I got the ?illegal? questions too

First interview (thanks for the fashion advice everyone - worked great!). I knew I might get these questions, but I didn’t think they’d be so blatant, and I did get thrown off…and it was indeed the FEMALE interviewer who asked them:
- how are you going to handle the long hours, as an older student with less energy?
- do you have kids? (asked in a much more subtle way, so subtle that it would have been a big deal to refuse to answer)
- what’s your boyfriend going to do about you going to med school? (also subtle)

Hi there,
With the number of applications up this year at some schools, things have really gotten out of hand. Some applicants are trying all sorts of things to get their foot in the door and some members of committees are doing stupid things like asking illegal questions. It is a climate for anything goes because I can reject you without consequences. It is going to be interesting to see how this whole year sorts out. In any given year, there are about one out of three applicants that will be successful in getting into medical school. With the numbers, it just works out that way. The number of non-traditional applicants is at an all time high while the number of traditional applicants is about the same. When I looked at the class that entered Howard last year, there were less non-traditional students than in previous years. Again, the numbers are interesting this year. We have yet to see how they play out.

I my be stupid or something but I do not see some of those questions as illegal. If you are non-trad I do not thing that getting asked how do you deal with working 80 hours is illegal (I am kind of paraphrasing the question regarding energy levels). It can be true, usually as we age our energy levels do seem to go down for some folks. So I would not have taken the question to be illegal. Actually I was asked a question very similar to that one. Also the question about children, well if we have kids is that not an okay question to ask? and yes we know that “usually” women are the main caregivers so I would take in stride. I do not think that (of course some interviewers may be totally biased) they are asking these to be discriminatory but just to get a feel for how you will deal with going to class FT, taking care of a family, long hours, etc…I think it would be okay to ask that stuff but I guess that I am wrong…

Hi Folks,

The implication here is that “all” older applicants have less energy than their younger counterparts with a question like “how are you going to handle 80 hours when you are an older medical student with less energy?” I find that question exceptionally discriminatory. I also find that energy level has no corner on age. Many of my traditional classmates and resident colleagues have a horrible time handling medical school and residency demands where I seem to have none.

I firmly believe that most older students know themselves and their capabilities when it comes to “energy levels” and desiring to attend medical school. There are plenty of things that we are capable of doing that take less energy than medicine.

I also find that asking a female applicant how she plans to handle her childcare responsibilites discriminatory too. Are all the traditional male applicants asked this same question? It seemed to me that more than a few of my traditional male medical school classmate got married and became fathers during medical school. It didn’t seem to affect their performance in medical school or residency for that matter.

I guess that I was fortunate in the schools that accepted me in that no one asked about my energy levels! There must have been something about me during the interviews that assured the interviewers that lack of energy was not one of my characteristics.


As "far back’ as about 1995 when I attended a national AAMC-GSA (Group on Student Affairs/Admissions) in Santa Fe, there was a long session on illegal interviewing questions. Among the questions that are illegal are: anything to do with family situation (plans to get married, plans to have children, dealing with current children, etc.) (these questions are rarely routinely asked of all applicants, only women), marital/relationship status, sexual orientation, gender identification, religious issues, age-related issues. I wish still I had the complete list of inappropriate questions which were actually asked in interviews, but some of them included: What are you doing later this evening (asked of women applicants)? Why are you so fat/thin? What does you boyfriend think about this? How are you going to afford to do this? and on and on.
If you feel that you are being asked illegal questions, admissions deans/directors usually want to know that this is happening. If you are upset by it, by all means get in touch with the head of admissions immediately. You may be offered an additional interview.
None of this is easy to deal with, and you have to make some tough decisions about how to answer the questions (“What does that have to do with my ability to be a successful medical student?”), whether to answer it at all, or you roll with it. It’s a spur of the moment decision, and you have to have prepared in advance for what you might do.

As for “why would such a question be illegal?” the answer is: your personal life is not supposed to be a factor in an interviewer’s evaluation of you. You really have no way of knowing what’s behind a question like, “What does your boyfriend think of your moving here for medical school?” It could be just an innocent, conversation-making sort of question.
Suppose your answer is: "Well, I am really determined to attend here. I know he wants to stay in his job at X, so he probably won’t move with me. That could be hard, but the most important thing for me is getting into this school."
Your old-school hard-core professor interviewer could be thinking, “All right! This girl’s a ball-buster, I like that spirit, she will sacrifice her personal life to be a doctor!” and give you a good recommendation.
a different sort of old-school guy might think, "Horrors! Her man doesn’t want her to move and she’s going to give him the boot just to get into medical school! Doesn’t she know that her biological clock is ticking?"
An interviewer may not have any sort of illegal intent when asking such a question. But if the question and its answer provoke an evaluation that is colored by personal preferences:

Oh, and the assumption that being old means less energetic makes me nuts. As I made my way through third year rotations I was just as tired/energetic as anyone else post-call. And I whined less.

When I applied 2 years ago I got these smiliar type questions. They were from a female doctor and she started the question with saying… “Ok I am not suppossed to ask you this, but how is your family going to cope with you in med school? How are you going to make time for them and keep yourself unstressed?”

I don’t think this will come out the way I mean but anyway…
Whether or not you interpret something as being illegal doesn’t affect that it is.
That isn’t mean to be as harsh as I worry it looks. Sorry for that.

Hi Folks,
There are questions that are illegal. You have the choice of challenging your interviewer on these or letting it ride because you don’t want to make waves. All of us who interviewed were strongly cautioned about asking questions that related to marital status or living arrangements. We were also cautioned about asking questions of female students that pertained to childcare.
In the admissions committee meetings at Howard, no mention of living circumstances or marital status was allowed to be discussed. Believe me, looking at the applications, there were plenty of discussion about academic ability and ability to get through the medical curriculum without difficulty.
Circumstances will happen to people in medical school both traditional and non-traditional. We had two suicides and one death (from leukemia) during the time that I was a medical student there. Many people, including myself lost loved ones during medical school. My very best friend’s brother was killed during graduation week; my classmate’s son was killed just before Christmas. There was no reason to discuss family, boyfriends or any other personal life matters because being female or non-traditional does not make you more prone to “circumstances” that might interfere with your medical studies. Plenty of traditional students had “relationship” problems that interfered with their studies.
You can politely refuse to discuss your family life and living arrangements. If an interviewers prefaces a question with “I’m not supposed to ask you this but…” stop the interviewer and politely explain that you would rather them not ask you the question because it might put you in a very difficult position that you do not want to be in or explain that if they ask you a question that “they are not supposed to ask” than you have the option of not answering that question without penalty.
Do you really want to attend medical school so much that you would attend a school that attempts to bend rules before you are a student? What do you think will happpen if you get into trouble there? Are they going to “bend” the rules to keep you there? Illegal questions should send up a red flag. You have to be able to stick to your principles even under the stress of an interview. Can you trust a school that allows interviewers to ask you illegal questions?

I’m speaking not from medschool interview experience but from corporate America experience.
I do a good bit of interviewing for my company. I believe I’ve posted on this subject before and probably misstated a point at that time; i.e that these questions are illegal. Many of us commonly call these lines of interview questions “illegal”. As I recently had clarified to me by our human resources folks, the questions themselves are not illegal. What’s illegal is to base your hiring decision (or in this case admittance decision) on how the candidate answers.
This obviously begs the question, “if the answers aren’t legally allowed to be considered in the decision, then why ask them?”. In order to be “above reproach”, we train our interviewers to avoid asking any of these types of questions and, in fact, our restrictions go much further than those mentioned here.
To add to the other good approaches others have listed…
“I understand the concern about balancing medschool w/ other factors (family, boyfriend, blah, blah, blah), but I would prefer to focus on areas that will be more relevant to the decision process.”
“I’m not sure how my answer is going to help in the decision about me as a candidate.”
Or more straight, “I’m uncomfortable discussing factors which I understand wouldn’t be part of the decision process.”
These are so tough to navigate, because you want to stand up for yourself and at the same time not alienate your interviewer.

When I was at Stanford, I was the one who trained both the file reviewers and interviewers as to what was legal and what would not be acceptable. The minute a file review report crossed my desk with a comment that was over the line, I had a talk with that med student or faculty member. Ditto if we heard of any reports about illegal interview questions. And we encouraged interviewees to let us know if this happened, as most medical school do. If necessary, we reinterviewed an applicant and discarded the offensive interview report.
Remember, particularly those of you on the interview circuit right now, that each med school has a personality. Pay close attention to this when you are at the school. As Natalie said, do you want to go to a med school which is in flagrant disregard of what’s appropriate? It is not just the med school deciding about you, it is you deciding about them. Do your own market research while you are visiting the school. As I tell my clients, extract yourself from the herd of interviewees after you gleaned as much “where else did you interview? what was it like?” information as is useful to you, and then go talk to as many people as possible on your interview day. Wander into the student lounge and talk to med students. Chat with faculty members if you can. Talk to administrators. All of these people are a wealth of information. And most will be willing to answer a few questions. Remember, the school exists because they have students. And people in the admissions office have jobs because there are applicants. :slight_smile: They should try to keep you happy. (Although, unfortunately, there are admissions offices which seem to forget this little tidbit of information.)

Bumping this up … the discussion is somewhat relevant to the conversation about interviewing while pregnant, but more to the point, msn.com had this article featured on its main page today:
How Do I Recognize Illegal Questions?
By Michael Worthington, ResumeDoctor.com
Dear ResumeDoctor:
Recently I went on a job interview with a larger technology company. Most of the interview went well, but the interviewer asked a few questions which were geared about my age and my family. I was under the impression that these types of personal questions were illegal? Am I correct?
San Diego, CA
Dear Ed:
Asking personal questions is not necessarily illegal, but the motive behind them might be. If discrimination is the result of finding answers to specific questions, then it becomes a legal issue. The Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 does not make it illegal for an employer to ask an applicant’s age or date of birth. But the ADEA does make it illegal to deny employment because of the applicant’s age. Ironically, however, most illegal questions are asked when the untrained interviewer is just trying to be friendly and there is no illegal intent behind the question. You must decide on the intent behind it before answering the question. If you feel it is an illegal question and decide to walk out, and the interviewer is innocent, you’ve lost your chance at any future consideration as their employer.
You have a few options if you find yourself in this situation:
- Briefly answer the question and move to a new topic.
- Ignore the question and redirect the discussion toward a different topic.
- If the question is blatant and offensive, you have every right to terminate the interview and walk out.
- Don’t answer the question, but answer the intent behind the question. For instance, if the interviewer asks, “Who is going to take care of your children when you have to travel?” You might answer, “I can meet the travel and work schedule that this job requires.” Or if he/she asks, “Are you planning a family in the future?” You might say, "Right now I am focused on my career and as a family is always an option, it is not a priority right now."
So before filing discrimination charges, know the intent behind the question. You have every right to ignore the question if you are not sure.
Best of luck in your job search,
The ResumeDoctor