Residency Interview Tips for Beginners

For residency programs, the interview is a critical factor in the evaluation process.

Pamela Skillings
Last Updated:
Aug 12, 2022

The residency match has become more and more competitive in recent years. There is no shortage of excellent candidates; thousands of applicants fail to match each year.

The interview has always been an important part of the process, but as competition increases, programs become even more reliant on interview impressions in determining which candidates to rank.

After all, when so many candidates look great on paper, the interview provides the best chance to evaluate fit on a human level.

Through the interview and your interviewer’s questions, you’ll have the opportunity to showcase your strengths and personality. However, there are challenges that come along with this opportunity.

In this article, we will provide you with top residency interview tips to help you navigate your interview smoothly and successfully.

From a basic overview of the residency interview timeline to what to expect after the interview evaluation, we’ll go through the process and offer tips to help you maximize your chance for a match.

Interview Timeline

First, we’ll take a look at the basic timeline for the residency interview process and some residency interview tips you can use to navigate it.

It all begins with your application.

The application process

Almost all applicants submit their applications through the Electronic Residency Application Service (ERAS). This is an automated system participated in by most program directors. Your application will include your letters of recommendation, medical school performance evaluation, personal statement, and curriculum vitae.

Tip: In order to stand out, be sure to clearly state in your application your particular interest in the specific program to which you’re applying.

After applications are submitted in early September, programs take time to review and then send out interview invitations to selected applicants.

Residency Interview

Many interview invitations go out in October, with interviews scheduled through January.

Tip: Even if you don’t receive an early invitation to interview, don’t despair. Many programs continue to send invitations throughout the season. Schedule as many interviews as you are comfortable with.

After all interviews are completed, program interviewers compare notes and develop their rank order lists for their main match, which is due in February.

Residency matching and re-matching

On Match Day, the third Friday in March, match results come out and those who didn’t match may be eligible to enter the Supplemental Offer and Acceptance Program (SOAP).
Supplemental Offer and Acceptance Program (SOAP).

SOAP is a national organization which seeks to pair unfilled residency programs with eligible candidates. Interested applicants submit new applications to open programs, interview, and are offered positions when appropriate.

Tip: Although the odds of matching in SOAP are excellent, they decrease drastically for candidates who don’t participate in the regular interview season. It’s not in your best interest to try a “SOAP-only” approach.

Next, let’s look at the real purpose behind the residency interview.

Interview Purpose

The interview stage for both programs and applicants is about gathering key intelligence to make very important decisions.

For interviewers, the goals are to confirm and expand upon the information you provided in your application.

There’s nothing like a face-to-face conversation to evaluate communication and interpersonal skills, learn more about your goals and motivations, and judge general professionalism.

They are also trying to determine how you would “fit” into the culture of the program.

Meanwhile, just as you are trying to put your best foot forward, the residency program representatives want to show their program in the best possible light, “selling” it in the hopes of being top-ranked by top applicants.

Bottom line: the interview is how they gather intelligence to shape their rank order list of candidates for the Match.

For you, the interview provides the opportunity to learn more about the program and to meet potential colleagues and mentors.

You’re trying to balance two very important goals:

  • To determine which programs will be the best fit for you and your goals;
  • To make a great impression in every interview to give yourself the best odds of a happy match.

It’s like going on a first date, but with much higher long-term stakes — you’re trying to get to know the program while simultaneously “wowing” them in case it turns out to be your dream match.

All of this while still being yourself.

You can see why so many people, even the best applicants, struggle with residency interviews. They’re not easy.

You have a very small window of time to connect with the interviewer, convey your qualifications, and get a sense of the program fit for your own purposes.

When it comes to your residency interview, preparation and practice matter most.

Tip: It’s not about the perfect performance. It’s about being the most polished, personable, eloquent version of your true self. Giving your interviewer a sense of who you really are within the format of the interview.

Interview Format

Different residency programs conduct interviews in different ways. Here, we’ll explore some residency interview tips you can use in different formats.

Typically, your interview experience will include:

1. The Social Event

Often, a dinner or cocktail party will be scheduled the night before the interview day. This is usually an opportunity to meet current residents in a social setting.

Tip: Plan to attend if you can. It’s a great way to learn about the program and to connect with residents, who often weigh in on the ranking list. While this is generally a social event, remember that it’s still part of the interview process and your behavior will be observed.

2. The Interviews

As we mentioned, different programs may use different formats for interviewing. You may meet in separate one-on-one interviews of 15-30 minutes each or you may interview with two or more interviewers simultaneously.

You will probably meet with the program director, faculty members, and residents. You may also meet other staff members as well.

In general, program directors tend to be more structured. They usually have more training and experience in interviewing; this is a key part of the program director’s job: selecting residents who will make the program proud.

He or she has probably thought a lot about what qualities are most important for a successful resident and what makes someone a good fit for their program. As a result, the program director is more likely to ask probing and behavioral questions.

Faculty members and residents may be more conversational.

Tip: Program directors list interactions with staff and current residents among their top considerations when evaluating new residency candidates during interviews. Charm your program director by making sure your interactions are professional and friendly.

Usually, the program will send you an itinerary in advance with the names of your interviewers.

Tip: Study the itinerary prior to your interview(s) and do your research on your interviewers. Learn what you can about them online via sources such as the program’s website and LinkedIn. This will help guide you through the interview when you have the opportunity to ask your own questions.

3. The Tour/Presentations

Many programs provide a tour of the facilities and/or the opportunity to sit in on a conference, morning report, or presentation. These are great opportunities to learn more about the program and the resident experience.

Your attitude and questions may factor into their overall impression of you.

Tip: When it comes to the more informal portions of the interview experience, look for opportunities to make connections. Prepare questions to show your interest and enthusiasm. Be professional and energetic. Make an effort to connect and learn as best you can.

You don’t have to be an aggressive schmoozer. In fact, that can work against you, depending on the culture of the program.

Interview Structure

During the formal interviews, there will be more focus on learning about you.

You will probably meet with at least 2-3 people for approximately 15-30 minutes each.

As we mentioned, you’ll find that the tone and style of your interviewers is likely to vary.

Some interviewers will be very conversational and just want to chat about your background and goals in an informal way.

Other interviewers will be more structured, with a prepared list of questions and topics to cover.

Most programs don’t give detailed instructions to interviewers regarding what to ask, though many provide some general guidance.

Some interviewers may have specific ideas about good questions to ask, while others will just want to get to know you.

This is why there is such variation in residency interview questions.

Tip: Being prepared for the unexpected is tricky, but you can prepare for the most commonly asked residency interview questions as well as some common behavioral questions and set yourself up for success.

Despite the wide range of possibilities, there are some questions and topics that you are almost certain to get, especially if you go on several interviews.

For lots more info on questions to prepare, please see our Residency Question Guide; a powerful, free resource that covers all of the basics of Residency Interviewing.

Interview Evaluation

Now let’s talk about what happens AFTER the interview.

After the interviews are done, it’s time for the program to evaluate applicants and create their rank list.

While all programs do this a bit differently, we have some information about trends from the annual surveys of program directors conducted by the American Association of Medical Colleges.

According to the most recent survey, most programs develop an initial rank order list based on interviewer evaluations.

Many programs ask each interviewer to assign numeric ratings after each interview — with some programs asking for an overall rating and others asking for separate ratings on different competencies and/or different components of the application.

In other programs, it’s less formal and the initial list is based on discussions during faculty rank order meetings.

Changes are then made to the initial rank order list based on more group discussion and other factors.

Top influencing factors named by program directors included:

  • informal resident or staff feedback
  • completion of a successful rotation at the institution
  • referral from a trusted colleague or faculty
  • creating a diverse cohort

Program directors have also shared their 3 most common reasons for deciding not to rank an applicant.

The #1 reason was a poor interview day.

Rounding out the top 3 reasons were “poor fit” and “concerns about professionalism.”

Of course, your interview also informs their opinions about your fit and professionalism. So, obviously, your interview is incredibly important. It can make or break your chance for your dream match.

Fortunately, with the right preparation and practice, your interview can tip the scales in your favor. Then all you have to do is sit back, relax, and wait for Match Day!

Final Residency Interview Tip

Being prepared for your residency interview well in advance is the key to success. You need to have a complete understanding of the application and interview process, as well as how interviews are structured, if you hope to outpace your competition.

By reading this article and following the advice it contains, you’re already ahead of the game. Take it a step further by practicing your interviewing skills systematically and strategically.

Read our Residency Interview Guide for even more information on how to ace your residency interview.

You got this! We at Big Interview Medical are rooting for you!

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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