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How I beat the fear of interviewing and got into UMDNJ, Pitt, NYU, UCSF, and Penn (featured in SDN / >4500 views)

Bombing interviews was a habit for me.
During my first dental school interview at UMDNJ, I was dizzy and almost lost balance.  I was so nervous that I didn’t (or forgot to) eat breakfast.
At the end of the interview, my interviewer asked me, “Muhammed, are you hypoglycemic? I thought you were dozing off a bit during the interview”.
Basically, that was a polite version of saying: “Man, you just bombed it”
This was not the first time it happened.
After failing multiple interviews, I simply became too paranoid about interviews. I am a pretty social guy. But I just get nervous during interviews.
To get into dental school I had to overcome my fear of interviewing. I simply could not afford to bomb any more interviews, especially my precious dental school interviews.
And as a self-proclaimed science nerd, I rely on systems and structures. I like breaking complex things down into simple manageable chunks and working with it.
When I keep failing interviews, I relied on my nerdiness to overcome the fear of interviewing. So, I broke down the process of how to become a pro in dental school interviewing and practiced accordingly.
a) Create an Interview Question List— List out potential interview questions in an excel file
b) Understand Psychology behind the Questions— What does an interviewer want to know/ (hear) in response to a question
c) Systematic Response and Story Toolbox— Create frameworks and stories for each of the questions in the excel file
d) Deliberate and Systematic Practice— Blocking time to practice and recording video of myself as part of practicing
e) Practice session Tear Down and Analysis—Analyzing bits and pieces of a video interview. Understanding the mistakes and improve.
Results: Fast Forward a few months, I got into Penn, UCSF, Pitt and NYU dental schools, winning some of the toughest interviews.
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 Here I go step by step of what I did to nail dental school interview without appearing as a robot.
Warning: This is quite detailed and long post. Please read it slowly.
a) Create an Interview Question List:let
First of all, I went into SDN interview page ( and jotted down every single possible question that might be asked during the interview process. I created an Excel spreadsheet listing all these questions. (SDN community is great in terms of posting the frequently asked as well as unconventional interview questions.This is also a good list of questions for dental school interview )
This is how I found all the questions. Let me give you an example:
a) Go to SDN interview page.
b) Select Dental schools and then select a specific school. Let’s say Penn:
c) Go to “Interview Feedback” and then view results:
d) Now look at :
What is one of the specific questions they asked you ?
Go through the questions and jot them down in an excel spreadsheet.
There are usually 25 or so super-generic questions that every school will ask these. (Ex. Why do you want to be a dentist? Tell me about yourself? etc.) Then there will be 5-10 questions that will be specific to each schools. (e.g: Why NYU/Penn? or What do you know about our school?”.)  Some schools are historically known to ask 2-3 questions (ex. interviewers at NYU always ask about a situation where you faced ethical dilemma while interviewers at Penn focuses on community involvement questions.
b) Understand the Psychology of the Question
Next, I created a column in my spreadsheet named “Psychology of the question”. Basically what is an interviewer really trying to understanding from asking a certain question. 
For example,
By asking “tell me more about your research”, the interviewer is trying to understand the following:
a) Can the applicant talk about the big pictures and applications of her research in simple language that a 10 year old can understand.
b) Can she give me  2-3 major highlights of her research (really good result, publication etc)?
c) Does she feel enthusiastic about cutting edge research?
(Note: If the school is a research based dental school (Columbia, Harvard, Penn, UCSF, etc), the interviewer wants to gauge your enthusiasm about research. They certainly don’t expect you to do research in dental school, but they want you to be excited about it.)
Knowing the psychology of the interviewer is a powerful tool that essentially allowed me to prepare better answers for my interviews.
c) Systematic Response and Story Toolbox
Then, I had created a column called Systemic Response. The idea was not to create word-by-word scripts for each questions, but to create a framework (bullet points, stories)  that I can easily remember and can answer the question without coming across as a weirdo.
(I didn’t want to be seen as a robot. No one likes a robot, nor does she wants a robot to be their dentist.)
Frameworks gave me clarity. If I don’t have a clear structure as to how I will answer a question, I tend to ramble a lot. And rambling turns interviewers off completely. Also, having a structured response (be it 3-4 bullet points) allowed me to answer some of the toughest questions even when I am under pressure or stressed or nervous.
One of the best ways to create Systemic Response to behavioral questions is to tell stories. There is no better way to connect with someone than storytelling. In fact, Interviewing is all about storytelling. Telling good stories makes you more memorable and increases your chances of getting in. (Note: Dental school wants to know if will be able to connect with your fellow students, professors, and even security guards. By connecting with them and telling stories, you become more memorable. )
Usually In all my interviews, to answer the question, “Tell me about yourself”: I started with my immigration story:
“I am an immigrant from Bangladesh. We came to the States in 2006 by lottery visa. My mother won a lottery that only 1 in every 200,000 people win. It gives you a permanent resident card to live in the U.S. After 5 years you are eligible to become a citizen.”
When I started with this story, I gauged how interviewers reacted. Most interviewers would ask me “ Wow. Tell me more.” and I would dive into the entire story.
I created a story toolbox. Snippets of my life that I found remarkable and share-worthy, I put that into my story toolbox. The best part about a story toolbox is that a) I never ran out of stories and appropriate jokes to tell during interviews, and b) I can always pull out a story in case I faced a difficult interview question.
d) Deliberate and Systematic Practice
After my interview failure at UMDNJ, I promised that I’d not repeat that failure. I had about three more weeks before my NYU interview. I did the following to prepare myself:
a)  I treated dental school interviewing as taking a course. I’d block off my schedule to prepare answers, do mock practice, etc. Instead of randomized practice, I practiced 30 -45 min every day at a set time.
b) I knew my friends were busy. So I reached out to them ahead of time to give me  mock interviews. I video-recorded each of those mock-interviews.
c) I also recorded myself doing mock interviews 3-4 times a week. I sat down in front of my Macbook and shoot videos of myself on Photo Booth. (You can use any video recorder. I just preferred PhotoBooth for its ease of use)
I’d take 10-12 random questions from my question list and interviewed myself for half an hour. I realized that for some of the questions, I had good/great answers to, but for others, the answers were absolutely garbage. Instead of perfecting one question at a time, I chose to do a complete interview because a) It’s more realistic and b) answering one question at a time and stopping to perfect them would make sound like a robot.
Doing a whole interview meant that some my answers were not all perfect. As long as the answers were 80% perfect, I was happy.
e) Practice Session Tear down and Analysis
As a chemistry major, I am extremely analytical. I analyzed each interview twice. I took notes on the following “metrics of improvement”:
a) Were my facial micro-expressions congruent with what I was saying?
b) Was my body language congruent with the way I was speaking
c) Was I maintain my eye contact?
d) Was I smiling enough?
e) Was I answering the question or moving off tangent?
f) Was I speaking really fast?
g) Was I rambling?
h) Was I using right tonality to answer each question? Was I varying my tonal variability ?
I wrote down my subjective judgements  for each metrics and after each interview I qualitatively gauged at my improvement. The videos helped me realize a few things:
a) I speak too fast
solution: My online mentor Ramit Sethi  has an amazing video on how to prevent speaking too fast. Per Ramit’s suggestion, I started to speak 50% slower.
b) I tend to ramble when I don’t know the answer
(— No one wants to hear me ramble. Worse, I don’t want to hear myself rambling. 
— Rambling is quite dangerous because I tend to be vague when I ramble. Interviewers hate it when you give them a  super-generic answer.)
solution: Once I realized that I was rambling, it wasn’t tough to over come it. Awareness is the key. 
Here are few things I have done to stop rambling.
a) I created a post it “Cut the BS and Get to the Point” as a reminder and kept it close to my sight while practicing interview skill.  Whenever I was going at a story for more than 2.5– 3 minutes, I immediately stopped myself and looked at the post it note.
b)I told my mock interviewer to give me hints when I am going off tangent or when I am rambling. And I used this technique I learned from another Ramit Sethi
When you do catch yourself rambling, first PAUSE, take a deep breathe, and smile before saying:
“Oops, I guess that went on too long. What I’m saying is…”
c) If I found a question to be difficult to answer (while practicing), I’d pause and I say:
That’s a great question. Let me take a few seconds to reflectively answer it”
Then I’d think about it for 20 – 30 second before answering. In that 20 second, I would dig out one or two stories form my story toolbox and structure them to answer the question.
(This is a skill I picked up from Management Consulting Interviews, where you are given a case, and you cannot jump onto answering them without thinking. So, You’d take at least 2-3 minutes to structure your thoughts on how you’d solve the case.)
Now, under pressure, 20 seconds feels like 20 years. But I found that:
a) I was feeling impulsive to reply back quickly without putting much thought and appreciation to the question. In those case, I rambled more and more because I didn’t know how to do justice to the question.
b) When I do take time to think deeply about the question, I can provide a really great answer. Having a story toolbox makes the job super easy.
c) The more I forced myself to think about a question, the better I became in proving good answers under stress.
From going through so many mock practice sessions, I realized a few things:
a) Winning interviews is all about  self-awareness  and overcoming fear of failure through a step by step process.
The first step is to recognize your fear. Acknowledge that you’re fearful of something.
Next work towards overcoming that fear– step by step. Understand why are you afraid. Objectively think how you can overcome it. Ask people for help if needed.
[I really like this comment from Meowmixers on Student Doctor Dot Net, where I initially published this post. ]

I actually think it’s human how Muhammed broke it down into steps, because that’s what people do to get over phobias and anxiety: they practice encountering the situation in steps, until they realize the situations aren’t scary and change their approach. Muhammed literally said was so nervous and dizzy, his first interviewer thought he was hypoglycemic. It doesn’t sound like normal butterflies to me, and I doubt Muhammed was able to really be who he actually is.

It’s like someone with a phobia of dogs saying “the first time I saw a dog, I was nervous and it bit me. So I started by looking at pictures of dogs, then watching videos — and finally, I was able to pet one successfully!” — most of us are thinking “Seriously? It’s just a dog. Be friendly.” But to the few people who have lots of trouble, this could be a good starting point.

b) Telling great stories will separate you from other candidates. Stories are powerful tool to connect with other people. Use it well.
c) Preparation is the key. People will tell you
I mean good for you this works but come on, its just a conversation with another person. The way youve dissected this and made it so mechanical is kinda frightening…Makes you seem like a robot that regurgitates answers to make a person feel a specific way about you. I hope youre more personable outside of an interview setting.
You should be yourself
Don’t listen to them. If you fail an interview because of lack of preparation, these people won’t even console you.
Solid Preparation is the key to success in an interview. Preparation makes you sound confident. Confidence make you stand out from others.
Hope this was helpful to those who will be interviewing for dental school soon. Try out my system. Let me know what worked for you and what didn’t. I’d love to hear more.
If you need any interview help, reach out to me at
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