Fourth-year medical students are accustomed to uncertainty: traveling to new hospitals and services every month for audition rotations, applying to residency and anxiously wondering which programs will offer an interview. Ultimately, we’re wondering where the next several years of our clinical training will be spent. However, no previous class of fourth-years ever endured the virtual residency interview format that has become the norm for the 2020-21 application cycle. This new process has come with ups and downs, and a new way of approaching the Match.
Ask any resident how they knew that their program was the perfect match for them, and many will offer some variation of “the feeling I got on interview day.” The feeling of belonging that applicants get when they interact with program staff, faculty and residents is something every fourth-year entering the interview cycle dreams about — the excitement of falling in love with a program where you know you will thrive (accompanied by the anxiety of wondering if the feeling is mutual).
When the decision was made to hold virtual interviews last year, the stress of potentially never truly getting to experience that feeling, partnered with other thoughts (such as the possibility of seeing the program and associated clinical sites matched at for the first time at orientation) seemed overwhelming.
The notable constant that has run through each of my interviews is how deeply programs care about making the day as informative and personable as possible despite the limitations imposed by a virtual format. It is clear that they too feel the constraints of virtual interviews but have done their best to adjust and create a sufficient experience for applicants. I have continued to be impressed by the resilience of both programs and applicants as we adapted to make this match cycle a success for both parties.
A typical interview day is hard to describe because each program has made its interview day unique. I have had some that were two hours long and others that lasted five hours. A handful opened with information sessions, while others dove straight into interviews. Some had Q&A sessions with residents the night before interviews, and others built such sessions into the interview day. Some featured recorded video tours of the facilities or skipped tours altogether. One interview even had a resident run around the hospital with their phone camera to give us a live tour! The interview platforms have also varied, from Zoom breakout rooms to Microsoft Teams links. For this interview season, anything goes.
Program directors have indicated an interest in continuing to use virtual interviews as part of the process beyond the pandemic. Here are some tips for future applicants:
Tip 1 — Do not overapply: In prior years, accepting an interview invitation meant applicants were prepared to drop everything and spend money to travel to that program. As such, they had to thoughtfully consider where they applied and whether the program was truly somewhere that they saw themselves training. The virtual format eliminates the financial, time and travel barriers that may have otherwise deterred applicants from applying to programs, particularly programs they may have a low probability of actually ranking.
The virtual interview format indulges the natural temptation candidates may have to overapply. This is a self-centered approach to application season that takes interview slots away from others, requires programs to review applications of uninterested candidates and leads those who engage in it to interview burnout. I urge applicants to thoughtfully consider where they apply, ensuring that they are seriously considering all programs on their list. Trust me, by the end of interview season you will be thankful that you only applied to programs you are excited about.
Tip 2 — Read all emails carefully: This one seems obvious, but with a virtual interview format, it is easy to overlook an email that contains a link needed to access an interview. Additionally, because of the virtual nature of interviews, many programs required paperwork to be filled out and sent back prior to interview day, rather than having applicants sign paperwork in person. More than once I overlooked emails until the day before an interview and found myself scrambling to find a printer or worrying that a program coordinator mistook my lack of a prompt response for disinterest. Do not make my mistakes. Read all emails thoroughly as soon as possible, mark them as important or unread for easy access, and send back paperwork in a timely manner!
Tip 3 — Dress for success: As temperatures drop and winter presses on, it is tempting to dress professionally from the waist up while wearing your warmest sweatpants and slippers. More than once I had to convince myself to wear my entire interview suit, especially during the week when our furnace was acting up and it was below 60 degrees in our home. Although no one has asked me to stand up and show them my outfit (yet), I am a firm believer that if you look good, you will be more confident, so make your entire outfit professional. The only exception I’ve made is wearing fuzzy, warm socks on particularly cold mornings, because if a program doesn’t approve of fuzzy socks, they might not be the best fit for me anyway.
Tip 4 — Charge your electronics: Having your laptop fully charged (and ideally plugged in) is a no-brainer for virtual interview season. However, another electronic device that should be ready is your cell phone. During one of my interview days, my computer froze and I had to restart it. This made me late when I attempted to join the room for an interview with a program faculty member. Fortunately, the program coordinator had our phone numbers and we had hers, so I was able to quickly call her to explain the issue. I reconnected quickly and everything turned out fine, but if I had not had my phone next to me and charged, this may have added stress to an already panic-inducing situation. On a related note, it is wise to write down any relevant contact information on a piece of paper in the event of technological failures.
Tip 5 — Set up your space: Based on a number of considerations, including noise level, seating background and lighting, there is a high likelihood that you will be at the same desk or tabletop in the same room of your home for every interview. Meetings may start to blend together in your mind even more than they would in a year with in-person interviews because there aren’t as many space differentiators, so immediate reflection and good note-taking could be vital.
However, using the same location for each meeting does afford applicants the chance to set up an ideal space that has everything you may need. For example, I kept paper next to me during all of my interviews to jot down facts about the program that were not on the website, questions as they arose and answers to those questions. The ability to take notes during interviews is one positive aspect of the virtual setting, and I hope that these notes will help me make those tough rank list decisions when the time comes. I also had places for drinks, snacks and tissues on my desk, which came in handy. Make your space a place that will help you feel comfortable and ready.
Tip 6 — Reflect: Gauging one’s fit with each program during virtual interviews is challenging. In a normal application season, applicants rely on a single interview day experience to color the entire program for them, and the virtual interview process gives applicants even less data to construct their understanding of each program. Admittedly, I find myself naturally drawn to programs whose interviewers seemed enthusiastic, outgoing and bubbly. It seems that virtual interviews may favor programs whose interviewers possess certain personality characteristics that do not necessarily relate to a quality of “fit” for each candidate.
That being said, it is not all about perceived fit. Program content is also important in deciding which programs make it to the top of a rank list. Curriculum, community and patient population — among other factors — can help applicants figure out where they belong and have been important considerations as my husband and I determine where we would like to continue our training. These aspects are easy to convey virtually.
It’s unclear what the 2021-22 interview season will be like for applicants. However, after experiencing roughly two-thirds of this season, I can say that while not ideal, the virtual format has provided applicants with a solid understanding of each program’s unique strengths and weaknesses. Nothing can truly replace in-person interviews, so I commend my peers in the 2020-21 application cycle for accepting the virtual format with grace and understanding as we continue to fight this pandemic.
Cynthia Ciccotelli is the student member of the AAFP Board of Directors.
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