The Right Way to Answer Residency Interview Questions

There are many ways to answer residency questions, but only one is the right one. Let's explore it together.

Pamela Skillings
Last Updated:
Aug 22, 2022

Once you’ve mastered the medical school interview process and managed to survive the rigors of medical school, it’s time for yet another milestone as you pay your dues another way – as a medical resident.

There’s just one thing standing in your way at this point, and it’s a big one: the medical residency interview.

Until you make it through this critical interview and earn a few stripes by completing your residency in a teaching hospital, your plans to become a doctor are on hold. If it seems like your life, at this point, is one critical interview after another – each one more important than the last, that’s because it is.

Introducing the Medical Residency Interview

The purpose of the medical residency interview is to match you with a learning environment that will give you the best opportunity for success.

While the interview is not exactly a written examination, you better believe it’s a test and one you cannot afford to fail.

First, let’s review the basics of the medical residency matching process and how the residency interview fits in. Feel free to skip ahead of you’re already familiar with the process.

What’s involved in the medical residency application and interview process?

In many ways, it works like the original application process to medical school. It involves all of the following steps and more.

  • Filling out applications.
  • Obtaining letters of recommendations.
  • Acquiring other required documentation.
  • Interviewing with facilities where you’re interested in serving as a resident.

While U.S. News and World Report noted that medical residency interviews are not absolutely required for all programs, that does not indicate that they are exactly optional either. Most programs are not going to admit residents they haven’t at least interviewed.

While it may not offer a grading system you can see or even understand, it’s critical to take the interview seriously in the hopes of finding a match you not only can live with but one you want to live with.

The medical residency interview isn’t like past your past interviews that only focused on whether or not you get into the program or get the job.

Not only does the residency interview help determine whether you’re accepted into a residency or not, but it also plays a vital role in determining where your residency will be.

In addition to the medical residency interview, part of the competitive process includes the medical residency matching program, known as “the Match.”

The Intricate Process of the Medical Residency Matching Program

Timing is important when it comes to the residency matching process. Most medical residency interviews should be concluded by January so that administrative requirements can be met prior to the National Resident Matching Program (NRMP) deadline.

The NRMP consists of five organizations, the American Medical Association (AMA) explains. They are:

  1. Council of Medical Specialty Societies (CMSS)
  2. American Board of Medical Specialists (ABMS)
  3. American Hospital Association (AHA)
  4. Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC)
  5. American Medical Association (AMA)

The residency match program is a national program. This means that there is no guarantee that you’ll be able to obtain a position in a particular facility or even a specific state or region.

The simplest way by far to apply for most residency programs is through the Electronic Residency Application Service (ERAS), though it’s possible to apply for each program manually and there are other, less universally accepted, electronic application programs.

According to the AAMC, there are quite a few different matching programs to which you can apply. It’s important to choose the program(s) that most closely match your career goals, though the National Resident Matching Program is the one most students choose.

After applying, the residency interview process begins, with most programs starting interviews in the fall and continuing up through January in some cases. For many programs, you will have to wait to be invited to interview. For others, you can take the initiative to reach out and request an interview.

After interviews, you will have the opportunity to fill out a rank order list (ROL), which lists your preferences for residency programs. Directors of programs will then compile lists of applicants in order of preference (and the residency interview is usually a deciding factor). Later, the algorithm will match applicants with programs (more on how this works later).

Because there is a great deal of competition for residency spots, it’s important to think strategically about your ROL. During the interview process, take notes and think carefully about the following factors before prioritizing your top-choice programs:

  • Your ability to compete. Do you have a good shot of being selected based on program criteria and your interview impressions?
  • Your preferred location. Where do you want to be? Keep in mind that inner-city areas, remote locations, and rural areas are often underserved so the odds of acceptance are in your favor.
  • Your specialty field. What is your specialization and is it an over or under-served field of medicine?
  • Your personal circumstances. Do you have other considerations such as children, family ties, finances, etc.?

When the match occurs, the algorithm will attempt to match you with an open position within the program that is highest on your ROL. It will work from the top down until it finds a tentative match.

These matches are called tentative because it is possible for you to be bumped to make room for applicants ranked higher by the program. At this point, the system will begin the process again until you’re matched with a program or all the options on your ROL have been exhausted.

Matchday is the day you’ve worked so hard over the past several years to realize. When the day arrives, it is as terrifying as it is exhilarating.

Applicants who do not match have the opportunity to vie for positions that are unfilled after match day. This process is often referred to as the scramble.

Once programs find out if their positions are filled, they release all remaining positions and the scramble to apply to these relatively few remaining positions begins.

What to Expect in a Medical Residency Interview

Now that we’ve reviewed the fundamentals of matching, let’s get to our main topic: how to ace that medical residency interview and match with your preferred programs/hospitals.

There will be some similarities between your medical school entrance interview and the medical residency interview — and a few differences. While no two interviews are exactly alike, many of them will follow similar formats.

There’s no one-size-fits-all structure for medical residency interviews. Different facilities will have different processes. Most programs will provide advance information on how the interview will work so that you’re prepared when you arrive.

As part of the interview experience, most programs will also offer some sort of education about their programs — including presentations and a question and answer opportunity, which is something you definitely want to be prepared for ahead of time.

Medical Residency Interview Questions You Will be Asked

You should be prepared to talk eloquently about anything and everything on your resume (curriculum vitae), including your extra-curricular activities, research project work, medical residency personal statement, work experiences, and ERAS application.

The big questions do not invite yes or no answers. You also don’t want to rely on generic canned answers (you’ll just come across as bland or robotic).

However, you can anticipate and prepare for the critical questions that are likely to come up in most residency and fellowship interviews. This preparation will allow you to organize your thoughts and present yourself in the best possible light.

As we say at Big Interview, it’s not about scripting answers. The idea is to think about your “bullet points” for each answer in advance, in a relaxed environment. It’s about outlining the topics you want to cover so that you don’t undersell your experience and capabilities. Then, your answers in each interview will still be authentic and spontaneous, but will also be focused and relevant and impressive.

Most Common Medical Residency and Fellowship Interview Questions

You can be pretty certain that the following questions (or variations) will come up in all of your residency interviews.

These questions are common because they focus on the things that interviewers need to know about you to determine if you are a good fit for the residency program or fellowship.

You can prepare for these questions by analyzing your own background and organizing your thoughts about your goals and qualifications. Then, it’s important to practice your answers to get comfortable talking about yourself (it can definitely feel awkward at first). You can do this with a friend or via Big Interview, which has a Practice Interview tool for medical residency interviews.

More Example Medical Residency Interview Questions

Once you’ve mastered the most common questions, it’s useful to read up on some of the other questions that come up regularly in residency interviews — and prepare for any that are challenging or difficult for you. Understanding the types of questions you can expect during the interview will help you feel calmer about answering them.

The questions below, from the American College of Physicians (ACP) are indicative of the types of thought-provoking questions you may come across during the interview.

Example Medical Residency Interview Questions

  • When it comes to the field of medicine, what is your biggest fear?
  • What do you have to offer that only you can bring to our program?
  • Describe yourself in one word.
  • How would you rate your medical school education? What would you change?
  • What’s the most recent work of fiction you’ve read? Tell me about the book?
  • Why are you interested in the program we offer?
  • What will you do if you don’t match?
  • Who is your role model? Why?

Dealing With Difficult Medical Residency Interview Questions

Handling difficult questions should be expected during the interview process. Part of the reasoning behind these difficult (and sometimes bizarre) questions is gauging your reactions in stressful moments. Keep this in mind and take a little time to think about your answers before delivering the difficult questions.

Examples of Difficult Medical Residency Interview Questions

  • Tell me a good joke.
  • Tell me about a patient care mistake you made. What did you learn from it?
  • Tell me about a failure.
  • What bad things have you heard about our medical residency program?
  • Teach me something non-medical in under one minute.
  • If your house was on fire and you had time to save only 3 items, what would they be?
  • If you were an animal, what animal would you be?
TIP: Be prepared to candidly answer questions about anything that could be perceived as a weakness in your application — a disappointing grade, lackluster semester, lack of certain experience, etc. Brainstorm the kinds of questions you most worry about and prepare and rehearse answers.

Keep the answers brief and rely on facts rather than emotion. Some questions are designed to elicit emotional, hot button responses. Refrain from being defensive.

Take a moment to try to determine what the interviewer is looking for in his or her question. Ask the interviewer to repeat the question is necessary in order to help you understand what he or she is looking for.

If you suffer from interview anxiety, read Big Interview’s blog post Face the Fear: How to Overcome Job Interview Anxiety for practical tips on how to deal with it.

What Do Interviewers Really Want?

Ultimately, interviewers are looking for residents who will be a good fit for their facilities, their patients, and the work environment they’ve created. They want to get to know the real you – the human being behind your transcripts, resume, and application.

That isn’t to say they aren’t looking for someone to knock their socks off, so you need to be prepared to make sure you’re the one to do just that. Be relaxed. Smile. Charm. Don’t tell them, but show them why you’re the perfect candidate to add to their team.

Types of Medial Residency Interview Questions You Should Ask

One of the most important things to remember while interviewing for a medical residency program: be inquisitive.  Inquisitive minds are always learning new things and program directors know that continuous learning is critical to succeeding as a resident. Show that you are inquisitive by asking smart questions.

These are a few of the specific questions you might want to ask during your interview.

Examples of Medical Residency Interview Questions to Ask

  • What are your fellowship match rates?
  • Do residents and faculty members have a good rapport?
  • What are your program strengths and weaknesses?
  • How often do residents leave the program and what are the reasons they give for doing so?
  • Is there are research project required during residency? If so, what does it involve and what type of support is available?

Also, think of questions related to other program details that are important to you. Remember that your questions will tell them a lot about who you are and what you care about most.

Common Medical Residency Interview Mistakes

While it’s always good to focus on the positive, learning about common mistakes others have made during the medical residency process can help you avoid making your own errors.

These are some of the top mistakes people make when they’re so close to the finish line.

  • Failure to Prepare
  • Excessive Nervousness
  • Overconfidence
  • Not Being Personable
  • Dressing Unprofessionally
  • Forgetting to Show Compassion
  • Describing Weaknesses with Cliches
  • Allowing Attention to Drift from the Interview
  • Failing to Acknowledge the Difficulties of Residency
  • Speaking in General Terms (You Want to Come Across as Exceptional)

Some of these mistakes are easy to avoid while others are trickier. Thorough preparation (and practice) will help you avoid mistakes like coming across as too generic, too nervous, uninformed, or unlikable.

How to Prepare for a Medical Residency Interview

It’s important to make the right first impression during the interview. You need to show up dressed to impress and ready to knock your interviewer’s socks off.

There’s a little more to it though. You should practice smiling, even when things are getting tough, as well as presenting body language that’s open and approachable.

Then take a little time to brush up on interview etiquette. It never hurts to reinforce good manners.

It’s also important to spend a little time on self-analysis and really think about how you can convey your fit for the program. As discussed above,  There have been many new and exciting things going on in your brain since your last important interview.

Putting this information to work for you may very well help you avoid the need to experience the sheer terror that is the scramble.

Practicing for the Interview

Even though experts unanimously recommend practicing for important interviews, most candidates don’t do it (or they do it in a halfhearted way that doesn’t help much).

An interview is a weird social interaction that requires you to talk about yourself in a way that you aren’t accustomed to. That’s why practice can make it less awkward and help you sound more confident and polished.

While you don’t want to sound over-rehearsed, it helps to have answers that feel natural rolling off your tongue.

There are a number of different ways to practice:

  • Conduct mock interviews with trusted faculty members or advisors. If you can get one-on-one time with an expert or a coach with experience in this area, grab it. With this approach, you benefit from both practice and informed feedback on where you can improve.
  • Sign up for Big Interview and use the Practice Interview tool to practice with your webcam. This approach allows you to practice on your own in the privacy of your own home and incorporates tips and guidance to help you improve.
  • Recruit a roommate or significant other to rapid-fire interview questions to you at random times throughout the day and night.  If you can describe your weaknesses at 2 AM on the way to the bathroom, you’ll be unflappable in the actual interview)
  • Practice answering interview questions in front of a mirror. This approach isn’t optimal, but certainly better than not practicing at all.

In addition, advisors at East Carolina University recommends prioritizing residency programs and starting with the ones you’d like to least get into you’re least excited about (scheduling interviews for your most desirable programs a bit later in the process). This approach allows you to work out any kinks in your approach during earlier, “test” interviews that matter less to you. That way, you’ll have a little experience under your belt when the time comes for the interviews that are most important to you.

However, don’t schedule those top pick interviews too late in the process! You don’t want to be burned out on the interview process.

Final Thoughts

The medical residency interview process doesn’t have to leave you pulling your hair out or losing sleep at night (there’ll be plenty of both when you’re in the midst of your residency, right?).

Take your time to prepare. Give yourself every advantage to make the most out of your opportunities to interview.  If you follow the advice above while preparing, you’ll increase your odds of success dramatically.

Your answers will be stronger and you’ll feel more confident walking into the interview.

About Author

Pamela Skillings

Hi, I’m Pamela Skillings, the creator of Big Interview and a top interview coach. I have helped countless clients from all backgrounds learn to ace their residency interviews and land spots in the most competitive programs.

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