Bea Palileo, M.S., Benjamin Lin, M.D.
The interview season is stressful, but it can also be an enjoyable process. For many, this will be your first major foray into the ophthalmology community. You will get to travel the country while meeting future colleagues, mentors, and friends. A little preparation goes a long way in making your season successful.
This article aims to walk you through the process with tips and tricks that will help you along the way.
In this guide, we frequently reference the OphthoMatch spreadsheet. This is a yearly crowd-sourced Google spreadsheet that is updated throughout the season.
Key takeaways that we will cover:
- Make your own personalized interview spreadsheet calendar.
- Never miss an interview invite notification.
- Follow interview rescheduling and cancelling etiquette.
- Create a standardized interview prep sheet for every program you interview at.
- Know your entire application inside and out. Prepare for the most commonly asked interview questions.
- Schedule flights and hotels wisely.
- Pack key items for all your interviews in a carry-on (not checked) bag.
- Send post-interview communication if you feel it’s appropriate.
Your interview calendar
Make your own personalized interview spreadsheet calendar.
This is essential in organizing your interview invites that come in. Regardless of how you organize it, create an excel with all of your programs you applied to and their listed interview days (find it on SF Match). In your spreadsheet, it is helpful to include either the program state or region to help you organize them geographically.
Here are some general principles when choosing interview dates:
- Try to schedule geographically close programs in groups.
- If geographic grouping isn’t feasible, choose the interview date with the least amount of conflicting programs or a date that doesn’t overlap with your more desirable programs.
- Consider making a simulated schedule for your top 20-30 programs you thinkyou have good shot at interviewing at.
Example methods of making your spreadsheet:
- Export your selected programs to an excel spreadsheet directly from the SF match website. Click here for a sample of what the 2019-2020 SF Match export looked like.
- Under program directory, click “Export to Excel”. This will give you basic information about each program including program description, program coordinator information, number of resident positions available, etc.
- Importantly, this will give you the expected interview dates for each program. Note that interview dates may change, but this will give you a good starting point.
- From this information, create a personalized interview spreadsheet calendar. There are multiple ways to approach this.
- The easiest way is to export the one on the OphthoMatch spreadsheet and delete the schools you didn’t apply to. Click here for the 2019-2020 spreadsheet.
- Here are a few sample interview schedules made by our users
Never miss an interview invite notification.
As you can see above from the sample interview calendar spreadsheet, there are lots of overlaps! Getting your preferred interview date is key to avoid conflicts and having to drop interview offers. The best way to do this is to respond as fast as possible to any interview invites that are sent out. Your goal should be < 2 minutes. Here are some key tips:
- Make a separate SF match email and set phone notifications for that email to a unique ringtone.
- If you have a smart watch, link your email notifications to your watch. If you’re scrubbing in, keep it in the front pocket of your scrubs or wrap it around your ankle.
- Keep an interview confirmation template saved on your phone that you can easily copy and paste (see below for example).
- Keep your personalized interview spreadsheet easily accessible from a shortcut on your phone for speedy reference.
- Whenever you are on interviews or flights, especially in October, designate someone you trust (e.g. sibling, significant other) to check your emails and schedule it for you. Make sure they have access to your preferred date spreadsheet and confirmation template.
Example interview template confirmation:
Dear Program Coordinator,
Thank you for the opportunity to interview at ___. I am truly honored to be invited. Here is the order of my choices for an interview date:
I appreciate your assistance in this process. Please let me know if you need any further information.
Follow proper etiquette (e.g. don’t do it last minute).
If you are trying to reschedule your interview to a day that is already full, check the OphthoMatch spreadsheet. Every year, there is an interview swap tab that people use to directly swap days. Once you confirm a swap with another interviewer, email the program coordinator the swap request with your full names, interview dates, and emails. Try to reschedule as soon as possible (at least 2 weeks). This gives your interviewers time to review your application on the correct date.
Canceling interviews is a tough decision to make, but can be necessary if you have a schedule conflict or if you are lucky enough to have too many interviews.
What is the “right number” of interview invites to start canceling interviews? There is no one right answer and depends on your personal situation. However, according to the Ophthalmology Residency Match Summary Report 2020 the average number of interview invites per matched individual is 121. Attached is a graph that shows the probability of matching by number of programs ranked by applicant2.
If you are cancelling an interview for any reason, including conflicting interviews, email/call the program coordinator AT LEAST 2 weeks before the interview date. Program coordinators pour ungodly amounts of time into scheduling every season. Do whatever you can to make their lives easier.
Know the program
Create a standardized interview prep sheet for every program you interview at.
Do your research before interview day. Make a standardized interview prep sheet that you fill out for every program. Include key program information and things that you particularly care about.
Here are some examples of things you might want to include:
- Logistical information:
- Date and location
- General Information about interview day, parking instructions, dinner information.
- Interview format:
- Including number and length of interviews
- The OphthoMatch spreadsheet usually has a post interview review tab that you can reference for this information
- Program details
- Number of residents
- Clinical sites
- Surgical exposure/numbers
- International opportunities
- Didactic schedule
- Call schedule
- Research support
- The answer to “Why do you want to attend ____ program?”
- Names and subspecialties of program director and chair
- Specific questions to ask about the program
- Surrounding area
Know your application
Go over your SF match application and prepare for the most commonly asked interview questions.
Know your application cold, inside and out, backwards and forwards. Even though it won’t be asked about often, know that obscure piece of research you did 10 years ago that you were second to last author on. For all your research projects, prepare a one-line summary of the results along with a one-line summary of its significance (clinical application, how it helped you grow as a person/student/researcher, lessons learned from the project etc). Lastly, bring your interview folder and your SF match application on your plane/car/train rides so you can refresh your memory as you go through the trail.
Check out this separate article for a list of the most commonly asked questions on ophthalmology interviews and more interview-specific advice: https://eyeguru.org/blog/ophtho-interview-questions/
Scheduling flights and hotels
There are many ways to save money on the trail.
It’s difficult to find the perfect time to book flights and hotels. Too early can mean you might lose money if a more preferred interview invite comes in that conflicts with a date you already booked. Too late means more expensive fares. Here are some general tips:
- Hotels: A good rule of thumb is to book a refundable hotel ASAP whenever you get an interview invite. Most hotels you can cancel for a 100% refund within 24-48 hours of check-in. Hotels tend to be the most expensive option, but will be your most reliable. They will accommodate your late evening/early morning check-ins, and will have an ironing board and iron.
- AirBnB: These are oftentimes the next cheapest option, but you may run into small hiccups checking in/out due to the nature of AirBnB.
- Friends: Staying with a friend is free, but consider your schedule. Don’t be that person who arrives at 3 am in the morning.
- For your more desirable interviews, book flights as early as possible. In fall and winter, the cheapest domestic flights per an annual airfare study comes 69 to 94 days in advance, respectively3. This is roughly the longest interval you’ll have between your interview invites and actual interview dates.
- For your less desirable interviews, don’t be afraid to wait as late as 2 weeks in advance to book flights.
- Trickle invites can come as late as 4-5 days before the interview, so keep your schedule flexible. If possible, book with Southwest because flight cancellations and rescheduling are free. Google flights does not include Southwest fares, so be sure to check both.
- Get a good credit card. The most popular one is the Chase Sapphire Reserve card. It comes with free airport lounge access (most with free food), TSA precheck, 50,000 bonus points after reaching $4000 spending minimum. The annual fee is $450, but you receive $300 in year travel credit along with other great perks. The 50,000 bonus points can easily cover one or two interview flights.
Use your carry-on
Pack key items for all your interviews in a carry-on bag.
Whatever you do, do NOT check your bag. We’ve met interviewees who showed up on interview day in jeans because their luggage got lost. If you have to check your bag, bring your suit as a carry on in a suit bag.
Key items to bring include:
- Interview suit.
- Consider packing an extra suit especially when traveling to consecutive interviews in a row.
- Portable steam iron (or ensure your hotel/AirBnB/friend has an iron)
- Interview folder with your SF match application.
- Look it over during your plane rides and practice your one-line summaries of your CV items.
- Bring a paper copy of any applications updates (e.g. papers published after submission of your application) to give to my interviewers on interview day.
- Pre/post interview social attire: Business casual is the safest choice. It’s ok to wear your suit to the interview social if it’s immediately after the interview. Don’t wear your suit if the social is the night before.
- A watch
- Sometimes, you have to be your own timekeeper and know when to meet your interviewers. It’s best to discreetly check the time on your watch instead of whipping out your phone.
- Breath mints
- Tylenol and other medications as needed (eg. allergy, cold/cough medicine, etc)
- Tide-to-Go Instant Stain Remover pen
- Do your best to be careful while eating meals and drinking coffee before interviews, but if a spill does happen it’s good to be prepared.
- May come in helpful for post-lunch interviews
- Redness-relief eye drops
- Many people bring redness-relieving eye drops to get rid of the tired eyes, pseudo-conjunctivitis look.
Send post-interview communication if you feel if it’s appropriate.
This can be a controversial topic. There is no right or wrong answer when it comes to thank you cards and letters of intent. Every program treats them differently. Thank you notes are unlikely to change your spot on the rank list. However, if you feel like you truly connected with an interviewer who took the time to read your application thoroughly and got to know you as a person, it’s great to show your appreciation for that.
If you do send thank you notes, don’t be offended if you don’t get a response back. Interviewers get a lot of notes and may miss responding. Email is better than snail mail because you know the notes will get to the right person while you’re still fresh in their minds.
The biggest rule with letters of intent, AKA “I will rank you #1” letters, is that don’t send it out to more than one program. Don’t try to game the system, it’s more likely to backfire than to help you.
Lastly, don’t overanalyze every email response you get. At the end of the day, the match is unpredictable and you can only hope for the best.
While this article compiles recommendations from ophthalmology applicants that finished the interview trail, we also informally interviewed attendings for general advice before starting ophthalmology residency. From the wise words of ophthalmologists across the country, we hope you take this with you during the interview trail and beyond!
- READ more. The BCSC series is your friend. (This by far was the most popular)
- Treat your attendings as colleagues. Get to know them as people.
- Training in ophthalmology is short. No matter how tired you are, take every day and learn as much as you possibly can. Learn from your mentors.
- Put your best foot forward, be kind, and help colleagues along the way because you never know who is watching. Networking is so important in a small field.
- Just start. I wouldn’t change anything.
- Remember your value outside of your academic accomplishments. It’s easy to forget while you are high up and successful, but when you fail it will be a hard fall.
- Create a study regimen, whether you read in the morning before clinic starts or set a designated time to read in the afternoon. Put it in your schedule!
- Life can take you in unexpected pathways, be a sponge and you might end up exactly where you are supposed to be.
- When you are uncertain of what to do, remember to always put the patient’s best interest first.
- If you have an unpopular opinion, don’t be afraid to run with it and prove this theory despite what others say.
- Remember you are a medical doctor first, then an ophthalmologist, then a subspecialist (whether that is glaucoma, cornea, retina, neuro-ophthalmology etc).
- Learn from every patient. Look up the case and read about each topic.
- Book recommendations: Kanski ophthalmology and Visual Intelligence by Amy Herman.
- Be self-forgiving. Residency is hard. There is a high learning curve for ophthalmology.
- Do a surgical preliminary year. Dexterity takes time.
- Take a good vacation before starting ophthalmology, it will be a hard first year.
- View ophthalmology as a gift that you are destined to do. Practicing ophthalmology is a privilege.
As our parting advice, we encourage you to apply broadly and remind yourself every day throughout this time that you deserve every interview offer you get. Be confident; don’t compare yourself to others; and (as cliché as it sounds) truly be yourself. You want to be honest with yourself if you fit in with the residents and the program. It is the next 4 years of your life, fit is important. At the end of it all, trust your gut AND discuss with your mentors when you are ranking programs. Good luck to you all!
- Ophthalmology Residency Match Summary Report 2020. SF Match Residency and Fellowship Matching Services. https://sfmatch.org/PDFFilesDisplay/Ophthalmology_Residency_Stats_2020.pdf.
- Yousuf SJ, Jones LS. Ophthalmology Residency Match outcomes for 2011. Ophthalmology. 2012 Mar;119(3):642-6.
- CheapAir.com’s 5th Annual Airfare Study Reveals the Best Time to Buy Airline Tickets. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.cheapair.com/blog/cheapair-coms-5th-annual-airfare-study-reveals-the-best-time-to-buy-airline-tickets/