Top 10 Common Residency Interview Questions

While you can’t predict exactly what questions you’ll get in any given interview, you can (and should) prepare for the majority of the most common residency interview questions.

Pamela Skillings
Last Updated:
Aug 25, 2022

During your residency interview, you’ll be asked a multitude of questions. It can be intimidating to try to prepare when you don’t know what you’ll be asked.

This article will provide an overview of the most common residency interview questions and why interviewers ask them. It will help you understand the big picture of what to expect from your interview.

Once you understand the reason behind each question, you’ll be able to plan and prepare better for your interview.

Since some questions might be easy to answer and others may need a more strategic approach, we’ve divided our list of key residency interview questions into a few categories to help you navigate them.

Most Common Residency Interview Questions

There are some questions you are likely to be asked in most of your interviews — even the informal ones.

These questions are popular methods for your interviewer to learn more about your key experience, goals, and personality. Your interviewers were probably asked variations of these same questions when they were interviewing for residency — whether it was last year or many years ago.

These questions really get to the heart of what the program needs to know to determine if you’re a better fit than your competitors.

We strongly recommend preparing thoughtfully for each of these.

They may be asked differently in different interviews, but they WILL be asked.

1. Tell me about yourself (or some variation)

Most interviews start with some variation of “Tell me about yourself.” It’s an easy way for the interviewer to get you talking about your background.

They are looking for the highlights of your background here. This should be mainly professional highlights, but with some personal details as well.

We suggest a 3-step approach to answering this question.

    1. Who You Are – In answering this part, you want to briefly explain who you are, your background, and any highlights from your medical school career.
Example: “I’m currently completing my studies at Medical School X and have also devoted the last 6 months to gaining hands-on experience in psychiatry with my volunteer work with the Northern County Jail substance abuse program and the Central City transitional housing program…”
    2. Why You’re Qualified – Here you want to weave in any relevant volunteer experience, awards and recognition you’ve received, and any exemplary research or rotational experience you have. Don’t be afraid to include a personal note here and there as well.
Example: “During my volunteer experience at the children’s hospital in Houston, TX, I was able to speak with some of the top pediatric cardiologists in the country. Not only was it an honor and a privilege, but I also learned their unique perspectives on what it takes to practice pediatric medicine in a top-ranked hospital.”
    3. Why You’re There – Lastly, emphasize why you feel you’re a perfect fit for this particular program.
Example: “This program feels like a great fit for me based on my research — and particularly the patient population, which aligns with my interest in community medicine…”

You’ll find that interviewers have different interests in asking this question. Some want your elevator pitch of professional accomplishments. Others have already reviewed your application in detail and are looking for more get-to-know-you details.

This question is tricky because it’s so open-ended. It can be hard to find the balance of professional and personal, to sound confident without sounding arrogant, and to stay focused on the most relevant information.

However, if you prepare well, this question is a terrific opportunity to tell your story and highlight what you want them to know about you. And it’s a great way to start the interview strong.

We have two in-depth lessons on the “Tell Me About Yourself” question in our Big Interview Medical curriculum. These lessons involve a proven 3-step approach that will help you build an answer that highlights your strengths and tells your interviewer exactly what they want to hear.

Step 1 – Who You Are

In this step, interviewing expert and Big Interview founder Pam Skillings explains how to avoid pitfalls like rambling and tangents when answering this extremely open-ended question. She describes how to focus on who you are in the present and what relevant strengths to present to your interviewer.

The screenshot above is taken from our Masterclass. Watch the whole lesson here.

Step 2 – Why You’re Qualified

Next, you’ll learn how to choose highlights from your medical school experience and how to use them to make yourself stand out from the rest of the competition. It’s not as easy as it may seem since your entire answer needs to remain under 2 minutes long. With the guidance you’ll receive in this course and practice with the available tools, you’ll be ready in no time!

The screenshot above is taken from our Masterclass. Watch the whole lesson here.

Step 3 – Why You’re Here

Finally, you’ll wrap up with a concise explanation of why you’re excited about this program specifically. Again, no rambling or tangents – this needs to be short and sweet while still hitting the mark.

The screenshot above is taken from our Masterclass. Watch the whole lesson here.

This is just one of the questions that the Big Interview Medical Residency Interview Course helps you prepare for.

2. Why this program?

One of the most important questions you’ll hear during your interview is “Why did you choose this program?” What they want to hear from you is not only how interested you are in it, but also how passionate you are about it.

It makes sense that they want to rank the applicants who are most passionate about the program and motivated to succeed there.

Example: “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 that the environment is collaborative and the attendings here are very approachable. These are also big pluses for me.”

Most program directors say that “fit” is their biggest consideration in ranking applicants.

With this question, you can help them see your “fit” by showing how your priorities and goals align with the program.

Don’t forget, no residency program wants to be your fall-back, just-in-case option.

3. Why this specialty?

Naturally, they will also be interested in evaluating your fit for the specialty. Are you truly committed to this specialty and do you have the skills and temperament to succeed in it?

Example: “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 my grandfather’s life 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.”

This question is particularly important if your commitment to the specialty isn’t obvious from your CV — either because you decided on it recently or perhaps are applying to different specialties.

4. Where do you see yourself in 5 years?

There are many variations on this, but they’re all trying to get a sense of your long-term career plans.

Do you already have a sub-specialty in mind? Do you have a strong interest in pursuing research?

It’s okay if you don’t know exactly what you want to do yet. However, you do want to demonstrate that you have given some thought to the future –and that this program aligns with your career goals.

Are you interested in academia, community, a fellowship plan? Your interviewers want to know that you’ve considered your options.

Example: “For the short-term, I see myself pursuing Fellowship training in Oncology. After that, I may continue on to become a board-certified attending.”

5. What are your greatest strengths?

It’s almost certain that you will be asked about your strengths. But tread carefully because many interviews have gone south quickly when it comes to this question.

Other common variations include, “What would you bring to the program?” “What qualities make you a good physician?” and “What sets you apart from other applicants?”

Be prepared to talk about your strengths, about what sets you apart from your competition. Don’t forget all interviewees met the program’s basic requirements, so this is the moment to stand out from the crowd!

Example: “My background has helped me to develop strong interpersonal skills and the ability to work well as a team member.
For example, when I was a research volunteer for a pediatric psychologist at Hospital X, I facilitated cultural competency training workshops for resident physicians. I assisted in the debriefing and reinforcement of effective engagement and communication strategies.”

This is your chance to summarize your key selling points, focus on that.

6. What are your weaknesses?

The other side of the coin is another common interview question: What’s your greatest weakness.

It’s very easy to go wrong and either blurt out something too self-deprecating or dodge the question with bland generalities. This is where practice really makes a difference.

When talking about a weakness, you should always focus on two things:

  • An actual weakness
  • What you are doing to overcome it/how you overcame it

Of course, not every weakness is one to focus on. Some could do more harm than good. But there are some weaknesses that, when described in the right way, can be turned into potential strengths.

Write down all your weaknesses (such as fear of public speaking, delegation, or being too direct). Then, write down how you can improve or have tried to improve each weakness as well as what successes you’ve had.

Example: “I think one area I could work on is my delegation skills. I am always so concerned about everything being done right and on time that I can get stuck in the mentality of ‘If you want it done right, do it yourself.’ Unfortunately, that’s not always possible and I’ve realized that I can actually end up slowing things down if I am too controlling.
I learned this recently when given the opportunity to manage the department’s summer interns. I had never managed direct reports before, so this was a hugely educational experience in many different ways. It definitely taught me how to delegate and my manager noticed the difference in my management style at the end of the summer. I know that I can benefit from additional development in this area, so I signed up for a management skills training course and am always looking for opportunities to manage projects for our group.”

7. Experience-Related Residency Interview Questions

Typically, a good portion of the interview is spent discussing the details of your background. You should be prepared to talk about absolutely anything in your application. You never know what an interviewer will focus on.

Most of the questions you’ll hear are fairly straightforward. They just want to get to know more about you and your experience.

Some of the common residency interview questions about experience include:

  • Why did you choose your medical school?
  • What was your favorite rotation?
  • What was your least favorite rotation?
  • Tell me about your research experience.
  • Tell me about your volunteer experience.

Other experience questions are a bit trickier. If you have anything that could be perceived as a weakness in your application, they will probably ask about it.

And these can be tricky questions to answer gracefully. You may need to explain a negative in a way that counters concerns without coming across as defensive.

Some examples of these tricky experience questions are:

  • What’s the story with this gap since medical school?
  • What’s the story with your USMLE scores or attempts?
  • Why did you get this grade in this rotation or clerkship?
  • Why did you take time off during medical school?
  • Why didn’t you attend a U.S. medical school? (often asked of U.S. students who attended an international medical school)
  • Why did you move to the U.S. or Why do you want to pursue a residency in the US? (for international medical graduates)
  • Why didn’t you match previously?

The key is to be prepared to address the issue with neutrality and confidence, not get caught up in over-explaining, which can sound defensive, or be too self-deprecating.

Example: “I’m sure you noticed the six-month gap between my graduation from Medical School X and when I began volunteering at the children’s hospital in Houston, TX. I’d like to address any concerns you might have about that. The reason I was out for six months was because my mother needed my help in caring for my father as he was going through cancer treatments. She has no other family close by and I’m an only child, so it was my responsibility to help.”

They want to hear that there was a good reason for the blip in your application — and feel assured that you have learned from it and will have no issues excelling during residency and passing board exams.

8. Behavioral Residency Interview Questions

The Association of American Medical Colleges recommends that programs use behavioral questions as much as possible in residency interviews.

Behavioral questions are those that begin with “Tell me about a time…” or “Give me an example of…”

They dig into the applicant’s past experiences as a way to understand how they might perform as a resident.

For example: “Tell me about a time you had to make a tough decision…”

Behavioral questions work well because they draw out detailed information about key accomplishments and approaches to work.

The best format with which to answer these questions is the STAR format. STAR is an acronym that stands for Situation, Task, Action, and Result. It’s a method of answering a question by using storytelling to highlight key components of your experience and expertise.

Example: “During the time I volunteered with the jail substance abuse recovery unit, I discovered that one of the patients with whom I had become pretty close had relapsed but was lying about it. Honesty and transparency is a requirement for participation in the program.
It was only a matter of time before he was discovered as a result of a failed drug test. I spoke with him and tried to convince him to come clean, talk with the other doctors in the program, and resume his recovery. Unfortunately, he refused.
I felt compelled to speak with the lead doctor since this patient’s relapse was a risk to the other recovering patients. The lead doctor confronted him and confirmed his relapse with a drug test. He was expelled from the program.
It was a difficult decision and really hard to watch him go, but ultimately, he made his choice. I had to make the decision that was for the greater good of the program and the rest of the patients who were working to get better. I don’t regret my decision. Fortunately, the rest of the patients recovered well and successfully moved through their programs.”

9. Common Residency Interview Questions – Personality

Most interviews include some “get-to-know-you” questions — about your hobbies, interests, and personality.

The most common ones are pretty straightforward — like:

“What do you like to do outside of work?”

But you’re also likely to get at least 1 or 2 quirky questions. These are often asked as a way to get you away from prepared answers and get to know you.

The problem is that people can easily freeze up in an interview and have a hard time with these.

Tip: If you’re asked an off-the-wall question, have fun with it! Don’t be afraid to laugh and give an honest answer! If the interviewer asks a weird question, they won’t be thrown off by a weird answer, so show your personality a bit and have a little fun!

10. Common Residency Interview Questions – Medicine

These tend to be more philosophical than technical.

Some interviewers will ask for your thoughts on the future of medicine or the future of your specialty. Or perhaps about a current trend or issue in the field.

They might dig into your thoughts about issues related to your research or a recent rotation.

For international applicants, the focus might be on the differences between practicing medicine in their home country, versus within the U.S. healthcare system.

It can be difficult to wax philosophical spontaneously in an interview. We recommend thinking a bit about these questions in case you get one.

More Prep and Practice

That’s the end of our overview of the most common residency interview questions. If you’re feeling a little overwhelmed, don’t worry! Our Big Interview Medical Curriculum is specifically designed to help you answer all of these questions.

From “Why this specialty?” and “Why this program?” to behavioral questions like “Tell me about a time when you had to make a difficult decision?” the Big Interview Medical Curriculum covers them all inside and out. It guides you through the most common questions asked in residency interviews and offers the best formulas to answer those common questions.

You’ll also have access to the tools you need to practice until your answers are smooth as silk. Use the Answer Builder to help create ideal answers to questions. With the Mock Residency Interview Tool and its AI Feedback, you’ll have the chance to practice your interviewing skills, while receiving real-time AI feedback about unconscious habits such as eye contact and saying “um.”

Small things like these can add up to make the difference in an interview. We’re here to help you succeed!

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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