Difficult Residency Interview Questions

The purpose of residency interviews during the Match is to pair a medical graduate with an environment that will enhance learning and develop the skills of the physician. However, interviewers are not equipped with the time to get to know every medical student, so they must use challenging interview questions to really get to know what type of candidate a medical graduate is. For the foreign medical graduate, difficult interview questions can be particularly challenging.

The Easy Questions

Don’t worry. There will be easy questions, and medical graduates will have plenty of general questions in which they can rehearse answers. Typical “easy” questions are:

  • Why do you want to be a physician?
  • Why are you interested in this residency?
  • What are your strengths when it comes to practicing medicine?
  • What is your biggest weakness when it comes to practicing medicine?
  • What are your goals for the future?
  • Why did you choose your specialty?
  • Describe your medical school training.
  • Who has been your greatest mentor?
  • What will you do if you are not selected for this program?

These questions are easy because they can be predicted and rehearsed. Especially for foreign medical graduates who may struggle with cultural or language barriers, the easy questions are a stress reducer because they can be practiced.

These questions are also very important because they confirm your education experience and the quality of education received abroad. They also give the candidate a chance to insert some personal details that will allow him or her to stand out amongst other candidates.

Although rehearsing the easy questions is advisable, answers should not be memorized. This can make replies come out robotically and make answers seem disingenuous. When practicing the easy interview questions, it is better to use bullet points to rehearse rather than full replies in complete sentences. This will give the candidate a chance to practice delivering natural and semi-spontaneous responses. The interviewer is not seeking a prepared speech but rather a natural conversation.

The Difficult Questions

While the content and delivery of the easy questions is important to assessing your ability to communicate your skills, difficult questions are designed to see how a residency candidate handles stress. They may be bizarre questions that have nothing to do with the residency program, and how you react to them tells interviewers a lot about your ability to handle stress.

For the foreign medical graduate, the difficult questions can be extra stressful because the interviewee must understand first that it is an intentionally difficult question. This can be difficult if the contextual elements of the question are misunderstood. This may force the interviewer to ask the question in a different manner to try to get the FMG to understand the question, and if this does not work, the interview may take an awkward negative turn. Examples of difficult questions are:

  • What is your favorite color and why?
  • Have you heard any negative comments about our residency program?
  • If you were stranded on a desert island and could bring one item from home, what would it be?
  • Tell me a joke.

It is obvious that these questions have nothing to do with your skills or qualifications, but they can show a lot about what a person is able to handle.

Preparing for the Difficult Questions

It is impossible to predict what the difficult questions will be, but your response to them should be candid. Some questions are meant to evoke hard emotional responses, and how you handle your emotions matters. Remain calm, and answer the questions with as many facts as possible. Leave any feelings or emotions out of your replies whenever possible. This is a test of emotional fortitude, which is a requirement in medicine, and the only way your interviewers can judge your strength is by throwing out some unexpected lines of questioning.

When you are practicing with mock interviews, throw in some crazy lines of questioning, and practice responding in an intelligent and calm manner. If it is a funny question, don’t be afraid to give a clever or witty response. The difficult questions are a chance to show personality and uniqueness. Everyone has practiced, canned responses for the easy questions, and the difficult questions are an extra way to stand out.

Lastly, start thinking about the difficult questions as an advantage. They are really an opportunity more than an obstacle, as long as the candidate is prepared. They are an opportunity because they give the interviewee a stab at capturing the interviewers’ attention and showing how the candidate can think on his or her feet. If a candidate feels like this is where their weaknesses are, then they should practice more because the difficult questions are going to happen.

The Match is a lengthy process, and after all the exams, certifications, and residency hurdles, there is still one part of the residency application process that must be conquered to be matched, and that is the interview. Like everything else, it requires preparation, and practicing the easy and the hard questions will give the foreign medical graduate a big advantage in the interview.

The difficult questions during an interview are not necessarily graded by the quality of your answer but rather how you react to being asked such a question and then if you are able to shift your thoughts in order to answer thoughtfully. The interviewers are not expecting your answer to be as amazing as they expect from the easy questions, but they want to see that you are not easily thrown off by a little uneasiness in a situation.

ECFMG: The Starting Point for Residency Applications

In order for a foreign medical graduate (FMG), they must be certified by the Educational Commission for Foreign Medical Graduates (ECFMG). This certification assures residency programs that a candidate is qualified to enter a program based on United States medical education requirements. This is an essential part of the residency application process, and it is important because medical education requirements vary around the world.

The quality and relevance of medical education around the world has been called into question by U.S. residency programs, as program directors are unable to compare standardized U.S. medical school education with that of education in other countries. While medical knowledge is easy to determine based on standardized testing, clinical experience is not as easy to compare. That is why FMGs must attend a U.S. residency program, but programs want assurance that their educational background is sufficient to begin practicing medicine.

U.S. medical graduates are labelled ready for residency by their Dean’s Office, but those offices are not available for international students. As a result, the ECFMG has aimed to create a Dean’s –like office that standardizes the process for FMGs through certification.

In order to get certified by the ECFMG, an applicant must apply through an interactive web application (IWA). This application allows the ECFMG to confirm an applicant’s identity, contact information, and education background. This act alone is indicative of how difficult it is to confirm FMGs’ education, as the simple identification process is extensive. Simply providing current identification is not enough.

The medical school attended by the FMG must be listed in the World Directory as meeting requirements for the ECFMG examination, which is the United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE). Applicants who do not have a resident status in the United States must also apply for a Visa. This is only part of the process leading up to the Match, but each step must be taken in order to meet the requirements for a residency application.


The USMLE is separated into parts, and applicants must pass Step 1 and Step 2 of the USMLE in order to be certified. The third step can be passed during residency.  Parts 1 and 2 of the exam test medical science knowledge and clinical skills. 2006 statistics show that US medical graduates scored higher on these tests than international medical graduates, but non-US international medical students scored higher than US international medical graduates except in clinical skills. Preparation is key to passing these tests, and English proficiency has been blamed for poor performance among FMGs. These tests are administered throughout the year, but you must be certified by the ECFMG before the start of your residency program.


FMGs are typically not residents of the US, but they may have established some form of legal resident status prior to applying to be certified by the ECFMG. If not, the ECFMG is able to sponsor applicants for a J-1 Visa.

ECFMG services

While the ECFMG is responsible for certifying that candidates are qualified for American residency programs, they also provide many services to FMGs. For example, they will help an FMG apply for residency programs through the Electronic Residency Application Service. They will also help applicants create verified career portfolios. They are basically the go-to organization for FMGs who need to get ready for the Match.

The ECFMG was established in 1956, and its goal was to improve the U.S. education system by standardizing the evaluation process of FMGs. In other words, it recognized the need for diversity in the medical community and welcomed the opportunity to help FMGs advance their career in the U.S. healthcare system. It is important to remember that the differences in education received abroad versus in the U.S. are not labelled as inadequate. Instead, it is simply different, and it cannot be accurately compared without some sort of a mediating process. The ECFMG provides that mediation.

That is not to say that there is not extensive preparation involved in getting certified by the ECFMG. Applicants are advised to pay attention to the timeline of deadlines and opportunities for FMGs to get certified and further their journey on the path to the Match. It is a complicated process that can quickly fail if an FMG does not complete certain tasks at certain times. Test scores are also important, and study plans should be set up and carried out months prior to the testing.

Navigating the pathway to the Match can be very confusing, and although the ECMG helps applicants get to the Match through certification, it can be helpful to employ other agencies to navigate the system and make sure steps are taken at the right time. The key to success is preparation and the utilization of resources such as FMGPortal. Obtaining a U.S. residency is an attainable goal as long as an FMG is motivated and obtains the help needed to get from the beginning of the process with the ECFMG to the end of the process with the Match.