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Tips for Acing Your Residency Interview

How to Ace Your Residency Interview

You want them. Now you need to get them to want you. This is a candidacy pool in which the bar has been set very high: persons good enough to be selected for medical school and persons good enough to finish medical school. Your job here is to make them see what you can bring to their program that goes beyond what is offered by the others with whom you’re competing. You need to stand out – in a good way.

The interview is usually the deciding factor in their selection because they already know all of the stats for you and your competitors and because of (or in spite of) that, they’ve granted you the interview. This means they want to see more before they etch anything into cement. Therefore, it’s yours to lose.

Before the interview, you need to do research. You will need to identify what this program offers you and how you can contribute to it. Are there certain things that all programs offer or want to offer? Are there things that only this program offers?

You need to convince them that you appreciate these things—common to all programs or particular to this one specifically—and then you need to convince them that you can give more than you get—that they will benefit from selecting you.

All Programs Want the Same Things

The big claim to fame for all residency programs is diversity. It is the hot bragging point du jour. If you’re of a minority or come from abroad, you already have a head start. If not, if you speak another language, that counts just as much. If you’re neither, don’t fret. In this situation, you convince them how you would be thrilled to be in their program because of their diversity.

The next concept all programs identify with is research. Remember, all residencies are academic programs. It will pay off to highlight those areas in which you participated in research. You don’t have to be in the Guinness Book of World Research Records and you don’t need a J.D. Power and Associates plaque. Anything listed that is related to research is your foot in the name-dropping door. Research your mentor or the key researchers of whatever study to which you contributed and drop their names. If your interviewer is familiar with his or her name, it will be impressive to banter about the other milestones associated with their work. You don’t have to be part of the milestones, just be knowledgeable of them.

Speak philosophically about research; wax romantic. Your perceived appreciation for the beauty of the relationship between research and clinical medicine will go a long way. You don’t need to spend a lot of time—just a sentence or two, a passing musing. Let your eyes gloss over. Remember, these guys know medicine; they don’t know acting. Just don’t overdo it, because they do know how to recognize phonies.

To them, spots in their program are priceless. They are only allowed so many, and they don’t want to waste one. This is an imperative to convince them you will not only finish their program, but will do so with distinction. Think back on the obstacles you’ve encountered to get where you are. Is English a second language? Then relate the tales of your overcoming this hardship. Do you have a family member who met an untimely death that inspired you to go into medicine? If so, bring that up, because certainly you used it in one of your essays. Let the interviewer know you’re applying for their spot for Aunt Susie or Uncle Mo as much as for yourself. Yes, it’s hokey, but it’s also beautiful and is steeped in dedication to your goal.

All programs want great, reliable, moral, honest, and creative people. Think of ways to slip in this or that anecdote about when you had a moral challenge and had to be creative to keep your moral compass pointing to true north.

Things That This Particular Residency Offers

If this particular residency offers leadership in research, play up how you want to participate. If it is famous for a particular sub-specialty, you will want to tell the interviewer you have selected their residency because you yourself want to be that type of specialist. If it’s an OBGYN residency famous for its maternal-fetal medicine fellowship, then you want to go to their maternal-fetal fellowship after you complete their residency, right? If it’s nephrology, pulmonology, or gastroenterology, then you plan to go into nephrology, pulmonology, or gastroenterology after their internal medicine residency, right? (No one will hold you to this. Just get in.)

If this program has one particular noted academician, say, a Nobel laureate in medicine, you can mention you know this, but don’t gush over the person, because your interviewer may hate him or her. It happens. Of course, if your interviewer is that person, gush away. Describe how inspired you are.

What About Your Warts?

It there are things about which you’re particularly worried, you need to pre-emptively prepare for them, because they will come up. The interviewer will bring them up for two reasons: so that you can explain what the hell happened and to test your behavior under the stress of being abused.

Who wants to answer why there were no completions of courses with honors? The simple fact is that everyone who merely “passes” courses or squeaks by at the hardest in medical school is still one thing: a doctor. So come off as the doctor as you want to present – confident, not pompous, contrite but not apologetic. Some things cannot be glossed over. Simply explain that the ages of those in college and medical school are formative ages and that for you, these occurrences only speak of your maturation process that got you to the point you are right now. A doctor (or soon-to-be doctor).

Tales from the Other Side

I myself have served on the selection committee of a major medical school residency. I know what I’ve liked and disliked. Be yourself, even if you’ve rehearsed to be the best version of yourself. And you really should rehearse. Re-read all of your essays you’ve submitted to this program, out loud, standing, as if you’re giving a speech. This will help give you the muscle memory in inflections and emphasis that will do well when saying them out loud to your interviewer. If these anecdotes have been glossed over a bit, this exercise will also give you an authenticity of truth.

Don’t lie. You can rehearse and successfully re-enact the glossing over of many aspects of your application, but be ready to back them up. The nanosecond your interviewer thinks you’re being dishonest is the exact nanosecond you’ll be dismissed from consideration.

Don’t use any borderline 4-letter words, e.g., damn, hell, and so on. Even though these have entered into our everyday public and media vernacular, you have no idea which tumblers you’ll trip if someone has a hypersensitivity to the casual use of what he or she considers offensive: you just can’t go wrong not using them.

If you’re the nervous type, skip the coffee that day. If you smoke—really?!—don’t smoke for two days—they can smell it on you a mile away. Don’t be weird, even if you are. Practice an interview with a friend who knows you’re weird and why. They don’t want weird—weird doesn’t count toward diversity. Eccentricity is okay, if your eccentricity is ambition and drive and scrupulous attention to details and accepted norms of morality.

The one overriding piece of advice I can give is to relate to the interviewer. They all want to like you, and appearing as if you like them is humanly synergistic. Beforehand, muster up all of the dopamine and oxytocin neurotransmitters you can by thinking positive thoughts. Such a mindset induces a sincere, inviting body language.

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About Gerard DiLeo, MD

Dr. Gerard DiLeo, physician and published women's health author for McGraw-Hill, is now writing full time after a career of over 30 years in private OBGYN practice in the New Orleans area. He has served twice as Chief-of-Staff at a major regional hospital and 5 years in academics as Director of the Division of Pelvic Pain in the Dept. of OBGYN at the University of South Florida College of Medicine. He is an accomplished minimally invasive surgeon, laparoscopist, and an inventor (the catheter-stethoscope--U.S. Patent). He and his family live their post-Katrina life in Florida. He can be reached at