Nearly every applicant I met on the trail (including me) seemed to carry a black portfolio with him or her to each interview. Mine contained a pen, my printed SF match application, my published manuscripts, and blank paper for taking notes. I never once pulled anything from the portfolio and I got the feeling that others did not either. It is mostly there for comfort – the applicant's version of a security blanket. Guys typically just carried their portfolios while girls often brought a conservative tote bag. In addition to the portfolio these totes were often loaded with "emergency kits" including items like lint rollers, Chapstick, mints, hair ties, extra hose, contact lens solution, Tylenol, and cough drops. Don't forget to discretely carry your smartphone so you can send stealthy replies to other invitations during any downtime you may have.
The interviews themselves are pretty similar between programs and you will become an expert at the process by the end of the interview season. Interviews typically last between a half and a full day. You may have multiple 1 on 1 interviews, several 2 on 1 interviews, or a single panel interview in which you sit across from a handful of faculty members at one time.
You have gotten through medical school by studying hard for exams, but these interviews carry far more weight than any exam when it comes to matching. It pays to do your homework and spend time studying beforehand. Read each program's website the night before the interview so you have some background knowledge in case they ask you why you chose to apply to their program. Make a list of commonly asked questions and think about how you would answer them. Read over your research manuscripts and personal statement so you are prepared for questions. Form opinions on hot political topics in medicine and even consider brushing up on some basic ophthalmology in case you are pimped with knowledge based questions (although this is extremely uncommon). During interviews, act excited about your answers and show energy even if you don't think your response is very stimulating. How you present your responses is just as important as their content. In fact, your interviewers are likely more interested in your ability to communicate than the information you are giving them. Be punctual, positive, and cheerful even if you've had a terrible travel experience. You'd rather be the memorable lad who shows up in shorts, a t-shirt, and a smile because your luggage didn't accompany you on your rescheduled flight (yes, I did see this on my interview trail), than the bum who staggers in grumbling about how his flight was delayed. Know your application inside and out. Interviewers will ask you about items in your application far more frequently than anything else, so be prepared to elaborate on that mission trip to Africa, your research project on the latest and greatest surgical gadget, or that tantalizing tidbit you carefully planted in your personal statement.
Some questions are almost guaranteed along the interview trail. It will serve you well to prepare clever responses to the following:
- Tell me about yourself.
- Why did you choose ophthalmology?
- Tell me about <some aspect in your application, CV, or personal statement>.
- What do you do for fun?
- Why are you interested in our program?
- Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
- Do you plan on a career in private practice or academics?
- Are you interested in pursuing a fellowship?
- If I asked your friends to describe you, what would they say?
- If you were to describe yourself in 3 words, what would they be?
- Tell us about an interesting case you have seen and how it influenced you.
- What are your biggest strengths and weaknesses?
- Why would a Midwest person like you want to move to the West Coast (or other region)?
- Iowa has an excellent program; why would you want to leave?
- What are you looking for in a residency program?
- What sets you apart from the other candidates for this position?
Other questions are less common, but you may still encounter them at some point along the interview trail:
- What is your biggest failure and how did you handle it?
- What is your most significant accomplishment to date?
- What did you find interesting in medical school, other than ophthalmology?
- Do you support a national healthcare plan? (or other questions about recent political or medical news developments)
- What leadership positions have you had?
- Where else are you interviewing?
- How do you deal with stress?
- Who is the person you most admire?
- Tell me a joke.
- What if you don't match?
- If you couldn't go into medicine, what would you do?
- If there is one thing you could change in your past, what would it be?
- How would your spouse feel about moving to this city? (or some other question to assess your spouse's profession and his/her mobility)
- What is the last leisure book you read?
- Explain this <poor grade or USMLE Board exam score> in your application.
- What was your favorite (or least favorite) job and why?
I was asked all of the above questions at least once during my interviews. Of course there are countless more potential questions, and I urge you to seek out lists online to become as prepared as possible. Study your responses prior to each interview so they are fresh in your mind. There are always rumors of programs that require you to perform some sort of manual dexterity test during an interview, but this practice is extremely uncommon and you are unlikely to have to deal with it. If you do encounter something like this, I think the interviewer would be more interested in how you handle the stress of the situation than your actual performance.
You will be asked if you have any questions more times than you care for. Have a list prepared so you can portray interest in the program. I always tried to ask at least one question when placed in this situation. If all else fails and you are out of questions, ask the interviewer the same question you asked someone else earlier in the day. Be cautious with the questions you ask, as some can change the interviewers' perception of you. There is a host of forbidden questions (i.e., "When can I start moonlighting?" or "How much maternity leave do we get?") which you should avoid at all cost. Don't worry, there will usually be some unknowing applicant who will ask these questions so you can overhear the answers. If not, you may be able to find the answers on the programs' websites or by word of mouth.
Thank you notes are one area where there are no clear right or wrong answers. Generally, programs say they are nice to receive, but not necessary. According to Nallasamy's survey, only 14% of ophthalmology program directors expect or desire thank you letters (2). You can't hurt yourself by sending them though, so I recommend taking a few minutes after each interview to write a personalize message to the program director and perhaps also the program coordinator and department chair. Sending an individual note to each interviewer is probably excessive and some programs specifically request that you not send thank you notes. Type or hand write your thank you notes and either email or send them by snail mail. I typed mine, then printed, signed, and mailed them. Certain programs directly instruct applicants to email any thank you notes that are sent, so this may be the preferred method in some cases. It also saves you a few stamps!
Many applicants send a letter or email to their top programs after completing all of their interviews, often letting their favorite know that they are planning to rank them number 1. Again, I don't think this can hurt you as long as you are sincere in your claims, but it is not likely to help either as only 3% of program directors are swayed by such information (2).