Why didn’t you do an away rotation here?

The timing of this question caught me off guard.  It was the opening question from the chief of the plastic surgery division in a 1 on 1 interview.  For context, I had done an away rotation at a different program in the same city.  I had predicted that this question was likely going to come my way at some point during the interview day at this institution, and my preparation helped me stay calm despite the accusatory tone in which the question was asked.

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I started my answer, “When I was initially thinking about away rotations, I met with my mentor…”  I was interrupted.  The chief replies, “I didn’t ask about your initial thoughts or your mentor.  I asked why you didn’t choose to rotate here, but instead rotated across town.”  My preparation was out the window at that point.  He wanted a direct, clear cut answer.  There was no time for framing the story how I wanted to; I had to deliver a concise statement that would not sour the interview and jeopardize my chances of being ranked highly at this program.  On the spot, I responded, “I didn’t know much about either program and picked the other institution based off the dates as they aligned better with my fourth year schedule.”  My response was met with a stern demeanor, and a curt, “So you usually just do what is most convenient for you?” I was completely shaken at that point.  Nonetheless, the interview continued and the interviewer looped back multiple times to the fact that I had rotated at a rival institution.  He pressed me on it and tried my patience.  I wish I knew if it was actually that big of a deal to him that I rotated at this other institution or if he was using some kind of psychological pressuring tactics to assess my response to criticism.

Hopefully this the far extreme when posed with this question, but it highlights an important point.  Be prepared to provide explanations for why you rotated where you did (or for this application cycle, why you choose to attend one program’s virtual programming or virtual away rotation, but not another’s).  Don’t let the fact that you did not rotate at the program you are interviewing at stress you out.  While evidence suggests that 50% of students match at a program where they rotated (home or away), that still means that a great number of students (half) are matching at programs where they did not rotate.  Program directors and interviewers recognize that there is limited time available for students to complete away rotations (not to mentions financial and logistical constraints).  You still want to be able to address the question appropriately if asked.

There may be very good reasoning why you were not able to do an away rotation at a given institution.  Examples might include your medical school limiting the number of audition rotations you could take.  You may have applied to the institution for an away rotation, but not been accepted to participate in an audition rotation.  You may have applied to multiple programs, and other programs accepted you before you heard from the institution that you did not rotate at.  Of course, if personal or family issues arose that caused you to cancel or forgo the rotation, those are also very reasonable answers to give.  In my case, I could not find a mentor at my home institution that knew much about either of these two programs that I was considering rotating at.  One of my mentors did know an attending at one of the programs, so I picked it because of the potential for developing a connection through our mutual acquaintance. 

Brainstorm and prepare your answer beforehand so that you’re prepared to answer difficult questions like this.  No matter what, always stay calm under pressure.

Have you thought critically about how you would respond when challenged about a decision you made in the application process?  Do you have questions about about the best way to deescalate tensions in an interview?  How could the answer described above have been better? Comment below or contact us directly. 

Back to more interview question and response prep.

Carter J. Boyd, MD, MBA
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