Interview season is incredibly unique to our chosen profession. Regardless of your step scores, the number of honors you had, or the letters of recommendation you received, you’ve come this far. So first of all, a sincere congratulations on a wonderful achievement! You’ve earned it!
I idolized the interview season in my mind, thinking it would be really fun to travel the country and see what different programs have to offer. And though that is the case, there was so much on the interview trail that I wish I knew.
Let’s talk about the brutally honest pros and cons of interview season, including misconceptions and insider pro tips to help you make the most of the experience. While this post was originally written about experiences on the residency interview trail, the concepts and strategies can be applied to premed interviews as well.
The Pros and Cons of Interview Season
Interview season is an exciting time filled with new experiences. You get to travel to new places, meet new people with shared interests, and move forward with your professional aspirations.
That said, there are plenty of downsides to interview season, and it can be a lot to navigate. Interviews are difficult to schedule, and they take up a lot of time. The stress that comes with travel, anticipation, and nerves can also lead to burnout and fatigue.
Below we’ll dig into these pros and cons a little further.
- Traveling to and exploring new places
- Meeting leaders in the field
- Advancing your medical career
- High cost
- Fatigue and burnout
- Scheduling logistics
- Keeping an open schedule
Pros: The Best Parts of Interview Season
Traveling to and Exploring New Places
If you like to travel, the interview season will quench your wanderlust! It is extremely fun and intriguing to see what all of the different programs have to offer, and even more exciting to picture yourself living at each of the places you interview at.
I encourage you to take as much time as possible to see the city you’re visiting. This won’t be possible everywhere you go, but whenever you have time, go to a local coffee shop or eatery in a popular location to see whatever you can in the limited amount of time you have.
Pro tip #1: Get plugged into an air miles rewards program with whatever airline you think you’ll be using most. If you’re in the pacific northwest, get Alaska or American. If you’re in the South, get Delta. If you’re in the Midwest, American is probably a safe bet. Either way, if you buy flights with one airline throughout interview season, the rewards miles will rack up fast.
Pro tip #2: Whenever possible, do NOT check a bag. Most places you will go will be for a very short stay, so try to fit everything you need into a carry-on bag. (American, Delta, Alaska, and Southwest will all let you take a carry-on for free… others will charge you around $35 for a carry-on.)
The interview trail is a fantastic time to get to know fellow students who are applying to your specialty. You will often run into them in a random city multiple times—you might even run into people from your home program.
People don’t generally talk about the number of interviews they got or where they received them, so it’s hard to know who you will encounter and when. However, it’s always fun to see familiar faces. I would encourage you to connect via social media whenever you think it’s appropriate—who knows, you may end up being co-residents.
Pro tip #3: This might go without saying, but this is not a time to flirt with other interviewees or with residents. I’ve seen it happen, and it is not pretty. Take this time to focus on your future career.
Pro tip #4: Get out of your comfort zone. If you’re sitting at an interview dinner and you feel like the conversation has stalled, feel free to switch it up and talk to different residents.
Meeting Leaders in the Field
I was constantly amazed by each of the Program Directors (and associate/assistant program directors, other faculty members, and residents) that I had the pleasure of meeting on the interview trail.
Each program I interviewed at was unique in its own way. Being treated as a fellow colleague in the field for the first time really set this experience apart; knowing I’m now being sought after as a resident and have marketable value brought me great joy, and I’m sure it will do the same for you.
Pro tip #5: Do your research beforehand. Look into the PDs, APDs, and chief residents so that you know a little bit about the people interviewing you. It makes finding common ground easier, and it makes you look and feel prepared. Checking out their website is a good place to start, but the amount of information displayed on the websites can vary. Try checking local news outlets for recent news on the program, Google Scholar for recent publication trends, and recent abstracts from prominent organizational meetings.
Pro tip #6: Journal or take a video of yourself after interview days to ensure you remember the program and its highlights.
Cons: The Worst Parts of Interview Season
Let me tell you, this process is not cheap.
There’s a huge conversation that needs to be had about how the exorbitant costs of medical school ostracize minority groups and people of lower socioeconomic status, but that is a conversation for a different time and place.
Medical school interviews are very expensive. Between flights, rental cars, hotels and accommodation, food on the road, and a wide range of fees, the costs continue to add up throughout the interview season—whether premed or residency.
Pro tip #7: Don’t book last minute if you can avoid it. The sooner you book your flights, the better chance you have of finding a lower rate. It’s generally accepted that 3-4 weeks prior to your interview date is the ideal (cheapest) time to buy your ticket. If you’re unsure about scheduling back-to-back interviews, buy a one-way ticket to your interview, and worry about the return trip later.
Pro tip #8: Use a credit card with good mileage rewards to pay for interview expenses. The bonus miles and perks will add up, and you can put these toward some of your travel expenses.
Fatigue and Burnout
It is natural to begin feeling a little burnt out as you near the end of the interview process. The bottom line is that red-eye flights, sleeping in different beds, and time zone changes all take a toll, and even the interview days begin to look the same after a while.
Take joy in the fact this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and try to make the most of each visit. Check out local eateries, ask for recommendations from residents and faculty, and try to practice whatever makes you “well” in each city. Many people enjoy hiking, reading books, drinking coffee, running, doing yoga, writing… take those hobbies and practice them in each city at a local spot to get a new twist on it.
Aim to get the feel of what it would be like to be a resident in that particular location. Additionally, remember that your interviewers, coordinators, and program directors are spending an immense amount of time and resources to be good hosts for you. Return the favor by being a good applicant—be prepared, do your research, and remain engaged throughout the interview day.
Pro tip #9: As much as possible, try to regionally cluster your interviews. Buying one-way tickets to multiple cities in a row is far cheaper than round trip tickets and making multiple trips back home.
Pro tip #10: Utilize mock interviews to be the most prepared you can be. Mock interviews will give you an authentic feel for how you will actually perform under pressure.
Interview season gave me SO much respect for program coordinators, clerks, personal assistants, and anyone who has to deal with maintaining a complex calendar. After all, as soon as an interview offer comes in, you have to instantly schedule it.
For the first few interviews, this is no problem since your schedule is wide open. But after you have already scheduled a few of them, you start to realize there are not that many available days to interview in the months of October-January.
If you are on rotation at school during this time, it is even harder to balance a clinic/inpatient schedule while trying to take days off for interviews. Only a few programs interview the week of Thanksgiving, no one interviews the week of Christmas, and New Year’s is its own thing—your days are limited, believe it or not.
Then after you think you have it all figured out, you get an offer from one of your top programs and have to rearrange everything. Rest assured that though complicated, the process will work itself out.
Keep whatever calendar works best for you and be honest with yourself about how many interviews you think you want to go on; if you end up with 20+ offers, you are going to be 1) out of money and 2) out of time.
Set a goal, stick to it, and do not be afraid to cancel interview offers at programs you’re not interested in, provided that you give a minimum of two weeks notice to the program.
Keeping an Open Schedule
Offers can come in at any time of day without warning the day after ERAS is submitted.
Some programs give out more offers than they have slots available, so you can miss out on an interview day just from being ‘too slow’ to respond. Additionally, when your availability is limited later in the season, an offer can come in, and if you don’t schedule immediately, you might only be left with days you’re unavailable.
Recently, many programs have adopted October 15 as a “common release date” for interview offers… but not all programs will release on that day, which makes it a horrible day for your mental health. I had a friend get 6 offers on that day, while I only got one.
I don’t write all of this to scare you. I want to prepare you. Whatever rotation you are on in October, try to make sure it’s one where the faculty and residents understand that you will need to be checking your phone to schedule interviews. Rest assured, you can always go back and reschedule your interview if there are available dates to do so, which is also very helpful.
Pro tip #11: You can set your phone to a custom vibrate or ringtone for your email. That way, at least you know when it is your email and not a text from a friend.
Pro tip #12: If you know you’re going to be 100% booked on a certain day, give a trusted friend or loved one access to your email and schedule for that day in case any interview offers come in.
For example, I was actually at an interview on October 15, the common release day. Giving my wife access to my email as well as potential days that would be ideal for an interview gave me the headspace needed to focus on my interview without feeling the need to check my phone.
This one isn’t that hard to figure out—you’re doing a lot of traveling without friends or family into unknown areas and new cities for weeks on end, spending a bunch of money you don’t have. It’s lonely. And the sooner we can all acknowledge that, the sooner we can take steps to combat it.
Pro tip #13: Video chat with friends and loved ones after an interview to tell them how the interview went. They can read your reaction, and they can help you process how well you liked a program.
Pro tip #14: If you have friends applying to the same specialty, check to see if you have any interviews together. It’s very comforting to see a familiar face on the trail. Plus, you can share rides and experience the city together.
Pro tip #15: If you are driving to an interview, invite someone with you. They can keep you company, and there’s a lot of quality time to be spent on the road.
Reflection and Final Thoughts
Because of all the rumors and unknowns surrounding interview season, I was incredibly nervous. I felt unprepared, applied to more programs than necessary, and spent way too much money. But I also met incredible people, made new friends, and learned a lot about what I want in a residency program.
Admittedly, my rank list looked much different post-interview season than it did before I started. I am so grateful that I had the opportunity to interview where I did.
Interview season is a ton of fun, and this will likely be the only time in your life you will be able to do something like this. By knowing what you are up against, planning ahead, and using our pro tips, interview season will be an exciting, fulfilling experience.