If you did any research work at all before applying to medical school, you are likely to encounter this question. And if you apply to MD/PhD, you will encounter it multiple times at every institution. So it’s especially worth your while to be prepared.
On the surface, this question is straightforward - tell them about your research, right? Applicants come to grief here by losing sight of why the question is being asked and what the interviewer actually wants to learn. Are they asking because they want to know all the details of the methods you used? No! They want to assess your capacity to understand the research context, to ask questions, to take initiative, and to work with a team in the lab. They also want you to be able to describe what you do in a quick, macro-level way to a person outside your lab. Thus, it is possible to give a complete, granular, in-the-weeds description of your research project that does not provide an effective answer to this question.
Here are three points I would advise any applicant to keep in mind as they prepare to answer this question.
1: The funnel
Start broad, then work your way down to details. Think about this like a hook to draw your audience in – why does your research matter? What problem is it trying to solve? Using a broad start shows the interviewer that you understand how your research fits into the field as a whole and helps the interviewer understand why you’re invested in your research. With the big picture established, you can then work down to the details of your project.
2: Address your role
Even if you took part in very successful or impressive research, you can still bungle this answer by not explaining how you took an independent role within the project. Since the “success” of a research project is highly dependent on luck and opportunity, it’s always important to highlight how you contributed to the project and what you took away from that role. Did you have a leadership position for any part of the project? Did you design any of the experiments? And how did any of these specific roles inform your growth as a researcher? Focus on the questions you asked and the experiments you designed, even if they were a relatively small part of the overall project. Don’t become complacent and lean on the success of the project as a whole to impress your interviewer.
3: Embrace your research failures
Research that doesn’t go so well or yield tidy results is a universal experience in science, and it is okay to admit that a project didn’t go as planned. Being open and honest about the difficult projects opens up opportunities to talk about your growth and resilience. The ability to look back and learn from mistakes is critical to the field of medicine, and you can demonstrate your capacity to do this by talking about what you’d do differently now that you have gained more experience. Continuing to work in the face of frustration and delays also demonstrates perseverance and drive. The key to making failure work for you is to remember that your interviewer wants to assess your capacity to grow and succeed in the future.
If you keep these three suggestions in mind, you will not only answer the question as posed, but you will also make full use of this opportunity to demonstrate your breadth of understanding, leadership, growth, and resilience.