Best foot forward

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

Program directors and a first-year resident discuss what to expect during this interview season and their tips for successful interviews.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, we’ve all had to adjust the way we work, study and live. Medical students and DOs who will interview for residency positions this fall and winter will experience a dramatically different interview process from what was standard before COVID.

Previously, many residency interviews were conducted in person. Now, the current state of the pandemic is causing many program directors and others involved to plan for virtual residency interviews for the upcoming interview season.

“We’ve made the decision to keep things virtual,” says Joanne Baker, DO, internal medicine residency director at Western Michigan University (WMU) Homer Stryker MD School of Medicine in Kalamazoo. “We don’t think it’s fair to do a hybrid [online and in-person] option because it creates inequity in experience for students. Everyone should be getting the same experience, even those who are already living in Kalamazoo.”

Insights from 2020

The 2020-2021 interview season served as a test on how well students and faculty were able to connect and interview through a screen, rather than face-to-face. Some, such as the WMU team, found the virtual interview process to work well and will only make minor adjustments for the future.

“Last year, we matched one of the best classes we’ve had in years,” says Dr. Baker. “For 2020, our recruitment budget was zeroed out, so we had to be creative with our resources – now that residents are vaccinated, we’re looking at doing an hour-long forum for a few residents to come together in a conference room to interact with each other while connecting with the applicants online, but it will likely vary based on what is happening with COVID at that time. [We’re] hoping this will give the applicants a feel for the dynamic in our residency and community.”

Program directors warn against giving in to the impulse to skimp on preparation. To stay committed, focus on your end goal, they suggest.

“It’s really important, if you have the opportunity, to have practice sessions ahead of time in the room where you’ll [Zoom] interview,” continues Dr. Baker. “Faculty can give feedback on what they can see and hear in the background and how distracting it is, and how you’ll look on camera.”

Michael Terrio, DO, now a first-year internal medicine resident at WMU, says he was unable to do practice interviews before the 2020-2021 interview season, but he found a workaround.

“I scheduled programs I wasn’t as enthusiastic about in the beginning of the season for ‘practice,’” he says. “I scheduled the programs I was most excited for in the middle of the season. I would err on the side of caution and apply to more programs rather than fewer.”

Most resident applicants from the 2020-2021 season said their virtual experience was as good as it could have been, the program directors say.

“We allowed downtime, so they weren’t constantly staring at a camera,” says Dr. Baker. “We received positive feedback concerning this, because it relieved some of the students’ pressure to be fully “on” at all times and gave them some time to relax.”

Dr. Terrio says the virtual process was easier than he was anticipating. His interviews during the previous season took place via Zoom and Microsoft Teams.

“In the pre-COVID days, accepting last-minute interviews in different cities could be impossible due to time or financial constraints,” Terrio says. “Virtual interviews made scheduling much less stressful. Another reason I felt they were easier than expected was because they were held in the comfort of my own home.”

Getting to know residencies virtually

Like WMU, other programs aren’t allowing in-person tours, but rather providing online videos and meet-and-greets as a way to help applicants get to know their program.

“We plan to use breakout rooms,” says Robert Danoff, DO, the program director for the family medicine residency at Jefferson Health in Philadelphia. “We’ll give people half an hour to introduce themselves, make it comfortable and friendly. They may demonstrate a hobby during this time to get to know each other and have a low-pressure interview day.”

The meet-and-greets are also helpful in observing interaction between the current residents, giving interviewees an inside look at the culture and environment they could soon be a part of.

“Watch out for the interaction between residents,” Dr. Terrio says. “While it is difficult to assess a program’s culture virtually, outliers are obvious. I had a few interviews where it was very clear the residents were miserable, disliked each other, were overworked and did not like the program.”

Brandon Issacs, DO, the program director for Central Washington Family Medicine in Yakima, Washington, stresses the importance of taking advantage of what resources each program can offer, and making it clear in the interview process what your intentions with each specific program are.

“Our mission is to meet the needs of Washington,” says Dr. Issacs. “We don’t want students choosing us just to have a spot somewhere – we want to know why you’re interested in us.”

Also be sure to research the program and institution you’re interviewing for. Coming prepared with unique questions, knowing why you want to be a part of each residency and making a note of what number to call in case of emergency (technological or otherwise) will all go a long way in helping you assess programs and feel on top of things.

“Students need to know our program and what curriculum will be like,” said Dr. Issacs. “We do virtual tours online to describe what we do and where we’re at. Applicants will also have the opportunity to have a discussion with current residents to get a feel for our environment and make sure it’s a good, personal fit. It’s a two-way street.”

Tech considerations

When navigating online interviews, it’s critically important to be as technologically prepared as possible, the program directors noted. Download any necessary software ahead of time to be sure you’re comfortable using it.

Keeping your background professional is also something to keep in mind – blurred backgrounds, distracting pictures or political memorabilia can take the focus off of you.

“It’s still an interview; don’t be in gym clothes or a T-shirt,” says Dr. Danoff. “Treat this as professional as normal. Be in a quiet room with a good signal so you can pay full attention.

“We get 1500-1600 applicants,” Dr. Danoff continues. “We all take pride in our program, and we want you to care, and know something about what we do.”

Although interviewers will still expect residency applicants to be as professional and knowledgeable as usual, they also understand the situation and will be patient and help students work through unanticipated technological difficulties. When looking at the applications beforehand, they’ll also take into consideration the fact that many students may have only been able to experience clerkships and other opportunities virtually – this won’t be held against them.

“They’ve already been making it through medical school, which is huge,” says Dr. Danoff. “We pay attention to their personal statements. We’re more focused on what they’re looking for, and what their personality is. Give specific examples of what you want to achieve.”

Using Residency Explorer and Frieda to collect data on programs of interest helped Dr. Terrio create a list to sort through the programs.

When interviewing alongside other candidates, Dr. Terrio noticed that the applicants that stood out had good, consistent lighting, which prompted him to upgrade his lighting setup.

“I used an inexpensive ring light purchased online,” he says. “It ensured my face was well-lit, and there weren’t any shadows distorting me or the background.”

Enthusiasm goes far

Interviewers are looking for candidates who are enthusiastic, knowledgeable and excited about the program they’re applying for. There are only so many spots available, and it’s important for each student to try to stand out, Dr. Danoff says.

“We’ve used the feedback from last year to make the process more interesting and interactive; we want to know who will be joining our ‘family,’” he notes. “Be yourself, above all else.”

Related reading:

How to navigate virtual residency interviews during COVID-19

Pro tips for nailing your residency interviews and audition rotations

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