The COVID-19 pandemic has quickly changed how surgical residency and fellowship programs interview applicants. For the 2020-21 interview season, the AAMC recommended a virtual format for all medical school, residency, and faculty interviews. As we look ahead to the 2021-22 residency interview season, the future format of residency interviews remains unclear.
There remains little data to support an optimal interview approach, with some advocating for mandated, virtual-only interviews. There are several serious drawbacks to this format. First, applicants are relocating themselves and their families for 5-7 year training periods. In many cases, they are moving to unfamiliar communities away from social support networks. The idea of doing this without assessing a program and the community in-person is unfair. Any suggestion that applicants could visit on their own time immediately inserts bias into the process. The students who could afford to visit would be the most likely to do so. Is there an unofficial visit with the program? Does an unofficial visit bode favorably for the applicant? Second, they must consider the program’s culture and personal fit with current residents and faculty. Does this program meet the resident’s training needs? Is the program’s city suitable for their individual or family needs and goals outside of the hospital? Institutional websites and pre-made videos are easily manipulated to demonstrate the positive aspects of a program, hospital, and city. It is hardly a substitute for an in-person assessment of a program and city.
The pandemic presents an opportunity to critically evaluate how we interview candidates for residency and fellowship positions. A two-phase interview season seems to be a logical compromise. The first tier would be virtual interviews at an unlimited number of programs. The second tier would be in-person interviews. Another positive change could be an interview cap for both programs and interviewees. Candidates would have a limited number of in-person interviews they could participate in, and programs would limit the number of candidates they could interview in person. The first phase would allow for applicants to get a program overview and assess fit for their desired training before committing to visiting a program and accepting the costs associated with a visit. It would also help encourage applicants to limit interviews to programs they are truly interested in, prevent “top” candidates from taking an unnecessary number of interview spots, and support a more equitable allocation of interview opportunities across the candidate pool.
We have concluded our first virtual interview season for residency positions. The most important question that remains unanswered is where we will go from here. During the writing/editing of this blog, a surge of COVID-19 cases, driven by the Delta variant, has occurred. Another virtual interview season may be mandated based on the interest of public health. Nevertheless, the pandemic has presented a unique opportunity to appraise our interview process and implement changes to improve it moving forward. We should seize that opportunity.