On the Trail: A sophisticated screening program

With sweat on my brow and a pit in my stomach, I waited alongside my fellow med students in a long hallway for residency interview #1.  Never have I felt such a fantastically absurd combination of fear and excitement.  My thoughts raced faster than Dale “The Intimidator” Earnhardt once did during one of his many dominant Nascar performances:

Am I ready for this moment?  Will I get pimped?  How much urology do I actually know?  Holy crap, not that much!  What do I remember about that undergrad research project I did on rat intestines six years ago?  Holy crap, not that much!  What about ethics questions?  Euthanasia is bad, right?  What about abortion?  Do they care about abortion in urology?  Of course, everyone cares about abortion!  But isn’t healthcare policy more relevant right now?  So what do I know about Obamacare?  Wait, should I use the word Obamacare, because it sounds like I watch Fox News.  But what if my interviewer is conservative?  Or liberal?  Or libertarian?  What do libertarian urologists care about?

As I was contemplating the most likely questions asked by a pro-euthanasia, pro-life, libertarian urologist who does research on rat intestines, the door in front of me suddenly opened, and I was warmly greeted by my first interviewer on the trail.

What a relief!  This interviewer was both kind and engaging.  I could tell she had actually read my application (which, I would later find out, is quite rare for urology interviews).  The interview was more fun and provided me with more useful information than I ever could have imagined.

At one point during the interview, she interrupted my nervous rambling, looked me straight in the eyes, and said in a grandmotherly tone, “Don’t worry, these interviews are as much about you getting to know us as they are us getting to know you.”  As I near the end of the interview trail, I can tell you that she is absolutely right.  The way I see it, the interview itself serves two main purposes:

1.      Find the best all-around fit.  This works both ways—for the program faculty/residents/staff and for the applicants.

2.      Screen out douchebags.  This works both ways too.

Probably the best way to visualize how the interviews themselves work is to think of a bell curve.  At one end are those few applicants/programs that aren’t all they’re cracked up to be on paper, or are simply a terrible personality or cultural fit.  On the other end of the bell curve are the outliers of excellence:  the applicants/programs that really stand out and perfectly meet each other’s criteria.  I’ve been fortunate enough to experience the perfect fit with a few programs (at least from my perspective) and have seen it happen to several of my new friends on the trail.  Hopefully, these perfect fits get very good news on match day.

On to douchebags.  To programs:  if you have douchebag faculty or residents, don’t let them interact with candidates.  Hide them on interview day.  To future applicants:  don’t be a douchebag.  Faculty, residents, and fellow applicants notice right away.  I’ve painfully witnessed a few applicants on the trail Fail with a capital F with their douchebagery.  Here’s some basic social etiquette to follow if you want to avoid interview trail travesties:

·         Don’t brag about your accomplishments nor cite your own papers during small talk (or at any time)

·         Don’t trash other programs nor discuss which programs are your “back-ups”

·         Good manners are a good thing (i.e. say please and thank you, chew with your mouth closed during meals, etc.)

·         Be generally thankful for and humbled by the opportunity to interview at any program in what is a very competitive surgical sub-specialty (nothing is more obnoxious than a med student with sense of entitlement)

Goodness gracious you’d be shocked what some people do on the trail.

If you’re a repeat offender of the social etiquette above or suspect you may indeed be a douchebag, I suggest you undergo the “Michael Scott Test.”  The Michael Scott Test is a sophisticated douchebag screening program described in a fantastic NPR interview of Steve Carell (of “40-Year-Old Virgin” fame), who stars as America’s least favorite boss on NBC’s acclaimed television series, The Office:

Step 1:  Think of someone in your life who most resembles Michael Scott.

Step 2:  Laugh out loud at all the ridiculous things that he or she has said and done.

Step 3:  If you drew a blank at Step 1 and were unable to complete step 2, you are Michael Scott.

Source:  http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=15592867 (fast forward and start at 7:00, though the whole interview is fantastic).

Note:  Michael Scott isn’t a prototypical douchebag—his television character is quite complex and better described by Steve Carell as an emotionally unintelligent guy who just doesn’t get it—but he’s still a pretty good frame of reference.

As in my previous post on the “average” interview day, I thought I’d expand upon the nitty gritty of the interview itself.  I can’t share my most absurd interview questions and conversations (yet), because it would probably reveal who I am to fellow applicants and programs.  That said, look forward to my post-match reflection post.  Anyway, let me categorize the top 10 most common general interview questions and then share my top 10 interviewing strategies and tips to help prep future applicants for these important encounters on the trail.  Of note, there is already a fantastic section on this website that addresses the interview (http://urologymatch.com/?q=node/30) and questions you can ask faculty during the interview (http://urologymatch.com/?q=node/434), but I thought it would be helpful to include my thoughts as well in the midst of the most recent interview season.

Top 10 Most Common Interview Question Categories:

1.      The 5-10-20-30 year plans (focused on academic/career goals)

2.      That one unique thing in your application (you know what it is)

3.      Research (past, present, future interests)

4.      Hobbies (what you do for fun)

5.      Family (though technically a match violation, you will get asked lots of questions about your significant other, his/her willingness to live in a place with a high crime rate or frozen tundra, your baby-making plans)

6.      Other programs you’re looking at (also a match violation, but also commonly asked)

7.      The faculty from your home institution or a comment from your letters of rec (remember, urology is a relatively small field where everybody knows everybody)

8.      Characteristics you’re looking forward in a program

9.      “Hot Topics” in urology / healthcare policy (this year, the hot topics seem to be the new PSA screening recommendations from the US Preventative Services Task Force and Obamacare)

10.  And, of course, the obligatory, “do you have any questions” question I’ve previously ranted about

That basically covers everything I’ve been asked on the trail with two exceptions:  one “behavioral/stress” interview I discussed in a previous post, and another case “pimping” accompanied by powerpoint slides, which was actually pretty low-stress and fun.

Top 10 Interview Strategies/Tips:

1.      Do a practice interview with a faculty member at your med school (not in urology if you’re interested in staying at your home program).  I did this before hitting the trail, and it was a tremendous help.

2.      Be confident.  On paper, you have everything the program wants.  They wouldn’t have invited you to interview if that wasn’t true. 

3.      Be aware that first impressions are made very early, perhaps within the first 2 seconds, as Malcom Gladwell argues in his fantastic book Blink.  So don’t wear a bowtie, unless you have really big cajones (kudos to the guy from a medical school in the south who was proudly sporting a bowtie and actually pulled it off).  Not that this would work well for everyone, but I’m a pretty outgoing person, so I usually take the lead at the beginning of the interview with an enthusiastic “good morning,” followed by a “how are you?” and then a simple “thank you for the invitation to interview at your program, I’m thrilled to be here.”  I’ve found that a nice introduction usually relaxes me and establishes a friendlier, more collegial tone for the rest of the interview.

4.      Have plenty of questions prepared for each program (at least 10).  Some interviewers start the interview with “Do you have any questions for me?” and force you to conduct the entire interview yourself.  Think of this as an opportunity to ultimately steer conversation to topics that you are most passionate about.

5.      Make good eye contact throughout the interview.  This simple thing that can be easy to forget if you’re nervous.

6.      Know the weakest parts of your application, and be prepared to defend them.

7.      Take notes immediately after each interview.  These can be great references for later on when you’re making your rank list and can also help personalize your thank you notes.

8.      Be totally honest.  Do not say what you think your interviewer wants to hear, and do not try to bullshit anyone, especially about what you really think of the program.

9.      Have an “elevator pitch” ready—a 30 second to 1 minute spiel on why that program should pick you.

10.  Be yourself.  Simple as that.  You want find a place where you’ll be happy, and that’s hard to determine if you’ve put on a façade of yourself during every interview.

If future applicants have additional questions about the interview, please post them below and I’d be happy to follow-up with a response below.

That’s all for now.  Thanks for reading!  Best of luck to fellow applicants as they complete their last couple of interviews.