Best foot forward

How to assess a residency program’s culture virtually

Without seeing a program in-person, it can be challenging to determine whether it is a good fit. Two DO student advisors and a first-year resident who went through the virtual interview process last year share their tips.

With many residency interviews taking place virtually for the 2021-2022 school year, interviewees will have a harder time determining whether a program’s culture will be a good fit for them. Aware of this challenge, residency faculty who went through the process last year are trying their best to help students in this area as they complete their interviews. Below, a first-year DO resident and student advisors from two osteopathic medical schools share their advice on assessing a residency program’s culture virtually.

Research programs and connect with current residents

Thoroughly research programs and prepare specific questions before your interview, suggests Melva Landrum, the director for the office of medical student success at the University of North Texas Health Science Center Texas College of Osteopathic Medicine.

“Many programs are now offering virtual interactive tours of their facilities and provide videos about the program’s culture,” says Landrum. “Applicants can also attend residency fairs, meet and greets, and program director and resident Q&A sessions when offered – these are all opportunities to learn more about program culture.”

The more research you do beforehand, the better prepared you’ll be to walk away with a good understanding of a program, says Michael Terrio, DO, a first-year internal medicine resident at Western Michigan University who interviewed virtually for residency last year.

“I would read the relevant information about the program I was interviewing at and would write down the reasons why I wanted to attend the program,” he says. “I would also write down a list of questions to ask interviewers. Every single interview had the dreaded ‘what questions do you have for me?’ I would place the piece of paper under my monitor so I could quickly glance down to refresh my memory.”

Kim Peck, director of academic and career advising at the Michigan State University College of Osteopathic Medicine (MSUCOM), recommends reaching out and connecting to residents and alumni if such opportunities are offered.

“Pay close attention to your interview,” says Peck. “Actively listen while residents describe their day-to-day and how they work as part of a team, to give you some insight into what their culture is like. You can also review what the opportunities for residents (research, didactic sessions, etc.), residency schedules and curriculum are like.”

Dr. Terrio recommends taking advantage of virtual second look visits if they are offered. A second look visit is a visit with a residency program that occurs after your interview and before Match day. It may offer the opportunity to get a more robust virtual tour of the program facilities than you might receive otherwise, Dr. Terrio says.

A recent National Resident Matching Program survey of applicants and program directors revealed that students found program culture was more difficult to assess virtually, but reported that it ultimately was not a big enough factor to negatively impact the overall virtual interview experience.

“It seems as if fit can be determined by a multitude of factors, and visiting a program in-person is not the only way,” says Landrum. “Some of our students mentioned that it was more difficult to determine fit, but the virtual experience also forced students, programs and advisors to find alternative ways to determine fit and culture that may not have been considered before. Now that we have experienced interviewing in a virtual setting, both programs and medical schools are better equipped to help students determine fit.”

At the same time, programs that don’t have the resources to fully showcase their program’s culture virtually will be at a disadvantage this interview season. The lack of virtual information could be off-putting to some applicants, says Landrum.

Are virtual interviews here to stay?

“Utilizing social media, and hosting virtual events such as webinars and Q&As, are the best ways a school can show students what they offer,” says Peck. “Our fourth-year students are exceptionally busy and we encourage programs to consider recording their webinars for those who may not be able to attend due to scheduling conflicts. These events have also been great opportunities for third-year students (when they are invited to attend), as it helps them to identify what their preferences and priorities are earlier in the career planning/specialty selection process.”

Although the virtual-only interview process might not stay that way permanently, Landrum says it should stay an option for some students in the future.

“Many of my students were grateful for the decreased travel expenses,” says Landrum. “This allowed students to allocate resources and funds to visits to the cities of their top programs.”

Visiting a program in person is certainly an effective way to determine if the culture is a fit for you, but it’s not the only way.

“The pandemic has pushed us all to expand upon our utilization of technology to acclimate to the circumstances, with a lot of great opportunities coming out of it,” says Peck. “With virtual events being more accessible to students from all backgrounds, I hope to continue to see programs using many ways to interact with students, whether it is virtual/hybrid/in-person.”

MSUCOM re-evaluated their goals after the pandemic began and made changes to help students get a better feel for programs. They created virtual interview training modules for students and purchased AI-based virtual interview tools. They also held virtual mock interviews to help students feel comfortable and well-prepared for their interviews. They have continued to revamp and improve these resources for the Class of 2022.

Determining how many programs to apply to

Interviewing with multiple residency programs can provide students with a valuable frame of reference for comparing different programs. However, with interviews virtual, students are applying to more programs than in the past, and Landrum warns against this strategy.

“There is a process to applying for residency programs to maximize a student’s chance of matching, and applying to as many programs as possible is not something that my office advises,” says Landrum. “Instead, I provide a specific number of programs for students to apply to in order for them to hit their interview target. This number is based on a variety of factors, which include their competitiveness, program preferences, and, most importantly, having an appropriate distribution of ‘reach,’ ‘reachable’ and ‘safety’ programs.”

Peck agrees that application inflation is detrimental to both applicants and residency programs.

“AAMC’s ‘Apply Smart’ provides applicants guidance as to an appropriate number of applications that should be submitted to optimize their chance of matching,” says Peck. “I would also highly recommend applicants work closely with their institution’s career advisors to get personalized guidance regarding their application strategy.”

A two-way street

Before they begin assessing programs, students should be sure to assess their own virtual presence – determining whether you and a school are the right fit for each other is a two-way street. Participating in practice interviews and assessing your interview background and lighting setup are a few ways to do that.

Dr. Terrio also recommends taking a big-picture look at yourself as a candidate to see what view interviewers might have of you.

“Are your board scores competitive for the specialty/programs you’re applying to?” he asks. “Do you have any ‘red flags’ (failed classes, multiple attempts to pass board exams, etc.)? Are you attempting to stay in one location or are you open to anywhere? Hopefully, applicants have access to an advisor at their school who can help guide them based on their schools’ previous years match lists.”

Students and residency programs have demonstrated exceptional resiliency and adaptability during these challenging times, says Peck.

“I have been impressed with the shared effort across specialty groups and residency programs to provide guidance and support to students navigating this complex process,” she says. “I encourage students to utilize the many resources available to you to prepare for the interview season and wish you well in the 2022 match.”

Related reading:

How to prepare for virtual residency interviews for the 2021-2022 season

How to navigate virtual residency interviews during COVID-19

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