Medical School Interview: Thinking Outside the Box Scenarios

Examples of Thinking Outside the Box Questions

  • What is your opinion on spontaneous human combustion?
  • How could a buffalo tell the difference between spring and autumn?
  • How might you poison someone without the police finding out?
  • Tell me how you overcame an obstacle at school.
  • Viruses that infect us are dependent on our cells to reproduce. Should we be surprised therefore that they cause disease?
  • How would you approach a problem that appeared unsolvable?
  • Imagine that you are a rat. What’s the single most important thing to you?
  • Imagine you are the only doctor in the UK. Every other healthcare professional remains however. How do you approach implementing some form of care for the nation?

How to Approach This Question Type

Whilst much less used now than before, these types of questions were once deployed by admissions tutors to understand a candidate’s ability to think rationally, use logic under pressure, and to not be thrown by a question that is clearly impossible to prepare for. You would be unlikely to find them in a normal MMI, or at most universities across the country – however, Oxford and Cambridge still make use of them, and certain other universities will look to ask questions that probe the limits of your knowledge – in such a way that using logic and reason, rather than knowledge, is your only chance of a good answer.

These types of questions are devised to ensure that no matter your educational background or opportunities you have had so far in life, you have the chance to present your interest and passion for a subject, and your ability to think about it clearly. You should expect an admissions tutor to guide the discussion – it won’t simply be silence as you work toward an answer.

Let’s look at one of the questions above – ‘how would you poison someone without the police finding out?’

This question, whilst seemingly having little basis in anything you might have learnt, still calls for a logical and calm approach. You might wish to consider what you know about the various organs and processes of the human body first, and talk this thought process through to the tutor as you do so. Then you might wish to focus on one specific process that you believe could be stopped in a certain way – perhaps through the use of a drug that you have heard about. For example, deadly nightshade containing atropine is a fairly well known fact, and one that an exceptionally promising student could be aware of both the fact that it contains atropine, and the effect that atropine can play on the human heart. You might then point out to the tutor that atropine could cause death in overdose, through causing irregular rhythms in the heart – although it can be used to treat bradycardia in lower doses. You could reason this answer back to the original question – that the police must not find out that you did it – by considering that deadly nightshade is a fairly common plant in woodland areas, perhaps meaning that if the person was brought to a wood, and given atropine in an area containing deadly nightshade, the death could well be put down to natural causes.

To break down this response then, you should first consider your relevant knowledge, and explain this. Then, consider expanding on the relevant knowledge with an idea or hypothesis that makes sense in the context. Consistently describe and explain to the admissions tutor what your rationale is as you move forward, and try to keep this description concise and logical. Remember that they are not looking for a perfect answer – as there is not one – but rather evidence of independent thought under pressure, backed by a strong foundation of scientific knowledge.

Tips & Techniques

i) Take your time at the start of your answer, rather than rushing in. Ask the tutor to confirm the question if necessary.

ii) Explain to the tutor that you will think through a thought process aloud, and that you will attempt to work through a logical process.

iii) Don’t be afraid to ask questions of the tutor, or to engage in a dialogue with them.

iv) Deploy any relevant knowledge that you have as the basis of your answer.

v) Develop a rational and coherent answer, and don’t worry if it’s right or wrong – just that it shows a sensible approach that emphasises your ability as a future student at the university.

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