a new frontier

How to navigate virtual residency interviews during COVID-19

Program directors and a recently graduated resident give their advice for a unique interview season.

Residency application season for the NRMP 2021 Match is now in full swing. And while it remains an exciting time for prospective residents, it’s no secret that the path to Match Day will look a little different for this year’s class due to COVID-19.

The biggest change is the transition of the vast majority of interviews, and other get-to-know-you activities like tours and dinners, from in-person to Zoom or other similar platforms. To help ease the transition and connect candidates with programs, AACOM and AOGME are hosting a virtual residency fair on Oct. 9.

A learning curve is to be expected, but two program directors and one DO who just finished his residency told The DO that they expect some big-picture aspects of the process to remain relatively the same. Here is their advice for navigating an unprecedented application cycle.

Keep your Zoom setup professional

David Felsted, DO, an ophthalmologist in Flagstaff, Arizona, who recently completed residency and co-hosted a webinar on tips for the 2021 Match this summer, says finding a background that is conducive for a professional interview is a crucial step. You don’t need to be in front of a completely plain wall, he said, but you should be in a room with good natural light and orderly surroundings.

“The first thing I think about when I’m on a Zoom call with someone is, ‘what’s the background like?'” Dr. Felsted said. “Is your room clean, are there dirty clothes on your bed? Are you in dim light? That can tell you a lot about someone. Physicians are trained to pick up on cues from people that they don’t necessarily verbalize.”

Other tips Dr. Felsted shared in the webinar include:

  • Put your largest light source right in front of you, keeping in mind that your screen may also be a source of light depending on where you sit
  • Position your webcam head-on at eye level
  • Hide the video preview of yourself during the interview to avoid being distracted
  • Keep a charger plugged in and ready just in case
  • Test different microphone sources for the best sound

Jill Patton, DO, the internal medicine program director at Advocate Lutheran General Hospital in Park Ridge, Illinois, says her program will offer candidates the opportunity to test out their Zoom equipment with administrative staff before they interview, which she highly recommends all candidates do with family or friends beforehand.

Go the extra mile to stand out

With travel for interviews removed from the equation this year, program directors are expecting much higher volumes of applicants. Dr. Patton says candidates who want to stand out in a larger pool than normal should make sure they are expressing genuine interest in programs during interviews and in their application materials.

“We’ve made our website very robust, so candidates can see what our environment is like, what research is done here and other things that are unique to our program,” Dr. Patton said. “If a candidate never looked at that website before the interview, I can tell, and it shows me that they’re not that interested. It’s important that candidates research the program and have questions that are not already answered by materials on the website.”

Joanne Baker, DO, the internal medicine program director at Western Michigan University School of Medicine, agrees that researching programs beforehand will be more important this year.

Dr. Baker’s program has eliminated one of the previously required letters of recommendation and replaced it with a required letter of intent. This will let her know if a candidate put a check mark next to her program without going to the website to check in on more specific application requirements.

“It’s going to be very important that candidates make thoughtful decisions on where they’re applying,” Dr. Baker said. “Don’t just apply widely because you can. Really think about, ‘where do I want to train and what size program do I want to train with?’ Don’t put on airs to be what you think a program wants you to be. Make an effort to find a program that fits who you are.”

Program directors’ perspectives

Dr. Patton was an early adopter of virtual residency interviews, instituting them for all the interviews her program conducted in 2019. She wanted to decrease travel costs for candidates, widen her applicant pool geographically and standardize the interview process as much as she could.

Though she understands the anxiety candidates may have when it comes to interviewing over Zoom, in her experience, candidates’ personalities actually come through pretty well through a computer screen, she says.

To see how candidates interact in multiple settings and give them a chance to learn more about their programs, both Dr. Patton and Dr. Baker plan to have current residents host virtual Q&A sessions and dinners during interview season.

“It’s hard, in a 20-minute interview, to see all aspects of someone’s personality,” Dr. Baker said. “It can be very different in a group dynamic than it would be one-on-one, and that’s true over Zoom, too.

“That said, you might have someone who’s got an electric personality in person but finds Zoom to be cold and stilted. We’re taking that into consideration, and recognizing this is going to be artificial for many people. We’re just trying to make the best of it.”

Keep in mind that everyone is new to this

Dr. Felsted says one major point he hopes residency applicants remember heading into this cycle is that most programs are new to an all-virtual process, too. Rather than shy away from difficult circumstances, he encourages students to get creative and find ways to make the new interview format work for them.

“[Ryan Machiele, DO, a first-year resident at the University of North Carolina], who I’ve mentored, made a great comment during the webinar: ‘be prolific and do as much as you can,'” Dr. Felsted said. “This is a time when you could really do things differently, like making crucial connections over email or even social media rather than through audition rotations. Leave no stone unturned.

“There are usually so many etiquette rules with residency selection, it’s this dance we’ve all gotten used to. Now that dance is totally new and we’re all trying to plot that course.”

Related reading:

The NRMP 2021 Match and ERAS timeline for residency applicants

How these DO students matched to their top-choice residencies

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