Fourth-year medical students dreaming about life after graduation usually spend fall planning for the next step in their careers: residency.
These programs give doctors hands-on training and require aspiring M.D.s go through an application process similar to medical school. Students submit applications, letters of recommendation and other material and then interview at programs, typically between October and January.
Interviews are not required, but they can be a critical way to determine if a student is a good fit for a program.
"A program director is not likely to rank an applicant who has not interviewed with the program," says Mona Signer, the executive director of the National Resident Matching Program. "It's just like any job interview. Would you hire somebody you hadn't interviewed if you were a supervisor?"
[Have a successful med school admissions interview.]
Senior medical students in the U.S. who ultimately matched with a program attended a median 11 interviews in 2013, according to the NRMP.
After interviewing with different programs, students rank each program of interest and programs rank them. In March, medical students find out where they matched.
"The more interviews people go on, the greater their chance is of matching in a residency," says Jessica Freedman, author of "The Residency Interview: How To Make the Best Possible Impression."
Graduating medical students can use these three tips to prepare for interviews, experts say.
1. Know the questions and how to answer: Every interviewer has a different style, but there are a few questions typically asked during a residency interview, experts say.
"Where do you see yourself in the future?" is one common question, says Freedman. Interviewers will also often say, "Tell me about yourself."
Even though much of an applicant's general interests and background are in the application, interviewers are often too busy to thoroughly read it, Freedman says. Students should be prepared to repeat this information.
"Let them know where you're from. Let them know when your interest in your specialty started. Maybe let them know what your hobbies are. Kind of try to give them a complete picture of who you are," Freedman says.
[Consider a master of public health in addition to an M.D.]
Students should also be prepared to discuss any glitches in their academic record, such as a leave of absence from school, and why a certain specialty appeals to them, says Gregory Unruh, an anesthesiologist and associate dean for graduate medical education at University of Kansas Medical Center.
"I would ask them: Why do you fit in anesthesiology? What do you like about it? What's your skill set that matches with the practice of anesthesiology? And that could be translated into any specialty," says Unruh. "Do your homework about the program."
2. Have some questions of your own: Students should feel free to make the interview a two-way conversation and ask about aspects of the program they may be less knowledgeable about, experts say.
"You'd like to know how big the faculty is, the diversity of the faculty, what specialties and sub-specialties they represent," says Unruh.
To learn more about the medical work being done where the program takes place, students can ask about research being conducted, he says.
Unruh also suggests students ask questions about the program's structure. "How do they teach professionalism, leadership, presentation skills?" he says. "Those are all subcategories of the structure of the educational program."
The wrong questions, though, could reveal a student's lack of preparation.
"Asking basic things that are on the website is probably not a good idea," says Pamela Davis, dean of the school of medicine and vice president for medical affairs at Case Western Reserve University.
[Learn to balance a personal life and medical school.]
Applicants should also avoid asking questions that are too casual or informal, which can sometimes happen when the interviewer is a young resident, says Freedman, who also helps students prepare for interviews through her company MedEdits Medical Admissions.
"Like asking them about their personal life or, let's say, talking to a resident about the bar scene in that city," she says. "It's important that the applicant always maintain an air of formality."
3. Participate in practice interviews: Medical students can test out the residency interview process by doing mock interviews, experts say. Students should go to their student affairs office to find someone experienced in residency interviews to practice with, says Freedman.
Once they get an idea of what the interview is like, they can rehearse with friends, but should be careful to avoid one of the traps of repetition. "It's important to never memorize answers," she says.
Interviews should be like conversations, she says. Students should try not to be too anxious. Practicing what they want to express during an interview may help students to be less nervous about the process, Freedman says.
"It just allows you to then walk into an interview and to have more comfort in speaking," she says.
Searching for a medical school? Get our complete rankings of Best Medical Schools.