The strengths and weaknesses residency interview question is one of the most dreaded and most common. It's a tricky question to answer because it requires balance. You want to show off your strengths without sounding arrogant, and you don't want your weaknesses to make you look like an unsuitable candidate. That's why it is essential to be thorough in your CaRMS interview prep or your ERAS interview prep. This blog post will go over everything you need to know to answer residency interview questions about your strengths and weaknesses, no matter how they are presented or articulated by the interviewers. We'll give you tips, brainstorming strategies, and even some sample answers to help you get a better idea of what a strong answer looks like.


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What is the purpose of strengths and weaknesses residency interview questions?  

In order to answer these questions correctly, you need to know what their aim is. Interviews are all about getting to know you better. At this point of your CaRMS timeline or ERAS timeline, the program directors have seen your application, and they liked what they saw. They've called you for an interview because they want to know the person behind the application. That's why residency interviews will often include questions of a personal nature such as “Tell me about yourself”, and of course, the questions we are focusing on today: What are your strengths and what are your limitations or weaknesses. 

These questions help the interviewers get a sense of who you are. They want to see if you self-reflect and if you are able to evaluate yourself. A strong candidate will know what their strengths are, and they will also know their limitations. The interviewers may also be looking to see if you raise any red flags. For example, if you are asked about your strengths and weaknesses but only include your strengths in your response, the interviewer might consider it a red flag because no one is perfect. This will tell the interviewers that you are not very self-aware, and you could come across as someone who is overconfident. 

TIP: Think of this question as an opportunity to prove the interviewers right. It may not seem like it, but they are rooting for you. They called you for the interview because they believe you are a great candidate. They want to make sure that their initial assessment was correct and that you don’t just look good on paper.  

Want to better understand the "Tell me about yourself" question as well? This infographic should help:

What kind of strengths and weaknesses to include in your answer?

This is a personal question so there is no right or wrong answer, but some answers are much better than others. A strong answer is one that will make an impression, showcase your personality, tell the interviewers that you are self-aware and that even your reaction to your limitations makes you a great candidate for their program. It’s a tall order but it is also doable. The key is finding the right strengths and weaknesses to talk about and then working on your delivery using the tips outlined above.

When it comes to picking the traits that you can talk about, here is a 3-step process that you can follow:

Strength

1. Brainstorm: Write down all of your strengths. It doesn’t need to be related to school or medicine. Simply think critically and write down everything that you are good at. Try to think of qualities that can be backed-up by experiences and activities you participated in throughout college and medical school. Furthermore, next to each quality you list, include an example of an experience where it was demonstrated. Try to include recent examples, or examples that show your growth and development. 

Your list might look something like this:

2. Narrow down your list: Think about the qualities that you have seen in action and that affect you in the workplace. The aim is to end up with a list of strengths for which you have concrete examples or a short story that you can share. Also think about the programs that you have applied to and what skills would be most relevant to them. For example, if you are applying to research-intensive programs, then you might want to highlight your curiosity and strong research skills.  

At this point, the sample list from above, will have turned into something like this:

  1. Work well under pressure (after hours clinic volunteer)
  2. Leadership (captain of cheerleading team)
  3. Strong academic background (Dean’s honors list 4 years in a row and distinction on rotations)
  4. Public speaking (X conference speaker) 

3. Structure your answer: At this point, you can start crafting your response. Since this is s personal question, your final answer should follow this structure:

We recommend writing a brief list of key points to help you remember your final answer instead of writing out the full answer and trying to memorize it. If you have a full answer written down and you practice it word for word, you may end up sounding rehearsed and unauthentic. 

If you were to pick “leadership” as your trait, your list of key points might look like this: 

  • Proud of my leadership skills
  • Oldest of 6 kids
  • Having to stay calm and act like their leader
  • Eventually becoming a natural leader (spearheaded a school campaign, active member of student organization – food campaign, being captain of college cheerleading team)

Sample answer: I pride myself on my ability to be a good leader. I am the oldest of six children, so I’ve always had to be the level-headed one. I was always breaking up fights, helping with homework, helping my younger siblings get ready for school, motivating them and supporting them through difficult periods of their lives. It felt like a chore for a long time but somewhere along the line, it started coming naturally to me and I would volunteer to take on those leadership roles outside of my home. I became the captain of my college cheerleading team and I was a very active member of our Medical Student Association. In my last year, I actually led a fundraising campaign that allowed us to include healthier food options in the vending machines on campus and to this day, it’s one of the most rewarding experiences that I have had. Physicians often need to step up and take charge, come up with a game plan and motivate their patients or other team members, sometimes. My experiences with leadership roles have given me the skills needed to do that and I hope to have the chance to not only use them but improve on them during residency.

TIP: Pick two or three traits that you would be comfortable sharing and start crafting your responses. It is better to have multiple options so that you can decide which one to talk about depending on how the rest of the interview is going and the program that you are interviewing for. You may feel like you have not had a chance to talk about a particular skillset or maybe you connected with the interviewer on a particular topic, and you want to explore that some more.

Interested in testing yourself with other residency interview questions too? Check these out:

Weakness

You can follow similar steps to answer this question. The main difference is that you will need to focus on weaknesses that you are working on eradicating.

1. Brainstorm: Write down all your weaknesses the way you did with your strengths above. Be honest with yourself and think critically. Don’t forget to include examples of when these weaknesses were at play. 

Your list might look something like this:

2. Narrow it down: Unlike with your strengths where you are only focused on relevant traits that you have used in the past and can give examples of, here you also want to think about the limitations that you are actively working on.

Your narrowed down list will look something like this:

  1. Ability to work as a team (conflicts in my research group)
  2. Not very computer savvy (problem completing a project)
  3. Bad handwriting (Professor having a hard time reading an assignment)
  4. Slow reader (taking too long on one question during exam) 

3. Structure your answer:

We recommend that you pick at least two traits so that you can keep your options open. Once you’ve decided, you can start crafting your answer. Remember, a brief bullet point structure is better than a script.  

TIP: Please do not try to reframe a strength as a weakness as it often ends up sounding dishonest. Do not tell the interviewer that you are “too much of a perfectionist” or “I work too hard” because that is not a weakness. The aim is to show how you react in the face of adversity, not to make the interviewer think that you’re perfect. 

If you select “Ability to work as a team”, your bullet point list may look something like this:           

  • Hard time working with others
  • Tend to take on the leadership role
  • Oldest of six kids who are much younger so little practice
  • Was an issue in college
  • Started playing a sport to practice leaning on others
  • Pay close attention to it now

Sample answer: I have struggled with working with others in the past. I tend to automatically take on the role of the leader. I’ll try to figure out what needs to be done and either do it by myself or if I have to, I’ll start assigning different tasks to others. I am the oldest of six kids and all my siblings are much younger than me so I am used to taking charge or working alone but I have learned that not every situation calls for that. It was brought to my attention by one of my professors in college who noticed that I would always work alone even when I didn’t have to. We actually had a project in that class that we could either do alone or with a group and of course, I took it on by myself and it got overwhelming. I had to stay up late multiple times and I rushed to hand it in on time. I would have done a much better job and gotten a higher grade if I had just worked with a team. It is something I pay close attention to now, and it’s actually what encouraged me to join my local volleyball team. I read somewhere that sports can help you be a better team player so I joined the team in a supporting role. I can honestly say that I am learning a lot about trusting and relying on my teammates. 

Looking for some more tips on how to answer interview questions about your weaknesses? Take a look at this video:

Strategies for a good answer

Keep the program in mind 

You should prepare your answers based on the programs you are about to interview for. Different programs value different qualities and skills. You can look at their mission statement and goals to try and figure out what skills they value. Try to find strengths that would align with those values and weaknesses that would not deter them from choosing you. Some programs may be more research-intensive, which means you should highlight your curiosity or strong research skills. Other programs may focus on providing care for urban, underserved populations. If your skills are working well under pressure and you have worked in similar environments before in huge cities, you should emphasize that in your interview. 

So generally, you may want to tweak your answer for each program based on what they are looking for in their applicants. Of course, there will be significant patterns between your chosen programs, so you will be able to use the same strengths and weaknesses for several programs.  

Tell a story 

It would be best to contextualize your answer for the interviewer. In other words, you want to avoid listing your strengths and weaknesses then leaving them to imagine how those traits play out in your life. Instead, find a way to include your strengths and weaknesses in a story – use the “show, don’t tell” technique. People tend to remember a narrative more than a list. Using a real-life experience as an example, showcase the strengths you are talking about or how you found out that your limitation could affect your medical career. That is something that will stand out from the other candidates. That said, you don’t want to talk their ear off, so be concise and try to keep your answer between two-three minutes. 

Be Yourself 

Firstly, do not use an answer that you think they want to hear. Many students try to do this, and most of the time, it shows. Their response will end up sounding very generic, and it will be very forgettable. It would be best to stay honest and genuine. Remember that the interview process is all about getting to know you. The best answer is going to be the honest one. As much as you want to be strategic, you also want to make sure that you are being truthful. 

Secondly, you should use your life experiences and personality to stand out. For example, if you’re typically the funny one among your friends, then don’t try to be all serious during the interview. Of course, you want to be professional, but you also want your personality to come across in your answer. Think of medical school residency interviews as a chat between you and a future colleague or a future mentor. They are more likely to remember you and warm up to you if they feel like they are having a conversation with you. So courteous and professional, but most importantly, be yourself. 

Furthermore, you can use this chance to tell them something interesting about yourself and potentially make genuine connections with your future colleagues. For example, suppose that you are an outdoorsy person and you have decided to tell them about your resilience as a strength. You can tell them a story about a long hike that you started with your friends but finished by yourself because you refused to give up when the trail turned out to be more challenging than anticipated. That would tell the interviewer about your perseverance, but you never know, they might enjoy hikes too, and it could be something you can talk about some more with them.    

Prepare in advance 

It is essential to prepare for your interview well in advance! We’re not saying you should write a script and memorize it. We are also not saying you should go in the interview and wing it. Both of those things would be counterproductive. Instead, we suggest picking a few strengths and weaknesses (don’t worry, we have some tips to help you with that below), preparing a structure for your answers, and practicing. This will help reduce your nervousness, boost your confidence, and you will be less likely to be caught off guard. 

Practice, practice, practice

This one is a crucial part of your medical residency interview prep. Practice in front of the mirror, with your friends, or even better, have mock interviews with a professional. A professional will be able to see things that you may have missed in your body language or your word choice. They will also have feedback, tips, and tricks to help you ace your residency interview and get the match you want. 

Want to hear our expert advice for answering 5 of the hardest residency interview questions? Check out this video:

Conclusion

Many applicants dread the strengths and weaknesses residency interview question, but it is not the trap you may think it is. This question is of a personal nature so you have the freedom to present your best self to the program directors – try to think of this as another chance to demonstrate your suitability and self-reflective nature. You need to show the interviewers that you are self-aware and that you are willing to improve. Remember to keep your answer honest, concise, and make sure to rehearse using your bullet points. If you follow the tips outlined above and use the sample answers as a guide, you are well on your way to acing your interview and landing your dream CaRMS or ERAS match. 

FAQs

1. What strengths do residency programs look for in candidates?

Residency programs want candidates who are a good fit for their program. Research the program you will be interviewing for. Look at the qualities that keep coming up on their website and their mission statement. These are traits that they value so try to come up with a response that shows them you possess those traits. Just remember to be honest in your answer.

2. Why do they ask about my weaknesses?

Your answer to “What is your greatest weakness?” and any variation of this question tells the interviewer if you are self-aware. It also shows them how you deal with challenges or limitations. They are trying to see if you are able to recognize where you fall short and if you are willing and able to work to improve.

3. My strengths are already in my application. Why ask for them again?

Think of this as an opportunity to contextualize the strengths you listed in your application. You were called for an interview because program directors want to make sure that you are who you say you are on paper. In other words, you can tell them about a strength that is listed on your application but make sure you provide an example or details about how this strength plays out in your school or work life.

4. Can I just reframe my strength as a weakness?

No. Keep in mind that the interviewers will be going through this process with different applicants, and you want to stand out in a good way. Many people try to rephrase strengths as weaknesses by saying things like ‘I am too much of a perfectionist’ or ‘I love my work too much’. Those types of answers sound very generic and dishonest.  

5. Can I use an example from my personal life?

Yes, you may. Your answers don’t have to be specific to medical school or medicine, they can be personal. That said, a medical residency interview is a professional setting so make sure that it is something appropriate and that it is relevant to your application.

6. How can I make my answer stand out?

Tell a story and be yourself. Those are the main two ways to make sure your answer stands out for the crowd. People tend to remember a narrative, so if you include a little anecdote or some personal information about you in your answer, the interviewer is more likely to remember it. Even more so, if you let your personality come across in your answer.

7. How important is the residency interview?

It is very important. When you are called for a residency interview, it means that the residency program liked your application. This is when they get to meet the person behind the residency CV and recommendation letters to see if you are as great as they think. Keep in mind that your performance during the interview is the number one determining factor of being ranked by the program. That’s why we recommend getting familiar with common ERAS or CaRMS interview questions.

8. How long should my answer be?

Your answers need to be concise. The exact length of your answer will vary depending on how they phrase the question. They could ask about your strengths and weaknesses in one question, or they might ask about your greatest strength and then your greatest limitation. Try to keep your answers around 2 minutes. Remember to focus on quality over quantity.

To your success,

Your friends at BeMo

BeMo Academic Consulting

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