The Most Important Residency Interview Questions and How to Answer Them

By | 2 November, 2016

Introduction

  • You will be asked many or most of the following questions during your residency interview. Practice these questions and your answers to them well, preferably with the help of a medical professional as a mock interviewer.
  • The suggested answers won’t work for everyone. What might come across as genuine for one person could seem “canned” for another. Make sure every answer you choose is true and that it fits your style and personality.
  • Be yourself, but be the most prepared version of yourself possible!

The Top Questions

Can you tell me a little bit about yourself?

  • Purpose: They want you to open up to them so that they might understand you better as a person.
  • Response Strategy: You want to convey to the interviewer that you are perfectly comfortable talking about any aspect of your history that is relevant to the job.
  • Tell them briefly where you were born, where you grew up, where you went to college, where you went to medical school, and how you became interested in medicine and the specialty for which you are interviewing. Along the way, add some information that might help the interviewer make sense of your life story, particularly if there are some red flags that need explaining (see below). Also, pepper your story with any important nuggets that might connect you to the program you are interviewing at in particular.

What made you want to become a doctor?

  • Purpose: They want to know if you have the insight and maturity that the job requires. This question is another way of saying, “We are looking for idealistic people, and we want to know what you are idealistic about when it comes to medicine.”
  • Variations: You probably won’t get asked this question with these exact words. You might instead be asked, “What is your philosophy with regard to patient care?” or “What do you think are some of the main challenges facing the medical profession these days?” Or, this could simply be just a conversation between you and your interviewer. Either way, you need to know the answer to this question cold because it will color everything else that you will communicate during the interview.
  • Response Strategy: Know all the clichés (aim is to “help out,” communication skills, team work, problem solving, etc.), but also be able to identify one or two personal ideals that you feel particularly strongly about (e.g., patient autonomy, beneficence, etc.), and be able to explain how these ideals became important to you (e.g., someone in your life provided you with, or deprived you of, the benefit of these ideals – either one will work!).

Why did you choose this specialty?

  • Purpose: They want to know how you know that you will like working in the specialty (considering that you probably didn’t have all that much exposure to it), and that you won’t drop out of the program after your first year.
  • Response Strategy: Build rapport. Try to connect with the interviewer by validating their own reasons for joining the specialty!
  • What to say: Again, know all the clichés about the specialty (work hard, fast-paced, whatever!), but focus more on the personal. For example, you might want to talk about how your relative was treated very kindly by a very dedicated specialist. Be very precise and describe the specialist’s words and actions that made a positive impression on you.
  • Your answer should be short but, whenever possible, it should demonstrate the longevity of your interest in the specialty. For example, an ophthalmology applicant might say: “Even as a child, I was very interested in optical things. Later in college and in medical school I spent additional time reading about eye anatomy and physiology. After that, as a medical student, I rotated in ophthalmology and I really looked forward to coming in every day and working with the team to help our patients see better. My mentor at the time, Dr. Smith, further inspired me to apply for a residency in ophthalmology.”). Note: if you say exactly that during your interview, your interviewer will surely reply, “That’s terrific. I too read the article on the Medical Media Review, and I all I can say is that you really nailed it! When would you like to start?”

Why did you choose to apply to this program?

  • Purpose: They now want to know if you think that you would be a good fit for their particular program, and why. Every interviewer wants to know if there is a special reason why you applied to their program.
  • Response Strategy: Know all the “buzz words” from the website, etc., but use them as throwaways only, if at all. Focus more on personal things (had good personal relationships and experiences here, live in the community, location, research strengths, etc.). If you or your family members contributed to the community in any way, make sure to let your interviewer know. People like paying back kindness with kindness!
  • What you want to convey (without saying) is that you know that there are “better” programs out there in some respects, but that this program is a better fit for you in X, Y, Z ways.

Can you tell me about the research project you were involved in?

  • Purpose: They want to know how you go about answering questions scientifically and how you contribute to the team.
  • Response Strategy: First say how you got involved in the project (e.g., your mentor introduced you to it during one of your rotations). Then, complete your answer as though it was a mini-journal club: “Q was always known, but the question that’s never been definitely studied before was R, so we collected data on S. My role in this was T, while others did U, V, and W. Ultimately we found out that X.”
  • Bonus points: you can genuinely say that you are open or interested in pursuing the question even further: “The next step would be to try to figure out Y, but this couldn’t be done at the time because of Z” (funding, time constraints, etc.).

Can you tell me about volunteer work you did?

  • Purpose: They want to know if you care about people and what your attitude is toward those less fortunate than you. Are you empathetic?
  • They are asking you what you did, but what they really want to know is why you did it!
  • Again, make it personal. What about your background made you someone who cares about the project that you participated in. 
  • Example: “Because of difficult family circumstances growing up, I rarely had a sufficiently-educated grown-up in the house to help me with my homework. Fortunately for me, the librarian across the street from where I lived was always happy to help me with my homework when I needed help. I am really grateful for what she did for me, and so I decided to tutor children in need as a way to give back to the community.”

What do you like to do on your free time?

  • Purpose: This is an extremely important question. They are trying to connect with you on a personal level. They are struggling to relate to you or, more simply, they want to know if you are a relatable person. Know and assume that you will get the job only if you are relatable!!
  • Is it something social?
  • Is it something analytical?
  • Is it something totally dorky? If it’s something totally dorky, are you comfortable with it and can you explain why it fascinates you?
  • No hobbies or interests outside medicine = red flag. Simply put, it puts you at risk emotionally.

What do you see happening for you beyond your residency?

  • Purpose: They want to see that you have goals and visions, but they also want to see if your goals and visions are tempered by flexibility and open-mindedness.
    • Clinical practice?
    • Fellowship?
    • Geographic areas of specialization?
  • No goals? Be honest and explain why (e.g., “At this point I would like to keep an open mind. I’d like to dive in and learn everything I can, and make a decision from there.”)

What would you do if you saw someone do something that you didn’t feel comfortable with ethically?

  • Purpose: This is a social competence question. They want to know if you’re a troublemaker, a loose cannon who will run around getting people in trouble. They want to know how you might go about trying to reconcile your personal ethics and preferences with those of the institution.
  • Again, there are numerous variations to this not-terribly-in-vogue question, so you need to be totally comfortable here. Variations include, “What would you do if you saw a colleague make a medical error?” or “What would you do if you noticed an impaired colleague?”
  • You can use a combination of various strategies here:
    • Minimization of the potential problem: “I am a little bit familiar with the culture here (rotation, mentors, etc.), and I feel a certain alignment with that, so I don’t necessarily expect this to happen too often.”
    • Humility: “I realize that there might be several layers of issues in every situation, and I don’t expect to necessarily understand all the issues as a trainee.”
    • Willing to see other’s point of view: “I expect that in the complex world of clinical practice different people will have differing perspectives with regards to what is appropriate.” (Allow for institutional philosophy, individual practice variation, etc.).
    • Finally, what you would do: “If any issue does come up, I would, whenever possible, discuss it first with the person involved to get a better understanding of what’s going on.” Your next step might be to discuss with your attending.
  • Don’t go there: going around your team too early in the process, or suggesting that it would be okay to compromise patient care in any way (e.g., not disclosing errors). These two answer types are instant disqualifiers.

Do you have any interesting case to discuss?

  • Purpose: They want to know how you work with a team to solve problems and to advance your patients’ interests (don’t forget about this last part!)
  • Not always asked, but you need to be comfortable with this question because it is asked sometimes, especially in the more academics-minded programs. You don’t want to get caught flat-footed simply because you failed to prepare a potentially straightforward but meaningful case.
  • This question is not about what you did; it’s about what your team saw and did, and how that affected you. Therefore, in most circumstances, a medically straightforward case can be sufficient as long as it is imbued with personal meaning for you.
  • Make your team look good: Did your team stay late or go the extra mile for a patient? Did your team look something up or call an outside specialist? Did someone make extra telephone calls? (Was it a dying patient, a child?).
  • Bonus points: you have a case in which you did your best, recognized your limitations as a medical student, got support from there and allowed your colleagues/resident/attending/team to shine and share the credit.
  • Trap: don’t overshoot the mark with some kind of “brilliant” case, especially if you swiped it from last week’s New England Journal Case Records of the Massachusetts General Hospital, or if your best friend has been shopping the same case around since last year’s application season. You can make an exception, however, if you were involved in a particularly interesting case that made its way into a journal as a case report. If you decide to discuss such a case, don’t lose sight of the main goal of your response (per above).

Can you tell me more about X (the potential red flag in your record that you were hoping they wouldn’t ask you about!)?

  • Purpose: They are genuinely curious about what happened and they want to know how you deal with failure/setbacks. Do you blame others? Do you take full ownership? Are you resilient? Do you bounce back and grow from adverse experiences?
  • A skilled interviewer often won’t ask you this question directly. They don’t want to make you uncomfortable (and they don’t want to be uncomfortable), so they might approach it very obliquely, if at all. Either way, you need to have total comfort with this question, (even if that means being totally comfortable with the fact that you regret something you did or feel guilty about it!). Absent that, you won’t be comfortable with the interview as a whole, even if the red flag question doesn’t come up!
  • So which question about your record do you dread the most? The most common issues are grade deficits, Board score deficits, prolonged matriculation, career changes, and résumé gaps.
  • Response Strategy: Since they aren’t necessarily comfortable asking you this question either, you need to demonstrate appreciation whenever you are given the opportunity to address a potential concern. You can even explicitly thank them for asking the question and admit to the discomfort, if appropriate.
  • You must be able to fill any temporal gaps in your life’s narrative: with regard to all relevant times—and particularly during times when your career or education might have been going a little bit “sideways.” You need to be able to say at minimum (1) what you were doing, (2) how you grew as a person as a result of what you did or what happened during that time, and (3) how that growth fits in the contexts of your personal life narrative.
  • For example, you can say something along the lines of, “I was really excited about anatomy. Unfortunately, I thought that I would learn it best by reading books, which is the way I’ve always learned. However, as a result of my decision to focus more on textbooks than on dissections, I was unable to internalize the three-dimensional perspective that I would need to perform well on the exam. I quickly realize that I needed to modify my learning style so I sought help from one of the professors. With that person’s help and guidance, I was then able to bring my grades up during the second year of medical school and on the Boards.”
  • Again, you may never be asked about any deficiencies directly, but you do need to be comfortable knowing that you are more than capable in answering them.

Have you thought of what you might do if you don’t get in to this specialty?

  • Purpose: They think you won’t get accepted to the program or specialty and they want to “help” you realize that you should (per them) consider other options. Or, perhaps more simply, they might want to know how you deal with things when life throws you a curveball.
  • Variations: there are all sorts of ways in which a “helpful” interviewer might unintentionally undermine you during the interview. They might say, “You know, we’ve never accepted a resident from medical school X before?” or “We’ve never accepted someone who’s been a nurse practitioner before.” Whatever. Any time you hear a discouraging assessment of your overall chances of gaining acceptance to the program, smile (but only to yourself!) and think of the words yet here we are.
  • Response Strategy: Acknowledge any obvious limitations, but you need to make a humble case for yourself.  (Honestly, nobody wants to hear that, if not accepted to any radiology program, you intend to take a year off and get your skull pounded in, in a mixed martial arts arena!).
  • What to say if you sense that an interviewer is unintentionally undermining you:
    • Talk briefly about what you’ve done to prepare for the position and how passionate you are about it.
    • Mention any obvious red flags or limitations.
    • Briefly state how you worked to addressed said limitations.
    • Acknowledge how much learning and growing you have left.
    • If pressed further about your plans in the event that you aren’t selected for the specialty of your choosing, you can say that you would solicit feedback from the rejecting program, work on the issues, and come back next year as a stronger candidate.

Do you have any questions for me?

  • Purpose: The interviewer wants to demonstrate congeniality and helpfulness toward you.
  • Your ideal goal here is to ask them a question about them, the answer to which might fascinate you. Mention something that they told you about themselves earlier in the interview (e.g., interviewer is the assistant educational director) and ask them about it. “How did you get involved with X?” or “What do you enjoy most about being an assistant educational director?” This shows that you’ve been paying attention, that you are not self-centered, and that you listen actively and communicate effectively.
  • Don’t spend too much time here asking about the program in general (you can ask others or get it on the Internet), unless they mentioned something really peculiar or interesting or new that you are really curious about and that seems to interest them (e.g., “I’m curious about this building expansion you were talking about”).
  • Remember, this question is temporally closest to the time when the interviewer fills out your evaluation form, so make it memorable! Never ask a canned question about the program. It’s a waste of one of the most important questions in the interview.
  • The Litmus test: If you can show that you’ve listened actively and that you are interested in what your interviewer has to say about themselves, your interviewer will almost surely have positive things to say about you!
Author: Mark Yoffe, MD

Mark Yoffe is a practicing internal medicine doctor who writes about medical books and education.

4 thoughts on “The Most Important Residency Interview Questions and How to Answer Them

  1. oben ojong

    Dear Dr. Yoffe.

    Thank you for publishing this article. I am surprised more interview candidates are not on this page commeting. Your tips are very practical and have given me a systematic way to approach my interviews. Thank you for your time and for being so generous in freely sharing your expertise.

    Sincerely,

    Oben

    Reply
    1. Mark Yoffe, MD Post author

      Oben,

      You are very welcome, and thank you very much for your kind remarks.

      I believe that during the interview process we should strive to be the most prepared and uncomplicated version of ourselves. This makes us more relatable, memorable and likable. Good luck on your interviews!

      Mark

      Reply
  2. Kumar N

    Yes, Thank You Dr. Yoffe. I have personally found this to be very helpful! Thanks.

    It really does make us prepared and the most relatable versions of ourselves.

    Reply

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