It’s that time of year again. The references are in, the applications are complete, interviews have been accepted, flights are booked, and medical students across Canada are preparing themselves for the rigmarole known as CaRMS that will determine where they will be living for the next 2-5 years and what kind of medicine they will be practicing for the rest of their lives. All you can do now is some interview preparation.
It’s a bit stressful.
While I believe that the advice contained in this article is broadly applicable to CaRMS, it is derived from my own experiences being interviewed and interviewing for the FRCPC emergency medicine programs in Canada. I was an applicant on the EM interview tour in 2010, interviewed applicants in 2012, helped to create rank-lists in 2011-14, and served as the interim program director for the Saskatchewan EM program in 2016-17. As always, please keep in mind that this is my perspective, and some people are bound to disagree. Try to get as many perspectives on this as you can so you can develop a well-rounded view.
Onto the advice:
CaRMS Interview Preparation Step 1 – Know your application
Anything that you put on your application is fair game during the interviews, so you better be able to talk about it! In many of the interviews you will have an opportunity to steer the topic towards things that you want to talk about to some degree, but sometimes an interviewer will be very interested in something particular and ask you about it. Know your application and be prepared! Make sure you’re able to discuss your role in research projects, what you’ve learned from volunteering in clubs, etc.
CaRMS Interview Preparation Step 2 – Know yourself
Cheesy? Ya. Important? Hell ya. Here are some questions you should have good answers to before your first interview:
Tell me about yourself.
This is a frequent opening to the interviews, and it’s so broad that it can actually be a fairly hard question to answer if you didn’t prepare. Recognize that it is your opportunity to play some role in directing where the interview will go, because you’re likely to have follow-up questions on the things that you bring up. It’s also an easy question to ramble on about, so be succinct. Please don’t tell us your entire life story! I think an “elevator speech” (google it) is appropriate.
What are your strengths and weaknesses?
For real. Don’t do that thing where you name a weakness but then talk about how it’s really a strength (e.g. – sometimes I take on too much, but look at my application, aren’t I a total rockstar?) shows a lack of insight. We all have weaknesses, and if you don’t know what yours are you need to work on that. Another faux pas, in my opinion, is opening with “My friends tell me…” Discuss this question with your BFF if you like, but you should not need their advice to know when you struggle. A better way to address this question is to offer a legitimate weakness along with the things that you do to minimize its impact on your career and life. At the same time, be proud to tell us what you’re good at – we’re giving you the opportunity!
Why do you want to be an emergency doctor?
This is another question that you should expect and be able to crush. Make sure that you can respond to it eloquently because you’ll likely be asked it a lot. Consider what about your personality and lifestyle make you a good fit for EM and have a good understanding of the drawbacks of the specialty. Know what the current issues are in EM, and be open to discussing your career aspirations.
What would you want to subspecialize in? (phrased in various more elegant ways)
Traditionally, FRCPC-EM programs have allowed their residents to combine elective time with time for “developing a sub-specialty interest in EM.” With the rollout of Competence by Design in the cohort startin gin 2017, this will look different. However, there will still be some time in the ‘Transition to Practice’ phase for you to begin developing a sub-specialized area of your career so this is likely something that you will still be asked about.
You need to know for sure, but you should certainly know what areas interest you. Are you big into research? Education? Toxicology? Hyperbaric medicine? Tropical medicine? Simulation? Public Health? Geriatrics? Sports med? Trauma? Pediatrics? Ultrasound? Quality improvement? Pre-hospital medicine? Cruise ship medicine? Administration? Business? Critical care? Disaster medicine? Palliative care? And, more importantly, why? If you would like to read more about this, I’d recommend checking out the article that we published in CJEM on enhanced training.1 Programs are looking for residents that will ultimately take on a leadership role in some aspect of our specialty. There are a lot of areas to choose from so do think about it ahead of time. You can score some bonus points if you happen to know which of the programs that you are applying to have strengths align with this sub-specialty interest.
Tell me about a time when…
These are questions that the interviewers seemed to love when I went through my CaRMS questions. Known as “behavioral-based interviewing,” these questions attempt to assess you for certain characteristics by asking you about a time when you displayed it. You then share the story of how you demonstrated leadership, empathy, etc. The best way to prep for these questions is to come up with a lot of stories from your life that could be applied to demonstrate various traits. If you kept a journal during clerkship now would be a great time to bust it out! My University’s career center has produced a guide that goes over prepping for this type of interview question that is freely available here. Take a look through it; it’s a good guide for prepping for interviews in general.
CaRMS Interview Preparation Step 3 – Know your programs
All of the emergency medicine programs in the country are good, but they offer different things. For example, programs may be new or old, small or large, in a big city or a smaller city, do lots of simulation or little, teach ultrasound early or late, have different curricula, and conduct varying amounts of research in various areas. More likely, some of those characteristics are positives for you and others are negatives. Regardless, you should be able to say why you’d be excited to move to each city and program. Learn about them so you can have educated conversations about them.
How should you go about this? The first and easiest way is to check out the websites. We all have them, and they should have a lot of good information describing what we’re all about. If you know any medical students or residents from a school, they’re also a good resource for this information. Some students email residents, and that’s a strategy that I’m lukewarm about. If you have a specific question that really interests you, by all means ask them. However, asking a resident to complete an obviously generic survey is more likely to reflect negatively on you than positively. Regardless, I think it should be your goal to know enough about each program that you interview at to be able to have a conversation with one of the staff or residents and ask some educated questions about it. We’re proud of our programs and are pumped to talk about them!
CaRMS Interview Preparation Step 4 – Know your flights/accommodations
This is complicated! If you’ve been lucky enough to snag >6 interviews you’re going to be all over the map. This is even worse if you’ve applied to any other specialties and have to fit their interviews into your spare time.
Fortunately, the EM interviews are rationally arranged from East to West or West to East depending on the year. Every program owns one day in the 3 week period that is exclusively theirs for the purpose of EM interviews. Most programs have a second day, but they generally aren’t allowed to offer interviews to people being interviewed by the program that owns that date. This makes it possible for you to attend every single EM interview if you were lucky enough to snag invites to all of them (usually a few people each year pull this off). However, that will hurt. And it will also be crazy expensive. Save yourself some extra stress enroute (the interviews are enough!) and get your travel and hotel plans relatively sorted out before you start.
It is really difficult and crazy stressful to get all of your flights/accommodations arranged. Completing the CaRMS tour during our frigid, snowstorm-filled January weather seems to be some sort of perverse Canadian MD right of passage. Occasionally, you’re going to have to take a hit and book a flight/room that’s more expensive than you wanted to. The important thing is to start piece by piece as soon as you can. Most schools get their interview invites in by around Christmas, but it’s hard to make solid plans until you have your interview/tour times. As soon as you do you should be booking.
As you make your plans, do your best to make the socials whenever you can. They are important, especially at the smaller programs, so try to arrange your travel to allow for that. Of course, sometimes the only way for that to happen is to arrange teleportation. We know that’s not possible (although we, too, wish it was) and empathize with you, but still think that you being at our social is more important than you catching the end of that other school’s tour. When possible, I think the best way to combat this is getting a morning tour and an early afternoon interview so that you can be off to the airport as soon as possible.
-The CFMS arranges discounts through various airlines for the CaRMS interview season – make sure to take advantage of these offers.
-Find a travel buddy – there may be someone you know with a schedule similar to yours that you can bunk and share taxis with.
-hotwire.com has been popular in previous years for booking cheaper accommodations. AirBnB is also an alternative. If you have Facebook, there is a medical student electives housing group as well.
-Especially in Ontario, there are lots of local students driving from interview to interview. Consider holding off on booking buses/trains and instead offering some cash to the friendly Ontario applicants. They’re generally happy to have the company (and cash), and it’s much easier and cheaper for you. If it falls through, last minute trains/buses are not hard to book. Of course, if you know you’ll be OCD about how you’re going to get everywhere, figure it out beforehand. Hopefully, there won’t be one of those dreaded Ontario snowstorms this year…
Thanks for reading. Any and all feedback and questions are appreciated – just send me an e-mail/Tweet or write it in the comments. If you appreciated this post, please share it with your via email, Facebook, and Twitter!
Editor’s note: This article was originally published on January 13, 2013 on BoringEM. It was revised and republished on CanadiEM on January 7, 2015. It has since been updated by Kelly Lien & Brent Thoma and republished on December 20th, 2017. For more CaRMS advice, check out the complete CaRMS Guide. The next post in the CaRMS Guide series is Game Time: The CaRMS Interview.