How Do I Answer Behavioral Interview Questions During the Residency Interview?
Updated: Aug 23
How to respond to "tell me about a time when..." questions
The most common interview format, and the one that applicants are most familiar with, is the traditional one-on-one interview. Typically, the interviewer will ask questions about your education, activities, and goals. Examples include:
Tell me about yourself.
What are your strengths and weaknesses?
Why are you interested in our residency program?
Contrast these with the following questions:
Tell me about a time when you had to deal with a difficult attending physician.
Tell me about a time when you showed initiative.
Describe a situation in which you had to deal with an upset patient.
These more specific questions, which ask for an example, are features of behavioral interviews.
If you're looking for more help applying to residency, we also offer our online course: The Residency Interview 101. Our expert strategies and insider tips on the admissions process can help you become a standout applicant.
Why are behavioral interview questions used by interviewers?
Behavioral interviewing is based on the premise that future behavior is best predicted by past behavior. By learning how an applicant handled or reacted to the situation in the past, the interviewer is hoping to gain insight into how this applicant might handle the situation in the future.
Behavioral Interviewing Has Demonstrated Strong Validity in Predicting Future Success
The behavioral interview was introduced and developed by Dr. Tom Janz, an industrial psychologist. Research looking at its validity and accuracy has shown that behavioral interviewing is more accurate than traditional interviewing in predicting success. While more popular in the business community, residency programs may also conduct behavioral interviews.
How can I start preparing for behavioral interview questions during my residency interview prep?
Since each question calls for a specific example, you need to prepare in advance.
This starts by reflecting on your past activities and experiences and then identifying specific examples, stories, or anecdotes that you can highlight during your response.
This post on common residency interview questions includes a list of common behavioral interview questions.
Remember, in order to answer this question well, you need to discuss "what you did about it"
When you're responding to these questions, don't think about them as just "tell me about a time when you made a mistake" (for example). Instead, think about the question as "tell me about a time when you made a mistake...and what you did about it."
That second part will rarely be verbalized, but it's one of the key drivers of a great response.
Use the STAR Approach to Structure Your Response
In answering these questions, it's important to include specific details about your past experience.
Experts recommend that you begin your response by first describing what happened, and then describing what you then did, what was the result of your actions, and what you learned from the experience.
Use can use the acronym STAR to help you answer these questions:
S – Situation (Describe the situation in detail.)
T – Task (What was the task or obstacle?)
A – Action (What action did you take?)
R – Result (What was the result?)
Although the acronym is STAR, it's helpful to add an L to the end of this sequence. I use the L as a reminder that you're not just talking about what resulted in this specific situation. Instead, you need to zoom out and include what happened in a broader sense. What lessons did you learn from this experience? How have you applied these lessons? Or, how do you plan to apply these lessons to future situations?
L – Lessons learned (What lessons did you learn and how have you, or how will you, apply these lessons?)
Sample question: Tell me about a time when you made a mistake and had to admit it to your resident or attending.
In this sample response, note how the applicant includes all the important components of a strong behavioral interview response.
Answer: I remember a time when I was a junior medical student on the Medicine Wards. My resident asked me to perform an ECG on a 70-year old woman. After completing the ECG, I pulled an old tracing from the patient’s chart for comparison. I was shocked to see some significant changes, and my concern for possible MI grew.
As I was comparing the tracings, my attending arrived on the unit. I expressed my concern to him, and he asked to see the tracings. He sat down and began his analysis.
That’s when I realized that one of the ECGs belonged to another patient, and that’s why they looked so different.
I was mortified to make this error, and quickly informed the attending. I told my attending how thankful I was that my error didn’t harm the patient.
I also realized how easy it was to make such a mistake. We discussed why such errors occur, and what I needed to do differently. My attending was very understanding, and even shared with me some similar stories from his training. I was very appreciative of his overall approach.
From that point forward, I began checking the name first on all tests. Sure enough, there have been other instances where I could have made similar mistakes had it not been for my vigilance.
What I learned from this experience is the importance of disclosing your errors, the way in which such discussions should take place, and the process by which you can prevent such errors from happening again.
Avoid These Errors When Answering Behavioral Questions
These questions call for an actual example, and it’s important that you provide just that. Don’t provide vague answers that include generalizations without any reference to a specific situation.
Some applicants respond with theoretical answers. What is a theoretical answer? It's when you describe what you would do in a particular situation. Instead, remember that this question is asking what you did actually do.
Note that some questions require you to discuss potentially negative situations. Use tact and sensitivity when describing these situations and the individuals involved. It can be very easy to criticize others, but often those answers will detract from the strength of your response.
If you’re unable to come up with an example, do the best that you can. If an example pops into your mind later during the interview, you can always come back to the question. When the interviewer asks, “Do you have any questions for me?” you can respond with “Before I ask you a few questions, do you mind if I elaborate on one of my earlier answers?”
The Bottom Line: Behavioral Interview Questions Require Advance Preparation
If you're not prepared, behavioral interview questions can really catch you off guard. (If you're not expecting it, you may freeze when an interviewer asks you to tell her about a time when you made a mistake.) Reflecting on potential examples to use in your response, as well as using the STAR approach to structure your response, can help you provide strong, powerful responses.
Dr. Rajani Katta is the creator of The Residency Interview 101, the online course that helps applicants quickly and confidently prepare for their residency interviews. She is also the co-author of The Successful Match: Rules to Succeed in the Residency Match and served as Professor of Dermatology at the Baylor College of Medicine for over 17 years.
Dr. Samir Desai is the author of 20 books, including The Successful Match and The Clinician's Guide to Laboratory Medicine. He has been a faculty member in the Department of Internal Medicine at the Baylor College of Medicine for over 20 years and has won numerous teaching awards.