Despite it being a vital part of landing a coveted position, medical students and resident physicians spend surprisingly little time crafting their interview skills. While board scores, publications, and awards are undoubtedly crucial to securing an interview, the interview itself is where you can convert an opportunity into a career. In fact, several program directors have acknowledged to me that while they use an applicant’s resume to decide who they want to interview, once the interviews begin, almost everyone is on a level playing field.
Thus, your interview is a chance to stand out; it’s an opportunity to convince a residency program or fellowship that they would benefit from selecting you. Moreover, it’s a chance for you to make sure that they are the right fit for your career. So how do you turn that interview into an opportunity? Let me share some things that I’ve learned along the way.
Ideally, you’ve done some background research on a residency or fellowship prior to applying. Regardless, make sure that you familiarize yourself with the program in the days prior to your interview. Few things look worse to an interviewer than giving the impression that you know very little about the place that you’re applying.
Almost every program has a detailed website that provides information on the rotational curriculum, research opportunities, and didactics — read it! Use this information to ask specific questions that would be applicable to that program. For instance, when I interviewed at the University of Colorado for my Internal Medicine residency, I noticed that their curriculum opted for a 4 + 1 approach to the outpatient, ambulatory care experience. As such, one of my questions was about how they perceived this as beneficial to a traditional, weekly continuity care experience and if there were any problems associated with it.
Additionally, if you are fortunate enough to know who your interviewers are ahead of time, be sure to look them up on the program website, LinkedIn, and/or PubMed. Search for common research or personal interests that you can organically bring up during the interview.
Finally, make sure you’ve reviewed your own resume. You don’t want to be caught off guard if someone asks you to describe a specific research project or other experience that you listed on your CV.
At the end of the day, being prepared shows that you have serious interest in that specific program and will also convey to your potential employer that you are someone who would be prepared for his/her work as well.
Dress the Part
While there are assuredly some program directors who wouldn’t mind a more unique or eccentric appearance, why chance it? At the end of the day, you want to stand out because of your abilities and qualifications — not because of how you looked on the interview day.
For the medical profession, conservative is always better. When I was interviewing, a conservative suit and tie was my go-to approach for each interview. Additionally for men, try to use a conservative hairstyle with well groomed facial hair if you’re opting to have a beard. You should be able to look in the mirror and feel confident that you look like someone the program would want taking care of its patients.
Don’t Do All of the Talking
The best advice I have ever received is that a good interview is one where the interviewer talks as much, if not more than you do. Unfortunately, many medical students and residents approach their interview with the kind of nervous energy that causes them to deviate on tangents, stray off topic, or interrupt their interviewer — all ineffective strategies for a good interviewee.
Even if you can anticipate where a question is going, allow the interviewer to finish his/her thoughts before diving in with an answer. From there, make sure that your answer directly addresses the question posed to you (you’re not a politician) and try to avoid any lengthy tangents or examples.
Moreover, ask questions! I have never been in an interview where I wasn’t asked to provide questions for them, so try to prepare these ahead of time. Additionally, try to use questions that are relevant, open ended, and designed to get your interviewer talking. Something like, “Can you describe the research opportunities available to a resident in this program?” works a lot better than, “Do your residents do research?”
Think Before You Speak
Remember: What you say and how you say it shows a lot about you to a prospective employer. How do you think an interviewer would interpret a question like, “Do your residents have to work hard”? What impression are you giving if you’re focusing on how many vacation days you get?
Additionally, it is a frequent occurrence for someone to ask you to describe a situation where you had to deal with conflict or a mistake on your end. And while you obviously want to provide an answer that displays you in a favorable light, you certainly should avoid placing all the blame on the other party or being overly defensive of yourself.
Likewise, if asked about your weaknesses, try your best to parlay it in to some bit of a strength. While you don’t want to answer with something generically tacky like, “I work too hard,” you also don’t want to say something like, “I have a hard time showing up to work on time.”
One personal failure that I still cringe about comes from when I interviewed at the University of South Florida for an Obstetrics & Gynecology position. While interviewing with an assistant program director, he commented that, “This program is a lot like the San Francisco 49ers… we are young, have a great leader, and are coming up fast. What free agent wouldn’t want to play for the 49ers?” As a Packers fan myself, I tried to respond with a joke by saying, “One who could play for the Packers.” And while it seemed like he understood where my joke was coming from, I later felt like he could have interpreted that reply as me saying that I was better than their program. The moral of the story: don’t leave anything to chance or interpretation. Think before you speak.
Practice, Practice, Practice
While you never want to come off as rehearsed and/or fake, you should certainly try to practice your interview skills ahead of time. If your school offers mock interviews, be sure to take advantage of them. Likewise, speak to residents, fellows, and program directors that you know to get a feel for what their interview experiences were like and what kind of things they are looking for.
Finally, make sure to anticipate any difficult questions that you could see coming up. While you wouldn’t want to offer up any red flag information on your own, you can reasonably anticipate that you may be asked about a failed class, poor USMLE scores, or a bad evaluation. As such, you should try to develop an answer that addresses the issue without shifting blame to someone else and highlight how you have grown from the experience.
As we get closer to interview season, I’ll further address some of these commonly asked questions and how you can prepare for them.
For now, let’s close with some classic, but always helpful interview pointers:
- Make good eye contact with your interviewer
- Be courteous to the support staff present on interview day — they play a bigger role in the selection process than you might think
- Speak like a professional — avoid slang words, address your interviewer with the appropriate salutation, and don’t curse
- Avoid sharing any crude jokes or controversial opinions
- Turn your cell phone off
- Speak with confidence
- Be the best version of yourself
Hopefully, you can utilize this advice to have a successful interview and land the residency or fellowship of your dreams. If we've left anything out, or if you have any questions that we can help answer, let us know in the comments!