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How to Prepare for Ophthalmology Residency Interviews

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8 min read

Get ready for your ophthalmology residency interview with quick tips and a downloadable cheat sheet with sample questions for mock interviews.

How to Prepare for Ophthalmology Residency Interviews
Interview season is a time filled with excitement and anxiety. As a medical student, the match system is very daunting, and the process can be confusing. This article will shed some light on the process and offer tips to get you through this experience.

Why do we interview for ophthalmology residencies?

On the journey to becoming a physician, it seems as though every 3 to 4 years, someone tries to interview you in order to move to the next level. Interviews are important not only because it allows the school or hospital to find out more about you but also because it gives you the opportunity to see if the program will be a good fit for you.

With the transition to virtual interviews due to COVID, interviewees are receiving less information about these programs than in prior years. Interviews are a great time to be able to ask questions of the program faculty and oftentimes, the residents in a less formal setting.

The ophthalmology residency interview process

Ophthalmology residency programs use a different system from many other medicine programs called SF Match. On their website, you can review all of the programs participating in the match prior to the date applications open. Registration for applicants usually begins in July, and many programs have their own deadlines, which can also be found on the site. Typically programs start reviewing applications in early September, and invitations to interview start to go out in the subsequent months.
Interviews at this time remain online, although some programs offer open house dates where you can go and visit the program in person with other applicants. The programs individually rank their interviewees numerically, and the applicants rank their programs in order of preference as well. Deadlines for both parties are due in January, and the computer-generated results are posted in February, along with any vacancies.

Download the Ophthalmology Residency Interview Cheat Sheet


Ophthalmology Residency Interview Cheat Sheet

Use this worksheet with sample questions and grading criteria to get ready for your ophthalmology residency interview.

What to expect from your intern year

Ophthalmologists are required to complete an integrated or joint intern year. This means that the ophthalmology department partners with other programs in the hospital to provide an intern year with a variety of exposure to different specialties.
Some programs do not require you to interview for separate first postgraduate year (PGY-1) positions (integrated), and others will guarantee you a spot with their internal medicine or transitional program if you match there (joint). Alternatively, you may match to an internship at an entirely different location depending on preferences and rank lists.

You will likely need to apply for PGY-1 programs separately on the National Resident Matching Program (NMRP). This also means that applying in the current cycle on SF Match is for the following (not the upcoming) year.

Assessing ophthalmology residency programs

There are over 120 ophthalmology residency programs, and deciding which programs to apply can be quite a feat. The SF Match website has a section called Program Profile Info, which can give you more information about each program, including the number of residents, fellows, and faculty specialties.

Factors to consider for your ophthalmology residency program:

  1. Location, location, location: Having a support system during residency is very important, and while you may be able to create one wherever you end up, some people would like to be close to family, friends, or their partner.
  2. Clinical and surgical volume: How busy are the residents? In my opinion, a busy program is where you want to be to get experience. Do they graduate feeling competent enough to do comprehensive ophthalmology, or do many of them feel the need for more experience post-graduation? How many cataracts do they graduate with?
  3. Subspecialists: If you know you are interested in a specific area of ophthalmology, you can see where previous residents have matched for fellowships and how many faculty members there are in that particular specialty. This will be important for research opportunities and ultimately matching for fellowship.
  4. Culture: Are the residents happy? Can they rely on each other? Are they able to call their backup resident for help, and beyond that, does the backup resident ever go in during call shifts? While some people can do well in a more independent environment, others need more support to learn best. It’s important to know which learning style you prefer and find a program that would support it.
  5. Number and location of sites: Some clinics may be as far as an hour away. Getting a good idea of the commute time is important in determining if the program will be a great fit for you.

How to write a powerful personal statement

To create a memorable personal statement, it is important to answer a few key questions: Why ophthalmology? What skills do you have that will help you in this field, and what can you contribute? What do you hope to gain in your training on a global level (and also for particular program(s), if that applies)?
There is definitely an art to "humble bragging" about yourself in the essay format. Most importantly, have people read and critique your personal statement before you submit it! There is no room for errors or typos in your application. And this may be obvious—but make sure you spell ophthalmology correctly!

Common ophthalmology residency interview questions

Below are some of the most common questions you may be asked in your residency interview, along with tips for effective answers.

1) Tell me about yourself.

Although some programs are straying away from these types of questions, make sure you have a concise summary ready to go! I like to say something along the lines: I’m (insert name, so they know how to pronounce it, and a memory trick if it’s a little harder to remember or say). I grew up in ____ and attended college at ______, where I majored in ______. I am currently in medical school at ______ and am excited to pursue my interest in ophthalmology. I also enjoy (insert hobbies, things that make you unique).

Tip: You don’t want to talk for too long here; I’d recommend about a minute or so.

2) What made you interested in ophthalmology?

If you have a patient-related story, this is helpful as it will keep their interest. Most people will say they want to help people see, which is clearly a good reason to choose the field…however, this is also your chance to be different!
Ophthalmology offers so many wonderful things: awesome technology, different types of imaging, the ability to change lives with a single procedure, etc.

Tip: Highlight what excites you about the field—what you want to learn more about and perhaps even sub-specialize in.

3) Tell me about a time when…

There are many ways they can spin this question to ask about difficult times, times when you were wrong or times when you had to step up in a leadership role.
They are trying to figure out in a few minutes if you’ll be able to be a good resident, which entails being teachable but also being able to work well with others and teach your junior and co-residents. It requires resilience, especially in tough situations.

Tip:  If you are able to convey these characteristics in a story, and more so what you took from the instance/how it changed the way you operate, they will love it!

4) How would your friends or colleagues describe you?

Ask them! Then you can use the good stories that they tell you!

5) Tell me about this part of your application…

Make sure you know your application forwards and backward. You should be able to explain in detail any research project or activity listed there.

Tip: They may also ask about bad grades in a certain subject or other questionable areas of your application. The most important thing is to own it and share something you’ve learned going forward.

How to schedule time to prepare for your ophthalmology residency interview

Table 1 outlines a 6-week schedule with action items to prepare for your ophthalmology residency interview.
Prior to interviewAction
6 weeks1. Find someone with whom to do a mock interview and set up at least one date in the next 2 weeks—if you can do multiple mocks, even better! 2. Write down a list of potential questions
5 weeks1. Work on your answers. When you do your mock interviews, you can edit the answers based on the feedback you receive. 2. Run through a mock interview.
4 weeks1. Ensure your suit (or other professional outfit) fits! 2. Run through a mock interview.
3 weeks1. Run through a mock interview.
2 weeks1. Review your personal statement and application and ensure you can talk about everything listed.
1 day1. Print out your application to have handy. 2. Make sure your outfit looks clean and pressed. 3. Review your list of questions. 4. Get a good night’s sleep!
Table 1: Courtesy of Alanna James, MD

Final thoughts

In summary, interviewing can be a very intimidating process, but with adequate preparation and good mentorship, you can definitely do it! I learned a lot about myself during the process and met some very good friends. There may be questions that take you by surprise, no matter how well you prepare.
One of the places I interviewed with asked me about an ophthalmologic sign that could be seen in pigment dispersion syndrome, and I had no clue! They knew the answer, of course, and instead of trying to fumble for an answer, I simply admitted that I didn’t know. I learned that it’s important to be honest, and, most importantly, be yourself!

Use the Ophthalmology Residency Interview Cheat Sheet to prepare for your interview with sample questions, scoring criteria, and tips!

Alanna James, MD
About Alanna James, MD

Alanna James, MD is a glaucoma fellow at University of Southern California Roski Eye Institute. She completed her ophthalmology residency at Loma Linda University Eye Institute. She received her medical degree from Loma Linda University School of Medicine in Southern California. She has a Bachelor's of Science in Biochemistry from Andrews University in Southwest Michigan. She has a strong interest in the medical and surgical management of glaucoma in addition to cataract surgery and a passion for both community service and global ophthalmology.

Alanna James, MD
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