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Residency Interview Tips & Tricks: The Ultimate Guide

  • by Dr. Brian Radvansky
  • Sep 29, 2022

Dr. Mike Ren, Dr. Chris Carrubba, Sarah Godfrey, and Leila Javidi, MD, MPH also contributed to this post.

Residency interview season is an exciting time—this is your opportunity to not only put a “face to the name” after submitting your ERAS application, but also to learn about which residency programs are truly the right fit for you. Remember, you are also interviewing programs in the process! For this reason, it’s a great idea to prepare questions of your own before an interview, in addition to presenting yourself confidently and professionally in front of your prospective future residency program.

So, what should you do if you’ve applied to residency programs and are now waiting for an interview? Here is the ultimate guide to residency interviews, written by a team of tutors who have been in your shoes!

Residency Interview Tips & Tricks

The Waiting Period

Now that you’ve submitted your ERAS application, you might be quick to start refreshing your email to see if you have any interview invitations. The “waiting period” can last several months, so be patient!

What should I do if I haven’t been asked for an interview yet?

Most importantly, relax. Just because a certain program hasn’t contacted you yet doesn’t mean you’re any less qualified as an applicant. It’s never a good feeling to be rejected, but sometimes the best course of action is to move on. That way, you can concentrate on all the other great opportunities you have. Worrying over the interview you’re not going on won’t help you ace the ones you do have lined up.

Remind yourself that there are a lot of reasons why a program might not have reached out just yet. These can include:

  1. 1. Geographical reasons. Even for the best applicants, it can be very difficult to obtain interviews at programs located in geographical regions to which you’re not tied.
  2. 2. Institutional reasons. For better or worse, some programs prioritize candidates from certain medical schools over others. Some might also avoid applicants from DO programs or international medical schools. You can generally get a feel for this by looking at the resident profiles on a given program’s website.
  3. 3. Competitive disadvantage. Your application might have a harder time standing out from the crowd depending on the specialty you’re applying to and the strength of the program. Take a look at Charting Outcomes in the Match to see how you compare to the average applicant that matched in a particular specialty. If your board scores, publications, etc. are significantly lower, this could be an explanation.
  4. 4. They haven’t contacted anyone. Some programs and specialties typically send out interview offers later than others. Additionally, many programs send out two separate rounds of interview invitations. Before jumping to any conclusions, talk to your peers or check out forums like Student Doctor Network to see where things stand with any given program.

 

Should I reach out to the program with a phone call or email?

Ultimately, this is up to you and your comfort level. Some tutors advise that reaching out could help you stand out in some cases, while others advise to wait it out to make sure you’re not ruminating on a response.

If you do decide you’d like to reach out to your program, here are some factors to consider first:

  1. 1. Make sure the program has actually sent out interview invitations (and for that matter, their second round of invites). If they haven’t, leaving a voicemail could appear impatient.
  2. 2. Highlight something new when reaching out. This can serve as an effective guide for reaching out and can strengthen your application, assuming it’s something like a great score on Step 2 CK or a strong letter of recommendation.
  3. 3. Emphasize geographical ties. Stressing why you’re interested in being at a certain program and what might keep you living there long-term is always in your favor.
  4. 4. Phone a friend! If someone you know has a connection to the program, then having them call or email on your behalf is always much more productive than reaching out on your own. Never be scared to make use of connections.
  5. 5. Make it count. If you decide to call the program and leave a voicemail, make sure to only call once and leave your AAMC ID on the message.

 

Preparing for the Interview

A program reached out and invited you to an interview—congratulations! So, what’s next, and how do you prepare?

Do your research

Ideally, you’ve done some background research on a residency or fellowship prior to applying. Regardless, make sure that you familiarize yourself with the program in the days prior to your interview. Few things look worse to an interviewer than giving the impression that you know very little about the place that you’re applying to.

Almost every program has a detailed website that provides information on the rotational curriculum, research opportunities, and didactics—read it! Use this information to ask specific questions that would be applicable to that program. 

Additionally, if you are fortunate enough to know who your interviewers are ahead of time, be sure to look them up on the program website, LinkedIn, and/or PubMed. Search for common research or personal interests that you can organically bring up during the interview.

Review your resume

It is important to come prepared for your interview. Know your CV and ERAS application backward and forwards. Anything you have elected to show them is fair game for questions. Be able to discuss any research and achievements fluently and with confidence, knowing them inside and out. It is a red flag if something appears on your resume and you are not able to discuss it intelligently, so make sure that you know your accomplishments and that you’re able to discuss them in a professional and knowledgeable way.

Prepare your answers in advance

Make sure to anticipate any difficult questions that you could see coming up. While you wouldn’t want to offer up any red flag information on your own, you can reasonably anticipate that you may be asked about a failed class, poor USMLE scores, or a bad evaluation. As such, you should try to develop an answer that addresses the issue without shifting blame to someone else and highlight how you have grown from the experience.

When it comes to characteristic interview questions for which everybody should be expected to have a good answer, here are our top four:

Q: Tell me about yourself.

Definitely have a well-orchestrated answer to this question. This is an opportunity to tell people who you are, where you come from, what you know, and who you are as a person outside of medicine. It’s incredibly important. The people interviewing you want to meet people with whom they will be excited to work between three and seven years, depending on how long your training is. Tell a unique story to make yourself more memorable in that moment. That’s it. They are not looking for an autobiography that goes on for hours and hours; you might only have ten minutes with an interviewer. This question should be limited to 45 seconds to one minute at the most and should be a concise statement that outlines who you are.

Q: Why would you choose this field?

What about this field interests you? It is important that you have a real reason why you chose your specialty. A lot of you probably wrote about your specialty choice in your personal statements, and it is perfectly okay to go back and reiterate what you’ve written by bringing it to life in your personal story. This gives the program director a sense of your self-worth and self-awareness. It’s going to show people that you know who you are and that you are confident that the field that you’ve chosen is perfect for you.

Q: What are you particularly proud of?

Be prepared to discuss what you are really happy to have accomplished.

Q: Tell me about your weaknesses.

Be prepared to discuss any weaknesses appropriately. You don’t want to be too self-deprecating during these interviews, since this is an opportunity for you to showcase your strengths. If you are able to turn a weakness into a learning opportunity, it is important to discuss this. If you have a blemish on your application, maybe failed a Step exam, or performed poorly in a medical school course, own it. It is expected that you will address the issue during the interview honestly, with integrity, and knowing that you are capable of rising above whatever weakness there was. If you don’t mention it at all, this may appear as though you are hiding something about yourself. Explain what the situation was, how you rectified it, were a better person because of it, and how you will be set to be an excellent resident in a given program. Don’t dwell on the negative. Bring it up, address it well.

Curveball questions

Every once in a while, you may get thrown a curveball. Somebody might ask you a clinical question like, “How would you manage a patient?” These are also fair game and are more common in some specialties than others. 

If you encounter a curveball question, don’t freak out. A lot of times, they are just looking to see how you act under stress and if you have a good baseline knowledge of clinical reasoning to know what the next step would be. Start with the patient history, move on to the relevant physical exam findings discussed, and their pertinent laboratory findings. You don’t need to memorize an entire CDC or a chemistry panel. But just know what’s notable, go on to any imaging findings as applicable, and then go into the clinical decision-making in leading diagnosis and discuss what you’ve learned about the case. Why was it an interesting case? Connect it back to yourself and show that there’s a level of humanism in your work.

Prepare your own questions for the interviewer

In the same way that you would prepare your answers for commonly-asked questions, it’s a good idea to have questions ready to go that you can ask at the end of the interview. Review the program’s website and take note of the residency curriculum, common rotations, and different research opportunities. In doing so, you can prepare questions above and beyond that of a typical applicant. Asking how a residency director thinks a specific curriculum change or new rotation will affect residents sounds a lot better than something generic like, “Do your residents do research?”

Do mock interviews

In the same way that you had someone review your personal statement before submitting it, it is essential to practice your interview skills before you go for the real thing. Here are five reasons why you should take the time to do mock interviews before your residency interview.

1. They help just to dispel your nerves.

Applying to residency is a stressful process and it is hard to know how nervous you will be before your first interview. (It does get easier the more interviews you do!) But before the first one, it helps to dress the part and pretend you are at an interview. Hearing yourself answer questions out loud also helps you think about what you would like to say (and what you would like to avoid saying) when you are at the real thing.

2. You can practice multiple ways to answer common questions.

Anyone who has experience with residency interviews will know the top 20 most common questions to ask. Mock interviews will allow you to experiment with different ways to answer things like “Tell me about yourself” and “When is a time you failed?”

Your interviewer can give specific feedback on your answers to help you craft answers that represent you in the best light. You don’t want to sound too rehearsed on interview day, but knowing the key points you’d like to convey is very helpful.

3. Your mock interviewer can give feedback on your nonverbal communication.

Evaluating your own body language is almost impossible. But interviewers will notice if you pull at your hair, fail to make eye contact, or keep your arms crossed throughout the interview. An impartial observer can be very helpful in pointing out those behaviors that you never noticed.

4. Practicing “bizarre” interview questions will make you less likely to freeze.

The weird or random interview questions are everyone’s worst nightmare. Ask anyone who has been on the interview trail, and they will tell you the craziest question someone asked them. (The most interesting one we’ve heard was “If you were a kitchen utensil, which one would you be?”) Practicing how to respond, and how to stall while you think of an answer, to these types of questions can help you navigate even the weirdest questions.

5. You can make sure virtual interviews go seamlessly.

If you’re preparing for a virtual interview, doing a mock interview beforehand is key to make sure you don’t run into any technical issues on the day of. The mock interview can be over video call with a mentor, a friend, a significant other, or even just recording yourself on a separate device.

 

Day of the Interview

The big day is here! Whether you’ve traveled to your program’s city for an in-person interview, or you’re setting up for your virtual interview, here are some tips to remember leading up to the moments that matter most.

In-person interviews

Dress the part

For the medical profession, dressing conservatively is always better. Go out and get a suit. Now is not necessarily the time to show the most extravagant aspects of your personality, because you want to keep things very controlled and respectful in this interview. At the end of the day, you want to stand out because of your abilities and qualifications, not because of how you looked on the interview day.

Arrive on time

It almost goes without saying, but definitely don’t be late to the beginning of the interview for your residency. Show up a little bit early—early is on time in this case. You want to put your best foot forward for meeting residency program directors. If you find yourself lost in finding where you need to go, don’t be afraid to ask for directions!

Treat everyone you meet with respect

For in-person interviews, it’s important to maintain your most professional practices during your entire trip. This includes when you interact with anyone working for the department or hospital where you’re interviewing, including greeters, program directors, program coordinators, and anyone who may have corresponded with you to schedule being interviewed. 

People know each other inside hospitals, so make sure you come across as the professional you are. Residency program directors want you to be there. You should show them that you want to be there also—it goes without saying that best behavior is definitely encouraged.

Talk to residents about their experience

Additionally, take time to talk to the residents during your visit and see what they like (or don’t like) about the program. You should still be on your best behavior there, but it is also fine to show a little bit of your personality. You’ll be involved in some nice conversations as time goes on.

Attend the pre-interview dinner

There are often opportunities to go to a pre-interview dinner the night before. These are a great way to meet the residents and see what the quality of life is like in a town.

Keep in mind that there will probably be some alcoholic beverages served at these interview dinners. Know your limits, as poor behavior at the pre-interview dinner can certainly be reported to a program director, and that will be taken seriously and could count negatively against you.

Virtual interviews

Show up just as you would in-person

Even though virtual residency interviews are a different experience than in-person, they still require the same level of professionalism. Just like an in-person interview, make sure you wear your entire suit. There are too many stories of someone getting out of their chair to grab something, only to flash that they’re only wearing the top half of the suit. You’re in the comfort of your own home, so just wear the entire suit.

Additionally, the old excuses for arriving late (“my flight was delayed”) don’t work for virtual interviews. You just need to log on, so do it on time. Most programs have a host to let you into the virtual room, so do not be the applicant who makes the host wait.

Set up your camera and environment

Make sure you appear professional on-camera in terms of positioning. Don’t place the camera too close or too far so that your face appears distorted, and have your face in the center of the frame with your shoulders visible at the bottom. Sit in a comfortable, stationary chair, and do not fidget or swivel in your chair. It is noticeable, distracting, and looks unprofessional.

Double-check your technology

If your internet connection is slow, your video will lag behind your audio. You’ll notice this in your practice interviews, and if this is the case, hold your interview somewhere with faster internet. Most med schools or libraries have separate, closed-off rooms you can reserve for an hour or two at a time.

Worst case scenario, go to a friend’s house with a better connection. AAMC has a more comprehensive PDF for virtual interviews.

Do a noise check

Practice speaking at an audible volume that’s not too loud or offensive. Make sure you set up close to an outlet so your device stays charged and doesn’t power down on you.

Avoid extraneous noise by having your interview in a quiet place—a private study room at the library or at school. Or at a friend or mentor’s house with faster internet and less noise. If you have kids, hire a babysitter or have your significant other take them out of the house for those one or two crucial hours.

 

During the Interview

You’ve made it to the interview! Trust that you’ve prepared to get you to this point. During the interview, here are our top five tips to keep in mind throughout your interview.

Top 5 Residency Interview Tips

1. Make good eye contact with your interviewer

Relax and smile. Use your facial expressions, your hands, and your body language to express your passion and interest in medicine and in the program.

2. Speak like a professional

Address your interviewer with the appropriate salutation. Avoid using slang, curse words, or sharing any crude jokes or controversial opinions.

3. Minimize distractions or interruptions

This includes turning off your cell phone, and for virtual interviews, communicating if there is any outside noise or possible interruptions to your video call environment.

4. Speak with confidence

Don’t be afraid to show up as the best version of yourself! While it’s often difficult to talk about yourself without coming across as arrogant or inauthentic, a good approach is to frame your answers around how you could contribute to the program, rather than solely focusing on personal accomplishments.

5. Don’t do all the talking

It’s okay to allow the interviewer to talk just as much, if not more, than you do. Even if you can anticipate where a question is going, allow the interviewer to finish their thoughts before diving in with an answer. From there, make sure that your answer directly addresses the question posed to you, and try to avoid any lengthy tangents or examples.

 

After the Interview

Should I send a follow-up message after the interview?

After your interview, it is possible that you will want to contact the program and ask them some other questions, or maybe just send a thank you note. Know the program’s policy for post-interview thank you notes, and respect those guidelines. Some programs will outright tell you that they do not want any thank you notes or any correspondence following the interview. Others will answer specific questions but still request that they do not want to receive letters. 

If there is no explicit denial, however, then a thank you note would be perfectly professional and almost expected. The style of thank you note is perfectly independent, although a handwritten thank you note does communicate to the program director or interviewer that you’re willing to put in the extra effort. A short email to follow up on a discussion that you had during an interview is also reasonable, especially if you mentioned an article during the interview that you’d like to send.

Regardless of the program’s policy, don’t repeatedly reach out to a program post-interview. There is not much that you can do to sway people’s opinions after the interview is over, and reaching out repeatedly will only negatively impact your chances of matching. 

Is there anything I can do to increase my chances of matching after the interview?

The best thing you can do is put your best foot forward during interviews, act entirely professional, and have respectful post-interview conduct with the people who you’ve met that day. If you do everything right, you shouldn’t have much to worry about. Remember, this is an opportunity for you to be yourself and show people that you are worth the position. You’ve made it this far, so trust that you’ve prepared accordingly and done everything you can to set yourself up for success!

 

Further Reading

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