Interviewing prospective medical students was always interesting in the old days. By old days I mean the days before interviews had to be structured for the sake of introducing what ‘experts’ called ‘objectivity’. Here’s an exchange from the 1980s.
Good afternoon. It’s good to meet you. I hope your journey was comfortable.
It was aw-right.
And how do you like living in XXX?
Can I get you a glass of water before we begin?
You’ve had a tour of the campus, I think. What did you make of it?
And so it went on. Here’s one from the 1990s.
And what do you enjoy in your spare time?
I watch opera.
How lovely. Which opera are you particularly fond of?
Any particular opera?
I thought you said you liked Opera?
Yea, I did. On the TV every afternoon. Oprah Winfrey.
Honest, that’s true. It rather took the wind out of one’s sails, I can tell you. Hard to keep a straight face. In 1968 I recall a trip on the sleeper from Carlisle to Euston. I arrived in London about 6 am and had to fill in time until the early afternoon for an interview at St Mary’s Medical School, near Paddington station. I thought I’d go to Piccadilly Circus which I’d heard of. I knew nothing of its—let’s say cosmopolitan and relaxed—reputation, and neither was my ignorance challenged that morning. After a breakfast burger at the Wimpy, the height of sophistication, I can’t remember how I filled into the rest of the time but somehow I did. The only bit of the interview I can remember was the beginning. One of the three interviewers (men, suits, how-now-brown-cow accents) said ‘Tell us, Mr Monkhouse, what are you good at, apart, of course, from passing examinations. haw, haw, haw.’ They were, it subsequently became evident, mocking the piano and organ exams that I’d taken periodically since 1963. I was not offered a place. Later that year I had an interview at Manchester where we had a good deal of fun. They kindly said they’d have me if Cambridge didn’t. I think they, unlike the rugger-bugger yahoos at St Mary’s, were entertained by my being an organist.
The admission process for Cambridge was strange. I applied for an ordinary place at Queens’ College as well as an organ scholarship to any college that would give me one, the two processes running in parallel. I was interviewed by the then Senior Tutor of Corpus Christi College, a most urbane chemist (academic, not drug store), who sat me down on the chintz sofa opposite him, gave me a sherry (yes, really) and started a fireside conversation that I recall as glittery and great fun. Though details escape me, Shap fell was mentioned, there was talk of Gilbert and Sullivan and organs (musical), though nothing about medicine. The organ scholarship did not materialize (contemporaries were Stephen Cleobury, Ian Hare, Edward Higginbottom: I was never in that league, though I thought I should be) and although I never actually had an interview at Queens’, the Corpus one must have been passed across, as it were, for after sitting compulsory entrance exams, I was offered a place at Queens’. Escape from Cumberland.
In 1971, it was the normal practice for Cambridge medics to do hospital-based part of the medical course elsewhere. I applied to four London medical schools. I gave St Mary’s the old heave-ho this time. I was turned down without interview by two, turned down after interview by St Bartholomew’s (no recollection other than that it was sticky), and accepted without interview by King’s College Hospital Medical School in Camberwell. So there I went in autumn 1972. Susan and I were married in summer 1973 so I was one of the few married students. I failed the first part of medical finals in 1974 (or was it early 1975?), passed them with the second part in summer 1975. Thus ended my days as an unpaid student.
Towards the end of my time as a medical school academic, interviews became more and more structured until in the 2000s we had to ask every candidate the same questions, and were not allowed to follow any leads. This killed the whole process stone dead; there was no room for exploring, no way of probing, just wholesale encouragement of the initiative-stifling tick-box mentality that is rife. As for any quest for objectivity—pish! There is no such thing outside mathematics. One of the results of structured interviews is that it becomes much easier to advise candidates on what to do and what not to do. If you’d like the benefit of my experience and advice, don’t hesitate to get in touch. My rates are very reasonable, and I could throw in a plenary indulgence or two and an all-purpose blessing.