As medical students begin to schedule and conduct virtual interviews with residency programs, the American Association of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine (AACOM) spoke with members of AACOM’s Council on Residency Placement, Dr. Susan Enright and Ms. Lisa Cardello, who helped develop AACOM’s Virtual Interview Video Series.
Dr. Enright and Ms. Cardello share their recommendations and advice to make virtual interviewing as successful as possible, especially as the Delta variant and potential risks and disruptions from any future variants continues to make virtual interviewing the preferred, safe option for this cycle.
The answers below have been edited for brevity and clarity.
Q: To begin with an extremely common interview question that all students should expect to be asked—please tell me about yourself.
Dr. Enright: I’ll start. I’m Susan Enright. I am a physician in internal medicine and emergency medicine, and for the past five years, I’ve served as the assistant dean for clerkship education at Michigan State University. Previously, I was a program director for about 16 years at a community institution for internal medicine in Michigan. Teaching people how to interview is near and dear to my heart because I did it all the time as a program director and still do it in undergraduate medicine.
Ms. Cardello: My name is Lisa Cardello. I serve as director for the Center for Teaching and Learning at the Rowan University School of Osteopathic Medicine in Stratford, New Jersey, which is essentially our academic advising, career advising and peer tutoring center. I help students in years one through four navigate their specialty selection and the matching process. One of my overall passions is career development and counseling and helping students achieve the goals they set out for themselves, so I’m excited to be here today to talk more specifically about the virtual interviewing process.
Q: Now that you’ve both answered it, how should students answer the “tell me about yourself” question?
Dr. Enright: “Tell me about yourself” is one of the most typical, common questions you’ll get asked at the beginning of your interview as an icebreaker, and it’s not really a great question. It’s vague. You don’t know what the interviewer wants to hear from you or how long you’re supposed to speak. That’s why it’s so important to have your answer to this question prepared. That preparation will help you be less nervous at the start of an interview and help ensure your answer communicates what you really want to say. Think of it as an elevator speech. Keeping your answer short is important so that it doesn’t take up too much of the set amount of time your interviewer has to speak with you. Think beyond your CV and make the answer more about you, what you’re proud of, your hobbies that are fun or unusual—those kinds of things.
Ms. Cardello: Practice, practice, practice your response to this question. You don’t want to memorize everything you’re going to say and potentially sound like a robot, but this is the one response out of everything you may get asked that you want to have practiced and feel confident in your response. Have a roadmap in mind with a few main points you’ll hit upon in your answer to avoid any rambling.
Q: How did you decide which topics would be most important to cover in this video series?
Ms. Cardello: When we developed this series, the timing was significant. We were in the beginning months of the COVID-19 pandemic, and we knew at that time that the interview process for the Match was going to look very different. We wanted to help prepare our students for this new era of residency interviewing. So, some of the topics in our video series address those aspects: how to prepare your physical space for a virtual interview, how to address the clinical pause, or time away from rotations due to COVID-19, and how you spent your time and what activities you engaged in during the height of the pandemic. We also recognized that the universal challenges of interviewing that existed before the pandemic would still affect our students in this new environment, like the “tell me about yourself” question and being asked to describe your strengths and weaknesses. We tried to be all-encompassing in terms of how to best prepare students for both existing and new challenges.
Dr. Enright: I agree. The videos in the series will help you navigate the virtual environment and prepare you to answer common and behavioral interview questions so that you can do your best in both in-person and virtual interviews.
Q: What are the pros and cons of interviewing virtually?
Ms. Cardello: The most obvious pro is the cost and time savings associated with not having to travel, book hotel rooms and pay for flights, which yielded far less expense for students. Also, being in the comfort of your own home can help lessen anxiety a little bit. However, I do think that there’s a myth among students that virtual interviews are less anxiety- and stress-provoking and I don’t necessarily think that’s the case. These interviews are high stakes and there’s a lot of anxiety leading up to the day itself and during the interview, so I don’t know if they are less stressful or time consuming, but the elimination of travel and that time and expense is a positive.
Dr. Enright: One negative is that students won’t be able to see a program in-person and could miss out on culture and feel. Some programs have done a great job of introducing their culture through the virtual format, but, especially earlier on in the pandemic, not being able to get a sense of a program in-person was looked upon as a con.
Q: One of the helpful points made in the series is how to answer what many consider a difficult question—what is your greatest weakness? One of the videos recommends answering this question with a personal, not medical, weakness or area for growth. Can you elaborate a bit on how best to answer this question?
Dr. Enright: Yes, this answer needs to demonstrate that you’ve thought about yourself and your personal growth beyond just medical knowledge, which all residents are there to learn. Saying, “I need to read more and broaden my differentials,” is a common answer, but a more thoughtful answer will give insight into how you need to improve in other, more specific ways. This question can also be asked less directly. For example, questions like, “What do you need to improve on? What would make you a better resident or physician?” are all asking about your weaknesses, so be prepared to answer different iterations of this question as well.
Ms. Cardello: I think where the challenge comes in for some students is that they forget the second part to this answer, which is critical. What I mean by the second part is focusing not only on describing your weakness but on what you learned, how it will make you a better resident, how you grew from the experience and how you can demonstrate perseverance. As Dr. Enright said, this relates not only to questions about what your weaknesses are, but to any question that can be perceived as “negative,” any question that gives you a little knot in your stomach, like tell us about a challenging time, challenges you’ve overcome, a difficult patient or a time you worked on a team that didn’t necessarily go well. Addressing the second part—how did you grow and what did you learn—is so critical, and that’s what students sometimes forget to include.
Dr. Enright: Yes, that’s the whole behavioral interviewing question “sandwich,” as I call it. Behavioral interviewing questions are the most difficult to answer, so if you can master that “sandwich,” you’ll set yourself up for success. First, you describe the situation, then your part in it, and lastly, as Lisa points out, what you learned that made you better or helped you improve. Mastering that type of answer will help you even when you aren’t asked direct behavioral interview questions. You can provide much more in-depth answers to your questions, behavioral or not, when you prepare in this way.
Q: One of the videos recommends that medical students preparing for residency interviews do a social media audit to make sure they are presenting themselves in the best light. What are residency programs looking for from a student’s social media accounts, and how can a student ensure their social media presence is helping, rather than harming, them?
Ms. Cardello: The key here is for students to remember that they are presenting themselves to a future employer. What you are presenting in an interview and on your application should be consistent with your presence everywhere else, including online. In the career development realm, we refer to this as “personal branding,” which includes how you promote yourself, your values and what you’re going to bring to your future employer, your residency program. So, if you are trying to represent yourself as a mature and responsible young adult who is committed to serving the community, but your social media has questionable or inappropriate content that isn’t in line with the presence you’re trying to convey, there is inconsistency in the personal brand you’re trying to sell. I recommend that students keep their social media bare bones during interview season, and that’s because something you may not perceive as inappropriate could be perceived differently by a program. A lot of students now are creating secondary social media accounts, especially on Instagram, and use those to follow programs and engage with residents and program directors. That could be a wise strategy, keeping your professional and personal accounts separate.
Q: Another very helpful tip made in the series was about questions related to what a student did during COVID-19. It was recommended that students not feel obligated to share their own or their family’s personal health struggles related to the pandemic during their interview. What might be helpful to discuss instead?
Dr. Enright: You could mention any volunteering you’ve done if you worked at a vaccination or testing center while remaining virtual. Some students didn’t have the ability to volunteer, and if you have a high-risk family member, you may have chosen not to, but maybe you went above and beyond academically during this time. I think this question is being asked less frequently now. Students who are interviewing during this cycle have been active clinically all along and didn’t necessarily have a pause, or they had a pause when they were doing schoolwork and not clinical rotations, so this question is a bit less common this year than it was last year.
Ms. Cardello: In some ways I think the strategy for this question will be similar to the strategies we were referring to earlier with behavioral interviewing. Can you take the negative and highlight a positive aspect? The pandemic was and continues to be a challenging time for all of us but were you able to seize the opportunity to do some of the activities that Dr. Enright referred to: the vaccine clinics, the PPE drives or any other chances to do some good? Again, this question will let you highlight some positives in a very negative situation.
Q: Do you have any other advice you would like to share?
Dr. Enright: It is so important for students to be on top of things administratively right now. This is the time to be watching your emails, keeping track of your acceptances and interview preparations and researching and reviewing the residency programs you’re interviewing with. We have a document on the AACOM video series web page to help with this, but above all else, read and reread the details of the emails with interviews you’re getting. Staying on top of the logistical details is so important.
Ms. Cardello: Be yourself and be authentic. A big part of this process is finding the program that will be the right fit. It’s a two-way street and you’ve worked hard to get to this point, so be authentic and be yourself so that you find a program where the learning environment will be safe and supportive and where you’ll learn and grow. Also, trust your advisors. They have tremendous experience and know what they’re doing, so ask them any personal and individualized questions you might have, such as how many interviews you should be going on, if you need a parallel plan and how to assess fit at a particular program. Those are all important topics you can talk through with advisors at your school. Utilize those resources and trust their experience and advice.
View AACOM’s Virtual Interview Video Series to help you successfully navigate the nuances of virtual interviews and to learn tips and tricks for leveraging technology, making a positive impression and being prepared for the tough questions you may be asked.