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The Basics of Interviewing

Thank you for your dedication and commitment by taking the first step to get closer to your dream – medical residency and fellowship in the United States.

You’ve already taken a great next step – deciding to take this class.

The pathway to post-graduate training is intense and requires focus, time management, working closely with your tutors, and high exam scores. Your practical knowledge will come from practicing diagnoses, treatments, and protocol – the knowledge you’ve been building for years in medical school.

Some of the work is a little harder to accomplish. These are skills you need to practice and get feedback. Decisionmakers call these “people skills.”

Five key concepts to master in this skill set are:

  1. Self confidence
  2. People skills
  3. Communication
  4. Personal leadership
  5. Managing stress, worry, and attitude.

By the end of this module, you will know how to demonstrate self confidence in the interview process. Remember – your CV got you in the door – the interview should seal the deal for your residency.

It can be intimidating to sit down with the Program Director or Residency Acceptance Committee member who might be determining the direction of the rest of your career – let’s provide you with some tools to handle that pressure. By being well prepared, you’ll be more at ease and demonstrate confidence in your interview.

The idea in a residency interview is to show who you are and how much you know in the best way possible. You will demonstrate how you will be an asset to the institution and patients you will treat.

This is the first module of three in our interview prep course. We will explore the interview basics, which are applicable in many settings such as giving a toast at a friend’s wedding, presenting to the board of directors at a different job, just telling a joke over dinner, or interviewing with a busy Program Director at a prestigious teaching hospital – keep what you’re about to learn in mind, and it’ll all go a lot smoother.

Let’s start by exploring the different kinds of nonverbal communication – sitting, posture, body language, facial expressions, and hand gestures, while you talk to your interviewer.

We’ll highlight important things to keep in mind about your speaking voice. And we’ll cover how to best set up your space for online interviews. Finally, we’ll discuss some of the things to think about while you’re answering your interviewer’s questions.

In the next modules, we’ll apply what you’ve learned today and start putting it together with questions to expect from your interviewer. We’ll start with general questions, and then move into more challenging ones. Finally, we’ll review how to connect your answers to the techniques you’ve learned, and next steps you can take on your own.

Non-verbal communication

Research shows that a first impression can take anywhere from three to thirty seconds, with an average of just six seconds. Body language plays a key role in this. Nonverbal communication is a huge part of how humans interact – it can sometimes be even more important than the words you do speak.

According to a 1967 study by body language researcher Albert Mehrabian, 55% of communication is nonverbal. Let’s think about that for a minute – more than half of what you communicate to someone else is done without even speaking a word. This is called “congruency” – making sure that what you’re saying matches how you’re saying it. When these two elements are out of alignment, the message is lost.

Whether you’re interviewing face-to-face or via an online videoconference, so much of what is being said isn’t actually being said at all. How you present yourself throughout your interview will make or break your residency opportunity – this includes your posture, where you look, and the tone of your voice. It also includes things like what you’re wearing.

Everything, down to the smallest detail, can make a big difference. Here’s how to do the best you can when the time comes to interview.

Posture and body language

We’ll start with posture. This is important whether this interview is over the web or in person; the way you sit speaks volumes about how you feel about yourself – and remember – confidence is key. Are you sitting with your back straight, shoulders relaxed, and your head level?

These are indications of self-confidence and comfort and will not only project these feelings but enhance them within yourself as well. If you’re at home on the web, think about sitting on a chair that doesn’t have a back, so that you can’t slouch.

Consider the opposite: hunched back, tight raised shoulders, and head bowed downward. Does this look like the posture of a physician with whom you would entrust your healthcare? Try both postures out yourself to see how they feel. You’ll notice a difference right away – and so will the interviewer on the other side of the desk or video conference.


The next item of importance is eye contact. When you are being interviewed, there is a balance regarding how much eye contact you should maintain with your interviewer. One extreme is prolonged, uncomfortable staring – this could come across as rude or unnatural. The other is minimizing and avoiding eye contact – this makes it seem like you might have something to hide. You don’t want to come across as suspicious. The correct amount is a balance of the two, where you look the interviewer in the eyes with a smile while talking and listening and look away while thinking.

Vocal tonality and rate of speech

Let’s consider – vocal tonality and rate of speech. The optimal tonality is one of conviction and assurance and the rate of speech is moderate. What do I mean by conviction and assurance? Do your sentences sound like statements or questions when you are making a point? This is a critical distinction and shows belief in yourself and what you’re saying.

Accelerated rate of speech is also a telling, negative indicator that betrays anxiety and lack of certainty on the part of the interviewee. Take a breath, a pause, and relax. No one will mind.

While your interview may be limited by time, it isn’t a race to get as many words out as possible. If you give off confidence while speaking, your audience will feel more confident in you.

Fashion and attire

Next, we’ll move onto – fashion and attire.

The key here is to follow the three C’s and one P. These four words should guide the fashion choices you make – however you decide to make them. They are:

  • Competent
  • Confident
  • Credible
  • Professional

Remember – you’re interviewing for a professional position. You’re responsible for the health and lives of your patients. Make sure you acknowledge that in the way you dress not just for your interview, but your career following it.

If you have any doubts or questions, ask someone close to you that you trust how they think your outfit looks.

Interviewing Virtually

When interviewing virtually there’s a couple of additional things you’ll want to keep in mind. Use a familiar space such as your home to control your environment more than if you were conducting the interview in person. Use this to your advantage by following these suggestions.

Your computer’s camera is like your interviewer’s eyes.

It should be roughly level with your eyes, so you’re looking straight into it, like you would if you were talking in person.

It’s best to use a desktop or laptop computer if you can, not a tablet or phone. The connection will generally be better, the battery life will be longer, and the camera will usually be more stable, not shaky.

Before your interview you should find a place that’s quiet and not too distracting. You want to be able to focus on the conversation you’re having, not on whatever’s going on around you.

The background behind you should be simple, not packed with distractions for the person on the other end of the videoconference. Like the points we’ve covered before, the idea is to have you be the focus onscreen, not things happening around or behind you. If you’re at home, try to find somewhere relatively plain, without too many items visible.

Maybe the most important thing about preparing your space is the lighting.

Too dark and you’ll look like you’re in a cave.

Too bright and you’ll look flat.

Too harsh from one side, above, or below, and shadows will take over your face. If you can get it – you want even light that falls across you naturally. If you can’t, try grabbing a table lamp from somewhere in your house to help.


Now that we’ve highlighted some external attributes, let’s transition to your mindset during the interview.

Always remember: you have already finished the difficult part of the process. You have completed multiple years of medical school, taken your board exams, finished the ERAS application, and were selected from a large pool of applicants to attend this interview. You are already good enough to become a member of this program in terms of your CV and accomplishments.

What the interviewers are looking for now is how well you fit with their program in terms of your personality, teamwork, and career goals. Enjoy this part and smile: you get to talk about yourself and get to know your potential future colleagues. Treat this interview as a conversation between two potential co-workers who will make a strong impact on the future of medicine in the field, instead of a serious evaluation on which your entire future lies. Having the proper mindset will make all of the other interview components much more seamless.

Common mistakes

  1. Being robotic and scripted. In an interview, you are demonstrating how you will be as a colleague and as a physician. No patient wants to be cared for by a robotic doctor who isn’t thinking spontaneously. Having a script removes all emotion and connection between you and the interviewer, because you aren’t truly present. You should know the beats of what you want to say without having every word completely memorized.
  2. Don’t try to be perfect. This interview is not about perfection, it’s about making a positive impression on the interviewer and learning more about the residency program. It’s about showing genuine interest. There is no such thing as a perfect conversation. What you’re trying to do is create a connection that leaves a meaningful, positive impact in the interviewer’s mind.
  3. Trying to impress the interviewers with your CV accomplishments. The interviewers are already well acquainted with your CV. That’s why they wanted to meet you. Instead, try to tell stories that demonstrate your strongest qualities, that show how you were inspired to join this field or about your goals in the field, and what differentiates you as a unique individual among so many talented candidates. Shed more light on elements of your CV not by repeating what’s already there, but by demonstrating what you learned or did.
  4. In the case of a digital interview, make sure you’re looking at the camera properly. Avoid looking at yourself on the screen during a zoom interview. You must look at the lens of the camera, otherwise it will appear that you are looking at the interviewer’s lips or chest.

We’ve covered a lot of ground so far. After all this information, you are probably wondering how to put it all together and interview smoothly. This has a few components, the most important of which is lots of practice beforehand.

Practice, practice, practice

Practice does not mean memorization, but instead means preparation leading to comfort with various interview questions. Practice these concepts enough, and they’ll feel more and more natural. This will allow you to answer spontaneously with your personal experiences. This will make the interview much more relaxed and turn into a dialogue between you and the interviewer.

Important: don’t be afraid to ask the interviewer questions about what inspired them and what kind of projects they’re working on now. Get to know your future colleagues and make a personal connection. As an added trick, research your potential interviewers beforehand and read some of their latest publications so that you have an idea of who they are and what their goals are.

If any of these doctors genuinely inspire you, mention this to them and discuss some of your ideas as well.

However, make sure not to pretend to be interested in something if you truly aren’t interested. Authenticity is very important, it’s hard to fake, and your interviewer can instinctively feel it.

The question now is, how often are you practicing in front of a mirror at home? Are you recording yourself? Ideally, you should spend time each day practicing in front of a mirror or with friends or family to hone your interview skills and build an unconscious level of comfort with the process. Analyze not only your words, but your nonverbal communication as well. Ask yourself what improvements you could make? What are your strengths? How much have you improved on a weakness since last time? Could you have said something slightly better? Apply these answers to future practice sessions and interviews.


We’ve now completed discussing the interview preparation essentials. You’re well on your way to being more comfortable in front of a camera or speaking with a residency Program Director face-to-face. Keep all this in mind by getting plenty of practice in, and you’ll be a more confident, more well-rounded interview subject. And by watching the rest of our interview course modules, you’ll ace this important step on your journey to medical residency.