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Interview Series: Tips to Answer Five Common Medical School and Residency Interview Questions

Disclaimer: This post was written before the COVID-19 pandemic. Some of the interview information may not be relevant during the 2020-2021 & 2021-2022 academic years.

Now that it’s the heart of interview season for both medical school applicants and residency applicants, I wanted to share some tips on how to answer commonly asked interview questions. I love advising students with their medical school and residency applications. I’ve been coaching students to improve their interview skills through advising at Cracking Med School Admissions, holding interview preparation seminars at university pre-med clubs, and mentoring pre-meds from Stanford University where I went to medical school.

Similar to writing an essay, I view interviewing as a self-improvement journey. Some individuals are more natural at interviewing than others, especially if they are good storytellers or if they have had a lot of exposure to discussion classes and debates. However, I’m a firm believer that everyone can improve their interviewing skills.

5 common questions I will discuss in this blog post are:

1) Tell me about yourself?

2) Why do you want to come to this school? or Why do you want to come to this residency program?

3) Where do you see yourself in 10 years?

4) Do you have any questions for me?

5) What do you like to do for fun?

For each question, I will give general tips, some common mistakes I’ve seen applicants make, and specific advice for medical school and residency applicants. I love the SheMD community! Please add additional tips and advice for medical school and resident applicants through the comments in this article.

Before I delve into how to answer specific medical interview questions, I want to discuss some elements that I feel strong interviewees possess:

- They can clearly and confidently convey why they are pursuing this career and why the program / school they are applying for is a good fit.

- They can clearly and confidently convey what they will do in the future.

- They are extremely personable and mature.

- They come off as friendly - somebody you want to talk to and somebody you want to get to know better. Medical schools and residency programs want interesting people who will add to the community.

Common Question #1: Tell me about yourself?

General Tips:

Briefly talk about your background, where you’re from, and where you went for undergraduate and graduate schools. This needs to be a strong opener. This question sets up the interviewer’s next question. So, whatever you say in this interview answer is really important! Think of topics you want your interviewer to ask you about. For instance, let’s say you did a really cool health education project in college; you need to bring up this activity during “Tell me about yourself?” so your interviewer can ask you more detailed questions about the project in the following questions. More importantly, you have to explain why you are interested in medicine and what you want to do in the future.

Common Mistakes:

No substance and no vision about who you are. Response is too long. I have interviewed students who spent 7 minutes answering this question! One mistake I see when I conduct mock interviews is that the applicants don’t include why they want to go into medicine. When I asked, “why?,” their responses were, “Oh, I was waiting for you to ask me, ‘why do I want to pursue medicine?’” Don’t make this mistake. You may not get asked “why medicine?” or “why do you want to pursue this specific field of medicine?”

Tips for Medical School Applicants:

Most good answers for this question include what motivated the student to pursue medicine. It can be a sick family member, your own personal health injuries, or a mentor from college. Spend 1-3 sentences discussing your motivation to go into medicine. For example, one student talked about taking care of a grandmother with Alzheimer’s. Paint a clear vision of what part of medicine you’re interested in.

Tips for Residency Applicants:

Have a clear view of what you will do after residency. Why are you interested in this field? Talk about your major extra-curricular activities and research in the department. For example, one medical school student I recently interviewed who was applying for internal medicine – primary care spoke about her research with transgender individuals and their perceptions of sexual health. She wants to continue doing research with transgender individuals and sexual health throughout residency.

Common Question #2: Why do you want to come to this school? or Why do you want to come to this residency program?

General Tips:

Your response to this question needs to be specific. This might be your one shot to convince the admissions committee why you want to go to this specific school. So, make it count. You want your answer to stand out, and the key to this is to chat about what you specifically want to pursue at the institution you’re applying to. Read the tips below about how you can make your responses for medical school and residency interviews more specific.

Common Mistakes:

The biggest mistake I see applicants make is that their answers are too vague or too common. For example, for pre-meds applying to medical school, the most common responses I hear are: a) early exposure to medicine and b) lots of research opportunities. These reasons are TOO common. I can’t think of one medical school that doesn’t have a great clinical training program and research opportunities.

Tips for Medical School Applicants:

Research what you want to do in the medical school. Who are the doctors and which departments do you specifically want to do research with? Think more broadly about what the university has to offer. Do you want to do anything with the public health school? Business school? Public policy school?

Tips for Residency Applicants:

Know the department in depth. Know the chair and different attendings you’ll work with. Who are the specific professors who you want to work with or potentially do research with in the future? What makes the program’s curriculum unique? For example, some surgery programs have an extra research year. In emergency medicine, some programs are 3 years long while others are 4 years long. Are there cool electives you can do? One of my friends in internal medicine pursued a one-month health policy elective and worked with a state legislature to learn more about policy. Another emergency medicine colleague I knew did a 2-week rotation in South America to teach ultrasound to physicians. Electives can round out your clinical training and also help differentiate you for future fellowships and jobs.

Common Question #3: Where do you see yourself in 10 years?

General Tips:

Paint a clear vision of what you want to do. Yes, it’s important to keep an open mind. But, I’ve seen the best interviewees be able to articulate a clear vision of what he or she wants to do. If you want to stand out, walk your interviewer through what you think your journey will be throughout medical school and residency. How will that specific medical school or residency program help you achieve that goal?

Common Mistakes:

Lack of specificity is the most common mistake I hear in this response. Frequently, I hear pre-meds say, “I want to be a primary care physician who works with the underserved.” That’s great. But, a better and more nuanced answer will be more specific. How do you want to help the underserved? Do you want to work with homeless shelters? Are you going to do research regarding access to care? Are you going to work with the County’s Public Health department and improve accessibility to healthy foods? Are you going to improve access to medications among underserved populations?

Tips for Medical School Applicants:

What you want to be involved with in medical school needs to match what you want to do 10 years from now. For example, if you’re interested in drug discovery, you can talk about labs you want to potentially research with during medical school. And speaking of specificity, are there any specific type of drug or mechanism of action you’re interested in?

Tips for Residency Applicants:

Have some idea of what you want to do after residency. Perhaps you are interested in pursuing a fellowship. What type of fellowship? Again, what do you want to do in residency that will help you accomplish your future career goals in 10 years? One individual I knew wanted to run his own clinic or hospital. Therefore, he worked with the primary care innovation department and learned hospital administration and clinical operations during his residency. If you want to stay in academic medicine, what percentage of your time do you envision yourself doing research versus clinical medicine versus teaching. Are you going to have a niche within your field?

Common Question #4: Do you have any questions for me?

General Tips:

Be prepared. Students often don’t prepare for this question and they are caught off guard, frequently asking the interviewer very generalized, generic questions. If your interviewer talks about himself or herself during the interview, don’t be afraid to ask follow-up questions about his or her career. For example, let’s say your interviewer mentions the oncological research she is involved in. If you’re interested in oncology or cancer research, ask more questions about her research. If you’re interested more generally in becoming an academic medicine physician, then you can ask a question like, “how do you balance your research time and your clinical practice time?”

If you are able to, research your interviewers beforehand. Some medical schools and residencies give you a list of individuals you will be interviewing with throughout the interview day. Do a brief google search on that person and see what her interests are in medicine. This way, you can ask more targeted questions during your interview.

Common Mistakes:

Students don’t ask ANY follow-up questions. At the minimum, you can always ask your interviewer what’s his or her favorite aspect about the medical school. Always ask at least one question.

Tips for Medical School Applicants:

If you have a medical student interviewing you, ask more about the traditions and the culture of the medical school student body. Many pre-meds have friends who are 1-2 years older, and they will not know too much about clinical rotations. If you meet older medical school students on the interview trail, these are definitely great topics to talk about! For example, you can ask about unique elective opportunities or what hospitals medical school students rotate at.

Ask for advice on how to pursue the type of career you’re interested in. You can ask how your faculty interviewer divides her time between research versus teaching versus involvement in community programs.

Tips for Residency Applicants:

Target different questions to residents, junior faculty, and the chair of the department. For residents, you can ask more about boards review, unique electives, and where the current residents live. For junior faculty members, you can ask about support for research projects. For department chairs, think bigger picture; ask questions about bigger changes in the department. For example, in emergency medicine, some emergency departments are expanding their EDs.

Think about finding a job post-residency. Some questions you can ask related to this are:

What percentage of residents who graduate from this program pursue jobs in academia versus jobs in community settings?

What percentage of residents who graduate from this program pursue fellowships? What are some of the fellowships that the residents have pursued the past 3 years and where do they usually match for fellowships?

Where do most people practice after residency? Do they stay around the area?

Common Question #5: What do you like to do for fun?

General Tips:

When you give your response to this answer, your interviewer is wondering, “Is this somebody I want to work with and have conversations with even at midnight when we are working overnights together?” Be professional and personable.

As much as possible, the more specific you are with your activities, the better. For example, one common response I get from applicants when I ask them this question is, “I like trying new restaurants and I like hiking.” That’s an okay answer, but it has no substance. A better answer I’ve heard from applicants is, “I love cooking and I recently got into sous vide. Have you heard of it? [start a conversation with the interviewer] With my new sous vide machine, I’m cooking steaks and different fish.” The latter answer opens up a conversation with the interviewer and it sounds more interesting. You may even teach your interviewer something or start exchanging recipes!

Common Mistakes:

Keep your hobbies relevant to the location of the area! Don’t say you really love to ski if you’re applying to a Florida medical school or residency program.

Tips for Medical School Applicants:

If possible, try to link what you like to do for fun with things you can do during medical school. For example, let’s say you’re interviewing in Los Angeles and your hobby is, “I love hiking.” Talk about some hikes that you want to explore during medical school around Southern California. Or, if you’re already from Los Angeles, share your favorite hikes with your interviewer!

Tips for Residency Applicants:

Think about the one or two hobbies that will keep you sane during your rough residency schedule. If you like running 5k’s and you hope to continue doing that in residency, you should talk about that in your interview!

Have questions about your medical school and residency interviews? You can reach me at

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