Lessons from the Interview Trail

#medstories #intraining

It happens to all of us who relentlessly run after our dream of one day becoming a doctor. We put our heads down and study through college to get into medical school. We spend the first two years of medical school living in the library so that we can keep up with our clinicals. We spend our clinical rotations learning how to study for exams while gaining practical skills in the hospital. And then comes fourth year: the year I once heard would be the best year of my life — “the closest to a vacation I would have before I start drinking out of yet another firehose” during intern year of residency. Fourth year of medical school is the year when the impending reality of finally becoming a physician becomes so obviously tangible. In a few months, patients will look to current graduating medical students when they ask for their physician.

It’s a scary thought, but it’s one that most of us are ready to accept because the excitement of being able to finally care for our patients as their physician overtakes the nerves. Before we discover on Match Day where exactly we’ll have the privilege of doing that for the next three to five years, we get to interview.

Every year, medical students like myself put their essentials into their cars and go out on to the interview trail. Students drive, fly, and take trains all over the country to figure out which programs they will thrive in as programs consider candidates for the new class of physicians they want to train. It’s an interview process like no other, with pre-interview socials bringing current and potential residents together, tours of different healthcare facilities, introductions to faculty and leadership, and one-on-one interviews designed to get to know and assess a candidate.

I’m certainly no expert, but like this year’s class of interviewees, I’m on the other end of the process now, gearing up to see where the Match gods will send me next. And, though interview season has been long, it has been incredibly rewarding. Here are a few things I learned along the way:

Medical students — you’re worth it.

We’ve spent the last few years learning, rightfully so, that medicine is an ocean. There will always be more to learn, and when we’ve just set out in our journey, it’s easy to forget how far we’ve sailed. It’s important before interviews begin to take a deep breath and take a look at our progress. Never forget that there is no candidate out there that is perfect. Every application has its strengths and its weaknesses and every program is looking for something different. Realizing this helped me take stock of my own strengths and weaknesses as an applicant: I was able to both recognize my unique value and begin to address what I affectionately call my “not so hotspots.”

Part of interview season is self-reflection, because this journey doesn’t end here — and, honestly, how boring would it be if there was no room left for us to learn and grow? The humility and intrinsic motivation that can come from self-reflection are characteristics that I am confident will take any student far as a resident physician. So, remember that you are worth it, and don’t let anyone or anything make you feel otherwise. The confidence you’ll have in your strengths and your ability to address your not so hotspots will show and carry you through the season.

Interviews are conversations.

There’s a slight caveat to this one: how conversational an interview is can really depend on your specialty and program choice. I personally approached the vast majority of my interviews as conversations — which made every interview day one big opportunity to learn about so many people who have pursued and succeeded in the field I aspire to join. The physicians who take the time to interview us are the colleagues who will be able to extend their mentorship to us should we have an opportunity to work together. Their stories have already molded my thoughts on my speciality and the future I can build within it.

Interview season is long and it can be tiring, but I’ve found that it is never boring — at least not when every interview brings me a step closer to learning how people in the field I am so excited to join view the profession’s potential. When every interview is a conversation, the nerves disappear and the excitement of having a bilateral exchange with changemakers in the field prevails. This philosophy has made interview season not exhausting, but incredibly energizing for me.

Strong mentors are essential.

Throughout this process, I could not have asked for a better mentor. My mentor kept my hopes up during the times when the process seemed daunting and helped me express my work and aspirations in a way that would make sense to others in the field. I took a pretty unique path to get where I was when I started interviewing, but my mentor always encouraged me to reach as far as I wanted to and gave me advice as to how I could reach more effectively.

Something that I have found makes a strong mentor is experience — especially with the residency selection process. It really does take someone who has been privy to the discussions and decision making involved in the process to be able to provide an honest opinion on the strength of your individual application. A good mentor will be able to pick out the pieces of your application you are passionate about and understand why you care about them. A strong mentor will be able to help you discuss those interests and passions in a way that helps everyone else realize why you care so much.

Ultimately, when you have been invited for an interview, that’s what matters. As medical students, we spend the better part of our spare time discovering the things we love to do outside of and adjacent to clinical practice. We don’t get enough experience talking about why we bothered. The classic “tell me about yourself” question is less about reading our CVs aloud and more about taking a highlighter to them, pointing out the things we love most in the portfolios our efforts have built. The strong mentorship I have been blessed with throughout this process has been integral in my ability to frame my thoughts in a way that unequivocally conveyed my passions and their relevance to my specialty of choice during interviews.

The process is actually a lot of fun.

During this process, I have met my counterparts from schools across the country — and all of them have accomplished incredible things in their careers so far. It’s been fun meeting potential co-residents, new friends, and future colleagues. Taking a second to recognize the inherent fun in interview season has kept me going throughout, even when it meant more contiguous days of rotation waiting for me when I got back from a program.

What I’ve learned is that, when a person is exhausted or preoccupied, their energy is apparent in their interactions. That observation holds true on wards and it’s also true on the interview trail, where you have one chance to let people at a program get to know you. Have fun and be yourself, because you owe it to yourself to let your amazing personality show. You’ll give programs a chance to see how incredible you are and you’ll be able to better choose the program which feels most like home. Don’t forget that this process is bilateral: by asking the questions I needed to and staying unapologetically true to myself, I found the programs I’m excited to grow at and I can’t wait to find out if they felt the same way about me.

Pavitra Krishnamani is a medical student with a background in global health interested in innovating how we deliver healthcare to our patients at home and abroad. To learn more about her and her work, check out her website.

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