Residency Interviews: Why This Specialty?

You’ve probably been thinking a lot about this subject — maybe even wrote about your choice of specialty in your personal statement.

Pamela Skillings
Last Updated:
Aug 16, 2022

In fact, we think this question is so important that we created an entire video lesson around it in our flagship product Big Interview. Watch it here:

This video is just one of the dozens of lessons inside the full Big Interview Residency training system. If you’ve got some big interviews coming up, click here to learn more about the system that will help you ace every one of them.

Your interviewers are looking for two things here:

  1. Genuine commitment to the specialty
  2. Strong fit for both the specialty and the program.

You’ve probably been thinking a lot about this subject — maybe even wrote about your choice of specialty in your personal statement.

But that doesn’t always mean you’re prepared to eloquently communicate your thoughts in the interview.

For some people, this answer flows very naturally. Others, who are just as passionate about their specialty, struggle to articulate it in a meaningful way.

Some people don’t prepare for this question. You might assume that your interest in your specialty is clear from your application.

And yes, interviewers should have read your personal statement.

But now you have to bring your application to life in the interview — help them get to know you and why you would be a great fit for both the specialty and the program.

And keep in mind, each interviewer is talking to many talented applicants during the interview day.

It’s important to be able to articulate your passion and motivation in a way that stands out.

This is an even more critical question if your background doesn’t perfectly align with the specialty that you’re interviewing for.

Perhaps you were previously interested in a different specialty and changed your mind. Maybe it just took you awhile to decide on a specialty.

Maybe you’re actually considering a few different specialties. It’s common for some candidates to interview for different types of residency programs. This can happen a lot with related specialties like internal medicine and family medicine.

In all cases, you want to be prepared to talk eloquently and passionately about your interest in your specialty.

Program directors say time and time again that they are looking for FIT when they rank the many qualified applicants that make it to the interview stage.

And what does “fit” mean to them?

Number one is having values and interests that align with what the program provides.

They want people who want to be there — and will be motivated to succeed and go the extra mile throughout the residency.

Part of that is being sure about your specialty.

You want to be authentic and sincere.

But you also want to go beyond the generalities and the obvious to show what makes you different.

Often, it’s hard to articulate what has drawn you to the specialty you chose.

It’s likely a mix of your strengths, what you enjoy, what you value in terms of contributing, what you’ve been exposed to during your medical education, and perhaps family influence.

Because this question is so common and so important, we highly recommend taking a few moments to jot down a few bullet points.

You may find that the words flow naturally or struggle to find the right way to describe your feelings.

But don’t leave this answer to chance and hope that you will be spontaneously brilliant on the interview today.

As with the other questions we’ve discussed, we recommend outlining your bullet points, not writing a script.

Write your bullet points, and then practice answering this question without your notes until you feel comfortable.

The goal is to be natural but polished. It will come out a bit different each time, but you’ll always hit your key points.

Below are some good examples of answers to this question to help get the ball rolling.

These answers are adapted from real answers candidates used to achieve matches with top residency programs and fellowships.

Residency Specialty Example 1

Why orthopedic surgery?

“I have chosen orthopedic surgery as a career based on experiences throughout my life. I gravitated towards the sports world at an early age, which continues to this day. My father is a physical therapist and I grew up watching him provide rehabilitation to orthopedic patients, especially those who were athletes.
I feel that orthopedic surgery would be a way for me to satisfy my love of athletics in a career, along with my love of medicine and helping others.
My interest in the profession developed even more during my time as a college athlete when I got to see first-hand how an orthopedic surgeon was able to work with a college team and help world-class athletes return to the field.
As my relationships with the team surgeons developed, I could see that, as former athletes themselves, their job was very rewarding and satisfying to them and I desired that kind of satisfaction when I was done playing.
The final influence for me was seeing my nephew come back from a very severe injury — orthopedic surgeons made it possible for him to walk across the stage to receive his high school diploma. Seeing his face as he walked across the stage solidified for me the desire to be able to do the same for my patients.
Upon entering medical school, I tried to keep an open mind to every specialty, but it always felt like home whenever we learned about the musculoskeletal system. I knew I had made the right career choice during my 3rd and 4th-year rotations when, at the end of each day, I could not wait to see what the next day had in store.”

Why we like it:
This is a very sincere and authentic answer based partly on some memorable and emotional past experiences. But it’s not just about the emotion, it also addresses his love of the work of orthopedic surgery.

Residency Specialty Example 2

Our next example is from a future family medicine resident.

Why Family Medicine?

“I have always been drawn to family medicine. I think it’s because I have experienced first-hand how lives can be saved when serious conditions are identified early on and managed by a knowledgeable and caring physician.
Medical advances in type I diabetes extended the life of my grandfather by almost 50 years, and now help my diabetic father manage his illness.
In medical school, I only became more focused on family medicine. I love the variety and the continuity of care found in family medicine.
I like having the opportunity to work with patients of all ages and I truly appreciate the wide range of practice options available to family medicine physicians.”

Why we like it:
This answer comes across as thoughtful and sincere. It focuses on how family medicine’s day-to-day work aligns with this applicant’s values and interests. The personal details about her family also help give interviewers a better sense of what drives her.

Residency Specialty Example 3: International Candidate

Here’s an example from an international candidate who practiced in her home country of India before moving to the US to pursue residency here.

In addition to being an international candidate, this applicant also had a gap since medical school, which some programs can see as a weakness.

However, she also had significant clinical experience in her specialty, which can be a big strength.

Her answer helps to highlight her unique strengths — including more clinical experience than new medical school graduates and her maturity, both of which reinforce her commitment to medicine and her specialty.

International Medical Graduates face some unique challenges in the residency interview process. However, this question is an opportunity to highlight the challenges she’s overcome as strengths.

Why Pediatrics?

“I have spent most of the years post-medical school in the discipline of clinical pediatrics and I am very eager to achieve my dream of practicing pediatric medicine in the US.
After completing the requirements of medical school in India, I spent two years practicing in a busy medical center in Bangalore.
The two years I spent there intensified my interest in pediatrics and fortified my desire to establish a career in this discipline.
During this time period, I learned the basics of pediatric medicine and spent a lot of time learning about and caring for children with diseases common in our local community.
I also had the opportunity to enhance my technical skills in procedures like intravenous access, lumbar puncture, bone marrow aspirations, pleurocentesis etc.
I am eager to continue developing my skills and knowledge during pediatric residency, with an end goal of building a career as a pediatric emergency medicine physician.”

Why we like it
This answer is confident and clearly conveys a passion for pediatrics. She also touches on how her previous experience in India has helped prepare her for residency. This helps to reinforce that she has the maturity and hands-on experience to be a reliable team member.

All of these examples’ answers are very different, but each is thoughtful and detailed and highlights that individual’s specific interests and motivations.

There is no one cookie-cutter way to answer the question. But the key is to sound confident and purposeful about your future career goals.

Part of residency is learning enough to guide your future career decisions, even if you don’t know exactly what you want to pursue after residency in terms of a sub-specialty.

However, you want to make it clear that you are certain about the specialty and thus a good investment for the program.

To outline your own bullet points, try writing brief answers to these questions:

  • What details in your personal statement point toward your specialty?
  • What do you enjoy most about the day-to-day work of your specialty?
  • What strengths make you a good fit for your specialty?
  • What are the most rewarding aspects of practicing your specialty?

Remember, your overall answer should be around 1-2 minutes.

Ideally it should cover both your interest and fit and be detailed enough that it’s YOUR answer and not a “form response” that anyone could give.

Narrow it down to your key points so your answer in your interviews will be concise, compelling, and authentic.

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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