Navigating The Pre-interview Dinner

It depends on the program, but more likely than not you will be invited to attend the pre-interview dinner.  University programs tend to offer pre-interview invitations more often.  David and I went on more than 20 each.  Our cholesterol suffered but we also saw these dinner opportunities to make solid first impressions and connect with people socially.

One thing to keep in mind:
I know a number of programs look VERY FAVORABLY on applicants who go to the pre-interview dinner, even though they say it’s optionalDo not blow off the dinner just because you don’t want to spend the time or effort.  I know it’s unfair given constraints on flights and schedules, but it’s the world we live in.

The bottom line of pre-interview dinners is this.

  • Being very personable and friendly at the pre-interview dinner may help you have better interviews the next day, particularly if you meet residents the night before who will then interview you
  • Speaking with the current co-residents gives you inside details about the program which you can bring in to your conversation with interviewers the next day
  • A poor performance where you are rude or make an offensive statement will absolutely hurt your chances of being ranked highly at the program

We are going to provide you some key tips to help you make the best possible impression possible.  Most importantly, we are going to warn you about avoiding landmines that happen every year.

We do have a disclaimer.  How comfortable are you with English?  How comfortable are you in regards to social interactions?  If you have serious concerns about your English or really struggle with social interactions, then the pre-interview dinner may be more detrimental than helpful.  However, we believe that anyone can leave a good impression and avoid common mistakes by following these rules.

Rule # 1:  Know that the pre-interview dinner is evaluative

Programs may say pre-interview dinners are relaxed and non-evaluative but that is simply not true.  You will be assessed by individuals associated with the program such as the current residents (including chief residents) based on your behavior and interactions at the pre-interview dinner.  We are not telling you to be very uptight and nervous…that will be the interview day.  You shouldn’t go into the dinner with your hair down thinking everyone is your best friend.

Rule # 2: Arrive exactly 5 minutes late

David and I went to enough of these dinners to know what time is the best time to show up.  We have come 5 minutes early and usually the restaurant is empty and you will be sitting by yourself.  The residents filter in but usually 1 or 2 will arrive on time.  By being 5 minutes late, you can look at the room in front of you and pick your seat.  This gives you some control over who you are going to be talking to.  If you are too late, then this reflects poorly on you.  Of course, you can always make a reasonable excuse.  But, you run the risk of then not getting to pick your seat.

Rule # 3:  Be prepared for basic small talk questions.

This not going to be interview intensity, so you just have to answer politely with some emotion and excitement in your voice.  The questions are pretty basic.

Tell me where are you from
Do you have any siblings?
What did you study in college?
How do you like this city/location?

It’s always easy to repeat back the same question in order to give them an opportunity to talk about themselves.

Rule # 4:  Have a few questions to ask.

In this setting, you’ll have an opportunity to ask residents in a more informal way what they think about their program.   We think it’s important to gather this information as you may not get the chance to ask these questions in the formal interview day.  Questions that David and I asked at our pre-interview dinners, but NOT during our faculty interviews include:

  • What is the culture like at the program?
  • Are resident concerns heard and taken seriously?
  • Do you feel like you have opportunities to get mentors?
  • Does the program support research?
  • Does the program support resident goals in regards to applying to Fellowships?

These questions show you are engaged and have thought very deeply about the program.  Residents will NOT be offended to answer these questions–they likely asked the same questions you did when they were interviewing.  Notice how these questions are not negative or inflammatory.  Do not ask a question like this (which we overheard one candidate ask):

  • I heard this program is malignant, is that true?

You don’t want a resident to feel that they are on the defense.  You do not want to come off as judgemental.

Rule # 5:  Quick clothes guide – stick to business casual

We sometimes get questions about what to wear to the pre-interview dinner.  In general, we follow the business casual convention.  For men, wear dark slacks or khaki pants.  Typically, jeans may be too informal for the nicer restaurants.  We recommend a neat, tucked-in dress shirt.  Ties are not necessary.  Blazers or sweaters also work.

For women, there is much more flexibility.  The rule of thumb is to avoid anything too provocative or displays too much skin.  A conservative sweater is a very safe bet.  Heels are OK but be conservative here as well.

Rule # 6:  What to avoid

In the end, the pre-interview dinner is unlikely going to get you to match at your dream residency.  You will not get ranked highly because you were very friendly at the dinner.

However, we have seen it first hand.  When candidates let their guard down and act in an unprofessional way, residents or faculty at the dinner will let this be known.  When it comes to ranking candidates, any negative statement about you at the dinner will greatly hurt your chances of matching.  Here are some mistakes you have to make sure you avoid.

  • Drink too much alcohol – stay within your limits
  • Eat too much of the food – if plates are being passed around, make sure you take a small portion so that everyone may have some
  • Act rudely to the waiters or waitresses in any way
  • Dominate the conversation over other candidates – behavior such as interrupting or talking over others will be noted
  • Brag about your accomplishments too aggressively – it is absolutely OK for you to talk about your research but avoid statements such as “I publish all the time” or “I have treated hundreds of those patients back at home”
  • Talk about your opinion of the program as ‘easy’, ‘a back-up’ or ‘malignant’
  • Avoid any aggressive conversations involving religion, gender, racial issues or politics

Basically, you have to be the most polite and pleasant person you can be.  You want to be easy to talk to.  You want to avoid highly controversial topics.  You want the people you meet to walk away from the dinner thinking “John was very nice to talk to last night.  He would be very good to work with on a late call night.”

Rule # 7:  Missing the dinner

There were times David and I missed the interview dinner the night before.  We could tell the interviewers were disappointed to hear that.  An answer that you can provide is as follows:

“Unfortunately, my travel schedule did not want to cooperate (or my flight was delayed).  I heard from the other candidates that the food was amazing and I’m sad I missed out.  But, I have had plenty of opportunities to talk with the residents in the program and they only have positive things to say.”

Notice in this answer, you are providing a sincere apology with a plausible reason.

Hope this takes the mystery out of the pre-interview dinner.  Learn much more about interview etiquette, how to answer the highest-yield interview questions, and much more from our member section.  See how Residency Interview Questions can dramatically boost your interview.