In this blog, I'll go over both common and surprising residency interview questions and discuss what the intent is behind each question. This way, you'll be able to understand how to answer different types of questions effectively. In addition, you'll be able to sharpen your interview skills further by practicing with our list of questions.
You'll learn about the following questions:
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, 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.
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.
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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 your interviewer questions 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?
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. In any case, keeping calm and answering honestly during your residency interview is a good approach. There isn’t anything too revealing or informative in responses to quirky questions, so it’s wise to answer the best you can, not stress too much about it, and move on to focusing on your other questions.
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.
Check out this video for 5 of the Hardest Residency Interview Questions:
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, acted as 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.
The question "Tell me about yourself" can be asked in various forms, including: what do you enjoy doing in your free time? What is your favorite 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.
Check out our video for more information plus a sample response:
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 showcase 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.
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.
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.
Not every candidate has something on their residency 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 you handled 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 regard 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.
Check out our video to find out how to maximize your chances of matching after your interview by writing a residency letter of intent.
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1. What should I do after my interview?
One of the most important things to do after the interview is to note down your impressions of a program and the responses to the questions you asked. Remember, after your residency interviews, you'll need to create your Rank Order List (ROL). If you have multiple interviews, it can be difficult to remember the pros and cons of a particular program unless you have notes to refer back to. So, it's important to take notes on the program, faculty, school, location, along with anything that stood out in a good or bad way. It's also a good idea to spend any free time you have talking with other faculty members or residents, asking questions, and viewing the hospital or clinic facilities. You want to get an overall impression of where you'll be spending your time in order to get a feel for the work environment.
2. Are there interview questions I don't have to answer?
Yes, interviewers are not permitted to ask you questions about race, religion, sex, age, national origin, or disabilities, so if any of these questions come up, you do not have to answer them. In addition, you also don't have to answer questions about marital status, number of children or plans to start a family. However, you want to have a professional way of deflecting questions like this. Try something like: “I prefer to focus today on my professional and academic goals, and why I would make a strong candidate for this specialty and program. I am happy to answer questions that will help you determine that.”
3. Who will I be interviewing with?
It totally depends on the program, but you should be prepared to meet with program directors, faculty members, and residents at different stages in their training. In addition, members of the community or allied health professionals (RN, physiotherapists, etc.) are also possible.
4. What should I wear to my residency interview?
Medicine is still a conservative profession. Your personality should shine through your answers, not your appearance. For this reason, it’s important to dress professionally for your residency interview. A neutral pantsuit or skirt suit for women and a neutral suit and tie for men would be appropriate. It's also important to make sure your outfit is both comfortable and breathable. Shoes should also be comfortable, neutral, and closed-toed – you'll be doing a lot of walking so you definitely don't want to be dealing with pain and blisters. Jewelry should be small and unobtrusive. Watches, small earrings or necklaces, and wedding bands are acceptable jewelry. Makeup should be light and natural-looking. Cover tattoos with clothing and your hair should be neat and off your face.
5. What additional questions should I ask my interviewers?
You want to ask questions that help you learn about a program's opportunities, residents, and faculty, in addition to questions relating to the location, patient population, extracurriculars, etc. Anything that is important to you and will help you put together your ROL is a good question to ask – as long as this information isn't obviously in plain sight on their website. The questions you ask will not only show your interest and enthusiasm towards a program, but it will also show the level of research you've done prior to arriving. Here are some example questions you can ask:
- What is the patient population like?
- What research programs are the faculty and residents currently working on?
- How do residents do on board exams?
- Is research required?
- What is the call schedule like?
- What do residents go on to do?
- What are the types of clinical experiences I can expect?
- What are the strengths and weaknesses of this residency program?
- How many full-time and part-time staff are there?
- Are residents expected to help teach medical students?
- What percentage of graduates from this program move to fellowships instead of practice?
- What opportunities for there to get involved in the community?
- How do residents achieve work-life balance?
- Do residents have dedicated time for research projects and continuing education, as well as studying for board exams?
6. What is the most common interview format?
Most residency interviews are traditional one on one interviews or panel interviews – where two or more interviewers are asking questions. With this said, MMI interviews are becoming increasingly popular and are commonly used for larger programs with more residency spots such as internal medicine and family medicine.
7. What should I bring to my interview?
It's a good idea to bring a few extra copies of your CV in a folder as well as a notepad and a pen for taking notes afterward. Avoid bringing your luggage. Not only does it look unprofessional, but you'll be doing a lot of walking around and meeting people, you don't want to have to drag your luggage around all day. If you're catching your flight the same day as your interview, put your luggage in storage or ask your hotel to store it for you until after the interview. Note that programs know a lot of travel is involved during interview season and they may have indicated a secure place where your luggage can be stored during your interview. Be sure to verify whether or not this is available before your interview.
8. What if I need to cancel my interview?
If you have to cancel your interview due to unforeseeable circumstances, ensure that you cancel as soon as possible so that program directors can offer your spot to another applicant. Obviously, canceling last minute does not reflect well on you and at no point should you fail to show up on interview day, unless an emergency situation has come up. If you have to cancel on the day of your interview, ensure that you call the program to let them know. If you canceling with a week or a few week’s notice, you can send an email. For example, you could write “Good morning Dr. X, my name is A and I am an applicant to your family medicine program. Due to illness/natural disaster/family emergency, unfortunately, I cannot attend today’s interview. I apologize for this last-minute notification and I would not cancel unless it was an emergency. If it is possible to reschedule my interview, please let me know of an alternate date and time. I look forward to giving my best and showing my interest in your program.”
9. Do I need to introduce myself during my interview?
Yes! It is so important to make an excellent first and last impression because this is what interviewers will remember the most. For example, as an introduction, you could say “Hello, my name is X, thank you for interviewing me today. May I have your name?”. Then, you could conclude by saying “Thank you, Dr. B, for taking the time to interview me today. It was a pleasure speaking with you.”
10. Am I expected to shake hands with my interviewers?
Some programs prefer to let their applicant take the lead, this is especially true of MMIs. So, you can certainly instigate if you prefer shaking hands. Obviously, on a panel or traditional interview, if the interviewer sticks out their hand, it is unprofessional to not shake it. So, go ahead and do so if they offer.
11. What are some common question types I can expect during my interview?
Personal, program-based, scenario, and policy questions are the most common types of residency interview questions. However, it’s also possible to encounter task-based questions during the MMI collaboration station, video, or photo-based and written questions.
12. I got asked something out of left field. Help!
If you are asked a quirky question, such as what kind of superhero would you be, or to perform a task you weren't expecting, the first step is to stay calm. Take a moment and don't be afraid to ask for one out loud to give yourself a chance to come up with an approach. When answering a quirky question, be sure to display an aspect of your personality. For example, if you're asked what organ in the body you would be, note that it’s not important which organ you pick, but what matters is that you address the why behind it. So, if you say the liver, tie that back to how resilient you are by giving an example. To answer a task-based question, take a systematic approach. Solving the problem is usually less important than explaining why you are choosing to take certain steps and being clear in your actions. For example, if you are asked to build a Lego model, again, the goal is not accomplishing the task, but first clarifying the end goal and making a plan of manageable steps to get there, then tackling each step one by one.
13. How important is the interview really?
Once you are called for an interview, your performance can make up to 100% of your total score and will likely be the determining factor of receiving an acceptance. So, it’s extremely important!
14. I feel stressed! What do I do?
Firstly, feeling stressed is normal. Acknowledge that these are normal feelings for high-stakes interviews! In the long-term, preparation and strategy are essential. Ensure that you are practicing effectively by taking part in realistic mock interviews with expert personalized feedback. Next, approach your practice in manageable chunks, instead of doing endless hours each day and burning yourself out. Lastly, exercise, eating right, and sleeping well are essential for managing stress. For short term stress management the day before and day of, make sure that you check out the campus if you have never been so you know where to go for your interview. Get a good night's sleep the night before and be sure to arrive at least 30 minutes early to allow time for parking and navigating to your interview room. If you're feeling nervous outside of the interview room, try these relaxation tips:
- Take small sips of water.
- Practice deep breathing.
- Visualize a calming scene (vacation spot) or receiving the match result of your choice to boost confidence.
- Relax your jaw by smiling.
15. Can I just read about interview questions online or do I really have to practice?
You should practice out loud, ideally using a realistic simulation – so it should be timed, should replicate actual interview conditions and you should dress appropriately. It's also smart to receive feedback from an objective, knowledgeable professional so you know what you did well and what to improve, otherwise, you risk cementing bad habits. You can’t learn to ride a bike by just reading about it online and so interviews are no different.
16. I use lots of “ums” or “likes” when I talk. Help!
Filler words are common in day-to-day speech. First, become aware of what your filler word is (um, uh, like, so, you know, etc). Next, work to eliminate these from your day-to-day speech by taking a brief pause instead of saying the filler word, and then continue with the rest of your sentence. You can monitor your filler word use by recording your answers and watching them back; count how many filler words you use per answer and work to cut that number down gradually.
17. How long should my answers be?
Always remember to prioritize quality over quantity. It’s much better to give a concise answer instead of rambling as a skilled physician must be able to communicate effectively with patients, colleagues, and other health care professionals. For MMIs which have set times, it’s important to note that you do NOT have to use the whole time if you have given a well-rounded and comprehensive answer. For traditional or panel interviews, anywhere from 2-4 minutes may be appropriate, depending on the question. Again, having a concise but well-organized answer is key.
18. What follow-up should I do after my interview?
It’s a good idea to send your very first choice program a residency letter of intent to inform them of your intention to rank them number one. For all other programs, it’s a nice touch to send a note thanking them for taking the opportunity and the time to interview you.
Check out this post for strategies and sample questions for the standardized video interview (SVI).
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About the Author:
Dr. Veena Netrakanti is a senior admissions expert at BeMo. Dr. Netrakanti attended the University of Alberta for her undergraduate studies and the University of Calgary for medical school. Throughout her training, she participated in volunteer programs that allowed her to tutor and mentor students of all ages. She also participated in the University of Calgary’s medical school interviewing process. Veena is currently a practicing family physician.
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