The keys to successfully navigating the interview trail and nailing each interview are preparation and flexibility. The first impression programs receive, how you answer common questions, and the questions you ask your interviewers will impact the outcome of this opportunity.
Programs can perceive you negatively if you’re unable to speak confidently about your attributes and experiences. So before you hit the interview trail, take time to recall and reflect.
Review several times any materials you’ve submitted to the program: your residency application/CV, personal statement, and any correspondence. Anything in those documents is fair game in the interview, so be prepared to discuss it all:
- clinical experiences at your most recent and relevant rotations,
- academic work,
- research you participated in, and
- any other educational, clerkship, work, and other activities that might highlight your skills and experience.
List your strengths, values, accomplishments, and abilities. This list will offer the answers for many of the questions interviewers ask, such as “Why should we want you as a resident in our program?” and “What makes you stand out from other candidates?”
Identify the five key aspects of yourself you want the program to know. Tell interviewers what makes you a good candidate, what makes you unique.
Clue in and remain current regarding the hot topics and trends of your chosen specialty by perusing journals and specialty association Web sites or newsletters. Interviewers may ask questions about your opinion on major issues facing the specialty, and it helps to have some insight into your future profession.
Research each program
Research the program so you can thoroughly discuss its attributes and needs as well as how you would address those needs. Read printed materials, visit Web sites, and talk to any of your contacts and fellow students who might have a connection to the program or supporting institution.
Learn who is interviewing you as well as the major characteristics, mission, and direction of the residency program. Be prepared to illustrate how you fit into this system.
Avoid asking rudimentary questions, the answers to which you can find in the program’s written information or on their Web site. It conveys you couldn’t be bothered to read even the basic information about the program.
Interviewers ask common questions during residency interviews, including
- Why did you choose this specialty?
- Why did you apply to this program? at this location?
- What are your strengths and weaknesses?
- What you are looking for in a program?
- What is an interesting case you participated in?
- What are your career goals?
- Where do you see yourself in five years? ten years?
Prepare your response to each of these frequently asked interview questions. If you can answer most of the questions on this list effectively, you should be well prepared. Answers should be brief, succinct, non-defensive, and factual — never fabricate or overstate information. Respond consistently from question to question and interviewer to interviewer.
A common obstacle for many students is how to answer one of the most common questions: Tell me about yourself. Students caught off guard by this question tend to ramble or sound disorganized. Prepare an answer about one minute in length that is focused on medically- and specialty-related anecdotes as well as lets your personality shine.
Students often trip up when they haven’t prepared for the more challenging or difficult questions. How you answer these questions can leave a quite positive — or negative — impression on the program interviewers. Several of these questions require you reflect on your work style and patient experience.
You also may be asked difficult questions about your medical school performance, unclear or confusing questions, or questions inappropriate for and illegal in an interview. Your best strategy: anticipate areas of concern and devise a plan to overcome each.
Your medical school performance
First, brainstorm a list of possible questions you may be asked. For example, questions about your medical school performance might involve a disappointing grade, a difficult semester, lukewarm clerkship comments, or failing the USMLE Step 1 exam. Then prepare responses (with the help of your advisor), and rehearse those responses in advance.
Especially when answering questions about a challenging time for you, your response should be open and non-defensive and explain how you overcame the challenge and improved your skills, abilities, and knowledge as a result.
Unclear or confusing questions
While in the interview, if you're unclear about what the interviewer is asking, request they restate the question. Try to determine what information he or she seeks. Feel free to stop and organize your thoughts — nothing’s wrong with pausing briefly before responding.
Inappropriate and illegal questions
Not all interviewers will be skilled at conducting interviews. The law prohibits some types of questions, which you're not obligated to answer. Restrictions exist to prevent employers from unfairly eliminating you from consideration. Most illegal questions fit into one of three broad categories:
- disabilities and physical skills;
- race, ethnicity, or creed; and
- family and relationship issues.
How you handle such questions is a personal decision. First, remember these questions generally are more ignorant than malicious. A fine line exists between questions that are illegal and those that are simply inept, curious, or friendly.
Don't respond to these questions aggressively. Rather, carefully consider whether you want to answer. However, refusing may reduce your opportunity to make a positive impression.
A better option may be to smile, remain pleasant, and answer the question, focusing your comments on the seriousness of your commitment to your training. For example, if a female applicant is asked about her family plans, some version of “I’m pleased with the job I’ve done thus far balancing my personal and professional life. There shouldn't be a problem with it in the future” should suffice.
You're interviewing the program as much as they're interviewing you. Almost every interviewer will ask for your questions about the program, so be prepared with many thoughtful ones.
This is your opportunity to show interest in the program as well as to broaden and deepen your knowledge of the program to assess how compatible you are. Every student maintains different priorities and ideas about what they want in a program. You're seeking a program that’ll live up to your particular expectations and help meet your professional goals. So carefully consider what questions will help you elicit the information you need to accurately evaluate the program, decide whether you want to attend, and determine how to rank the program in your rank order list.
Under no circumstances should you ask about salary, benefits, vacation, and competition — even though the answers are important to you. This information can usually be found in the materials the program provides. And, asking such questions during the interview conveys you’re more concerned with the fringe benefits rather than the educational experience. For a comprehensive list of appropriate questions, refer to the AAMC’s Organization of Resident Representative’s brochure Don’t Forget to Ask: Advice from Residents on What to Ask During the Residency Interview.
Note: Everything you say before, during, and after the interview is on the record. Even when you’re speaking informally with residents, be careful what you ask. You absolutely do not want to be remembered for telling housestaff you’re looking for “the most cushy program possible.”
Interviewing is a skill, and practicing can help you improve while alleviating some of the nervousness you’ll experience. So practice your response to each of the frequently asked interview questions.
Then ask someone (e.g., roommate, classmate, friend, spouse) to practice with you and provide feedback. Each clinical department offers mock interview opportunities to help you prepare. Utilize these services.
Once you feel comfortable with and confident in your answers, ask your advisor to facilitate a practice interview with you. Ask him or her to evaluate the content of your answers as well as your poise and confidence level. Ask if they would likely select you if they were on the interview team. Take this feedback seriously and make any adjustments.