What Questions Do They Ask in a Residency Interview?
You hit submit on your ERAS application and realize you’re finally a post-ERAS M4 – nothing can hurt you now. That is, until the residency interview invitations start to roll in (sometimes just 24 hours later!). So, what questions do they ask in a residency interview anyway? And how can you prepare?
While each interview invitation is exciting, it is also anxiety-inducing. I’ve just been through the residency recruitment cycle and remember how anxiety-inducing interviews could be. Many students wonder what a residency interview is like, how to prepare for it, and what to expect in a residency interview. Fear not, I am here to guide you through the most commonly asked questions, roughly in the order that you will encounter them during a residency interview.
First, it may help you to understand the typical format of a residency interview. You’ll usually spend a half or full day with a program. During that time, there will be a tour, informational session, time to interact with residents, and your residency interviews. There will be several 15-20 minute interviews with faculty, and usually one 15-minute interview with a resident. Now that you know what the day will look like, let’s answer the question you came here for: what questions do they ask in a residency interview?
“So.. tell me a bit about yourself.”
When considering what questions they will as in your residency interview, this one is a given, they almost always ask it. This is, by far, the most common question asked during residency interviews. Some interviewers will even say “I know this is cliché, but…” (This may make you furious at the time). It’s a bit frustrating to be asked this after you’ve submitted an application and personal statement where you poured your heart out and told your life story. But, the interviewer isn’t asking you this question because they want to hear the information from your application again. They are asking to see how you communicate.
You should be ready for this question at ALL of your residency interviews. A smart response will include just a little bit of detail for the past and become more detailed as you get closer to your medical school experiences and the relevant things that brought you to your specialty and the residency program you’re interviewing at.
For example, you may say. “Well, I was originally born in Albuquerque, New Mexico – which was a lovely place to grow up. I headed to New York City for undergraduate at X University where I fell in love with Sociology. This understanding of how the world worked made me fascinated with how society creates and influences health and disease. I followed this passion to the University of Y Medical School where I worked in the free clinic, studied health policy, and worked to build a clinical foundation that will make me successful in Z field in your residency program. Outside of clinical medicine, I love basket weaving and hanging out with my dog Gizmo.”
Focus on HOW you communicate. You should be confident, relaxed, and welcoming. Residency programs are looking for people they want to work with for the next 3-8 years. The stem above provides all the key information, but your presentation will be what they’re really evaluating.
“Why [insert specialty here]?” or “How did you choose [insert specialty here]?
This is the second most common question when considering what questions they ask at a residency interview, and you need a good answer for it. Having a good reason to pursue a specialty will make your application make sense and show how you can add value to their program.
A good answer does NOT tell the specialist what their field is. They know the field better than you do, so don’t spend time telling them things about the specialty that they already know. For instance, you may love “pharmacology and physiology” if you’re applying to anesthesiology. But so does everyone else in the field and the interviewer knows how pharmacology and physiology are part of anesthesiology better than you do. Be sure to focus on the aspects of you that make the field a good fit for you. What aspects of your personality suit the specialty? Maybe you feel like the best doctor when you are able to do one thing at a time (ie Radiology, Anesthesiology). Maybe you thrive in acute, unexpected clinical situations (Emergency Medicine). Include an anecdote or two that demonstrate this perfect fit.
“Why our program?”
This question is asked in 100% of all residency interviews. Programs know that applicants have to apply to a lot of programs, and it’s important for them to know that you’re a good fit for their program so that they will rank you highly amongst all their other applicants. Sometimes >100 programs! Because of this, they want to know why you applied to theirs. The key here is to be honest and prepared. You should find something that excites you about their specific program and highlight that in your response.
I used a bunch of different reasons for this answer. Sometimes, it was an experience I’d had with the hospital or one of their associated physicians. Sometimes it was that I had met and been impressed by one of their residents. Sometimes it’s the location and the life you would build there. Programs want to know what brings you to them and you should have 2-3 very clear reasons prepared.
Ah yes, the dreaded behavioral questions of residency interviews. Depending on the program and the specialty, the number of behavioral questions you get will vary. Some specialties are much more social than others and tend to have a very conversational interview while others rely almost exclusively on behavioral questions.
Some programs have begun to use standardized interviews that are very behavioral-question-focused to decrease the bias in the recruitment process. At these institutions, expect that the majority (maybe even all) of your questions will be behavioral.
The most common behavioral questions you will encounter are testing your ability to communicate and the values you use to make decisions. Some of the most common behavioral questions are:
- Tell me about a time you had to handle conflict in a team.
- Tell me about a stressful situation you encountered in medical school.
- Tell me about a time you saw someone deviate from protocol and how did you respond?
- Tell me about a time you made a mistake and how you handled it.
- Tell me about a time you had to foster diversity.
Rather than dissect each of these individually, there’s a framework you can use to excel at all of these behavioral questions. It’s called the S.T.A.R method. Situation, Task, Action, Result. For each of these questions, make sure you are prepared to tell the interviewer about a relevant situation, what your goal was, what you did, and how it turned out.
It’s a great idea to have an anecdote for each of these common behavioral questions. Using the STAR method, you can easily provide a thorough answer in about 90 seconds. Be sure to specifically emphasize your goal, your thought process, and your actions. This will highlight how you contributed to the outcome and how you would similarly help their residency program.
Even with great preparation, it is likely you’ll get a question that you aren’t prepared for. This is okay. In this case, ask the interviewer for a few seconds to think before you respond. You don’t want to start talking too quickly and realize you’re in a story you’d rather not be telling. The other thing is this will show how you respond to unexpected high-pressure situations (I hear those happen in residency!). It can be a sign of confidence and intentionality to pause to collect your thoughts before you speak.
“What do you want your career to look like?”
There are many versions of this question. “What do you want your career to look like in 10 years?” or “What will your career look have looked like when you retire?” are two common iterations as well.
Only you can think of an answer to this question. You will need to reflect on what your goals are and how they relate to your personal statement and experiences so far. While answering this question, it can be nice to show how what you’ve done so far has led you to the career you see for yourself. For instance, if you’ve done plenty of clinical research and would like to continue doing so, you may add in a statement such as: “I hope that I’ve made clinical care safer for our patients by investigating outcomes.”
“What will you bring to our program?”
This is a way of asking what it is that separates you from other applicants, and you should be expecting to hear when thinking about what the questions they ask in the residency interview are. Here is your chance to highlight your experiences and how you’d like to see them grow during your residency. For some, this will be a learning experience and for others, it will be their leadership and commitment to service. Think about the things that make you, you, and how this can be a part of your success as a resident.
The Off-Beat Residency Interview Questions
Above are the most “standard residency interview questions” that you will get in almost every residency interview. But, depending on how conversational your interview day is, you’ll also get a fair number of conversational and non-medical-related questions. For example, I know students who have fielded questions about musical instruments, baking, running, and podcasts.
It’s actually pretty common for students to list things under the “Hobbies and Interests” section on ERAS and then forget them. So, if you put something there, be sure to be ready to discuss it and tell a story.
I’ve also heard of students being asked to “tell a joke” or “What book do you recommend?”
The key to these is to have fun. The interviewer wants to get to know you (and they may be tired of interviews). Asking these questions usually is a sign the interviewer is having fun – which is a great thing! Don’t overthink the “perfect answer” because there isn’t one. Just be yourself (as long as the joke you tell is appropriate!).
“What questions do you have?”
This is asked at the end of nearly every residency interview unless you’re running over on time. It’s your opportunity to ask questions about the program and gather any information you need to help you make your rank list decisions. While this may seem like an unimportant part of the residency interview, it’s important to have some questions prepared, both to help you gain a better understanding of the program itself and to show your interviewer that you are serious about wanting to join their program.
It can actually be hard to have questions to ask (especially when it happens multiple times on your interview day!). You should have a list of the common things you want to hear programs describe. Often this is about the culture of the program, research opportunities, life in the city, or other interests. It can also be an opportunity to ask about your interests. For instance, if you want to be sure that you experience rheumatology in your training, you should ask about the opportunity to get this experience during your training.
Key Takeaways About the Residency Interview and the Questions They Ask:
The close reader will notice a few trends in the answers above. The first is that it pays off to prepare. Thinking about each of the questions above and preparing an anecdote or two for each will allow you to shine on interview day.
As part of that preparation, take time to reflect on your journey to this residency interview. Knowing yourself is the first step in telling others about all the things that will make you a great resident. What about your personality makes you the perfect fit for your specialty? How have your experiences helped you to grow into the person you are and how will this take you forward? What are your values and how will they impact the way you care for patients in residency?
Next, be sure to focus on HOW you communicate. You want to emit a calm, confident, friendly vibe. One that lets interviewers know that they’d like to work with you (and be lucky to have you!). Gaining confidence on the interview trail can take a bit. It may not be until your third or fourth interview that you feel more relaxed. That’s okay! Preparation will help you feel more confident and let you shine, even if everything is still new.
Last, but not least, be yourself. The interviewers invited you to interview because your application was great. Lean into the things about yourself that make you a strong candidate. Let your personality show through and be sure to have some fun along the way.
Lastly, if you are looking for some guidance and help through the residency interview process, CV and personal statement editing, mock interviews, and more, consider enlisting the help of an Elite Medical Prep residency advisor! We are here to help you match into your dream program this cycle! Schedule a consultation here to hear more about how we can help.