The Biggest Residency Interview Trail Mistake

Ali Murtha

Marathons suck. The first few miles feel like a stampede, as the hordes of runners jostle for position. If you’re lucky, the next few miles go well, but by the end of the race, your body breaks down and the pain becomes intolerable.

Marathons also kick ass. You get to push yourself to your limits, see a city from a different point of view, and do something you will remember for the rest of your life.

Like running for a marathon, interviewing for residency will make you feel bipolar. It is long, exhaustive, and awful. It’s also meaningful, memorable, and (hopefully) wonderful.

And like a marathon, interviewing for residency is all about preparation, to make sure you’re ready for the long-term drain on your time, energy, and wallet.

Let’s examine the lessons that I’ve heard over and over again from the residency candidates I work with, so that you don’t have to learn them the hard way.


The best way to bypass the biggest, most common mistake on the interview trail is to avoid over-scheduling so you can avoid under-performing. Interviewing is not a sprint. You will have energy, enthusiasm, and financial resources at the beginning of the experience that will quickly dwindle. I don’t say this just to scare you; the good news is you can avoid this!

Although you can cancel interviews at the last minute, you should make every attempt to avoid doing so. Be thoughtful about your invitation acceptances and only visit institutions in which you are confident you will rank.

The number of programs you should visit will vary based on the strength of your application and your choice of specialty. This is one of the topics covered in our Ultimate Residency Application Package.

In general, you should be careful not to stretch yourself thinner than necessary. This will allow you to pace yourself. Endurance matters.

Sometimes you won’t be able to schedule your top programs at the beginning of the season (more on this later). You want to be able to perform as well, if not better, in January as you did in October. And yes, January interviews are a thing. Don’t count them out.


Speaking of January, it is common practice to avoid scheduling your top programs after the New Year. This is a huge mistake!

The widely accepted belief among applicants is that interviewing in January sends a message of lower interest in the program. And, of course, since you probably won’t be at the top of your game by then, maybe you shouldn’t schedule top programs towards the end of the trail. Well, I’m here to shatter that perception!

Back to running that marathon… which part of the race do you think you’re most likely to remember? Mile 5 or mile 26? The pain and glory of the last mile are far more memorable than a blurry mile in the middle of the longest run of your life.

You may not feel compelled to care about the likelihood of remembering an interview day, but don’t forget that programs are just as (well, almost as) exhausted as applicants during interview season. This is their marathon too. And they are guaranteed to remember late season applicants far better than those from the first few interviews of the season.

Admittedly, this heightens the stakes for how the interview goes, so be sure to reserve some of that energy and enthusiasm! Although taxing on your energy, this is an impactful and lesser-used strategy that I see in action every single year.

If you’re feeling stressed out, make sure to read our 10 Expert Tips for Dealing with Interview Anxiety.


As a final comparison to marathon running, let me mention that preparation matters. Even those with the utmost confidence should not go into interviews without preparing.

Let us help with the small stuff too; check out our Essential Interview Travel Checklist.

Interviewing coaching sessions are ideal, as you’ll get actionable feedback on your style and responses. But even simple steps, such as looking up the faculty you’ll meet (a lot of programs will tell you this beforehand, not all) or the background of the program’s current residents, can go a long way in conveying interest and facilitating conversation.

Worried that your interview skills are a bit rusty? We’ve written about ways to improve your interview skills and strategies for making your interview answers more interesting. These tips should help you prepare for the marathon ahead of you.

Don’t drain your energy and hurt your chances by making a mad sprint to the finish line! Plan carefully so you can perform consistently well in the long haul! Best of luck!

Want to start making plans for your residency app? Book a free meeting with Ali to discuss your timeline and goals!

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Ali Murtha

Over the past 10 years in Graduate Medical Education, Ali has reviewed thousands of applications from future physicians and interviewed hundreds more. She has counseled dozens through the application, interview, and selection processes and is in her seventh year of managing residency recruitment at the University of California, San Diego. She has presented nationally on mutually-beneficial GME recruitment. Book a free meeting with Ali.