How to Prepare for a Residency Interview

How to Prepare for a Residency Interview

Learn all about the residency interview process from someone who has experienced it, and prepare yourself for common residency interview questions.
Brennan Kruszewski

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August 10, 2021

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Brennan Kruszewski

Brennan Kruszewski

Dr. Brennan Kruszewski is a practicing internist and primary care physician in Beachwood, Ohio. He graduated from Emory University School of Medicine in 2018, and recently completed his residency in Internal Medicine at University Hospitals/Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. He enjoys writing about a variety of medical topics, including his time in academic medicine and how to succeed as a young physician. In his spare time, he is an avid cyclist, lover of classical literature, and choral singer.

When you’re first starting your search for a residency program, the prospect of flying across the country to interview might seem daunting. Fear not, for we have the guide for you! An invitation to interview at a program means the program has decided that you meet the qualifications to succeed at their program academically. Most of the residency interview day is more about seeing if you’re a good “fit” for the program. That includes your career goals, your social interaction with other potential applicants, current residents, and faculty members, and whether the program thinks it is likely that you will rank them highly. Keep in mind that residency programs need you as much as you need them! Here’s what you can expect from the residency interview process.

When to Expect Residency Interview Invitations

After you submit your residency application through the Electronic Residency Application Service (ERAS), residency programs will begin to review applications and to invite students to interview for positions. Interview invites can be issued at any time after applications are released to programs, sometimes as soon as days to weeks after applications release. Keep a close eye on your email starting in early October/November for an invitation to interview (the latest, most up-to-date information on deadlines is always available on the ERAS website).

Once an invitation is issued, you’ll be able to schedule your interview with a program. One great tip is to set up a specific, professional email account that pushes notifications to your smartphone or notifies you via text message when an email is received.

Pro tip: Set up push notifications on your phone to be able to respond to invitations quickly!

This way, you will be able to respond to interview invites right away. Responding quickly to these invitations is important, since residency programs only have limited interview slots. If you don’t respond quickly, slots may fill, and you may be put on a waitlist to interview. If this happens, don’t panic! The interview season typically runs from November until January, and as the season goes on, cancellations and rescheduling inevitably occur. If you aren’t able to schedule your interview straight away, that doesn’t mean you’re completely stuck – spots tend to open up again closer to the end of the season as people cancel.

How to Prepare for the Residency Interview

The first step in preparation for the residency interview is to be familiar with the structure of the interview day. For most programs (at least pre-COVID), interviews start the night before the interview, with a pre-interview dinner. This program-sponsored dinner occurs the night before the interview, with current residents and applicants only. Unlike the actual interview day, the dinners are fairly “casual,” but don’t be fooled! Even without faculty and staff present, the residents at the dinner will have a say in the interview process. Although the dinner isn’t mandatory, it is a great opportunity to meet current residents outside the hospital setting.

The day of the residency interview will generally start with a small presentation or orientation to the program, showcasing the specific agenda for the day. The schedule may differ from program to program, but usually includes:

  • The opportunity to attend an educational conference such as grand rounds or morning report
  • An interview lunch (frequently combined with noon conference)
  • A hospital tour
  • Several interviews, usually with program directors or associate program directors, current attending physicians, or chief residents

Typically, you will be free to go by the early afternoon. Many programs will provide a folder containing some of the program features, and possibly a summary or contact information for the day’s interviewers.

While the best way to prepare for the residency interview will vary from person to person, you should spend some time before your interview reviewing your ERAS application and exploring the program’s website to familiarize yourself with any unique offerings.

If your medical school offers a mock interview, I would highly recommend you participate.

It’s a great way to get your feet wet and feel more comfortable in front of interviewers, especially if you don’t have much experience interviewing for positions before medical school. Reviewing a list of common interview questions will go a long way toward helping you feel prepared to put your best foot forward on interview day!

Residency Interview Questions

Common residency interview questions are similar to those you might encounter in any job interview, with a few twists. Here’s a sample of some of the most common residency interview questions asked on interview day:

Q: Can you tell me a little about yourself, and where you see yourself in 5-10 years?

In my experience, this question is almost always the first question asked when interviewing for any position. This question is usually to determine if you are a good “fit,” so be honest in your answers! If your 10-year goal is to be a world-renowned expert in a disease the program doesn’t frequently treat, it’s unlikely that you’ll be a good fit for the program, or that you’ll be happy there.
If possible, tie specific aspects of the program to your answer.

Saying “I want to be a hospital administrator,” is a much weaker answer than “I have an interest in quality improvement, and I noticed your program offers a great chance to become six sigma certified. I think this would be a fantastic way to get involved with a quality project while I’m here and to gain some experience toward that goal.”

Q: Why do you want to pursue a career in Internal Medicine/Surgery/Pediatrics/etc.?

Interviewers want to know why you chose their specialty over all the others you encountered in medical school. This is a very common question that you hopefully will have figured out before submitting your ERAS application! Try to give a cohesive story about how you came to decide, citing specific examples of your interest in the field. Incorporating stories that highlight the strengths of your resume can be a great way to answer while showing what you bring to the program.

An example answer might sound something like this: “I became interested in internal medicine during my third-year clerkship when our team had a case of hypersensitivity pneumonitis. I was amazed at how detailed we had to be in our history taking to find out that the patient’s symptoms recently started when he bought a pet bird! I ended up writing up his case and presented it as a poster at a regional conference. Being around so many people who were excited about internal medicine was invigorating to me, and I knew it was what I wanted for myself in the long term.”

This question can prove tricky if you’re applying to a specialty as a “backup” or as a preliminary resident who is required to do an intern year in general medicine. If this is your situation, I would recommend trying to fit the specialty into your overall career goals. For instance, if you’re applying to family medicine as a “backup” to general surgery, your answer might emphasize how you enjoy the procedural aspects of the specialty. Try to imagine how the training you receive in a program (even if it wasn’t your first choice) would help you after you complete residency to achieve your goals.

Q: Tell me about your research.

If you list research on your CV, expect that an interviewer will ask about it. A good rule of thumb is to only list projects you want to discuss with an interviewer. A project in which you were the first author as a medical student would be much more important to highlight than a paper from your undergraduate days that you played a minor role in drafting – but if you list both, be prepared to discuss both. 

Q: Why do you want to come to this program specifically?

To answer this question, you’ll need a good grasp of what this program offers that others don’t. Program websites can be a useful source of information to alert you to specific tracks, opportunities, or mentors. This is also a great time to mention geographic ties to an area, such as a spouse, family member, or childhood connection. Because residencies have limited slots to offer, establishing that you have a connection to the area already can increase your chances of a match. 

Q: Questions about application “red flags” 

If you required multiple attempts for your licensing exams, took time off during medical school, or were subject to any probation/disciplinary action, expect to be asked what happened. Answer the question succinctly but honestly, and focus on what you learned from the experience. If you took time off during medical school to pursue research, service, or another venture, try to place it in the context of your overall narrative and career goals, even if your goals have changed since you took time off.

For instance, you might say, “I was put on academic probation during my first year for poor performance on my exams and failed my first attempt at Step 1. This experience led me to seek a tutor and an academic mentor who helped me find a learning style that helped me retain information better. I started doing more clinical work with my mentor, and that’s what made the information stick. It inspired me to become an academic clinician myself so that I can help other students who have similar problems.”

Q: Questions about “good weaknesses” for the residency interview

While many people dread the “weaknesses” interview question, I found it not often asked on the interview trail. If an interviewer does ask about weaknesses, it’s a great chance to show interviewers you can self-reflect and grow. Both of these qualities are markers of a great resident. It helps to have two examples in mind, one of a previous weakness that you improved, and one of a current weakness that you are hoping to improve. Ideally, choose a weakness that you think the program can help you improve on. This helps to underscore your interest and fit.

Questions to Ask Residency Programs

Once you’ve gotten through a couple of the questions above, residency interviewers will almost always turn things back on you, asking you if you have any questions for them about the program! Consider this an opportunity to clarify anything about the program’s educational structure or to make sure that the program can meet your “non-negotiables.” For instance:

  • If medical mission work or global health is important to you, but the program website doesn’t list those sorts of opportunities, you might want to ask whether any residents are doing this with their time.
  • If you know you want a career as a cardiologist, but the program you are considering does not have a strong history of matching graduates to this fellowship, you’ll want to know how they will help you achieve your career goals.

Residency interviews are unlike medical school in that there is slightly more tailoring to your individual needs, and interviewers want to get a sense of what your career goals are after residency and how their program might be able to support you in those goals.

As a general rule, you’ll want to avoid asking questions that you can easily find the answers to in the packet of information you get on interview day or the program’s website.

Instead, ask about things that you know will be important to developing the skills you’ll need in your post-residency career. If you are hoping to become proficient in a particular surgery or procedure, ask if there might be a suitable mentor for you. If your goal is fellowship, inquire about fellowship match results and whether there have been many changes in recent years. If research is your major interest, ask about funding or other support for scholarly projects. Programs may differ quite a bit in terms of their offerings, and this may be the only chance you get to get the “real scoop” on what’s happening in a department!

Final Tips and Followup

Bringing notes to an interview

To stay organized and compare interview experiences later, bringing notes to an interview is often a good idea. A list of questions you have for the program is a great way to avoid blanking during the dreaded but inevitable “do you have any questions for us about the program” question that typically marks the end of each interview. Note-taking during the day is expected and even encouraged – many programs will even provide you with a notebook and pen to use.

After the interview

After the interview day has concluded, take some time to reflect on things you liked, things you didn’t, and questions that you still have. Ask yourself if you could see working with the other applicants or faculty. Was the atmosphere relaxed, or forced? Were there many residents in attendance at the pre-interview dinner, educational conferences, and during the interview day, or did it seem like residents were too busy with clinical work to attend? Do current residents have compatible interests and lifestyles, or are you at different stages in life with little in common? Did the program offer all the educational elements you need to advance your career, or were pieces missing? All of these questions should help guide your rank order list when it comes time to submit your preferences.

After the interview, it’s appropriate to send a thank-you email to your interviewers and hosts. If a program requests that you do not send emails or that it is unnecessary, it’s ok to take them at their word. Most programs will also provide contact info for questions that come up after the interview as well. Be sure to store the contact information in a safe place, in case you need it later!

So, at the end…

As you can see, there’s plenty to prepare for during this exciting time in your medical career. Brushing up on your interview skills by answering the above common residency interview questions during a mock interview or with a partner will go a long way in putting your mind at ease. With planning and preparation, you’re sure to succeed in landing the residency slot of your dreams!

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