What I wish I knew in medical school about residency interviews

Brendan Murphy , Senior News Writer

AMA News Wire

What I wish I knew in medical school about residency interviews

Oct 11, 2023

As a residency applicant during the 2021–2022 application cycle, Anna Heffron, MD, PhD, had the benefit of being in the second cohort of applicants to go through the interview process in a virtual format. That gave her the benefit of some insight from the group of applicants that preceded her in going through the Match process.

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There is no question that the residency-application and interview process, as a whole, is trying, said Dr. Heffron in an interview for the AMA’s “What I Wish I Knew in Medical School” series. “’I tried to find ways to make the experience enjoyable. You meet people and can make friends along the interview trail. ...It’s a long slog, so you might as well find ways to find some parts of made it enjoyable.”

As another group of medical students prepares for a season of sitting in front of a screen in business attire, Dr. Heffron—now a second-year emergency medicine resident at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York—reflected on her own experiences and offers advice for how medical students can make the right impression during virtual interviews.

“Probably the best advice that I got was to take advantage of the things that are really only available in virtual interviews,” said Dr. Heffron, an AMA member. “You obviously won’t get the benefits of an in-person interview, where in-person interactions make things a lot more personable and memorable. But there are things that you can do in a virtual interview that you can’t do in-person. So things like having cheat sheets of your answers to frequently asked questions nearby, or on a monitor near you if you’re really worried about it.

“You can control your environment pretty well. Having an environment that is not distracting to you is something you can do in a virtual environment. I also would have snacks available very close by. A few times I could hear my stomach growling and I wondered whether the interviewer could, too. So I ended up with snacks right behind my computer—my emergency snacks.”

“You sometimes have breaks between your interviews. So I would stretch. I would eat and drink, wake myself back up, jump up and down for a minute, pet my dog, that kind of thing. Make use of the fact that you have the opportunity to turn off your camera in a way that you can't on an all-day in-person interview—you can turn off your interview self for a minute and relax.”

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“I did have a ring light set up behind my computer,” Dr. Heffron said. “I would adjust my computer so that the camera was at eye level. You’re supposed to be roughly an arm's length away from the camera, so I would do that. I had everything set up on a small desk space and would keep that clear except for the things I needed, like paper to take notes on. I closed all my noninterview browser tabs on my computer so I didn’t risk getting distracted.”

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“The cheat sheets were really important for me,” Dr. Heffron said. “I kept those up on a monitor behind my computer. And if someone asked me a really unusual question, I would look at them to remind me what I wanted to talk about during interview conversations.

“Before interview season started, I tried to find examples of questions to expect. Things like: ‘Tell me about a time you faced conflict and what did you do’ or ‘Tell me about a time you were a leader’ or ‘Tell me about a difficult interaction you had with a patient’—and wrote out stories that worked well. I also wrote out how I wanted interviewers to remember me—my goals, the qualities about me I wanted them to see.

“I would review those the morning of every interview. If I got a curveball question, then I had it right next to me so I could see my list of stories and think, ‘Ah, that one—I'm going to tell that story now and it'll relate to the question I was asked.’"

“There are awkward parts,” said Dr. Heffron, who graduated from the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health. “Maybe they're less awkward than in-person because there are fewer things to distract you. So for me, I wasn't looking around the interviewer’s room, thinking, ‘I wonder why the interviewer has this here? Or what is that for?’ And being distracted by wondering about those things.

“For when things get awkward—maybe the conversation gets dry or the interviewer runs out of questions—I would try to know a little bit about each of my interviewers if possible. When I got the list of interviewers I would Google them and see what they're interested in. If they ran out of questions, I would have at least have a question related to what they did that we could talk about. I was also ready with several important questions that are good for asking anybody so that I’d get a variety of answers from a variety of people at the site.”

While Dr. Heffron “never saw a fellow interviewee not wearing pants ... some students would be wearing shorts or pajama pants or something and would forget to turn their cameras off when they got up.

“When you take breaks,” she advised, “remember what’s on and around you and to turn off your camera. Wear something in a color that matches your suit coat so that you don't risk finding yourself in that situation.”

“My background was just a plain white wall,” Dr. Heffron said. “Some programs will actually request that as your background.”

“I really wanted to have what I said be the most memorable thing in the conversation, which is part of why I didn't want to have much behind me. I thought about what I wanted interviewers to remember about me and then tried to have examples and stories in my answers that would speak to that.”

“I will say: You don't want to be memorable for the wrong reason, so I would caution students about trying to be the most memorable in their stories or background setup. You don't want to be remembered as the person with a really weird story or room decoration that left everyone wondering, ‘What's wrong with this person?’ Don't divulge your whole personal life. Think about the things you want them to remember about you and how you want to be remembered, and steer conversations toward those things.”

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”I set myself up for a potentially bad situation where I knew there was going to be drilling outside my apartment,” Dr. Heffron said. “I didn't know what hours of the day it would happen, and I was very lucky that it didn't fall during one of my interviews. I should have gone to my medical school. They had a number of rooms set up for people who didn’t have a quiet interview space. I should have taken advantage of that on the drilling day, rather than taking my chances. If worse had come to worst, I could have gotten on a phone call with the interviewers if they couldn't hear me over the drilling. That was a mistake I made where I really should have planned better since it could have gone downhill fast.

“I’d also say keep in mind your body language and attitude. Try to keep yourself calm and confident and at least enjoying meeting all the amazing people you’re meeting, because your mindset comes through over Zoom. So, try to find something you enjoy about it. Be polite and kind to everyone you interact with, even if they aren’t involved in the admissions or ranking decisions. Get plenty of sleep before. And, like I said, don’t forget the snacks.”

The AMA Road to Residency series gives medical students, international medical graduates and others guidance on preparing for residency application, acing your residency interview, putting together your rank-order list and more.