Interviewing in the Era of COVID: How to Make a Good Impression Over Zoom

Yes, we know, COVID has changed so many things about life (and work) across the country, and residency interviews may be the next casualty. As we avoid crowds, strangers, and airplanes, it appears that the annual tradition of buying a scratchy black suit and spending your savings flying across the country to schlep around a series of hospitals with a dozen other applicants in equally scratchy suits may be a thing of the past. Instead, programs are choosing to interview applicants via real-time video teleconferencing (Zoom, Skype, or similar). Fellowship programs in some subspecialties have already completed their interviews over Zoom. We will talk in a separate post about the ways that Zoom interviews will change the applicant experience (and possibly even the match itself), but for today we will be focusing on how to perform your best as an applicant over Zoom.

Tip #1: Plan ahead to avoid distractions

Interviews take a few hours, and you need to have an environment that is clean, professional, and free of distractions. If you have young children, consider either having them go out somewhere during your interview (park? grandma, if she’s in your COVID bubble?) or choosing to do your interview somewhere other than your house. Depending on your specialty, having a small child yell “Mama! I pooped!” in the middle of your interview may or may not be perceived negatively, but you definitely don’t need the distraction in the middle of your 10-minute opportunity to impress the program director. You also want to avoid areas where there will be other people walking back and forth, noises, flashing lights, or anything else that will distract you or your interviewer from your conversation. For fellowship interviews, some applicants went so far as to go to a hotel where they felt like they could guarantee that they would be undisturbed.

Plan ahead for other needs, too. Do you tend to get thirsty? Be sure to have some water around. Chapped lips? Have some lip balm on hand. Sniffles? Be sure to have tissues.

Tip #2: Consider your background

Compared to when you interview in person, interviewing over zoom gives you an added way to showcase your personality: your background. Glitchy, fake Zoom backgrounds are a no-go. But do think about what interviewers will see behind you. Lots of people on the fellowship interviews were asked about their backgrounds: what’s that painting, who is in that picture, etc. Use this to your advantage. Put things that you want to talk about where they will be visible to your audience, and remove anything you wouldn’t want seen or discussed (photos of you and your college buddies drunk at a frat party probably shouldn’t be on display). Bed is probably also not the best place to be…

Tip #3: Know your good side

Looking down at a laptop webcam sitting on your desk isn’t the best angle for everyone. If that gives you a few more chins than you’d like, consider putting your laptop on a stack of books or using something else to raise your laptop until the webcam is at eye level. You can also try putting your laptop on the coffee table or nightstand and sitting on the floor, as long as you’ll be comfortable there for a few hours!

Tip #4: Let there be light

Make sure your interviewers can see you! You want bright, indirect light. Check to make sure there is enough light in the room, and that you aren’t backlit or washed out. If you can, check for strange shadows or weird reflections at the time of day when your interview is being held.

Tip #5: Wear the whole suit

Everyone loves the jokes about teleworking in a dress shirt and basketball shorts. But if something happens (fire alarm? spilled your coffee in your lap?) and you have to stand up, you don’t want to be showing your interviewers your sweatpants. So just wear the whole suit. And yes, the expectation is still that you wear a suit. Men should wear a tie. Women can often get away with a suit dress in more progressive programs and areas. Check out our post on what to wear for residency interviews for more tips. At least you won’t be wearing heels for a tour of the hospital!!

Tip #6: Do a sound check!

Make sure you have good sound. If there will be other people around during your interview, or if your built-in microphone sounds terrible, consider a headset with a noise-canceling microphone to cut out noise. I like this one personally, but there are many more on the market. If you are in an environment without extraneous noise, you may do just fine with your built-in headphone and speakers. Switching to a headset can be a bit disorienting at first (you don’t hear yourself in the same way you hear yourself without headphones), so practice! Call your mom, call your friend, make sure everything is working before the big day.

Tip #7: Let your personality shine through!

Programs already know about your grades, test scores, and research. Unless there is a significant weakness in one of those areas, your interview isn’t to prove that you are qualified – the interview is the program’s chance to get to know what you are like as a person, so they can decide whether you will fit in and be successful there. They can only do this if you are honest with the process. Let the program see who you really are, so they can see if it’s a good match. If you are naturally bubbly and outgoing, be bubbly. If you’re naturally more quiet and reserved, don’t feel compelled to put on a show. When I was applying, there were places I was very interested in, for a lot of reasons – close to family, good reputation, etc. As I have gone through the process, I’ve realized that those weren’t my people. I didn’t see it at the time, but the programs did, because I was honest. Don’t feel like you have to pretend to be someone else. Residency is hard, and you need people who support you and value you as you really are.

Tip #8: Do a dress rehearsal

There are a lot of moving pieces here, and you want to be well-prepared. Test your setup beforehand: make sure you sound ok, you are happy with your video angle and background, your internet connection is stable, and your clothes (and makeup, if applicable) look the way you want them to on camera. You only get one shot, so make it count!

Tip #9: Send a follow-up message

Thank you cards aren’t necessarily going to make or break your application, but they do help give a program an impression as to how interested you really are in their program. Remember that even though you aren’t being fed lunch and taken on a tour of the hospital, your interviewers are still carving out a lot of time to review your application, interview you, and later discuss and rank you. In many places, a follow-up email is also considered an appropriate way to reach out and say thank you. The advantage of email is that it also opens the door to more discussion – it’s much easier to hit the reply button than it is to respond to a paper card. So if you realize later in the season that you forgot to ask something, reach out and ask! For more tips, check out our post on thank-you notes and our post on sending appropriate follow-up messages later in the season.

The Good News

This can seem like a lot of extra stuff to worry about, but just remember all of these headaches of in-person interviews that you don’t have to deal with:

  • TSA
  • Delayed/canceled flights
  • Lost luggage
  • Ironing your suit with a hotel iron
  • Hospital tours in heels
  • Trying to eat a meal while looking “professional”
  • Dry cleaning your suit after you get mustard on it during the meal
  • $$$ for hotels, meals, flights, gas, parking, taxis, etc
  • Trying to figure out exactly how many interviews you can afford to go on

So it isn’t all bad. Most importantly relax, be yourself, and break a leg!

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