Prepare for interview season

Residency Program Insider, January 28, 2008

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January is one of the busiest interview months for residency program directors, coordinators, and faculty. To help you through this hectic time, this three-part series from Residency Program Connection will offer you insight and advice on the interview process. Today's issue gives readers a look at how prospective residents view the interview day.

Although most programs' interview days are a mix of information sessions and interviews, programs that run this event in an organized and efficient manner can really stand out to applicants. The structure of the interview day is critical to an applicant's impression of the program. If a program appears disorganized or does not communicate the schedule effectively, this can be a red flag for candidates. 

When scheduling interviews, programs should consider the travel hassles and possible jet lag that can fatigue applicants. Some interview days start as early as 6 or 6:30 a.m. and run until 5 p.m.  Schedules like this can leave applicants feeling sleep-deprived and less focused during the day. A tired applicant is bound to leave with a lower opinion of the program. 

Similarly, programs should explicitly tell applicants whether breakfast will be served. Breakfast is crucial to an applicant's day, so do not leave them guessing and stressing about it the night before It might seem minor, but providing breakfast is a nice touch that can make a huge difference, but if you decide not to provide it, you should tell applicants where they can find some places to eat.

Following breakfast, the interview day can take on many different and equally acceptable formats, but the medical students I spoke with said programs often schedule too many interviews. Putting an applicant through nine interviews in one day, as some programs do, is simply too many. The medical students cited four as a more reasonable number that gives applicants enough opportunity to make a case for themselves and ask any questions they might have. Also, applicants felt 20 minutes was ample time for each interview, and anything beyond 30 minutes was too long. A schedule of more than four 30-minute interviews makes the day redundant and tedious for interviewees. All three of the medical students I spoke with felt it is more valuable to spend any additional time interacting with current residents.

Although the interviews seem like the purpose of the whole day, they may not always be the most important factor in an applicant's decision to rank a program highly. However, if an interview goes badly, it can cause an applicant to drop a program altogether. The worst mistake an interviewer can make is to ask a medical question of an applicant. If the academic qualifications of an applicant are suspect, your program should not grant him or her an interview in the first place. You should use the interview to get to know the applicant in other ways-the application should provide a wealth of material to discuss, and the conversation should flow naturally from that information. 

To that end, the second worst mistake an interviewer can make is to begin an interview unprepared. The most impressive programs are the ones in which all of the interviewers know their interviewees' portfolios from memory. This is not always feasible for large programs with many applicants, but to have an interviewer read the portfolio for the first time during the interview is disastrous. Preparation demonstrates that the program cares enough to do its homework and makes the applicant feel desired.

At the end of the interview process, applicants' "gut feelings" will be one of the major forces behind their rank lists. A program that runs a smooth interview process and makes applicants feel wanted can greatly improve candidates' global impressions of the program. The prestige and curriculum of any program are predetermined, so an effective interview day is one that addresses these factors while accounting for the intangibles that can sway the hearts of the applicants.


Andrew Spector, MD
Mayo Clinic, Jacksonville, FL

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