November may mean Thanksgiving and mouthwatering memories of mom’s apple pie for most students, but for students applying for medical residency, it marks the middle of interview season. Once again, you’ll find yourself in the hot seat, nervously fidgeting through questions vital to your continued existence…or at least it feels that way. It’s one of the most important moments in your career, and how you answer seemingly innocuous questions can make or break your chances of being accepted.
If the idea of residency interviews fills you with anxiety, you’re not alone. You really will be under scrutiny as interviewers try to narrow down hundreds of applicants to those who will best fit the program. You’re not the only stakeholder in this relationship. Program success depends on the ability to choose successful candidates. The best way to combat your anxiety and make a good impression is to be rehearsed and ready.
Do your Homework
When the interviewer asks why you want to attend their program, your answer will tell them a great deal about you. An unprepared applicant will have a generic, tentative answer that says nothing– something like”Your program has a great reputation.”
An applicant who has researched the program can express sincere interest in the program, complete with details about what makes you the right candidate. Being well prepared means gathering more information than you can glean from the program website.
That being said, the website is a great place to start. You’ll be able to assess the program philosophy and commitment to academics, research opportunities, and community participation. Gathering information will help you decide whether the program lines up with your interests and agenda. You may be more interested in teaching than practice, making a program that turns out a high percentage of academicians a better fit than one geared more to researchers. Looking at the career paths of past program graduates will provide some additional clues. This is easier than you might expect; most professionals will be listed on social sites such as Linkedin.com.
Don’t stop digging once you’ve built a basic profile of the program. Most applicants will be armed with the same information, and your goal is to stand out. Search the web for references to the program, the faculty, and the hospital. New stories can provide information about how the hospital interacts with the community, future plans, and notable achievements of both staff and facility. You can also seek out alumni from your school and local physicians to ask for tips and insight.
Once you’ve gained a thorough understanding of the program and why it is exactly where you want to be, there’s still the challenge of working your knowledge and passion into the interview without being annoyingly overeager, pushy, or awkward. It takes a certain amount of courage to gently steer the conversation without trying to dominate the interview. The key is to establish rapport, then take a generic question, like “Why do you want to attend this program?” and give a detailed, compelling answer likely to favorably impress the interviewer or panel.
The American College of Physicians (ACP) has compiled a list of the most commonly asked medical residency interview questions. Look it over and consider how you will answer, but don’t go overboard and try to memorize answers for each question. Reciting memorized answers will sound forced and stilted, as opposed to thoughtful and personable.
Dress the part. Your goal is to be a successful professional person, and you need to present yourself like one. Attention to detail is critical. Here are some basic interview tips to remember:
-Arrive early and be ready when called.
-Suit up! Dress like a professional, preferably in a suit. If a suit is outside your budget, make sure your best clothes are impeccable, clean, pressed, and tucked in where appropriate.
-Make eye contact, offer a firm handshake and a confident greeting.
-Sit up straight. Slouching looks lazy and leaning forward can be perceived as aggressive. Sit comfortably with your back and shoulders straight.
-Don’t fidget. Fidgeting makes you seem nervous and high-strung.
Numerous studies have shown that the first few seconds are critical to a successful interview. Both the interview and the outcome will go better if you overcome your nerves and avoid affixing the interviewer with an unnerving stare or tripping over a chair. Fumbling nervousness may be endearing under some circumstances, but it does not inspire confidence in a professional arena.
By exuding an aura of calm self-confidence through body language, eye contact, and facial expressions, you’ll create a memorable impression of competence and knowledge. Reinforce this impression with interesting small talk. Be ready to answer anything, from the last non-medical book you read to this morning’s headlines. It might be a good idea to set up some practice interviews with other students. Practice typical interview questions, but also throw a few curveballs; questions or remarks anyone might pose in a social setting.
A firm handshake and the ability to chat about the weather may seem trivial, but today’s medical professionals must be able to work in teams. Communication failure can result in serious medical errors. Medical residency programs want to land candidates with excellent communication skills and personalities that fit the program culture.
Be a standout
Medical residency programs attract hundreds of applicants to fill just a few spots, and it’s not easy to rise above the pack. Your application alone may not be enough. There will be other hopefuls with similar qualifications and test scores. So what makes you special?
This is no time to be modest and self-deprecating. Write down your strengths and weaknesses, and decide how your strengths can be used to convince decision-makers that you’re better than anyone else they will interview. You may be able to call on life experiences; multiple languages, negotiation tactics learned growing up in a large family, and any accomplishments you’ve earned in and out of school might give you an edge
When talking about your strengths, don’t stop at a short answer. Most applicants will nervously volunteer a lame response. “I have excellent communications skills” is a common, forgettable answer. Try adding a story that demonstrates your skills will help give color and context to your answer.
You can also prepare questions to ask the interviewer in advance. Try to tie in something you know about the program, such as commitment to research you’re interested in, with your own experience.
As soon as possible after your interviews, send a thank-you letters to each program director you spoke with. Reiterate your interest in the program and mention highlights about your discussion.
Above all, be honest, forthright, and friendly. If you stumble at first, take a deep breath, recover your composure, then dazzle them with knowledge and charm. You’ve spent years working up to this moment and it’s your time to shine.
Sherry Gray is a freelance writer in Orlando, Florida. Science, medicine, and politics are her favorite topics to write about and obsess over.