Residency Interviews: Confirming Your Decision

Last Updated on June 26, 2022 by Laura Turner

Last month I wrote about the process of applying for residency, and noted how this process, albeit late in medical school, can be an important component of a medical student’s decision to pursue a certain specialty. Following the application submission, many students breathe a sigh of relief, but the months that follow often continue to be filled with stress and apprehension as students await hearing back from programs to which they applied. Generally, students will hear back from all their programs and will receive one of three things: an invitation to interview, a rejection, or a place on the waitlist. I want to write here about interviewing for residency and how it works for most medical students and to suggest a similar thesis as last month, which is that interviewing at residency programs can help make the final decision (or more commonly, confirm the decision) of a student’s specialty choice.

(Disclaimer: Like many of the topics I tackle in this column, I am not an expert, but my point isn’t necessarily to give an expertly researched overview of any one aspect of being a medical student. Instead, my hope is that I can provide some personal insight into each step of the process, and that my specific experience might be generalizable to other students. Even so, I feel justified in writing about the process of interviewing for residency because I’m right in the middle of it, and as I have been on the interview trail I’ve noticed a few things that have helped me confirm my choice of specialty, which I’m gathering is fairly common among medical students. However, individual experience may vary, particularly between specialties.)

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Interviewing for Residency: How It Works

Interview days are usually one day and are often full days, beginning early in the morning and concluding in the afternoon. The day typically includes an introductory overview session led by the program director, coordinator or a current resident; a short meeting with the department chair; several interviews, 20-30 minutes long, with various faculty members, residents, and the program director; a tour of the facilities and surrounding city, if applicable; and a lunch with current residents. Many interview days are coupled with a dinner the night before or night of, hosted at a local restaurant, which allows a less formal opportunity to meet current residents and ask questions, as well as meet the other applicants. Some programs will pay for lodging and most will pay for meals.
One aspect of interviewing for residency which is different from interviewing for medical school (and many other job interviews) is the “two-way” feel that the interview days have. Because most medical students will interview at multiple programs, the programs are often trying to recruit residents and sell their program equally as much as the applicants are trying to sell themselves. This leads to interview days which are designed to showcase the best parts of the programs, interviews which are more laid back and conversational, and many opportunities to ask questions. I am also finding that being four years older – with more professional experience and a much better understanding of medicine and the field I’m pursuing – has created a more comfortable environment. I now know what questions I should be asking and have a deeper capacity to understand the nuances between programs. As I reflect on my interview for medical school, I realize how little I knew then about medicine and what I wanted to do with my career; although this is probably normal, it is encouraging realize how much I’ve developed and learned since then. I am by no means an expert, but I can speak with more clarity about my goals and plans.

As each program works to present a picture of who they are in the context of their hospital system and/or university, as well as within the specialty field at large, it is common for there to be a “hook”. That is, a program will often emphasize a unique aspect of their program or an area of emphasis as a draw to interviewees, either to attract them to that program or at least to demonstrate their distinctiveness among many similar programs. This hook could take many forms: it could be a unique integrated clinic, a specific area of research, an emphasis on work-life balance, the quality of the teaching faculty, the financial benefits, the city itself, or any number of other things. Most programs will be forthcoming with this, especially if asked “What makes this program unique?” or “What do you like about this program?” For me, it’s something I’ve usually gotten a sense of after talking to a variety of residents and faculty by paying attention to recurring themes and topics. I have found this helpful for evaluating the programs, but also because it shows the diversity and breadth of opportunities within a given field. Various training programs will be more similar than different in most cases (due largely to ACGME accreditation requirements) but finding out what makes a program distinctive can be helpful for deciding which programs are a good fit.

Confirming Your Specialty Decision

I’ve already alluded to this above, but I am finding the interview trail to be a great opportunity to confirm my specialty choice. Hearing from the various residents, faculty, and program directors, all of whom have chosen the same field I have, has confirmed that my reasons for choosing it are valid, as well as opening my eyes to additional great things about the specialty which I hadn’t considered before. Like most students, all my clinical experiences were at my home institution. Meeting faculty, residents, and medical students from other programs has given me a variety of new perspectives, and it has been exciting to hear others speak about their experiences leading them to choose the same specialty as me.
Additionally, the presentations about the programs, with highlights on unique opportunities, areas of research and development, and more in-depth discussions of curricula have been particularly useful; I am finding myself excited to get started, which I believe is further confirmation that I am on the right specialty path. The interview days have also been informative regarding career paths within the field, including opportunities for fellowships. Learning about the various ways clinicians practice in the field encourages me that I will be happy in my chosen specialty. Although most students may not be using the interview days for this express purpose, on reflection I realize just how valuable these days can be for articulating why I chose my specialty.

Stay tuned for more about the process of finalizing specialty choice, especially for those who change their mind late in the process. I’ll also be highlighting a few more specialties from my fourth-year clinical experiences, which I hope will still be relevant since many students will do these as third-year students. Please write to [email protected] if you have any questions, comments, or topics you’d like to see an article about!

Updated July 28, 2020 with minor formatting corrections.