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Medical Education

Making The Most Of Your Virtual Residency Interview

Fourth year medical students are facing challenges that no previous group of medical students have faced. The COVID-19 outbreak resulted in a loss of approximately 1/3 of their clinical rotation time during their third year of medical school as students were removed from our teaching hospitals in order to protect their own health. The re-direction from in-person to telemedicine outpatient visits was largely engineered to ensure continuity of patient care and physician income preservation – medical student education was left out of telemedicine. Students wanting to explore different hospitals or specialties not available at their own medical institution have seen clinical  “away rotations” eliminated due to travel restrictions. And now, the long-standing tradition of the residency interview has been radically changed with the replacement of on-site interviews with virtual interviews performed over the internet.

Residency Interviews are Expensive

In some ways, the virtual interview process brings benefits. Travel costs for medical students average $250 – $500 per interview and with students ranking an average of 12.5 residency programs in last year’s National Resident Matching Program, the typical medical student incurs about $5,000 in interview costs in order to apply to residency programs. There is a time cost as well, with one study finding that the average medical student spends 26 days traveling to interviews. Travel time and costs are the major factors that limit the number of programs a student can interview with.  The probability of matching to a residency program is dependent on both the number of programs a student ranks on their match list as well as the type of specialty that they have chosen. For example, 90% of U.S. medical students applying to pediatric residencies matched in their top 3 rank selections whereas 90% of internal medicine residency applicants  matched in their top 4 selections. Orthopedic surgery is considerably more competitive with 90% of applicants matching in their top 11 selections.

The Coalition for Physician Accountability has recommended that all residency programs commit to virtual residency interviews as opposed to in-person interviews for 2020. One implication of this is that medical students can interview at far more residency programs than ever before. There are no travel costs and a student can potentially interview with a residency program in California in the morning and a different program in New York in the afternoon. However, unlike medical students, residency programs are limited in the number of applicants that they can virtually interview since the faculty from those programs have only so many hours in the week that they can free-up from their regular duties to interview applicants.

One potential danger is that those applicants who appear the strongest on paper (based on grades and board examination scores) could take up most of the interview spots if they choose to interview at 30 or 40 programs. This could result in other applicants being closed out of interviews. As a result, many specialties are calling for a limit to the maximum number of residency programs that each medical student can interview with.

Preparation, Preparation, Preparation

In the past, when traveling to in-person interviews, students would use time in airports and hotel rooms doing background research on the hospital and city that they were heading to. This knowledge is the foundation for a successful interview. With virtual interviews, this down time evaporates so students need to find time in their regular lives to do that background investigation. Knowing about the physician faculty and the institutional areas of clinical expertise allows you to speak from a position of familiarity that in turn indicates your interest in that particular program.

Have a back-up plan in case your computer fails or in case of a technology failure at the institution you are interviewing with fails. That could be as simple as having a cell phone that could be used in a pinch. Also, be sure to log-on to the program 15 or 20 minutes before the time of your interview if possible – this will give you sufficient time to download an app or a software update needed for that particular interview. Make sure that your cell phone is turned to vibrate, your land line phone is off the hook, and your doorbell is turned off before you start your interview. Any programs or apps on your computer that can cause sound alerts should be closed.

Use the Right Equipment

If you are a medical student preparing for virtual residency interviews, you can only appear as good as your audiovisual equipment lets you appear. That means you will need to have a good camera and microphone. That 8-year old laptop that you got as a high school graduation present is not going to do the job. If you do not have a recent generation, high definition camera on your computer, then borrow or buy one. Since you are saving thousands of dollars in travel costs this year, it behooves you to spend a little money on a good webcam. In a previous post, I wrote about microphone selection for optimal audio presentations. To be sure that your camera and microphone are optimized, have a friend do a mock video interview with you with him or her using the equipment that you intend to use for the real interviews so that you can see what the interviewers are going to see. Make sure that you have plenty of bandwidth on your internet connection and since your interview may involve several different interviewers over several hours, be sure that your equipment is plugged in rather than running off of a battery.

Set the Stage to Your Advantage

In a virtual interview, it is not only how you look that is important, but also how your background surroundings look and sound. In a previous post, I wrote about how to improve your camera appearance for video conferencing and these points are equally applicable to the virtual interview. In particular, room lighting needs to be optimized. You should be in a quiet area, free noise created by cars driving on the street or created by your neighbor who practices his tuba in the apartment next to you. The stuff on the wall behind you will tell as much about you as the personal statement in your residency application so be sure that everything the interviewer sees in the camera field reflects the best in you. Be sure that you are in a location where you will not be interrupted – your child pounding on the door, your dog jumping in your lap, or your roommate walking around behind you in his underwear can derail your whole interview.

Dress for Success

It can be tempting to dress for your interview the same way that you normally dress in your apartment – casually. Instead, dress the same way you would if you are going to an in-person interview. If you are a guy, that means a tie and jacket. And don’t forget your pants – if you have to get up for any reason during the interview, you don’t want to be caught wearing your gym shorts. Make sure that the clothes that you wear contrast well with your background – wearing a white blouse in front of a white wall will cause you to fade away. Choose neutral colors – a medical student at the Ohio State University is better off not wearing a scarlet and gray necktie when doing a virtual interview at the University of Michigan.

Making a Good Impression on Camera

One of the criteria residency applicants are judged on during in-person interviews is eye contact. Poor eye contact can sink an applicant’s score on the residency program’s rank list. As humans, we rely on non-verbal communication with our eyes and facial expressions to augment our verbal communication. Video interviewing can disrupt this non-verbal communication. It can be tempting to look at the eyes of the person on the computer screen rather than the camera lens. The interviewers then perceive you as not making eye contact with them. Particularly when you are talking, look at the camera, instead of the computer screen. Shrink the video screen window and move it as close to your computer’s camera as you can. Head nods, smiles, and hand gestures can embellish your interview.

Practice for Success

2020 represents a paradigm shift in residency program interviews. The skills necessary for a successful in-person interview in the past will not always translate to a successful virtual interview this year. The disadvantage that this year’s senior medical students face is that no class of students has ever done this before so there is no precedent for today’s students to draw from. But students can also use this to their advantage. Those students who prepare can improve their interview performance and preparation means practice. Try out different video equipment and different locations. Do mock video interviews with other students and if possible, with faculty from your medical school to get feedback. Record mock interviews so you can see how you appear to the interviewer and then adjust your background, lighting, camera position, and clothes accordingly. This is an opportunity like no other before that allows students to leverage technology skills to set themselves apart from others in the residency selection process.

When it comes to 2020 residency program interviews, “…It’s showtime!”

August 15, 2020

By James Allen, MD

I am a Professor of Internal Medicine at the Ohio State University and the Medical Director of Ohio State University East Hospital