Data-related questions will require you to describe and/or analyse a piece of data represented graphically. The most common formats you can expect are line graphs and bar charts.
Such questions are more typical for MMI's or Oxbridge interviews but may also come up in a panel interview. With the prevailing trend to practice evidence-based dentistry (which basically means basing clinical decision-making on the latest scientific evidence) the ability to read data from graphs becomes all the more significant. However, the data you would be given at an interview would be relatively straightforward and wouldn’t require robust scientific knowledge. This is because data-related questions primarily test your communication skills - whether you can scrutinise the data and communicate it back in a systematic manner. It's a skill that you will have to rely on daily whilst on the wards.
Here's an example of a graph that you could face in your medicine interview:
Most of the time, you will be given some time (probably around 2min) to examine the graph before entering the station. So, what should you do in this time and how should you approach these questions?
1️⃣ Examine The Graph. First of all, you should read all the information provided and examine the chart. Make sure you understand what the x and y axes show and what units they use. Try to understand what the graph relates to, what it compares and whether there are any trends you can see at first glance.
2️⃣ Describing The Graph. Whether you are asked to describe or interpret the data, you should start by describing what you see. To organise your answer clearly, begin with the most general aspects and only then narrow it down. Imagine the interviewer has never seen the graph, so to understand the nuances, they first need to get a general idea of what is shown. Start by explaining the graph's title, the groups (identify the control group and the treatment groups), and what is plotted on the x- and y-axes (and in what units). Describe the highest and lowest points of the graph and include information about when this happens.
3️⃣ Trends And Relationships. Next, you can move to describe the trends within the data that you noticed. When doing so, outline the more general trends first. If the graph compares two different treatments, think of the following: What is the pattern for the data among a group? How does this pattern compare with other groups - is it the opposite, is it more pronounced or completely different? Is the starting point for all groups the same? Where do the values peak or dip? Do they remain steady after some point? After describing the overall relationships, you can move to the specifics (if applicable), such as the exceptions from the trend, trends within a trend (e.g. a decrease within an overall increase) or whether the difference between groups is significant.
4️⃣ Interpretation. Lastly, after you cover all the crucial elements in your description, you can move to the analysis of the graph. Can you think of any reasons for the trends? Can you relate the data to the basic scientific knowledge you have? Be careful not to jump to hasty conclusions (check Common Mistakes for further tips). While it's valuable to include some interpretation of the data in your answer regardless of the command term, you should put more emphasis on it when asked to analyse the graph than if you were asked to describe it.
To get an idea of what a full answer should look like, check out the Example Answer section below.
🗨️ Answer The Question That Was Asked. It may seem obvious from a distance that a command term "describe" means you should describe the graph, but many candidates fail to recognise this, and start going off on a tangent and consequently lose points. Therefore, pay particular attention to the phrasing of data-related questions.
🐝 Use Buzzwords. To make your answer more specific and scientific, try using the following terms instead of the general ones (but only if applicable - don't try to fit the buzzwords into your answer at all costs): control group, treatment group, correlation, an outlier. This can help you score additional points for clarity and language.
🗯️ Expect Follow-up Questions. Data-related questions very rarely end at a point where you only describe and interpret the graph. You will likely be asked more specific questions related to the graph (such as: "Based on these results, could the drug be used in treating oral cancer?" or "What do you think may be the reasons for this trend?").
Likewise, follow-up questions may relate to the fundamental scientific aspects of the graph. Unless it's an Oxbridge interview, these tend to be at a GCSE level - you may expect to be asked to explain what hormones are or how a nerve impulse travels through the nerve if the graph was related to hormones or the nervous system. Lastly, follow-up questions related to the graph may revolve around dental or ethical aspects. If a graph revolved around a new diabetes drug, the follow-up might be: "What factors have to be considered when introducing a new drug to the market?". All of the above aim to assess your knowledge, rather than merely your communication skills (unlike the initial description question).
☯️ Make Sure To Compare And Contrast Treatment Groups: Highlight both their similarities and differences. For instance, you can say, "the concentration of red blood cells increased for both groups throughout the whole experiment, however, it occurred faster in group A" or "the total number of white blood cells has been consistently increasing for group A, whereas it has steadily decreased for group B".
➡️ Follow Directions. To make sure you progress through the data logically and don't miss anything, it may be a good idea to go through the graph from left to right or right to left (depending on the graph).
🏋️♀️ Practice To Make It Intuitive! Data interpretation may be pretty daunting when you are doing it for the first time. But it's a skill that can be learned with a bit of practice - it will get you used to structuring your answer in a systematic manner and using keywords. You can find examples of graphs for practice in the resources on our discord community server.
Preparing for medical school interviews requires more than just reading an article or doing a mock interview. It requires intentionality, structure and commitment. Luckily, with Medfully it is simpler and more efficient than ever:
🦘 Skipping The Obvious Remarks. As explained above, to build a logically structured answer, you should move from the more general observations to the more specific ones. Many candidates ignore the former and try to stand out by overly focusing on the nuances.
🥱 Giving Vague Observations. Make sure that both your description and interpretation are as specific as possible. You can achieve that by, for instance, referencing the corresponding x-axis value when talking about a particular point on the graph (”at day 12 the blood glucose starts to decrease”) or avoiding words like "it" (as in "it decreases"), even if that means repeating the same words over and over.
🦘 Jumping To Conclusions: Jumping to conclusions when asked to describe the graph. Graphs and charts present the data that was collected graphically. In other words, they display the results of an experiment or a study rather than its conclusions. Therefore, if asked to describe what's on the graph, make it a description instead of an interpretation. You may lack information on the methodology, reliability, and validity of the data, which may even make it impossible to draw definitive conclusions. Therefore, even when you are asked to interpret the data try not to be overly confident with your conclusions - for instance, you may highlight that while it would make sense for A to affect B in a particular way, it is only a correlation or that there may be other crucial factors affecting either or both of the variables.
🧑⚕️ Overly Focusing On The Medical Aspects. Don't try to show off your medical knowledge - description/analysis stations are meant to assess your communication skills, so focus on showing them that part of yourself! Additionally, you may be later asked about a more medical aspect anyway, so make sure you answer one question at a time.