Six top tips to help navigate interview season

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Ahh October… The air is a bit cooler; pumpkin spice is in everything; and leaf colors are more dazzling. It’s interview season! If you’re an applicant to vascular surgery residency programs, this month’s writeup is for you. There is such a thing as the “medi-clone”—you know, the typical applicant who looks just like the rest on paper: good grades, strong work ethic, maybe a publication, some hobbies. Well, how do you stand out from the crowd during interviews? What follows is not a 10-step formula but just some guidance on how to interview well and—hopefully—successfully this season.

1. Remember, love is a two-way street

While it may seem that the interview is primarily about the program getting to know you, remember that you’re not, and should not be, a passive observer in the process. Come prepared to each program interview day—especially the programs that you’re excited about. What does this mean, practically? It means you research the program. Look up website information; reach out to friends at the institution, if you know any; do a quick PubMed search to find the most recent papers written by the attendings or residents. The prepared applicant will always outshine the one who’s just there for the vibes—always. The number one question that should be going through your mind on interview day is whether you can see yourself as a resident there day-in, day-out for the next five-to-seven years. Put yourself in the current intern’s role. Ask them what it’s like, even if it’s your home institution; you’d be surprised at what you can learn about your program by investing time to truly know them.

2. If you wrote it, you should know it

If it’s in writing, it’s fair game for questioning. Don’t be the interviewee who lists things on their application they can’t talk about to some depth. Study your application and make sure you are well versed in the experiences, research, or extracurricular activities that you list. If you were only peripherally involved in something you listed, there is no shame in clarifying the role you played. Honesty is the best policy here. On this note, don’t be shy about “nerding” out when asked about your research, hobbies or interests. Chances are good that the attending asking reviews for prestigious surgical or science journals and may be familiar with your work, or your hobby is a common interest. You never know. So, be passionate about your application.

3. Everybody counts

Respect everyone you meet on your interview day—from the administrative staff to the division chairperson. Think about it: these people are the ones you’ll interact with as a resident for the next few years. They’ll become your biggest cheerleader and keep you on track when you get overwhelmed with residency. Some of them even manage the program director’s schedule and have a level of access to the director you can only dream of. Therefore, on interview day, everyone’s opinion matters and the people whom you think rank lower on the pecking order, may actually wield more veto power than you realize. Vascular is a small world and that is especially true within institutions.

4. What’s that in your background?

The era of virtual interviews means that programs get to glimpse a little bit about you in a way that they wouldn’t have been able to if you were in person. Make sure that your background speaks to your strengths. Do you like to read? Maybe have some of your favorite books in the background. Do you paint or do crafts? Displaying your work can be a neat icebreaker. My point here is that you should be aware of what’s in your virtual background and use it to your advantage. It’s an innocuous way to let programs know a little about you.

5. Consider the tangible intangibles

At some point midway through interview season, all programs will start to sound the same. The truth is that all programs have to meet accreditation standards in order to train you into a vascular surgeon. As a result, you’ll get a standard surgical training wherever you end up. This is not to diminish the unique strengths of individual programs. My point here is that outside of academics, there are things you ought to consider during the interview. For example: Where do most residents live? Do you need a car? How far away is the grocery store? How close are you to the outdoors? To an airport? Do you have family or friends nearby? How far away is the nearest gym? All of these things are what I call “tangible intangibles”—things that are seemingly surmountable but may wind up swaying your decision or impression of a program. Don’t sleep on this. Jot down your list after each interview. Trust me. It will help you later when you are ranking the amazing programs you interviewed at.

6. Be considerate

Finally, you may be one of the lucky few who get a lot of interviews. If that is you, and there are programs that you know don’t get you excited (or are in a place you would not consider for residency), then be considerate of your less fortunate peers and open up that spot for someone else. You’ll save yourself and the program time and energy and someone will be a grateful recipient of your largesse— even if they never find out. With this inexhaustive list, good luck this interview season!

Christopher Audu, MD, is an integrated vascular surgery resident at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

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