Preparing for Residency Interviews

Written by: Dr. Ted O'Connell

There are multiple steps you can take to prepare yourself to succeed during your interview day. As part of this discussion, we’ll assume that you have done the necessary work during medical school to prepare yourself for residency. At the same time, I acknowledge and understand that a variety of factors, some within your control and some beyond your control, can affect how a residency selection committee will view your application. These factors can include difficulty with a class or rotation, a less than stellar performance on a shelf exam or board exam, interpersonal challenges with senior residents or attendings, illness during medical school, time away from coursework during medical school, and a variety of other challenges.

Before you embark on interviews, be sure to review the steps below in detail. The more you prepare, the better you will do during interviews, the most crucial step in securing your residency of choice. Even after you have prepared, be sure to do an extra level of preparation about each individual residency program where you will be interviewing. This extra preparation will be evident during your interviews and is likely to make a positive impression.

Know what’s in your transcript and Dean’s letter

Before you submit your residency applications through ERAS, the online application clearinghouse, make sure that you review your transcript, your rotation evaluations, and your Dean’s letter, if your medical school allows for that. You should note any real or perceived deficiencies in your application, any potential inconsistencies, or any less than flattering comments. No applicant is perfect, even if they have a stellar academic record.

While reviewing your academic file, do so with the eye of a member of a residency selection committee member. Are there any deficits in your academic record? Did you have any time away from medical school? What do your rotation evaluations say? Are there any comments that could be construed as mediocre or even negative? Is there any indication that you don’t work very well in teams? Are there any comments that could indicate that you don’t communicate very well with patients or team members? Are the comments in your Dean’s letter consistent with your desired residency choice? Does your Dean’s letter say you’ll be a great internist when you are actually applying for a surgical residency?

If you look at your academic file carefully enough, you may find something that will cause you to answer “yes” to one or more of the previous questions. That is not unusual and should not deter you from pursuing the residency of your dreams. It should, however, drive you to prepare carefully for your interviews. Be prepared to discuss any possible shortcomings, challenges, or inconsistencies in your application. There is no need to be embarrassed by any of these potential challenges. What you should do, though, is prepare to discuss how you confronted these challenges, overcame them, learned from them, and grew as an individual.

If you took time away from medical school, be prepared to explain why that was necessary, what you did during the time away (whether it was studying for an exam, taking care of a sick family member, or attending to your own health), and how you are now fully prepared for the rigors of residency. Ultimately, residency programs want to know that you have learned from the challenges you’ve overcome, have developed into a highly functioning individual, and are ready to succeed in residency. Be prepared to provide this narrative in a convincing and honest way.

Know your CV and be able to discuss it

Your CV is likely full of achievements such as academic accolades, scholarships, and extracurricular activities such as research, publications, presentations, and volunteerism. You should be fully prepared to discuss everything that is in your CV. When an applicant lists a research project and then cannot discuss the nature or outcomes of the research, that is an indicator that they were not particularly invested or involved and may be padding their CV. Volunteer work that demonstrates sustained commitment to an organization generally looks better to a selection committee than several single day volunteer activities. However, both may be equally valuable and meaningful to the applicant. What is important is that you be able to speak about these experiences, your involvement with the organizations(s), and why the work was meaningful to you. Ultimately, what is most important is that you be able to demonstrate passion for the work you have done and be able to describe how it has led to you being where you are today.

You should also look at your CV for consistency through the lens of a residency selection committee. Does the extracurricular work you have done make sense given the residency choice you are making? Are you applying for a pediatric residency program after doing two geriatric research projects and volunteering with an elderly care group? Did you do two years of head and neck research but ultimately decide to pursue an internal medicine residency with plans to become a cardiologist? Or are your extracurricular activities completely consistent with the specialty to which you are applying? Though consistency is ideal, even inconsistencies or changes in direction can be explained. You just need to be prepared to discuss why your chosen specialty makes sense for you and how you have arrived at this decision.

Know and consider common interview questions

One of the best ways to prepare for residency interviews is to know which questions you are likely to be asked, to understand what the interviewer is actually trying to learn about you, and to prepare for these questions. Common interview questions are outlined in one of my separate blog posts, and I encourage you to review these and really consider how you will answer them. By knowing most of the questions you are likely to be asked and having given some thought to how you will answer them (and preferably be given feedback from a trusted friend or colleague), you can prepare yourself to shine during your actual residency interviews.

Do your research ahead of time

Before going to each residency interview, go online to look at the residency’s website and review any other materials you may have from the residency program. You should go into your interview well-informed about about the residency so you can ask clarifying questions and really get to know the residency program well. Asking the program director or a faculty member a question about the residency program when the answer is clearly stated on their website will not help your case because it suggests to them that you either are not particularly interested in their residency program or that you are not detail oriented enough to do your research ahead of time. On the other hand, asking a clarifying question about something on their website telegraphs that you have done your research and are interested to find out additional information or get their perspective on a particular aspect of the program. The former approach makes you appear ill-prepared and disinterested while the latter makes you look like a well-organized and well-informed potential candidate for the residency program.

Try to identify your interviewers and do your research

If a residency program provides you with a detailed interview schedule with the names of your interviewers and tour guides ahead of time, this makes the next part of your job easy. If they do not provide this, you can still politely ask the residency coordinator if such a schedule is available for your review. Once you get the name of the people you will be meeting or interviewing with, look them up on the residency’s website. Take a few notes about each person, whether that is their research focus, professional interests, books they’ve written, or hobbies. If you have something in common, that’s even better. You may be able to work some of this information in during your interviews, tours, or other meeting times. This will show that you have done your research ahead of time, care enough about the residency program to have remembered these details, and have excellent interpersonal skills.

Think about what questions you might want to ask

As you research each residency program, think about what clarifying questions you might want to ask and then jot them down. At some point during your interviews, you are likely to be asked, “so do you have any specific questions about our residency program?” Having a list of questions will get you the answers you desire, will show that you are well-prepared, and will demonstrate that you are seriously interested in the residency program. Even when you are not specifically asked if you have any questions about the program, having a list of questions you want to ask will allow you to get those questions answered throughout the course of the interview day as you meet with various faculty members and residents. You'll go away that much more well-informed about the residency program and ready to start creating your rank list.

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