How to Crush the Ophthalmology Residency Interview

Sep 23, 2021
10 min read
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The ophthalmology residency interview is your opportunity to stand out as an individual during the application process. By receiving a residency interview, you have met or surpassed all the criteria for an incoming resident at that program. The program is interested in your application and wants to see who you are beyond the formal application.

The interview is your chance to bring your application to life and show programs who you are as a person. Similarly, the residency program leadership committee wants to determine if you will be a dependable teammate during your years as an ophthalmology resident.

Preparing for the ophthalmology interview

Interview invitations and calendar

It is vital to respond to interview invites as quickly as possible. Use a dependable email address on the SF Match website. Moreover, make a calendar to keep track of all the dates the programs you want to interview at offer their interviews. When accepting an interview, check which days have the most negligible overlap with other programs and try and schedule those dates. You can accept two interviews per day as long as they do not overlap.

Application essays

Use your application essays to communicate unique aspects of yourself; these will be talking points during your interviews. Starting in 2021, the SF Match changed the traditional personal statement to a “life summary” and response to two of four prompts. In these essays, emphasize details (be specific!) that will lead to an engaging interview. Speak to exciting parts of your life, such as your background, challenges you have faced, your interests, career goals, accomplishments, etc.

“Don’t forget to be specific and use concrete examples.”

Interviewers will ask you about these points during your interview. Have your answers ready so you can discuss how your life experiences will make you a better resident but don’t memorize any passages as this will come across as inauthentic.

Research the ophthalmology programs

Before your interview, you should do as much research about the ophthalmology residency program as possible. Read everything on the program’s website. See what aspects you like about the program and discuss them during your interview. Also, look up the faculty with who you will be interviewing with. Ask them about their research. These are good ways to show that you are serious, prepared and have a specific interest in the program.

Programs want residents who genuinely want to be there, so it is important to show commitment.

Common questions

There are many common “canned” questions that you will hear over and over during your interviews. Be sure to have prepared answers for each. Be careful because there are permutations to each question.

Here is a list of common residency interview topics and questions:

  • Tell us a little bit about yourself and your background.
  • Why do you want to come here?
  • Why are you interested in this program?
  • Why do you want to become an ophthalmologist?
  • What is something you want to tell us about that is not in your application?
  • What is one meaningful clinical experience?
  • What is one challenge you faced and overcame?
  • Describe an instance in a clinical setting where you experienced an interpersonal conflict. How did you handle it?
  • What is one time you failed? What did you learn?
  • How would a close friend describe you?
  • What would your peers say are your strengths and weaknesses?
  • What are your strengths and weaknesses?
  • What is one thing about yourself you want to improve?
  • Where do you see yourself in five years?
  • What are your career goals?
  • What would you hope people say about you at your retirement party?
  • What do you like to do for fun/hobbies?

Interview basics: Virtual interviews and beyond

The virtual interview format is unfortunately not nearly as engaging as a live in-person interview. Your demeanor, body language, and conversation skills do not come across as clearly as in person. Be sure to smile, make eye contact, and speak clearly.

The setup

One of the most critical considerations of the virtual interview is the physical setup of the space. Be sure to have either a blank wall background or a clean, organized space in your background. A bookshelf is appropriate. Do not have your bed in the background or an unorganized room. Mirrors in the background are to be avoided.

“Lighting is essential and can be very difficult to do correctly.”

Here are a few lighting tips:

  • Close all the window blinds and using only electric lighting. Open windows can cause glare and uneven lighting.
  • Avoid open windows in the background as this will shadow your body.
  • Even lighting on your face is important. For this, overhead lights work well.
  • Investing in an inexpensive video conference lighting kit is a good idea.

I also recommend doing a trial run of your setup to make sure everything looks good on the computer screen and is comfortable. Finally, find the quietest place possible to have your interviews. Environmental noise, such as barking dogs, traffic noise, and other people talking, can be a distraction.

During the interview

Proper attire is essential for the interview. Men should wear a shirt and jacket with a tie, and women should wear business clothing. Men should shave before the interview. On the day of the interview, be sure to be on time! I recommend logging into the video conference five minutes early. No one is ever penalized for being early, and you may have a chance to chat with the coordinator and other interviewees before the interviews start.

However, many interviews do not start the video call until the exact time stated. Regardless, it is a good idea to be set up and ready to go to the computer 5 minutes early.

If you are using a laptop, be sure it is plugged in. If you are using AirPods or headphones, which is acceptable, make sure they are fully charged. Be sure to have a glass of water on the side, but do not drink from it during the interviews!

During the interview, it is vital to be confident and honest.

“Sit up straight, maintain eye contact, and speak clearly.”

You do not need to speak louder than usual for the interviewer to hear you, but be sure to enunciate and not speak too quickly. This will help provide clear audio over the internet connection. With your answers, be sure to be consistent.

One common interviewing technique is for two interviewers to ask you the same question during different interviews. They will compare answers and see if your answers differed between responses, making you seem inconsistent or possibly dishonest. Do not fall into this trap!

Virtual interview tips

  • Do a practice run with a friend. Pay special attention to the lighting, environmental noise, background, comfort, and internet connection. Test your speakers and see how well the person on the other end hears you. Lighting is key. Play around with your lighting setup and consider purchasing a specially designed video conference light.
  • During the interview, hide your video on your screen. Seeing yourself on your screen can be incredibly distracting. I recommend turning it off. You can do this on Zoom via clicking on the three dots, then click “Hide Self View.” This feature may not be offered on other video conferencing programs.
  • Be sure you will not be interrupted during your interview.
    • Turn off your cellphone. Turn off any other electronics that make noise.
    • Be sure no packages are scheduled for delivery, or there is no one expected to come to your door.
    • Be sure you have a reliable internet connection.
    • Try and be alone in a room where there will not be significant noise or distraction from a neighboring room, such as a roommate cooking.
    • Try to keep pets away from your interview area.
  • Be five minutes early. Dress professionally. During the interview, sit up straight, speak confidently and clearly, and maintain eye contact.
  • Be honest and consistent with your answers.

Practice

Practice is key for success in interviews. Do mock interviews with a friend. Have them ask you questions from the list provided above. Keep working on your responses until they come naturally and you feel confident with them. Ask for feedback. The best person to work with is someone who has already done residency interviews (e.g., a resident) and can give you feedback from their experienced perspective.

What to expect

The interview format varies widely by program. Most programs use Zoom, some use the built-in SF Match video conferencing service, and still, others use a different video conferencing program. Interview length generally varies from 8-15 minutes. The number of interviews varies widely. Some programs only have one interview, and others have several, up to seven or eight. You will generally meet with professors, the associate program directors, and the program director. Some interviews are one-on-one with faculty, and others have multiple faculty members. The program should provide you with an itinerary of the interview day. Be sure to look at the schedule to see the program’s interview format. Again, look up the faculty before the interview and ask them about their research interests!

Thank-you notes

It’s a good idea to send thank you notes via email after the interview. They will certainly not hurt you. Send one to each faculty you interviewed with. Keep them short and direct. Thank the faculty for their time and try and mention something you discussed during your interview. Restate your interest in their program. Send them to the residency coordinator if you do not have the faculty’s email address.

Questions to ask

Asking insightful questions is another way to show programs that you have a specific interest in them. Ask about features that they highlight on their website. For example, ask about their international mission trips or their resident-run clinic.

Examples of topical questions:

  • Nature of relationships between faculty and residents.
  • Surgical exposure and timeline.
  • Is there a resident-run clinic?
  • Call schedule.
  • The volume of surgical cases.
  • How the program is changing. Where do they want to be in 5 years?
  • Have there been any big changes at the program recently?
  • What is your favorite part of the program?
  • What do you think are the biggest strengths of the program?
  • How would you like to improve the program?
  • How close are the residents?
  • What do people do for fun?
  • What is your favorite restaurant in the area?
  • How do you like living in (insert program location)?

Do’s & Don’t’s

Do:

  • Have a good setup
  • Research the program and faculty
  • Practice, practice, practice!
  • Be yourself
  • Be enthusiastic about ophthalmology and their program
  • Ask questions
  • Send a thank-you note

Don’t:

  • Get too stressed – take three deep breaths before entering each interview
  • Be pushy or entitled
  • Look at the ground
  • Be dishonest

Conclusions

The ophthalmology interview season is an exciting time! Every ophthalmology residency program that offers you an interview is interested in you. The interview is your opportunity to stand out as an individual. Show programs your strengths, what makes you unique, and that you are agreeable to work with.

Being nervous is normal. Thorough preparation will help assuage your nervousness and excel during the interview. There is no ceiling limit for interview skills. Be sure to ask for feedback. As with just about everything, the more you practice, the better you will perform.

“Take deep breaths, and don’t forget that you’ve got everything you need to succeed!”
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About Tobin Thuma, DO

Tobin Thuma grew up in St. Helena, California. He graduated from UC Berkeley with a bachelor's degree in biochemistry and a minor in Spanish. After finishing college, Tobin taught English in Mallorca, Spain before deciding to pursue medicine. Earlier this …

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