You’ve completed the process of selecting your medical specialty. You’ve been granted interviews by multiple medical residency programs — anywhere from a handful to more than 20, depending on the competitiveness of your specialty and your strength as a candidate.
Now begins the really tough part: completing a multi-month interview marathon before you rank your top residency choices ahead of Match Day. You can expect the interviews themselves to last an entire day, usually after an informal dinner or social hour with fellow interviewees the prior evening. When you’re not fortunate enough to interview locally or with residencies conducting interviews remotely, each will require an out-of-town journey and probably an overnight stay.
Come Match Day, your hard work should pay off — if you take the interview process seriously and prepare accordingly. But that’s easier said than done.
Interview Process, Questions & Strategies
Residency interviews are exhaustive, often taking up the better part of two days. The typical interview begins with an informal dinner or social hour and continues the next morning with a full day of tours, clinical rounds, informal meetings with faculty and residents, and formal interviews with the program director and possibly others.
Your academic advisor and med school faculty are your best resources for residency interview prep, but the below information can give you a head start. Much of it comes via feedback from two accomplished family physicians I know personally: my wife and a close family friend who I’ll call “Anna.”
1. Interview Prep Guidelines & Etiquette
Keep these best practices from the American College of Physicians’ guidelines in mind as you schedule, prepare for, and attend residency interviews.
- Don’t Agree to “Pity” Interviews. You don’t have enough time to interview with residency programs that you’re unlikely to rank highly. Anna’s biggest interview season regret was an interview at a small, rural residency that she was never keen on. She agreed to visit because she thought doing so would improve her chances at a larger associated residency; looking back, she realizes she should have taken the extra day to rest up for the next round of interviews. Skipping “pity” interviews reduces your interview season travel expenses too.
- Remember Everyone’s Names. Interview day is a whirlwind of new faces, many of whom you’ll want to keep straight should you return for a second look before the Match. Social ease is the cornerstone of good patient care.
- Show Unflappable Courtesy. Don’t neglect basic business etiquette. You’re giving faculty and staff a window into your bedside manner here.
- Always Be Honest. Remember, you’re not the sole source of information about yourself. As in any job interview, stretching or embellishing the truth is dicey and grounds for immediate disqualification if you’re caught. Have confidence that your story is interesting enough for you to be straightforward.
- Give as Much Cancellation Notice as Possible. Residency programs put in a lot of effort to make faculty and residents available for facility tours, interviews, and social events. If you need to cancel a previously scheduled interview for any reason, give as much notice as you can. Also, remember to protect your bottom line from weather- or illness-related travel problems with a travel insurance policy with a “cancel for any reason” rider. One of our favorite travel insurance companies is World Nomads.
- Arrive Early to All Scheduled Appointments. If you’re not five minutes early, you’re late. Be respectful of your interviewers’ time; you’re not the only applicant they’re meeting that day.
- Schedule “Second Look” Visits At Your Top Choices If Time and Resources Allow. It’s common for residency applicants to visit top programs more than once, particularly in more selective specialties. These “second look” visits are win-win propositions; the residency team gets another look at promising applicants, and applicants get to confirm or contradict their initial impressions. Generally, programs send out second look invitations to applicants they plan to rank highly, an important “tell” for applicants building their rank lists.
2. Common Interview Questions
No two residency interviews are alike, but most faculty-led interrogations cover well-worn ground. The American College of Physicians advises that you should expect some or all of the following questions:
- Why Are You Interested in Our Program? This is your chance to explain why you believe your professional interests and competencies align with the program’s and deliver some measured flattery. Be honest here; “it’s close to home” is a perfectly acceptable, if partial, answer.
- Are You Planning to Specialize? Faculty interviewers may want to know if you plan to pursue a specialty or subspecialty fellowship after completing residency or pursue research during the residency itself.
- Where Do You See Yourself in Five or 10 Years? This is your chance to talk about where you’d like to practice, the patients you’d like to serve, and the nonprofessional life goals you’d like to pursue. If you have any interest in staying on as faculty at your residency program, say so; that’s a big selling point for program directors.
- Describe Your Best and Worst Med School Experience. Have an instructive story of personal growth and an anecdote about finding your passion at the ready here.
- Who Is Your Personal or Professional Role Model? Use your answer to communicate what you value in a role model or mentor and underscore something important about your values.
- What’s Your Biggest Concern or Worry About Medicine Today? This is your chance to show depth on policy issues that affect your practice and specialty. My wife’s stint as a student representative with the American Academy of Family Physicians definitely strengthened her residency application.
3. Questions to Ask Your Interviewer
Interviewing is not a one-way street. Asking informed, thoughtful questions demonstrates to your interviewers that you came prepared and are actually interested in the residency. Your interviewers’ answers could provide important information that informs your own residency ranking process. In faculty interviews, ask questions about:
- Salary and Benefits. Residents are employees, not students. Your residency interview may include a meeting with or presentation by an HR representative, but if it doesn’t, be sure to ask your faculty interviewer about resident salaries and benefits. Remember that residents earn much less than staff physicians and that specialty isn’t predictive; neurosurgery residents and internal medicine residents earn anywhere from $50,000 to $70,000 annually, according to Glassdoor.
- Working Hours, Conditions, and Time Off. Yes, all medical residents work extremely hard, but working hours and conditions can vary dramatically from program to program. Residents’ horror stories about 16-hour workdays and lost weekends convinced my wife to write off an otherwise excellent program. If you’re a workhorse, more power to you; if not, choose a program that won’t burn you out.
- Faculty Specialties and Strengths. You’ll be best served by a faculty that complements your professional interests. Try to identify at least one faculty member who could plausibly serve as an advisor or mentor.
- Elective Rotations. Every residency offers elective rotations. As you’ll learn in medical school, if you haven’t already, elective rotations are great opportunities to scratch professional itches that might otherwise remain out of reach.
- Fellowship Matching. Some residency programs are renowned for matching graduates into competitive fellowships; other programs, not so much. Don’t be afraid to ask point-blank about each residency’s track record on this front. If you’re not satisfied by the answer, ask what the program will do to increase your chances of matching into your preferred fellowship.
In resident interviews, you’ll have an opportunity to ask questions you’d prefer not to put directly to faculty or staff:
- What’s the Local Community Like? If you’re not familiar with the local area, this is your chance to get a feel for it without taking time you don’t have to explore on your own. Ask about recreation, culture, employment opportunities for your spouse, and anything else you’d like to know.
- What Do Residents (and Faculty) Do for Fun? And do they remember what fun is? My wife made it a priority to find a cohesive cohort. We jointly wrote off one residency program whose members frankly didn’t seem too fond of one another.
- Do You Feel Supported by Faculty and Staff? Faculty, of course, have their own practices to attend to, but they can’t slack off on their residents, either. Don’t skirt around this question; you need to know whether you’ll have adequate support.
- Do You Feel You’re Well Prepared for Post-Residency Work? A residency can have competent faculty, and a long track record of matching residents into competitive fellowships, and still fall short on this measure. The only way to conclusively determine whether residents feel prepared for life after residency is to ask them. If you can track down past graduates willing to chat about their work, do so.
- How Are Relations Between the Residency and Host Systems or Institutions? These relations aren’t always smooth. My wife made a point to ask residents how nonfaculty clinic and hospital staff treated them and how the residency and its host institutions got on generally. We visited a couple of places where this was clearly an issue.
4. Interview Tips & Tricks
My wife and her colleagues found these tips and tricks helpful as they prepared for residency interviews:
- Line Up Letters of Recommendation Well in Advance. You’ll need multiple letters of recommendation to send in with your residency applications. Ask your academic advisor for specialty-specific guidance as to how many you need and from whom. Confirm months before the mid-September application deadline that these letters are coming. Anna locked hers down by early June.
- Learn as Much as Possible About Each Program Before Your Visit. Devote a few hours to researching each residency program before you arrive. You’ll want to have plenty to talk about with your interviewers and plenty of questions about anything that isn’t adequately explained on the program’s website.
- Leave Some Wiggle Room for Last-Minute Interviews. Don’t expect to receive timely responses on all, or even most, of your applications right away. Competitive residency programs waitlist applicants liberally, then work through their candidate reserves as interview season wears on. When you do hear back from programs you’re interested in, move quickly to schedule your interviews. Schedule interviews with timely responses early in the season — October and November, if possible — and leave more free time in December and January for last-minute opportunities. Bear in mind that last-minute travel reservations are expensive around the holidays, so pull out all the stops to save money on airfare and hotels.
- Practice Your Responses to Common Interview Questions. Review the American College of Physicians’ list of common residency interview questions and supplement it with suggestions from your advisor. Think about what you’ll say. Write out your answers and practice your delivery too.
- Conduct Mock Interviews With Friends and Colleagues. If practicing in front of the mirror doesn’t cut it, rope a friend, colleague, or partner into your practice sessions. I talked my wife through some interview questions before her first residency visit.
- Ask Questions During Interviews and Informal Meets. Applicants who don’t bother to ask questions, or let their nerves get the better of them, come off as uninterested.
- Don’t Show Too Much Enthusiasm. Play it cool. Your interviewers don’t expect you to gush about their program. They may find overenthusiastic responses or unprompted praise for the program inauthentic.
- Attend Optional Functions Such as Pre-Interview Dinners. This is a better way to show enthusiasm for the program. I accompanied my wife on most of her residency visits, and we always made a point to attend the pre-interview dinner on the night of our arrival. Faculty and residents always noticed when applicants weren’t present for these events without good cause, such as a travel delay or unavoidable scheduling conflict.
- Relax. “Most of my interviews were pretty chill,” Anna says. “They really just want to chat with you and get to know who you are.” This isn’t always the case in more competitive specialties, where residency interviews may include high-pressure simulations and practical questions. But all you can do is prepare, take a deep breath, and do your best.
Although residency is an essential component of physician training, medical residents are treated — and paid — as employees of the health system sponsoring their program. It’s therefore much more accurate to prepare for residency interviews as you would prepare for any career-track job interview. That includes taking precautions to avoid common job interview mistakes that can ruin even the best-qualified candidates’ chances.
You’ve worked extremely hard to get this far in your medical training. Although not exactly “close,” the finish line is in sight.
Are you preparing for a round of medical residency interviews? What are your biggest questions or concerns about the process?