Tales from the Road is a weekly series looking at various strange, odd, interesting, poignant and otherwise informative moments from previous years on the interview trail. If you have a story you would like to share (anonymously or otherwise), use the contact box below to send us your story.
If there is one thing that is synonymous with the Interview Trail, it is questions. Programs are asking you questions to get to know you better and maybe to test how you react in an unknown situation. You are asking the program questions so you can learn more about the program and possibly because the program is not very good at interviewing and all they do is keep asking you if you have any questions for them. Often times, the questions are a bit boring or stale (What is your biggest weakness?) Some times they are goofy? (If you were a tree, what kind of tree would you be?) Some times… well…
A former classmate of mine submitted this as a question she received once when she was interviewing for an Orthopedic Surgery residency position:
How much can you bench press?
Is this question appropriate? Tough to say. On the surface, it seems to be an innocently silly question from individuals in a field that stereotypically is athletic and focused on sports. Certainly it is not on the list of questions that programs cannot ask about you. Programs are not allowed to ask you specifically about your age, gender, sexual orientation, race, health status, family planning status or anything else that is discriminatory in nature. And yet, if you are a diminutive female student, one can easily imagine that this question might be intended to be a subtle dig. Programs are also not allowed to pressure you to reveal your rank list or make propositions regarding your rank list (“If you rank us number 1, we will rank you number 1…”)
The vast majority of programs are well-run and filled with upstanding individuals. But, occasionally either through lack of awareness or something more insidious, inappropriate questions will pop up from time to time. So, what is a student to do when one of these inappropriate questions arises?
Technically, the best answer is to report it. If a residency program pressures you to reveal or manipulate your rank list, that is a Match violation and can be reported to the NRMP. If a program is asking you inappropriate questions, you could probably report it to the AAMC or the ACGME, although I had a difficult time finding an exact mechanism by which to do this for residency interviews. You can always tell us about it here at the IU School of Medicine and we can then help you problem solve what steps to take next. Last year, Careers in Medicine collected stories of inappropriate actions from the interview tale as a resource for future classes and they may be doing that again this year, so you can always send them to me.
However, most of the time students are not particularly interested in going the official route and reporting these violations. This is understandable as students typically concerned about repercussions they might face by doing this and mostly they just want to move on and land a residency spot. So, in real time when faced with the question, what should you do?
Remember what the purpose of interviews are in this process: To show residency programs that you deserve a spot in their residency program. The best way to do this is by putting your best foot forward and being the best version of you that you can be. So, first and foremost, this means staying cool and calm. Even if you feel insulted or angered by the question, no need to show it or get confrontational. Take a deep breath, consider your options and then proceed. In most cases, a simple deflection with a vague answer should do the trick. For example:
Residency: “Are you planning on having children during residency?”
You: “I am proud of the way I have been able to balance my personal and professional responsibilities during medical school and I am confident I will continue to do so in residency.”
Residency: “It says here that you had some health problems during medical school. Was it an STI?”
You: “I had a physical health issue that needed to be taken care of. I took the time to adequately get my condition treated and I am fully capable of fulfilling my duties as a resident.”
But how should you answer a question like the one posed to my classmate? A question that is not exactly inappropriate, but might possibly have some questionable intent. Again, I would recommend staying calm under fire like any good medical professional. Then, I think you should answer it in the way that is most true to you.
If you are incensed by the question, you can go with a simple “I am not sure that is pertinent to my abilities to be an excellent Orthopedic Surgeon.”
If you are athletic, just not a weightlifter, you could try “I have found that bench pressing is not really an optimal training regimen for my goal of running a half marathon.”
If you are a bit of a goof, you could trend towards hyperbole “900 lbs, how about you?”
Or if you have quick wit and you want to give it back to the interviewer a little bit, you could always do what my classmate did and answer “More than your mom!”
The views expressed in this content represent the perspective and opinions of the author and may or may not represent the position of Indiana University School of Medicine.
Dr. McKenna is a graduate of IU School of Medicine, where he also completed a pediatric residency. He served as chief resident and was an Assistant Professor in the Department of Pediatrics and the Associate Program Director for the pediatric residency p...