“Dos and Don’ts” of Residency Interviewing
If you are a 4th year medical student, chances are that interviews are taking up much of your time and thought right now. Interviews can be stressful, especially when your future job is at stake and in the hands of the somewhat mysterious match process. How can you set yourself apart from hundreds of other applicants as someone who is a good fit for a program, who should be ranked highly, and who will be a great future resident – all in the course of a 15 minute interview? This post will walk you through some important “Dos” to make you stand out, and some devastating “Don’ts” that can sink you down lower on a program’s rank list.
First off, you should know that residency interview spots are precious. A program would not invite you unless they were seriously interested in you and thought you had a chance at matching there. So be encouraged! Often the program is trying to recruit you just as much as you are trying to impress them.
Residency programs are looking for applicants who will fit well with their individual program, but there are some general traits that all programs are looking for, and the first and most important one is NOT board scores! Personality traits are more important than board scores. Interviewers are using that 15 minute interview to try to figure out if you have what it takes to be a good resident. The most important characteristics are intangible things such as:
- Common sense
- The ability to work well with others
- Excitement about learning and curiosity
We can see things like leadership experience, grades, volunteer work, and research experience from your application. During the interview we are looking at you as an overall person. Programs want to avoid matching residents who will later drop out, who will be difficult to work with, who will be high-maintenance and expect special treatment, or who act unprofessionally.
When Does the Interview Start?
The interview process starts with your first contact with the program. If you are rude to the residency coordinator or require an extraordinary amount of help with scheduling, you can be sure the residency leadership will hear about it.
Do be polite to everyone you meet. No exceptions.
Do get any paperwork in on time. Residency involves a lot of paperwork from credentialing to immunization reviews, to completing your charts. Programs may shy away from a resident who has to be emailed personally multiple times to fill out their paperwork or schedule their interview, as it is a red flag for requiring a lot of extra help in the future.
Do take responsibility for your own travel details. Look online to schedule things like airport shuttles and places to stay. Do not expect the residency coordinator to help you with that. Programs may have lists of residents who are willing to host interviewees and it is fine to ask for that. But remember, you are interviewing the entire time you are staying with that resident, because any concerning behavior will make it back to the program director.
Don’t cancel the day before. If you cancel an interview spot, then that is one spot wasted that could have been offered to one of the hundreds of other applicants who were turned down. It is poor form and reflects poorly on you and your school. Give as much notice as possible if you have to cancel.
The Pre-Interview Dinner
These are a great time to informally meet with residents and find out more about the program and see if it is a good fit for you. However, they can be dangerous if you are too informal. If you act inappropriately or unprofessionally at the interview dinner, the leadership team will find out about it.
Do ask lots of questions. This is important for you, and also will allow you to be more prepared and informed when you go for your formal interviews.
Do keep your conversations and language professional.
Don’t drink too much.
Don’t bring up controversial topics. You do not want to risk getting into an argument with one of the residents who may have strong, opposite opinions.
The Interview Day
You will probably have various slide presentations about the program and also a tour. The days can be long and can run together.
Do keep up the energy and interest level. If you can’t even keep your energy up for one interview day, we will have concerns about how you would function on a long string of tiring night shifts.
Do take notes. It will give you something to remember about the program, and also some ideas for questions to ask of the interviewers.
Do dress professionally. You may be eccentric and creative in your dress at home, but for the interview day, you want to fit in when it comes to your attire, and stand out when it comes to your personality.
You will likely have 4 or more interviews of 10-20 minutes each. If you can, know who your interviewers are, whether they are the program director, the chair, a faculty member, or a resident. That way you can tailor your questions to their role.
Do be on time. You’ve probably heard the saying “10 minutes early is on time. On time is late, and 10 minutes late is unacceptable.” Certainly, catastrophes and transportation hiccups can happen, in which case, call the coordinator to let him or her know as soon as possible.
Do start well. Smile, have good eye contact, give a firm handshake, and sit up straight. This is an interview, after all.
Do be excited to be there. If the interviewer asks you how your day is, avoid responses like “pretty good” or “ok, but I’m pretty tired”. Even if your flight was delayed and you are working on 2 hours of sleep, put your best foot forward and answer with how great your day has been and how excited you are to be there. You will have days in residency when you are functioning on little sleep, and we want to know that you can keep up your energy despite being tired.
Do always be honest. If you exaggerate your capabilities, such as saying you are fluent in Spanish, when really you only took a year in high school, you may find yourself caught out if the interviewer is fluent and decides to conduct the interview in Spanish (this has happened). Also, being honest is just the right thing to do.
Do be excited about your activities and accomplishments. An interviewer will probably ask you about the research, teaching, or volunteer experience that you listed on your application. Be able to speak about it articulately and with excitement. Excitement is contagious… so is boredom. Talk about how much you enjoyed the research project and what you learned from it. Avoid saying things like “I was just a tech on that project to meet the research requirement for my school,” or “I learned I hated research.” Always focus on the positive part of the experience.
Do practice your answers to the most common questions. Most of the questions you will be asked are predictable. You will always have a few “off the wall” creative questions, but most of the time, it is standard interview questions (see the end of the post for a list). Have answers that you have thought about and practiced for these. You do not need to memorize your answers, but at least be able to articulate them well.
Do have a plan for after residency. No one expects you to have your life all figured out yet. But at least have thought about your interests: Do you want to work in a rural setting? Do a fellowship in something? Work in a major academic center? Do research? No one will look back in the future and hold you to these answers, but at least it shows that you have thought through your interests.
Do be genuine. We want to find out your personality, who you are, and whether you are a good fit. If you plan to go back to your small hometown and be their ED doc, do not pretend that you want to do a research fellowship and become an NIH-funded researcher. First of all, not all programs are looking for that, and second of all, the interviewer will sense that you are telling them what you think they want to hear, rather than what is true.
Do speak articulately. We all use word fillers such as “like, um, you know”. Avoid these when you can as much as possible. Also avoid inflecting every answer as if you are asking a question. For example, when asked about what your plans are in 10 years, think about what the following would sound like: “In ten years? I really enjoy teaching? So I would see myself working in academics? And I will probably do an education fellowship? And then I would want to be involved in research?”
Do sell yourself. Interviewers may ask about something you are proud of doing, or a major accomplishment. Talk about it! This is your chance to impress them and sell yourself.
Don’t be annoyed if the interviewer hasn’t read your application or has forgotten parts of it, such as where you went to college. Many of the interviewers are coming in to interview on a day they would otherwise have had off. They probably glanced at the applications the night before, but may not have read all of it. Some interviewers read your personal statements, and others do not. Always be polite and respectful in your answers. Even if the interviewer has read your application, they have also likely interviewed 19 other people that day, and the applications can start to run together just as programs start to all look alike to you.
Don’t ramble. When an interviewee starts to ramble, the interviewer may worry that they will ramble when presenting patients on a clinical shift. After all, the interviewer is trying to find applicants who will work well as residents in the ED. A big part of being a good resident is being a good communicator. Hone your communication skills by preparing your answers.
Don’t speak negatively about other programs. If asked about your experience rotating at another place, or even at your home institution, do not speak negatively about them. You can compare and contrast them, but “bad-mouthing” other residents or programs is a big red flag.
Don’t speak negatively about other specialties. It is inappropriate to do so, and you never know if the interviewer’s significant other or parent might be a doctor in that specialty. If you had a challenging experience on a rotation with another specialty, reframe it about what you learned through the challenges.
Don’t be arrogant. You are a medical student. You have a lot to learn, which is why you are applying to residency. Do not criticize practices you have seen in an arrogant way. It is ok to talk about differences in practice, and how you learned from it or read up on it to find out the evidence base for something, but hubris is another big red flag.
Don’t be casual even if your interviewer is a resident. They often have just as much say in the decision of where to rank you and how to score your interview as any of the faculty interviews. So stay professional.
Do have questions. At the end of the interview, most interviewers will ask if you have any questions. This is in part to help answer anything you may have, but also it gives us a sense of how interested and prepared you are. Have a few questions about the program. They can be generic, such as “What are some things you have recently changed about the program?” or “Are there any things you see changing about the program in the future?” Or they can be specific about how the rotations are structured, how much time residents spend in the ICU, etc. Make a list of questions ahead of time that you want to ask about. It can lead to an awkward silence if the interviewee has no questions.
Do end well. Again, the interviewer is probably there on their day off. Make them happy to have spent 15 minutes with you. Thank them for their time or for answering your questions.
After the Interview
Do be honest if you tell a program you are ranking them #1. You can only have one #1. If you change your mind later, let the program know that. If you are ranked in a match-able range, and do not match there, the program leadership will know that you were dishonest. This reflects poorly on you.
Do be professional. It is not required to send a thank you letter. But if you do, make sure it is professional and legible (if hand written). An email is acceptable as well.
Hopefully the “Dos and Don’ts” here will help keep you from committing any major interview faux-pas. Enjoy the time that you have traveling, seeing other programs, and meeting future colleagues. Good luck!
Common Interview Questions
There are many lists of potential questions. For a more extensive one, see the ACP guide, the UNC guide, and the Big Interview guide. The following are some classic questions that you will undoubtedly be asked:
- Tell me about yourself.
- What attracted you to Emergency Medicine?
- What are you looking for in a program?
- What would make you a good fit for our program?
- Tell me about the job/research/volunteer/teaching/travel experience that you mentioned on your application.
- What do you want to do after residency?
- Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
- Tell me about an interesting case you have had.
- Tell me about a challenging situation you had or a time when you disagreed with the management of a patient, and how you handled it.
- What are you most proud of doing during medical school/college?
- What do you do for fun?
- Nikita Joshi’s Residency Interview Tips ALiEM blog post (2013)
- First Aid for the Match, 5th Editors Le, Bushan, Shenvi, McGraw Hill, 2011 [Disclosure: I receive no royalties from the sale of this book]
- Michael Gisondi’s EM Match Advice: An ALiEM video series (2014-15)
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