How to Ace Your Virtual Medical School or Residency Interview: 5 Expert Strategies
Updated: Aug 23
In a previous post, we presented seven strategies to prepare for your virtual interview. In this post, we explore the steps to take on the day of your interview, to ensure that you're prepared to deliver your best interview performance.
There are a number of factors that are unique to virtual interviews, so it's important to be aware of these factors and prepared for them. These 5 expert strategies can help.
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.
Make Sure Distractions Don't Detract From Your Interview Performance
There are plenty of potential distractions, especially if you're interviewing from home.
First of all, make sure you've informed everyone with whom you share your interview space with about the date, time, and duration of your interview in advance.
The day of, consider placing a note on your door as a reminder.
If your Wi-Fi speeds vary based on how many people are using it nearby, consider reminding your household members of this again the day of the interview.
Other Possible Interview Distractions and How to Avoid Them
Walk through your space and just listen for a moment. Now think about how this space might sound during the course of a day. What types of sounds and distractions might you encounter on a typical day? These may include:
A landline phone
Cell phone ringer and vibrations
Alerts on your desktop
Cooking and kitchen noises
I remember interviewing one applicant and then, right in the middle of a heartfelt response, the doorbell rang. It threw this poor applicant completely off his game.
That’s why I recommend this tactic: Cover the doorbell and put a note up on the front door. “Please do not ring the doorbell or knock on the door. Job interview is in progress.”
Along those same lines, I always ask applicants if they have a landline phone. I know that's becoming less common, but if you do, you certainly don't want that phone to ring. I tell applicants to shut off the ringer.
Something else to note is outside noise. If you have a lawn service, you want to make sure they don't show up the day of your interview. For people who live in colder locations, it might be a snowblower.
Another distraction is computer alerts. I think many of us have become immune to these noises, but they can be very distracting to your interviewer. Turn off those notifications on your computer. When I first started podcasting, it didn’t take me long to realize I had overlooked my desktop alerts: as soon as I listened to the tape, I realized just how much noise my desktop produced.
Optimize the Lighting in Your Space
Lighting is huge, and I think applicants don't factor this in as much as they should. I've worked with applicants not only from the US but from other countries as well. These virtual interviews are going to be taking place at US time, either in the morning or afternoon.
I recommend that you record yourself at different points of the day to see how you look.
Make sure that you have the appropriate lighting.
If you're in a room with a window, think about how the light from the window affects the lighting where you're going to be sitting. The look of light can vary depending on the time of the day. I personally like to set up in front of an open window so that the light from the window is shining on my face.
Avoid sitting in a location where the light is coming from behind you---you will be backlit and the interviewer will not see your face properly.
I have to say one of the best devices I’ve purchased was a ring light that I purchased from Amazon. Note that it doesn't work the best if you have glasses (due to an annoying reflection on your lenses). Apart from that, it produces a nice even glow to your face.
Although I don’t think this is necessary, several webcams allow you to adjust for lighting on the screen. If you’ll be doing several virtual interviews, you may decide to invest in one of these handy devices.
Here's my partner, Dr. Katta, and her take on lighting:
Last year I was on a video conference call with participants from Paris. The meeting was scheduled for very early in the morning, and I had no natural light. To prepare, I took a lot of photographs to see how I looked with my artificial light source. It definitely took a lot of experimentation to determine the best location for my light source.
If you have the option, my favorite source is still natural light from a big window in front of me. My next favorite option is having that additional ring light shine on my face.
Think About Your Equipment and Accessories
What do I do with my cell phone?
Some applicants will shut off their cell phones. What I tell them is that I'd rather them not shut off their cell phone. You never know when the medical school or residency program will need to reach out to you. Programs will try to do that via the phone. For example, technological issues not only affect applicants-they can also affect the medical school or residency program.
Keep your phone near you
Silence your phone
If the program has technical difficulties, be ready for a call from them
If you have technical difficulties, you'll have your phone close by to call the program
Keep These Other Items Close By During Your Interview
Writing utensils: You need to have multiple writing utensils accessible to you. I’ve done virtual interviews where the applicant’s pen runs dry and they tell me to hold on for a minute while they grab a replacement. Remember: If you wouldn't do it during an in-person interview, you don't want to do it during a virtual interview.
Notepad: Having a notepad is also recommended so that you can take notes. On interview days, you won't just be answering questions. You'll have an orientation session, perhaps one in which the Dean or the program director spends time discussing the particular aspects of their program.
Water bottle: These interviews can stretch on to be fairly full days---and you'll be doing a lot of talking. Having a water bottle handy can help.
Remember the Importance and the Impact of Nonverbal Communication
Let’s talk about how nonverbal impressions send a message to the interviewer. A lot of applicants focus mainly (or exclusively) on the content of their answers and they don't realize how important those nonverbal aspects of their answers are.
In my books The Successful Match and The Medical School Interview, I review the effects of nonverbal impressions on in-person interviews. Although this hasn't been researched as extensively in virtual interviews, the same lessons should apply.
Avoid Nervous Habits or Tics
In thinking about body language, you want to make sure that you don't default to nervous habits or tics when you're under stress. I've seen it all during interviews.
During your practice interviews, make sure your partner informs of you of any of nervous habits. Examples include:
The importance of maintaining eye contact during a virtual interview
Poor eye contact is one of the most common mistakes that I see in virtual interviews. The natural tendency when you're in a virtual interview is to look at the interviewer's face, similarly to an in-person interview.
However, there's an important consideration here. When you look at the interviewer's face in a virtual interview, they see you as looking down. They don't see you as looking at them and making good eye contact. This is a result of the camera being at the center top of your computer and the interviewer’s face being several inches below the camera.
This results in a major issue. According to research, eye contact is crucial to the impression you give to interviewers. When you fail to make eye contact with an interviewer, you communicate a different message, which may be that:
You aren’t interested in what they’re saying
You are a poor listener
You are not engaged in the conversation
You have something to hide
To avoid this issue, I've started minimizing my browser and moving that person's face as close to my laptop camera as I can. That way I can be partially looking at their face but still mainly looking at the camera. I've also given a presentation where I had to speak directly to the camera, which took practice.
The Importance of Posture and a Good Chair
You have to factor in whether the chair you’re using could affect your body language. For example, some individuals use chairs that recline, swivel, or have wheels. During virtual interviews, some people are moving back and forth due to the recliner or the swivel action of that chair. This can be very distracting for interviewers--and applicants often don't realize this is happening.
I've also seen applicants reclining in their comfortable chairs, not realizing that this may come off as disinterest, apathy, or low energy.
I wrote earlier about the importance of choosing a good, comfortable chair for interviews. Definitely make sure you've planned ahead. A chair that doesn't easily move or rock and that allows you to maintain a good posture is important.
Plan Ahead For Technical Difficulties
What if I have a technological problem in the middle of an interview?
In our previous post about preparing for virtual interviews, we recommended securing the phone number to contact the medical school or residency program in case of tech issues.
If you do encounter technical difficulties during your interview, remember to:
Stay calm and composed
Know that programs and schools are understanding when it comes to technological issues. These are frequent occurrences.
Maintain your composure, since you will be judged on how you react to this stressful situation
Should I have Post-It notes with interview tips or questions for the interviewer?
I've had applicants ask this question, and it's a good one. Unfortunately, if you have notes that are taped or accessible on your computer, it does create a potential problem. Primarily, this can take your gaze away from the camera, which affects your eye contact.
In mock interviews, I've had applicants ask: “I prepared the answer to that question. Is it okay if I just read that off the screen?” When they've done so, unfortunately it's really easy to tell that they're looking somewhere else.
Apart from eye contact, this also suggests that you're not entirely prepared. Remember, the impression you want to make is that you are 100% prepared for the interview and 100% engaged with the interviewer.
Be confident in your interview skills and maintain eye contact
Can I have food or drink nearby during the interview?
I don't recommend having food or drink, including coffee, in your background during the interview. Instead, I recommend eating or drinking during breaks.
The one exception to this rule would be if you need a sip of water. If you're in the middle of your interview and you feel that your throat is dry, you can certainly take a sip of water. If you feel the need to do so, you can ask the interviewer, “Dr. Smith, before I answer your question, do you mind if I just take a sip of water?”
Put in the time to practice thoroughly
I highly recommend mock interviews
Record yourself during the mock interview. Then, with a trusted partner, arrange a time to go through the recorded interview session
Play the recording and focus on the lighting, the position of your face on the screen, and any nervous habits or mannerisms
Technology is certainly a factor in virtual interviews. Make sure that technology works for you rather than against you.
In writing about virtual interviews, I've focused on some key considerations, including the impact of non-verbal communication in the virtual setting, the importance of lighting, and some of the technological considerations.
Along with these factors, developing and practicing the content of your responses remains incredibly important. We've developed a lot of resources on this area as well, and you may wish to start with our suggestions on "Why did you apply to our medical school?" and "Tell me about your research."
Interviews are high-stakes and high-stress, but preparation can go a long way. We wish you all the best during your interviews.
If you'd like more on how to prepare for your virtual interview, please see this post.
Dr. Rajani Katta is the creator of Medical School Interviewing 101, the course that teaches students how to ace their interviews. She is also the author of the Multiple Mini Interview: Winning Strategies from Admissions Faculty, the Casper Test Prep Guide, and The Medical School Interview. Dr. Katta is a practicing dermatologist and served as a Professor of Dermatology at the Baylor College of Medicine for over 17 years.
Dr. Samir Desai is the author of The Clinician's Guide to Laboratory Medicine, The Medical School Interview, and Multiple Mini Interview: Winning Strategies from Admissions Faculty. He is an Internist, on faculty at the Baylor College of Medicine, and has served on the medical school admissions and residency selection committees at the Baylor College of Medicine and Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.