May 19, 2021

Virtual Interview Season: A Brief Review

By Alex Podlaski, MD

By now we have all likely seen various articles discussing tips to ensure a successful virtual residency/fellowship interview season. Some of these articles are directed at the interviewees (e.g., “Don’t rely on the WiFi from the Starbucks next door!”) and some toward the interviewers. Now that interview seasons are over, it’s time to review the virtual process.

What worked, what didn’t and can I actually get away with wearing sweatpants?

First, I’ll start with what worked. I appreciated when each individual interview ran about 15–20 minutes. I thought this was the perfect amount of time for the interviewer to get to know my major highlights as an applicant and for me to ask any pertinent questions. Did it stink when an interviewer and I really hit it off and got cut off in the middle of our conversation? Of course. But as the chef of a fancy Michelin Star restaurant told me on the Netflix hit show, Chef’s Table, “Give them just enough to where they’re left wanting more.”

I also appreciated when we had 2–5 minutes after each interview to jot down quick notes from our discussion and reset for the next session. This was incredibly useful as both an interviewer (for residency applicants) and an interviewee. As an interviewer, it also allowed me to quickly refresh the next applicant in my mind by flipping through my application review notes.

As far as what didn't work, I really don’t have many comments. Overall, the experience was largely positive. I will say that it was extremely helpful when a website had a ton of information about the program. The more information available, the better prepared I felt for getting to know the program on interview day.

Among the many different video meeting platforms utilized during the season, I personally experienced Zoom, WebEx, Teams and Thalamus. Zoom was by far the most common platform. While each one ultimately resulted in a technically equivalent interview day, the overall frequency of programs using Zoom made for a more familiar and comfortable overall experience. I can’t overstate how many times I had to make sure I was muted while I ate during a lunchtime Q&A with fellows over Teams. I just wasn’t familiar enough with it at first to have confidence that I hadn’t accidentally unmuted myself. Additionally, each platform had a slightly different experience for applicants while registering for and logging onto the session. Minor qualms? Absolutely. Room for process improvement? Assuredly.

Perhaps in the future, we can use a standardized video platform. My vote is for Zoom. And while I’d love to be paid for my endorsement, I promise I have not been … yet.

Interview Day Format
The average interview lasted about 2–4 hours and consisted of four 15-minute interviews. Most programs employed a similar interview day format. Some interview days were as short as 20 minutes in total for each applicant. Some ran for upwards of six hours total. Certain programs offered both a morning and afternoon session. Others required you to pick a day and time, and then you meet with an available faculty member. Did I get taken on a live virtual tour of a department over Zoom on someone’s cell phone? Yes, I did. Was it effective? Surprisingly so!

The question remains — can you actually get away with wearing sweatpants? Probably, but it's not recommended. In Part 2, I’ll detail a personal anecdote related to this as well as review the virtual interview dinner.

Conclusions and future recommendations

Virtual interviews can absolutely work — even without a pandemic. They save applicants a TON of money and time and largely accomplish the goal of any interview: to facilitate a conversation between you and your potential employer/employee.

Do I think virtual interviews offer a perfect experience and should replace in-person interviews, once the pandemic allows for normalcy? Not just yet. Too many unknown factors still loom to determine with certainty that virtual interviews are here to stay (such as transparency, as well as the effects on match statistics and future trainee satisfaction). Having said that, below is a list of suggestions to consider if virtual interviews are conducted again.

  • Headphones make the entire experience much better. You can purchase an effective pair on Amazon for less than $20.
  • Access the interview in a silent room, prepare good lighting and sit close to the camera.
  • Ensure you have a steady internet connection. Virtual formats already expose everyone to more potential awkwardness due to the inevitable lag time and results of video conferencing software coding (reduction in speaker volume when talking). Slow internet connection accentuates these problems.
  • Standardize your video conferencing platform.
  • More robust website = better applicant experience.
  • Minimize wait times between interviews, if possible.