As COVID-19 continues to alter norms in medical education through the loss of clinical time, in-person lectures, and more, fourth-year medical students have tackled the last hurdle before graduation: virtual residency interviews. Current residents envied the students who were saving thousands of dollars by not traveling around the country. Program directors questioned how to discern the right applicant and secure them over a virtual interview platform. Medical students did their best to analyze a program’s surgical numbers, research availability, and, most importantly, culture, all while missing out on the fundamental human connections that we make in person. Gauging a program’s culture and how an applicant fits into that environment has been especially difficult this year, bringing new challenges to the interview process.
From the experiences of a medical student who recently finished ophthalmology residency interviews and an associate program director of an ophthalmology program, we share our perspectives from both sides of the screen. Our goal is to enable programs and future applicants to overcome the technological challenges associated with virtual interviewing in order to convey each side’s unique characteristics. Herein, we make recommendations to programs (from an applicant) and to applicants (from a program director) so that we can help accomplish this goal.
TO PROGRAMS | BY JEREMY REITINGER, BA
1. Share your culture. After a few resident social events, I realized it often took more than 5 minutes for the residents to answer an applicant’s question. The virtual format has forced resident discussions to be severely one-sided and has made it nearly impossible to form personal connections among such large groups of participants. Although combating this limitation is challenging, it can be done. Programs that excelled in this area identified the most highly valued aspects of their culture and found a way to tangibly share this information with applicants. Some programs prioritized resident support and had residents individually text applicants to see what questions we had. Other programs prioritized social time and used virtual happy hours with games to show applicants what they value and how much the residents enjoy each other’s company. Any program can talk about its supportive culture, but it doesn’t hit home for applicants until they experience it themselves.
2. Demonstrate adaptability. In one of my virtual interview experiences, after 13 minutes of interview questions, we received a 2-minute warning of an impending room change. I was asked if I had any questions, so I asked one. The interviewer talked to the end of the interview, and before I could say, “It was nice to meet you,” the breakout room was closed, and I was transported back to another room. In the quest to stay on schedule, no one seemed to question this format and the impact of not being able to exchange parting words. The pandemic has severely tested our ability to adapt, and with it comes a new priority for applicants: We want a program that can handle change. We want to see programs that can find a solution to effectively close out interviews (instead, give a 5-minute interim break to let interviewees leave their own breakout rooms) or that can think ahead about how the timing of these interviews affects those in different time zones (so that the applicant on the West Coast isn’t joining at 4 AM).
TO APPLICANTS | BY ANDREA TOOLEY, MD
1. Show us who you are. Just as programs are trying to convey their unique attributes, we are looking to learn about applicants and their personalities. In order for you to find your best fit in a program, each side should know the other well. Don’t be afraid to use the virtual format of interviews to your advantage. Some of my favorite moments from the virtual interview season occurred when applicants showed me their hobbies—eg, switching cameras so that I could see their home kombucha brewing station or demonstrating their amazing juggling skills!
2. Ask hard questions. Programs want applicants who are serious about joining them, so don’t be afraid to show your interest even when it means asking hard questions. I loved chatting with applicants about their greatest fears or concerns about residency, such as handling call duties, dealing with fatigue, and navigating challenges in diversity and equity. I hope that my answers to some of these tough questions helped applicants learn more about our program; it certainly helped me learn more about the applicants.
Overall, the virtual interview experience was very positive for both interviewers and interviewees. Programs adapted effectively and gave ample opportunities for questions, all while keeping students safe from traveling during the pandemic. There were also new changes to the application cycle that were well received, including giving applicants 48 hours to respond to an invitation (before giving away the slot) and adding a central interview scheduler. We won’t fully know the ramifications of virtual interviews for years to come, but, for now, both sides should be proud of how they adapted and performed.