When I applied to medical school, I was 21 years old and had done well enough in school that I knew I would get in “unless I blew the interview.” No one knew what blowing the interview entailed, but my pre-med friends and I had been immersed in chemistry, physics, and biology for the previous 3 years. We didn’t think the interviewer would ask us to draw out a biochemical pathway. This left us with limited background for conversations with folks who either taught or practiced at the medical school and, we presumed, wanted vague assurances that we would be good doctors. Now, thirty five years later and a veteran of over 1000 interviews, I know that “blowing the interview” is difficult, partly because we expect little in the way of life-lessons learned from a 21-year-old who has been immersed in making very high grades for the past 6 years.

I told you all of that to tell you this: what I expect from applicants to medical school is compassion. Compassion can be assessed in several ways, including prior to the interview. The first pass is through actions. Going out to the home to work with wayward children on a regular basis reassures us that you are not just looking to medicine for an easy salary. The second is in answer to the questions “Why do you want to be a doctor?” Please say “I know it sounds corny but I want to help people,” and say it with conviction.

For me, the third measure of compassion is in answer to a question about health system reform.The question is “Have you been following the changes in health care?” The response needs to be “yes” because “no” would imply denial  that you are applying to a professional school that leads to the practice of medicine. It is the next question that gives many applicants pause: “What do you think of the changes brought about by the new law?”

You have likely been exposed to physicians at some point in the pre-med process. These physicians have likely expressed a variety of opinions regarding the changes, ranging from “too socialist” to “not socialist enough.” After I ask this question I can see the wheels turning in the applicant’s head as he or she asks, “Which way does  Perkins fall?”

If you are a reader of my writing, you can likely tell where I stand. That, actually, is not important.Where your need to stand is principally for the patient in his or her access to healthcare for an illness. I am willing to entertain the 21-year-old version of “Personal responsibility is necessary,” although I suspect you have had many advantages that my patients have not had. On the other hand,, if you say to me “I think people should have to earn everything we give them” I am going to flash back to this video and suggest that serious illness might make it difficult to “earn” access to health care. If you start talking to me about “income redistribution,” I will think of patients who due to their underlying illness never were able to generate income.

In short, make compassion the lodestar of your medical moral compass. The rest you will get over time.