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The Most Common Medical Residency Interview Questions

Your first few residency interviews are often a stressful experience. The pressure to put your best foot forward in a brief, formal meeting is understandably significant, especially now that programs are hosting virtual interviews. However, you interviewed for and made it into medical school. You can do it again! A reliable approach for interviewing well is to prepare well—I always tell my students, “you play as well as you practice.” One high-yield preparation technique is to prepare with mock interviews. Like every great performance, rehearsal and repetition is key to acing the real thing. To help you do so, here are five common residency interview questions you will most likely encounter during your residency interview trail, including tips on how to answer them.

Top 5 Common Residency Interview Questions and How to Answer Them

1. “Tell me about yourself.”

This may be the most common interview question, period. It’s applicable to almost any job, whether you’re interviewing as a hotel concierge or you’ve just applied to be a teacher. You can bet this question is asked. Often, your interviewer will open with this. The purpose of this question is to start the conversation and to get a grasp on the person behind the resume. This is a great “icebreaker” question, but it can also be very revealing.

Beyond the actual syntax of what you say, the way you answer this question will give your interviewer insights about you as a person, from your hobbies and interests to where you spent most of your life. If you don’t prepare for such an open-ended question adequately, you may lose the plot and find yourself lost on a tangent. This may paint you as thoughtless or unfocused. If you’re too curt or mechanical with your answer, this may portray you as impersonal, closed-off, or even boring.

How, then, to approach this question? How do you distill your life essence into a concise but enlightening answer? My general policy is to aim for a concise 45-60 second “elevator pitch” tailored to the specific situation, with a mix of professional and personal information. I would add a brief introduction and mention where you grew up and your undergraduate education prior to medical school.

The majority of your answer should focus on your experience during medical school, how you came to be interested in your chosen specialty, and noteworthy accomplishments that you achieved during medical school, with an emphasis on achievements and experiences that are specialty-relevant. Lastly, you would benefit to include a fun fact about yourself, such as your most interesting hobby, or important people in your life. This is a great time to shout out your amazing spouse, your adorable children, and your loyal pet iguana (if you have them).

Remember to keep it short and sweet. Even if you have a laundry list of accomplishments, don’t spend too much time on them (they should all be in your resume anyways and may be useful to keep in your pocket for future responses). Shape a narrative of how you fell in love with your chosen specialty and what you’ve done to prove that love, and then show them that you’re also human. 

2. “Why this program?”

Everybody wants to feel special, and residency programs are no exception. Remember that this is still a match process, and rather than mindlessly chasing after the very best applicant, residencies are genuinely looking for the best fit. They want applicants that they believe have a real chance of ranking their program highly.

In order to be respectful and successful, please research the program ahead of time and have at least 3 unique things to say about what makes their program stand out to you. Put some effort into your research and don’t pick out the first three things that it says on their website. Talking to residents during a pre-interview social hour is a great way to gain insider information to thoughtfully answer this question.

If one of those three things happens to be the location of the program, that’s okay if there’s a legitimate personal connection that you can cite. For example, if your family lives in Irvine, California, and you’re interviewing for a program in Irvine, California, let them know you have family ties to the location. Then, the program will know that there’s a high likelihood you would actually end up at the program, and be happy there.

3. “Why this specialty, and what is your experience in this specialty?”

I would go so far as to say that this is probably the most important interview question on the list. This is the meat and potatoes of your interview, even more so than your interest in the particular program.

Interviewers know that not every program is the perfect fit for every future resident, but you had better be prepared to show forethought and dedication to the field that you plan to spend the rest of your career practicing in. They want to see what sparked your passion in this specialty and what will get you out of bed every day to go to work. They want to see the evidence that you have put in real effort toward realizing a career in this specialty.

Prepare a list of at least three aspects of the field that are meaningful to you. Preferably do not mention lifestyle or any other type of secondary gain the specialty might provide. When speaking on your experience in the specialty, as a bare minimum state the relevant rotations and electives you’ve had. Hopefully, you’ve spent some of your extracurricular time either volunteering or participating in research pertinent to the field. Definitely weave in how these clinical and extracurricular experiences have reinforced your interest.

4. “Tell me about a patient experience that changed your life.”

To be honest, I don’t know if this will apply to interviews in every single specialty. Nevertheless, the fact remains that medicine is a profession that involves, first and foremost, people. For the most part, how we connect with our patients is what makes medicine an art and not merely a science. In your four years of medical school, it is very reasonable to expect that you’ve had a meaningful interaction with at least one patient that has changed the way you approach the world, or at least practicing medicine.

Reflect on your clinical rotations and all the patients that you have seen. Was there a novel case that nudged you towards a path of intellectual development? Was there a patient whose story touched your heart? Was there a patient who challenged you and in doing so, taught you something about yourself? 

5. “What would you do if…?”

It’s not uncommon to receive a question on what you would do in a difficult hypothetical situation. Interpersonal conflict is unavoidable whenever there’s a large group of people working together. Your interviewer wants to see that you have a reasonable head on your shoulders and that you “play well with others.”

One scenario often encountered is the topic of conflict resolution in the workplace. Another scenario is how you might react if you witness wrongdoing in the workplace. Oftentimes the best way to approach these scenarios is with a bland, HR approach. If the violation is serious and illegal, you may be required to go to the authorities.

Short of that, generally the best approach is to try and resolve the issue with the person involved in a forthright but kind manner. It’s also beneficial if you take the time to consider and attempt to empathize with the perspective of each player in this hypothetical situation. This shows that you are approaching the situation from a place of compassion.

Get Personalized Interview Help

Hopefully, these questions provide a great starting point for your residency interview preparation. If you want more personalized help, reach out to our team to get connected with an experienced residency consultant for mock interviews and other high-yield interview questionnaire prep. When you’re doing your research to make sure these foundational questions are addressed, I think you’ll end up with enough material to cover almost any question an interviewer throws your way. Best of luck, and don’t forget to be yourself.

Further Reading

About the Author

Mike is a driven tutor and supportive advisor. He received his MD from Baylor College of Medicine and then stayed for residency. He has recently taken a faculty position at Baylor because of his love for teaching. Mike’s philosophy is to elevate his students to their full potential with excellent exam scores, and successful interviews at top-tier programs. He holds the belief that you learn best from those close to you in training. Dr. Ren is passionate about his role as a mentor and has taught for much of his life – as an SAT tutor in high school, then as an MCAT instructor for the Princeton Review. At Baylor, he has held review courses for the FM shelf and board exams as Chief Resident.   For years, Dr. Ren has worked closely with the office of student affairs and has experience as an admissions advisor. He has mentored numerous students entering medical and residency and keeps in touch with many of them today as they embark on their road to aspiring physicians. His supportiveness and approachability put his students at ease and provide a safe learning environment where questions and conversation flow. For exam prep, Mike will help you develop critical reasoning skills and as an advisor he will hone your interview skills with insider knowledge to commonly asked admissions questions.