-19 pandemic began in 2020, most medical schools have conducted their interviews online. While many medical experts applaud this as a step forward for medical school admissions equity, others have noted that the virtual interview space presents its own realm of challenges for disadvantaged applicants.
Personally, Upadhyayula enjoys the flexibility that virtual interviews have given her, especially after receiving multiple invites scheduled close to one another. There’s no way she could have logistically interviewed at so many schools before, let alone financially.
She noted hearing an anecdote that some students used to have to take out loans in order to afford interview travel. Hopkins Medicine still advertises these loans for students interviewing for residency positions.
Dr. Bradley Spieler, an Assistant Dean of Admissions at Louisiana State University Health Science Center (LSU HSC), recalls taking out a high-interest loan to afford his own interview travel in the early 2000s.
In an interview with The News-Letter, he shared that the LSU HSC is planning to continue virtual interviews for the foreseeable future in order to improve accessibility.
“Interviewing for medical school, for residency, and in general, shouldn’t be cost-prohibitive, especially for a college student,” he said. “[With virtual interviews], for those that are coming across the country, you’re not having to get a flight, you’re not having to get a hotel, you’re not having to reorganize your month.”
Despite this position, Spieler and his colleagues acknowledged both the benefits and the downsides of the virtual interview model in a publication this past spring. While virtual interviews purport to close the financial divide between applicants, it does introduce a digital divide. In fact, one study found that virtual interviewees were rated higher if they had higher-quality videos.
As an interviewer himself, Spieler explained that he looks at more than just how the applicant is responding to his questions. Although he acknowledges that this shouldn’t be the case, an applicant’s internet quality plays a role in an interviewer's ability to properly evaluate them.
“It’s a different dynamic than meeting in-person. I’m a firm believer that most communication within a conversation, with one-on-one in particular, is nonverbal,“ he said. “It can be difficult in a virtual space to fully communicate in that sense.”
While she was able to save on travel, Upadhyayula highlighted that the virtual interviews themselves still take up a substantial amount of time. Interviews are often scheduled during the workweek, and depending on the school can take anywhere from one hour to a full day.
“I am having to really really plan out my life,” she said.
Spieler reports that, to properly acknowledge equity concerns in the interview process, LSU HSC’s student affairs office offers a space for medical students to conduct their residency interviews with the proper audio-visual equipment and Wi-Fi.
“You can’t assume that everyone has this perfect living situation where they’re going to be able to take x amount of hours out of their day and have this space within their dwelling to conduct an interview without any background noise,” he said. “It’s really incumbent on the institutions to then provide a place for their students, to have a place where they can interview and not have to worry about these extraneous factors.”
Spieler’s publication goes into detail about the optimal conditions for an interview, at one point even leaving a diagram of the ideal desk setup.
Upadhyayula shared her own interview Zoom setup, which includes a ring light, footrest and white background. While she hasn’t read Spieler’s paper, Upadyayula also mirrored his suggestion to keep a water bottle to the side and have a phone on hand for any technical difficulties.
Although the logistical aspects of a virtual interview are their own story, Upadhyayula stressed her initial concerns in preparing for the content of the interview itself.
How could she boil down her reason for pursuing medicine into a 60-second response when that conclusion took her years to come to? And how could she put her best foot forward with so many other applicants vying for spots?
However, after experiencing a few interviews herself, Upadyayula asserted that interviews aren’t as frightening as she thought.
“Everyone will tell you ‘The interview is gonna be really chill. They just want to get to know you’ but we as type A pre-meds are rarely going to believe that,” she said. “You really have to experience it for yourself before you believe they really are trying to get to know you.”
Ellie Rose Mattoon is a junior from Austin, Texas majoring in Molecular and Cellular Biology and Public Health. Project MD 2027 documents the challenges, inequities and triumphs of Hopkins students applying to medical school for entry in 2023.