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Image credit: Johannes Ahlmann - https://www.flickr.com/photos/entirelysubjective/6065211379/

1) What do you do for fun?

This question by itself didn’t catch me off-guard, but I was really surprised to be asked about my hobbies and interests outside of medicine at almost every interview. It seemed like everyone wanted to know something more personal about applicants and get more insight into our personal lives. Even more than having a “real-life” conversation between applicants and interviewers, I think this question is also trying to figure out how we make the most of our free time. Stress, anxiety, and burn-out are huge problems in residency and big factors in career duration and satisfaction. How you choose to balance and prioritize your personal and professional life will go a long way to helping you make the most of residency and beyond. As well, many of my fellow residents have said that they have met their interviewers later on in their training who remember them as “the baker,” “the record collector,” or “the girl who hates working out but does it anyway.” This question is also a chance to let a unique part of your personality shine through. 

2) Why should we choose you?

Similarly, the intent of this question — to find out what strengths you would bring to a program — shouldn’t be a surprise. I was, however, surprised at how bluntly it was asked. I felt like I was asked to lay my cards directly on the table. One good approach to these types of questions, whether they are asked as straightforward as this or not, is to structure your response in a way that demonstrates your strengths as a resident and as a colleague. Someone once told me that most programs are looking for teachable residents and residents that they want to have around for the duration of the program. You’ll be spending a lot of time, particularly in high-stress situations where you have to rely on each other, and it would be ideal to have those other people be individuals you like. This doesn’t mean that likability trumps talent. It means that you have to bring an aptitude and good attitude to the program and your response should emphasize your professional skills, suitability for the profession, and technical abilities equally with the qualities that make you a good collaborator and communicator.

3) Do you have any questions for me?

Again, this was not a question that surprised me. Many of my friends ahead of me in their training mentioned that I should prepare a few questions in advance based on what I wanted to know about the training and what was important to me in the program. I was, in fact, surprised by how many applicants told me they didn’t ask any questions. Asking questions of your interviewer shows that you’re interested and invested in the program and is also an opportunity to demonstrate that you’ve taken the initiative to explore your options. Just as importantly, it’s an opportunity to find out information that helped my decision in ranking programs. I can honestly say that the responses I got to my questions impacted my rank order list in ways I did not expect. Keep in mind that most applicants ask one or two questions and not asking any could make you stand out for the wrong reasons.

Prepare a list in advance. Spend time researching the program. If the program does not have a great website, look up the demographics of the region or local events. I knew an applicant that wowed a program because she had done such in-depth research of the local population and asked questions specific to that area based on census results and demographics. Now you may not have to be that detailed for each interview, but it an example of asking a question that will display your interest. Failing to ask questions looks lazy and shows disinterest. Common questions you could ask are:

  • What are the strengths or weaknesses of this program?
  • How many residents stay on as faculty after they complete the program?
  • What do residents do for fun?
  • What is your vision for the future of the program?
  • What is your favorite thing about working here?

4) How many emails are in your inbox?

I expected to have a strange and quirky question come out of the blue so I had spent some time thinking of the weird animal or kitchen appliance that best epitomized me. I’m still thinking of answers to those questions and still wondering exactly what this question is attempting to assess. One good thought is that interviewers might just want to know if you’re the type of person to respond to emails and it’s probably not going to reassure them if your answer is, “I’m not sure. Maybe over a thousand?” Or maybe it’s one of those unpredictable questions that test your ability to keep your composure and a level head. Perhaps it isn’t that complicated and was supposed to be an easy question to ease into the interview. Either way, keeping calm and answering honestly is probably a good approach. There isn’t anything too revealing or informative in responses to quirky questions so it’s probably wise to answer the best you can, not stress too much about it, and move on to focusing on your other questions.

The off the wall questions like this are made to change the momentum of the interview. While it can be easy to overthink them, try and answer them quickly and honestly. They are evaluating how you answer questions and how you respond to different situations. If you get stuck and need more time, repeat the question back to the interviewer to buy yourself a few seconds. Say something like, "That's an excellent question. If I could be any kitchen appliance I would be..."  It gives you a few seconds to think and compose your thoughts. Don't be concerned that this is going to make or break you. It might also just be a chance to lighten the mood. I have never heard of anyone not getting residency because they answered microwave instead of a blender. Relax and enjoy the light-hearted question.

5) When was the last time you got mad?

This question really threw me for a loop. Quite honestly, I felt like any answer I gave would trap me into a response that would make me look like an undesirable applicant. I talked about this question afterward with a few of the staff physicians with whom I was working and it was reassuring to know that they wouldn’t know how to provide a good response as well. Still, I really appreciated one interpretation of the question. First, the types of scenarios that we’re being asked about are generally universally experienced. That is to say, almost everyone will have experienced conflict, being a leader, worked in a group, and have gotten mad at some point in medical school. It would be extremely unusual to not be able to provide an answer to these types of questions simply because they’re designed to be able to be answered by anyone. This means you shouldn’t shy away from the question or avoid providing an answer. Second, there are some situations that one should get angry about. Sometimes not getting angry means tolerating the unacceptable and that is not a desirable trait. Third, anger is a perfectly natural and human response and usually occurs in a mix of emotions. The answer I provided was that I got angry with a friend that I was worried was going to make us late for one of our previous interviews. It was a mistake to get angry and I hope that my response showed that I am willing to admit to being wrong and make amends, and I’m able to recognize when being angry isn’t appropriate and know to act differently. 

6) Tell us about yourself.

This question can be asked in various forms, including: what do you enjoy doing in your free time? What is your favourite book/meal/activity etc.? Essentially, this is an ice breaker type of question. For this question, the interviewer wants to know a little more about you, using your own words. Focus on all the things that make you the special person you are today. To start, I would advise taking a general approach comprised of where you grew up, the size of your family, what your relationship with your family and siblings was/is like, followed by a brief overview of your academic trajectory. Remember, they have all your academic information so don’t go into depth about academics. Next, you can pick one or two specific experiences in your life that shaped who you are as a person today – goals, morals and values; your life compass so to speak. These experiences are generally high impact and very personal in nature.

7) Why would you like to pursue (insert specialty of choice here)?

This question measures your understanding of the specialty on many levels. First off, do you understand what the specialty is about? This includes what type of practice and what aspect of medicine this specialty encompasses (acute vs. chronic care, procedural vs. non-procedural specialty). I can think of at least one thing in each sub-specialty of medicine that is exciting, but at the end of the day you have to love the bread and butter of the specialty you are picking, or you will be unhappy. This is your opportunity to show case your insight when it comes to your specialty of choice and relaying an understanding of what you like and what you dislike about the specialty. Finally, it is imperative that you have an understanding of the challenges facing the specialty, what changes might be on the horizon and how that will impact future practice.

8) Why would you like to join our program?

This question has a two-answer component: a) aspects of the program that you like, and; b) aspects of the city which the program is in that you like. When speaking about the program, make sure that you have thoroughly researched the program and have prepared an answer as to what you like about the program. Some of the things that you can comment on are: resident peer and mentor support, global health, research support, resident affairs office, protected research and academic time, program size (small or big), diversity of clinical experience and supports for preparing for licencing. When speaking about the city, things that you can comment on are: presence of friends or family who will be a good support system for you during residency, any personal connection you may have to the city, and aspects of the city you believe will enrich your life. At the end of the day, you have to remember that this is a job interview; the program is assessing whether you would be a good fit for their program but you also have to assess whether this program is a good fit for you. Showing the interviewer that you know their program and their city and have thought about how this will support you to be the best resident you can be leaves a strong impression of a strong and insightful candidate.

9) What differentiates you from other candidates?

While this question might not be asked directly, a lot of questions interrogate this angle. It is important to understand that most candidates who have made it to the interview stage will make great physicians. This leaves other key aspects of a good trainee besides strong academics to be desired or sought after. Remember, this is a job interview which is very unique. Programs are looking for candidates who will perform clinical duties but are also good learners. With that in mind, what do you think makes a good resident? From the work perspective, a diligent, hard working candidate with attention to detail is important. From a learner perspective, it is important to be self aware, understand your limitations and know when to call for help if required. Additionally, humble candidates who are open to feedback and are coachable is always a plus. Its very hard to teach someone who is not humble and appreciative of new ways to do things. Finally, residencies can range from 2 to 6 years and being personable goes a very long way. If I will be working with you for the next 2 to 6 years, I would want someone who is adaptable and easy to get along with.

10) Please explain the following…

Not every candidate has something on their CV or application that warrants discussing or clarification during the interview. However, you would be surprised what programs are interested in seeking clarification when it comes to one’s application. Residency selection committees and program directors want to give you an opportunity to explain any discrepancies or red flags on your application. These things could be obvious, such as taking a year off, failure of an exam or the identification of lots of elective time spent in a different specialty. The less obvious questions can revolve around lots of research experience in a school that focuses more on clinical practice, or rural vs. urban experiences in schools which serve the opposite demographic. For questions related to academic performance or red flags, programs want to know a little bit more about the circumstances surrounding the event. Were you going through a rough time? If so tell us about it and how did you handle that time of your life? What did you learn from the experience and how are you a stronger candidate today? Residency training programs are tough, proving to result in ample demand on both your time and cognitive load. Programs want to ensure that candidates will be able to endure the academic rigors of their program. With regards, to the less obvious questions stated above, ultimately, programs want to make sure that you are a good fit for the program and generally, that’s where these questions stem from. For example, non-research-oriented programs want to make sure that research-oriented candidates understand that their program is mostly focused on clinical practice to avoid disappointment later down the line. The converse is true as well; research heavy programs want to make sure that candidates understand research is a big part of the program they hope to join. Similarly, questions regarding rural vs. urban experiences center around expectations of the type of clinical practice and the opportunities which will be available to the resident. Remember, this is your opportunity to explain to the selection committee how you are a good candidate for their program. With that being said, this is a two-way street. If you find that a program is focused more on academic activities or experiences which don’t suit your goals of what type of clinician you want to be, then most likely, this training program is not for you.    

Additional Resources:   

For strategies and sample questions for the standardized video interview (SVI), click here.  

Click here for our comprehensive ERAS guide and here for our CaRMS guide. 

Click here for sample residency personal statement examples. 

>>CLICK HERE for instant access to our residency interview preparation guide + sample questions<<


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About the author:

Dr. Natalie Lidster is an anaesthesia resident at McMaster University and a senior admissions expert at BeMo. She has a nursing degree and an M.D. from McMaster medical school and has been involved as a CASPer test evaluator at McMaster.

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