Stories are the key to a good interview.  However in our stressed state, even our best stories end up either truncated and devoid of key points or too long and disorganized.  Use this flow for your answers. It will make your stories complete and pertinent. Sticking to the formula will prevent rambling about useless information and forgetting the important details. A personal example is included in italics, but this formula can be applied to nearly any type of story you tell during an interview.

Tell me about a hardship that you’ve had

S – Situation

This is the background information needed to set the stage. Edit, edit, edit. This section is particularly prone to rambling. Use your medical presenting skills! “Patient presents with knee pain that started a couple months ago. She denies any obvious injury but may have banged it 3 months ago on a garage door. The pain comes and goes with weight bearing and when she runs. She does have occasional swelling with some catching…” is much better presented as “atraumatic gradual onset knee pain x 2 months that seems activity related with intermittent swelling and mechanical symptoms.” Use medical jargon when appropriate.  This is the time to show that you are one of us.

During my audition rotations, my 64 year old grandma was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and underwent a whipple procedure with a rocky postoperative period.

T – Task

Why is this important? What needed to be done? What made it difficult?

It was my first real experience with the patient experience after starting medical school and it was eye opening to see how hard these complicated medical conditions are to handle at home. My grandma had a huge treatment team and despite their best efforts, details would fall through the cracks. My mom was her primary caregiver and was struggling. She didn’t know who to call when she had really bad nausea. The surgeon? The endocrinologist? She didn’t know how much pain was appropriate for her postop state or what to do about the many different kinds of pain, indigestion vs opiod induced constipation vs surgical pain? I was very close to my grandma and it was difficult to hear about her suffering but it was also really hard to field my mom’s many questions while flying around the country on rotations but she clearly needed help. I was in the heat of audition season and I struggled with what to do. I felt like changing my plans would seriously decrease my chances of matching into competitive specialty.

A – Action

What did you do? How did you handle the situation? How were you key in this story?

I first attempted to manage everything remotely. I spoke with my grandma’s physicians and clarified instructions. I translated doctor speak to lay terms. But it wasn’t enough and things were falling apart at home. I reached out to my mentor and he put everything in perspective. “Family is everything, kid,” he told me. The next week, I cancel my audition rotations and rearranged my schedule to go home.

R – Result

How does the story end? What were the results of your actions? Add any good numbers you have. For example, how many people attended the meeting you arranged?

My grandma’s cancer recurred and a repeat scans showed mets to her liver and omentum. I was able to have the tough conversations with my family and her physicians and together we decided to start hospice care. She passed comfortably soon after. True to her style, she taught me to the end and completely changed what kind of doctor I am going to be. I experienced a patient’s perspective and also learned how to prioritize my own values while pursuing my career.

This story hits several points (empathy, family values, priorities, and drive) without listing them.  The listener gets a picture of the storyteller’s character without being explicitly told.  Use the STAR method for each of your stories and you’ll be sure to hit all the key points while keeping your interviewers attention.  Even those of us who are blessed with extraordinary storytelling talent will benefit from following this format.  Apply this technique to each of the Top 10 Residency Interview Questions to build your story bank for interview day.

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