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Secrets to Interviewing for Residency

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Fourth year medical students have begun interviewing for residency. There are only two things for students to remember as they hit the interview trail:

  1. You’ve done this before and you know what to do
  2. This may be different from any interview you’ve ever done before

You interviewed for college, medical school, and maybe a few jobs too. Interviewing for residency is a job interview. Show the people interviewing you how you’d be good at this job. At the end of January, you want to end up in the driver’s seat — deciding where you want to go and matching there.

What you already know:

1. Look the part. Dress in the standard boring suit and get a haircut. Don’t worry about blending in. Don’t try to stand out by appearances.

2. Use all your manners. Thank everyone for everything. When you meet each interviewer, remain standing until you are offered a seat. If your interviewer gets interrupted, wait patiently.

3. Be ready to tell your best stories. Interviewers want to hear about your character: success against challenge, service to others, and recovery from adversity.

4. Have a ready answer for any gaps in education or training. Have a ready answer for any bad grade, dead end or failure that appears on your resume. Have a ready answer for what you learned and how it made you a better person and how you think it will make you a better doctor.

5. Don’t lie. If you want to go into private practice and drive a Tesla, say so. Nobody likes a liar.

6. Be friendly. Meet the other students interviewing that day. Meet the residents. Friendly is good.

7. Represent your hometown, your parents, your undergraduate and medical school with pride.

8. Don’t act bored, distracted or tired. You’re better off skipping an interview than showing up half-hearted.

What may be news:

1. Fourth year med students look very similar to each other. It’s very hard to tell them apart from grades and scores. The tie-breaker is rarely GPA, board scores, or academic pedigree. It’s usually character.

2. Most programs are not trying to figure out if you can do the job. If they offered you and interview, you can. They are trying to figure out if you will add to or suck life from their program — if you will solve or create problems.

3. Character is everything.Residents with the right character traits become successful, productive doctors; loved by their patients; appreciated and respected by their colleagues. And they make it easy to run a residency program.

4. The purpose of interviewing candidates is to find these traits:

• Compassionate: When the patient is dying in his room alone, and you could go home a little early, don’t. Go spend a few minutes with him. This is the resident we want.

• Affable: You will work for, around, over and beneath hundreds of different people — patients and their family members, nurses and colleagues. We want residents worn and smooth like a river pebble so they don’t scrape and catch on others as they roll by. Conflict-generating residents are exhausting to program directors.

• Curious: Some residents are easy to teach because they want to know the answers. Everybody wants those residents.

• Selfless: Residency is hard but certain circumstances are exceptional: illness, family emergency, etc. The ideal resident is concerned about their colleague and picks up the slack without complaint.

• Willing: When there is some work that needs to get done and you are available, you offer to do it. When something has to be done, there is no need to comment about how hard it is, how you don’t want to do it, or how tired you are. Comments like these sap the strength and willingness from people around you. No program wants complainers.

• Self-Directed: If you don’t know something, look it up. If you think someone told you something wrong, look it up. If you aren’t good at something, look it up. It’s what you’ll do for the rest of your professional career.

• Non-defensive: When corrected, say “understood,” “will do,” and “thank you.” Nobody in a training program wants to hear you build a case for your mistake.

Your whole life you’ve been taking the test and beating the curve. That’s what it took to get you here. Everybody you meet on the trail is just about as good. Now we are looking to select a handful of people to survive on a desert island together. This is not another multiple-choice test, it’s a period of rapid professional growth under difficult circumstances. Most residents survive. We’re looking for ones that thrive.

Every program wants people who get along, take care of each other, build each other up and push themselves and each other to get better. No matter what question they ask, every interviewer is looking for these traits. Not test scores. Character.

Mark B. Reid, MD, is a hospitalist at Denver Health Medical Center and an associate professor at University of Colorado Denver School of Medicine. He can be found on Twitter @medicalaxioms or contacted at:

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