Getting into medical school was a major victory for you. It represented the start of a new chapter. While you’ve since experienced other successes like developing solid bedside manner skills and completing the United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE) Step 1, you know securing a residency is going to be the most significant achievement yet.
Residency is the final phase you’ll go through before you can become a practicing physician. Since obtaining a postgraduate position is paramount to your future success, you need to show programs that you’re a great candidate. They’ll be heavily influenced by your residency interview performance.
We reached out to some experts to get the inside scoop on how to prepare for residency interviews. Their advice could help you secure your seat, so listen closely.
How to prepare for residency interview season
1. Make sure your personal statement is in good shape
Residency programs will review your personal statement before deciding whether to invite you for an interview, so make sure it’s a strong essay. Dr. John Madden, Emergency Physician who serves as Associate Dean of Students and Director of the Office of Career Guidance and Student Development (OCGSD) at St. George’s University (SGU), points out program directors also weigh personal statements heavily when determining which residents they ultimately choose.
You obviously need to set aside plenty of time to determine what to include and how to craft the essay. But writing is just the beginning. You should also make sure you have a great editing team for your personal statement.
"Many students make the mistake of just having another medical student look at it."
“Many students make the mistake of just having another medical student look at it,” Dr. Madden says.
Even if you have a doctor in the family, think twice about asking them to be your primary editor. They may not have the type of experience that would really prove useful.
“Your uncle or aunt may be a doctor,” Dr. Madden offers, “but they probably don't teach at a residency program where they’re reading hundreds of personal statements a year.” He adds that most SGU students take advantage of the school’s editing process, which includes a physician advisor review.
2. Know some of the common questions
Every residency interview will be a bit different, but it’s still a good idea to consider some of the general questions you’re likely to encounter everywhere. Dr. Madden says it could be the case that the interviewers don’t have specific questions in mind. In this case, they may take a broad approach.
“They’ll just throw out the general question, ‘Tell me about yourself,’” he says.
"They’ll just throw out the general question, ‘Tell me about yourself.'"
You should also expect to be asked about your interest in a particular specialty and any academic struggles you’ve experienced. Even questions about who you are as an individual will come up.
3. Practice your interview skills
As interview season draws nearer, you need to start practicing in a more realistic way. Actually voicing your responses is the best way to do this. Some experts recommend participating in mock interviews, but there are also other options. SGU provides students access to a program that enables them to record themselves practicing.
“By videotaping yourself, you can see how your flow in conversation is or if you say ‘ah’ and ‘um’ too much,” Dr. Madden explains. Reviewing recorded footage can help you identify weaknesses that you should work to improve.
Be sure to allow yourself plenty of time as well. “Certainly by the end of September, you should already have practiced several times,” Dr. Madden suggests.
4. Don’t come in with prepackaged answers
As important as it is to know what types of questions you’ll be expected to answer and how to craft your responses, make sure you’re still being authentic. Interviewers will easily be able to tell if you’re simply reciting a mental script.
"We don't want you to memorize answers to these questions."
“We don't want you to memorize answers to these questions,” Dr. Madden says.
Dr. Carmen Landrau, a Cardiologist based in Houston, Texas, agrees that being sincere is the best policy, because interviewers can typically detect when you’re just trying to please them. And don’t panic if a question leaves you scratching your head.
“It’s okay to admit when you don’t know an answer,” Dr. Landrau says.
5. Research every program
Interviews aren’t just about your academic record and personal history. Residency directors want to make sure they’re choosing the best candidates for the program, so you should have a firm understanding of the institution.
“It is extremely important to do your own research about the residency programs in advance,” Dr. Landrau notes.
"It is extremely important to do your own research about the residency programs in advance"
Reviewing your potential colleagues’ backgrounds can reveal whether they have similar interests. You can also come up with questions of your own, which is a must. Dr. Madden vividly recalls an applicant who did a significant amount of research in preparation. That applicant stood out because he asked smart questions that went beyond the basics.
“You don't want to be asking questions like, ‘How many patients does the emergency department see a year?’ or, ‘How many beds does the hospital have?’” Dr. Madden warns. “That's all on the website.”
Your questions should also serve to inform your own opinion of the program. You’ll ultimately need to rank programs according to your preference, so don’t be afraid to dig a little. Dr. Landrau suggests asking where residents go after finishing their training and what types of career paths they pursue.
“The answers to these questions will give you an idea of how your life will be for the next few years if you go to that program,” Dr. Landrau points out.
6. Make the most of the entire interview experience
It’s easy to become fixated on the interview. The actual question-and-answer session is just one part of the entire interview process, though. Dr. Madden says the other interactions you have with faculty and current residents are incredibly important. How you present yourself can make a huge difference in how a program perceives you.
“Grabbing coffee or meeting the residents during lunch or dinner, while not a direct interview, is a way of letting future peers know who you are and what it may be like working with you for the next few years,” Dr. Landrau explains.
Even if additional events and activities are optional, it’s in your best interest to attend them. The more knowledge and interaction you have, the better!
7. Plan your rotations wisely
Residency interview season is a hectic time. But you’re still responsible for completing your clinical rotations during your final year of medical school. Make sure you’ve planned for dedicated interview time.
"If you can, you should set aside a month where you don't schedule a rotation."
“If you can, you should set aside a month where you don't schedule a rotation,” Dr. Madden recommends. “Or do a rotation where you can make up the time on nights and weekends.”
Continue your MD journey
While residency interview season can be a little intimidating, you can see there are numerous ways to prepare. Give yourself plenty of time to research and practice talking through interview questions as much as you can.
Also remember that interviews are opportunities for you to evaluate different programs. Everything from curriculum to current residents’ feedback should play into your decisions. Learn more about the residency match process and how to craft your ranked list by reading our article, “The Match: Explaining the Application Process and Your Residency Results.”
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