Updated: Feb 25
The COVID19 pandemic quickly pushed us into living in an era of Zoom, FaceTime, Teams, GoToMeeting, Skype… etc, etc video conferences. In today's blog post, Dr. Amanda Xi shares functional tips on how to best interview for residency in this virtual/ZOOM era, including tips on lighting, backgrounds and virtual interview pearls.
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Suddenly, we are all masters at learning where the “mute” button is and how to find and use the “hand raise” function. Even little kids are learning that the “mute” button is an important way to maintain civility and order in the virtual classroom. It’s a weird time we live in.
Interviewing is … different
This year poses an interesting challenge for applicants to medical school, residency, fellowship and jobs in general. From the interviewee perspective, there are certain inherent benefits of virtual interviews: cost-savings from not having to travel, ease of scheduling [mostly from the lack of travel], and ability to interview in a more comfortable space. From an interviewer perspective, the virtual format may allow for more interviews to be scheduled, the interview “day” can be shortened [no need to travel from location to location or a tour on the day of!], and interviewers do not have to be local to the organization [I am especially excited about this since I’m now reviewing and interviewing for my medical school, OUWB!].
But there are also a lot of downsides. I loved 4th year because of the opportunity to travel across the country to explore new areas, meet my fellow applicants and current residents, as well as check out the hospital I might be [practically] living in for the next 4 years of my life [there is a reason it’s called residency… we’re basically residing in the hospital during this training]. Premeds applying to medical school, medical students applying to residency, and residents applying to fellowship will not have these opportunities in the new virtual format.
What this post is about
I’ve had pretty extensive experience with Zoom in the last year – I planned and ran all of the Zoom programming for the AMWA Virtual Meeting, have been designing ACGME Zoom meetings, and I’ve also been running Virtual Preop Call Program sessions over Zoom. To say I’ve spent a lot of time on the platform is an understatement [though, since I’m still a full-time clinician, I haven’t spent as much time on the platform as individuals working from home OR students on Zoom school – for those individuals… I’m sorry]. So, I’ve interacted with a lot of people on Zoom and have formulated some opinions on how individuals choose to present themselves on the platform.
This post is meant to focus on your appearance on video conferencing platforms, most specifically, Zoom. It’s meant to be light-hearted, sarcastic, and opinionated. Just remember that I’m speaking for myself and NOT on behalf of an institution, or organization. These are just some of the thoughts that have crossed my mind and that undoubtedly have biased my opinion of the individuals I've met over the virtual platform. I am interviewing (as an interviewer) for both my medical school and residency programs, so if you encounter me as an interviewer, these are things I’ll be thinking of.
I’ll also insert some general, unsolicited interview advice along the way, but make sure you’ve checked out my interview entry for more in-depth analysis of my interview tips.
So, let’s begin.
Zoom Faux Pas
[i.e. how to be the best version of yourself over Zoom]
Let’s start with Figure 1. What do you see that’s sub-optimal? Here’s what I notice:
Camera is too low and facing up
Facial expression is not welcoming
Am I outside in a treehouse? What is going on with this setting!?
It’s backlit; the image is extremely washed out
So I purposely took this screenshot to highlight easy things that can be optimized when you setup your Zoom interview area. These are things like:
Camera height – make sure it is somewhat level with your eyes/face. You want to show your best self, which is typically not a view up your nostrils.
Facial expression – this also goes for in real life; appearing bored, uninterested, or unimpressed are typically not very welcoming expressions. Be excited to be there and have the opportunity to meet someone new. Be excited for your future job prospect.
Location – when I’m on a conference where I’m not speaking or broadcasting my video, I absolutely try to take advantage of any new setting I can. So this can mean sitting outside on the apartment patio. But when I’m going to be on a serious call where I’m either giving a talk, or interviewing, I sit in a space that is designed for these purposes.
Lighting – I highly recommend getting a ring light [not just one that sits on your laptop since the distance cannot be adjusted on that, so many people end up very washed out when using those] and placing it behind your camera to optimize lighting on your face. Additionally, try to avoid sitting in front of a window [with the window BEHIND you; if the window is IN FRONT of you, it usually does a nice job] because this often causes the backlit problem.
Here’s what my setup looks like:
Yes, Starbucks is a necessity as are the critical care review books I use to prop my laptop on to achieve the optimal height!
Let’s move on to another example.
What do we think of Figure 2? Here’s what I see:
Much better level and lighting than the previous
What’s up with that smirk?
What’s going on behind me? Am I trespassing?
The main thing I wanted to show through this photo was a distracting background. I believe that it’s important to find a space that has limited items in the background to distract the interviewer. With this background, the first question that comes to mind is, “Where are you?!” then afterwards, it can be challenging to focus on the interviewee if anything changes or moves within the frame of the video. In this particular setting, I am sitting in front of a main walkway and are at a high risk of having someone randomly walk behind me. Those types of distractions can throw off both the interviewer AND interviewee.
An aside – we are all human and acknowledge that there can be limitations on securing a perfect interview space. I think it’s okay to warn an interviewer that you have children in the other room or pets that like to randomly appear out of nowhere. I suggest minimizing distractions because you want to maximize your time during the interview and distractions can change that dynamic. I also think that certain interruptions could bias an interviewer. I personally love meeting children or pets, but I am also very realistic about how old-school medicine can be… thus, my advice to interviewees is to accept these potential biases exist and work within them… until you’re in a position to change them.
Let’s look at another:
What I see is:
Am I hiding in blades of grass?
Still… the smirk.
A lot of individuals have been relying on virtual backgrounds to hide distracting items within the video’s view. While I have seen some incredibly lifelike and realistic looking virtual backgrounds that would be appropriate as a last ditch effort, I also feel that they can be distracting in themselves. The issue is that most individuals do not have a green screen and thus every movement requires the computer to decide how to frame the individual. This can lead to some odd looking cutouts of the interviewee. Personally, I find virtual backgrounds more distracting than normal backgrounds.
I have heard that many medical schools are offering rooms for virtual interviews to be conducted; personally I think if this is an option, you should utilize it. Otherwise, I think it’s important to optimize the setting that you use for your interview as much as you can. If this means moving furniture [yes, I did this; my dining table is awkwardly in the middle of the living room in order to minimize the amount of background items in my video], then do it. Remember that interviewing is a temporary thing, so the feng shui of your room will only be off for a little while.
How about another?
The things I notice here:
Camera height is good
Facial expression is much more inviting
Still… the background could be improved
Who’s amanda eleven? She’s got a nice profile photo though!
If you’ll be relying on Zoom to conduct your interviews, you should take a moment to create a Zoom account and download the software to the computer you’ll be using for interviews. When you create your Zoom account, go to your profile settings and change your photo to a professional headshot. This will then show up every time you turn off your video and will also appear on the participant list. This is a helpful reminder for individuals who are trying to connect a face with a name during the interview season.
Another area that I haven’t seen as many issues with but encounter periodically is the naming on Zoom. It’s really easy to rename yourself [just right click on your video in an active session OR go to participants and highlight your name]. Make sure you have your full name listed on Zoom prior to an interview.
How about one final one?
Here’s what I see:
Appropriate height of camera
Not backlit [though I could’ve done better with the ambient lighting to avoid the shadow behind me]
This is my example of what I [personally] consider to be optimized. I’m in the middle of the screen, I’m not just a floating head, my background is white and I have a light illuminating my face. I am smiling and ready to take on any question that comes my way.
Some additional tips
Use a laptop/computer Your ability to be facile with muting and unmuting, the chat function and so many other things will be much better on a laptop/computer. You should use your cell phone or tablet as a backup plan if your computer were to crash and burn or if the internet goes out.
Find a good internet connection The worst feeling is trying to have a conversation with someone who is going in and out because of a poor internet connection. It really messes up the cadence and mood of a conversation when the screen is periodically freezing or you cannot hear what is being said. Please, please, please try to find a stable internet connection prior to your interview. If this means going to a friend’s house or your school, consider doing that. I really want you to set yourself up for success during your Zoom interview!
Test out your Bluetooth devices I’ve had a number of instances where individuals will have Airpods or other Bluetooth headphones in that are not appropriately connected to their computer. I’ve also had these devices spontaneously disconnect in the midst of a conversation. Test out your wireless headphones if you plan on relying on them for interviews as this is another potential distraction [if they fail, or cut out, or run out of battery, etc].
Dress the part Yes, this means pants [or suit skirt/dress]. Yes, this means a suit jacket. Yes, this means a tie/bow-tie for men. Conservative attire is generally expected, even in a virtual format. Please treat your virtual interviews like real ones. You wouldn’t go to a real interview in shorts or sweats so don’t go to your virtual one underprepared.
Arrive early Even though it’s virtual… it’s still an interview. By arriving early, you have a few moments to troubleshoot your technology as well as collect your thoughts and ideas. Just don’t be the person the group is “waiting on” as this does not reflect highly on an applicant’s time management skills.
Practice Just like in real life, people will do mock interviews. Make sure you’ve done a mock virtual interview to simulate the feeling and practice your answers. This will also allow you to test your set up, internet, and discover anything else you can optimize prior to the real thing.
…have fun! Yes, there is inherent stress involved with interviewing, but there are also some really awesome people out there that you’re about to have one-on-one time with. Get to know your future colleagues. Dream about what it will feel like to be part of the community of the institution you’re interviewing with. Dream about what it might be like living in that location. Just remember why you’re there in the first place.
This post was initially published on Dr. Amanda Xi's Blog.