Residency Interviews: Why This Program?

Naturally, programs are looking for residents who will fit well with their program culture – and who are really interested in being part of THAT program, not just any program that will take them.

Pamela Skillings
Last Updated:
Dec 29, 2022

In this post, we’ll focus on residency programs specifically, however, you’ll do well to take a similar approach to fellowship programs as well.

Every year, the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education (or ACGME) conducts a survey of residency program directors in the US, asking them about their residency interview approaches and priorities.

In the most recent survey of 1,454 residency program directors, “fit with program culture” was identified as the #1 consideration.

Because it’s such an important factor in your placement, we’re going to focus on helping you communicate why your’re the perfect fit.

One way to effectively communicate your fit is to have a great answer to this inevitable question: “Why this program?

Additionally, you will face related questions like those about what you’re looking for in a program, your goals for residency, etc.

This type of question also comes up in most other job interviews: Why are you interested in this company and this position?”

But in residency and fellowship interviews, it’s even more important to have a great answer, for several reasons.

First, you will be one of MANY qualified candidates interviewing for every program.

So they’ll be looking for factors that set you apart. Fit is one of those factors.

And let’s face it: Medical residency is challenging and far more stressful than the typical job.

You will work long hours, make tough decisions, deal with difficult people, work under pressure, and face new daily challenges.

Not everybody has what it takes.

You are far more likely to do well during residency if you are motivated to be in a program that suits you well.

They are looking for someone who will be a good and reliable colleague and who will thrive in the program culture, ultimately making the program look good by finishing residency, passing board exams, and becoming a successful physician.

How to Answer “Why This Program?”

To answer this question well, you need to do your homework so you can speak in detail about what appeals to you most about the program.

We know you will be putting a lot of time into researching programs and weighing your priorities.

Just be sure to do enough research BEFORE the interview so you can speak convincingly about your interest.

It’s easy to get caught up in a busy interview season and neglect to prepare how to articulate your thoughts on each program in enough detail to stand out.

Remember, when you state your reasons for liking the program, you’re telling them about your priorities.

And this information will naturally play a role in their evaluation of how you will fit in.

Lead with what appeals to you about the value of the training offered. How does this program align with your priorities for residency?

Is it the academic curriculum, research opportunities, fellowship options, patient population, the reputation of faculty, and sub-specialty expertise? Read up on each program so you can be specific.

Your tone and level of detail will also tell them much about your enthusiasm.

Is this a top choice for you or a third-tier fall-back option? They will be trying to get a sense of this without outright asking. They’re not supposed to ask outright about your top choices, but some may.

Conveying enthusiasm will be easier when discussing the programs you’re most interested in.

For programs that you don’t know as much about or aren’t at the top of your list, you may need to think more about what aspects of the program are most interesting.

If it’s worth the time and expense to go to the interview, it’s worth the added effort of figuring out how to articulate your thoughts on this.

If you sound uninformed or halfhearted, you definitely won’t end up at the top of their rank list.

They want to know that you are excited about this program specifically.

We have had a few interviewees over the years tell us this question played a big role in failing to match.

They came to us for help when re-applying, after getting feedback that their enthusiasm just didn’t translate in interviews during their first match season.

In some cases, these candidates had great CVs, test scores, and many interviews. They thought they did okay in their interviews but somehow didn’t connect.

One candidate said he realizes now he played it too cool the first time because he felt he had so many options.

He was able to match the second time around and felt it was primarily due to working on his interview skills, and his answer to this question in particular.

The Geography Question

Naturally, most applicants have geographic preferences. They’d prefer to stay close to family, friends, and significant others. Or maybe they value a certain climate or size of the community.

So when you’re interviewing for a program far from home, they are likely to be even more interested in your answer to this question.

They are trying to gauge how excited you would be about moving to their city for residency. They might be comparing you to other equally-qualified applicants who are more local and perhaps more likely to rank the program as a top choice.

They may ask you how you feel about moving to Boise, Fairbanks, or Tallahassee.

But they may not.

So, if you have a connection to the city or area or could see yourself happy there for other reasons, you could clarify this question.

This can help counter any doubts they might have.

On the flip side, don’t lead with geography as your number one reason for liking a program.

Your emphasis should be on the value of medical training not the nearness to Mom or to great beaches.

However, you can (and should) touch on geography if you feel there might be doubts about your eagerness to relocate for the program.

Example Answer for “Why This Program?” Question

Let’s look at an example answer just to give you an idea.

You can follow a similar approach, but make sure to customize for different programs and to highlight the factors most important to you.

“Well, first of all, I was drawn to the program based on its reputation for providing both breadth and depth of training with a variety of subspecialty and research opportunities.
I also like that it is a teaching hospital serving a diverse patient population — this is in line with my top priority of gaining great clinical experience.
Through speaking with current residents, I know the environment is collaborative, and the attendings here are very approachable. These are also big pluses for me.
And finally, I am excited about the prospect of relocating to the Dallas area. My wife is actually from Texas and has lots of families nearby. We have visited the area several times and like it and would welcome the opportunity to be close to family as well.”

Why We Like It

This candidate leads with several positive factors regarding the quality of the residency training — including curriculum, patient population, and culture.

He also mentions the geography factor — he’s an East Coast candidate, so the program director may not be certain of the seriousness of his interest in relocating to Dallas without mentioning his ties to the area.


Now you’re ready to offer a detailed and compelling answer when asked about your interest in each residency or fellowship program you interview for.
Good luck, and let us know how it goes!

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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