The crisp smell of pumpkin spice lattes is in the air, which means it is interview season! For many residency applicants, the interview is as difficult as getting that high Step 1 score. Many applicants have not had a job before and their only experience with interviews was four years ago during medical school interviews. My neurotic personality led me to “over-apply” in every step of my life: from my first job to medical school and, most recently, for residency programs. I have had many opportunities to interview alongside some of the best and worst applicants during these processes. I will share what I have learned through these experiences, so you too can shine or at least not make the same mistakes as past applicants. While these tips are geared more towards residency applicants, they are applicable to medical school applicants as well.
Don’t be bold with your fashion choices. I cannot tell you how many weird outfits I saw during my interview tour. I get it, sometimes I am a “fashionista” as well, but a fashion statement is not worth making a negative impression on an aged program director. Remember, medicine is a conservative field in which professionalism is highly valued. I’d recommend a navy/gray skirt/pantsuit for ladies, with a two-piece similar color suit for men. Bring as little as possible with you, since it is awkward tugging around a large bag. A folio with several pens and your printed CV is also recommended, but not necessary. Finally, I’d recommend going to the pre-interview dinner as it is a great opportunity for you to meet your future colleagues, get the inside scoop on the program and see if it is a good fit for you. This dinner is casual, but don’t make the mistake of drinking too much. You don’t want to be remembered as “that applicant”.
So now that you look sharp, what’s next? To rock your interview, of course! In my mind, interview questions fall into three categories: standard interview questions, personal questions, and applicant directed questions.
Standard Interview Questions
You should be able to describe what you did, what you learned and how meaningful each experience on your CV was to you. Remember, an interviewer may ask you about that one activity that you decided to include last minute on your application. After ensuring you can elaborate on your CV, prepare concise answers to the following questions:
- The most difficult time in your life and how you handled it?
- Your most difficult patient?
- How you handled a disagreement with a coworker/authority figure?
- Why medicine? Why this specialty? Why this program?
- The dreaded Tell me about yourself — Your answer should be about 2-3 minutes and include some personal details while walking the interviewer through why you decided to go into medicine and what led you to your specialty.
- Where do you see yourself in 5-10 years? Here your answer should match the type of program you are applying to (e.g., if applying to a community program, do not answer that you want to be doing research 50% of the time). Make sure you can explain the type of practice (academic vs. clinical) that you envision yourself working in.
These questions try to get at your hobbies and who you are outside of medicine and academics. Be prepared to discuss a trip you took, a book you read, or something that you are looking forward to.
Applicant Directed Questions
This is where you, the applicant, have an opportunity to ask questions. I recommend asking no more than four questions, unless it flows naturally with the conversation. Prepare two general questions that can be applied to any program. Think of what is important to you. Remember, your questions reflect your values.
The other two questions should be specific to the program and thus require a bit more research. Start by visiting the program website, then talk to residents either at the applicant dinner or by reaching out to a medical school alumnus. This is why going to the pre-interview dinners is a good idea. Ask the residents what sets the program apart and what they are currently working on. Programs love to brag about their accomplishments, so this will definitely give you some extra points.
Now that you’ve nailed the content of the interview, here are a few more tips to help set you apart.
- Take notes during the interview. This will make you seem interested.
- Always be positive and enthusiastic, even when you think no one is listening.
- Try not to talk ill of your program or other programs. Do not brag to the other applicants. If noticed, such social faux pas can kill a good interview.
- Finally, be confident but not cocky. A lot of interviews are casual but always err on formal. For example, never call a program director or assistant program director by their first name (yes, that actually happened during one of my interviews).
Congrats, you made it through the interview! Now what? Most programs will tell you if you should write a thank you note. I recommend writing a thank you email, unless the program specifically requests that you do not. A brief (one to two sentences) thank you note that summarizes your interest in the program and highlights a specific experience from the interview day will suffice.
Most applicants are nervous about how much contact to have with the program after the interview day is done. I recommend emailing your top program to inform them that they are your number one choice. This may not make too much of a difference, but you may kick yourself if you do not. Warning: only play this card if you mean it.
So there you have it, my guide to the interview season. The most important part of this process is to enjoy yourself! Remember, you are trying to find a program that is a good fit for you and you will get great medical training no matter where you go.