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The Five Medical Residency Interview Questions That Surprised Me

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. 

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. 

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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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