Some Practical Thoughts on the Virtual Interview Season

I’ve done enough Zoom nonsense since March that I thought I’d put down a few thoughts on optimizing your setup during the remaining interview season.

This situation is garbage, and while I’m thrilled that this year’s students won’t have to shoulder the typical fourth-year travel costs, I don’t envy anyone’s decision-making process. Programs can feel more alike than different even when you see them in person, walk the halls, have dinner and lunch and a conference, and talk to tons of people. A breakout session during an informational conference call just isn’t the same.

Let’s start with saying I don’t think anyone would or should consciously judge anyone for their Zoom set up or how they appear on camera. That said, the data on ERAS application photo bias concerns me. How “professional” you look, even outside the usual appropriate dress and grooming that would be true in person, may indeed have an impact.

I personally don’t care if you’re in your closet or at school, if there’s a baby crying (or even a baby in your arms), or if there’s construction just outside. Some landscapers were really going at my neighbor’s yard with the leafblower just this morning. We’re all doing the best we can. Thank you for logging in and making the best of the crazy times we live in.

The vast majority of students I talk to are using their laptop’s crappy webcam (because for some reason all webcams are garbage even though new phones can record 4K video) and sitting in front of blank drywall. So if that’s your jam, I promise that you are in good company.

Without further ado, a few optimizations:

Position

Raise up your camera. If you set your laptop on your desk or a table, chances are you’re looking down at the screen, which means that the default angle is an upshot of your nostrils or hunting for a double-chin. But more important than the potentially unflattering position is the fact that it’s an unnatural angle for conversation. Unless you’re very tall, you’re probably not used to looking down at people to speak. So get a couple of thick textbooks to prop up your laptop until the camera is at eye level.

Lighting

If you can be in a room with a large enough window to provide decent natural light, that’s a plus (as long as it’s in front of you or to the side, not behind).

If not, try to get some kind of light source, even a table lamp, in front of you. Strictly overhead lighting casts shadows on your face, which isn’t ideal but can be especially problematic on older computers by triggering over-eager automatic brightness correction when you move your head around. For me, the constant brightness shifts on my webcam depending on the proximity of my face to the sensor was the reason why I stopped using my 2013 laptop for Zoom (and started using my phone, which is new).

So try to get some light. I’ve been using a cheap ring light stand I got on Amazon and it solves the problem of low light in my room of choice but anything that can function as a key light will help.

Background

It seems like most people have determined that the best quiet spot in their abode for interviews places them in front of empty drywall. If that applies to you, again, you are not alone. Just be aware that if it is possible to artfully arrange something in the background, perhaps some greenery or a print or even some dim accent lighting might be nice. Note that if your artwork has a glass frame that any extra lighting should be arranged to the side enough not to reflect in the shot. And, of course, a blank wall is better than a mess.

Attitude

I almost feel like virtual interviews are to the normal residency interview process what Step 2 CS is to actual patient care. Everything blurs together more because it feels less real.

I am conducting my interviews from home, so we don’t even have the pretense of meeting in my (shared and barely used) office at the hospital.

The interview season has always been tiring, but I think in some ways it may be even easier to let enthusiasm flag this year. The lack of travel and relative brevity of a typical virtual interview day means that some applicants are able to hoard interviews and “visit” programs they otherwise would have been forced to cancel in prior years. Logistics make it easier to waste your and the program’s time.

So, if you are interested, make sure you look interested.

Likewise, I suspect some programs may be showing even more of a regional bias than usual given the unpredictable nature of this year’s process (others may just be over-interviewing for safety). If your top programs haven’t invited you for an interview and your application doesn’t click in an obvious way, it’s not too late to let them know why you love them.

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