The key to success in virtual interviewing starts with setting the scene to be professional, yet unique to your style. Simplicity and minimalism should be the first goal when you are choosing your background.
Setting the Scene
One of the easiest ways to look professional on camera is to have a neutral background with minimal clutter. If you have an office to work in, it should be pretty easy to plan your set up ahead of time to strategically include only things that you would want to be seen on camera. In certain circumstances, this may not be possible, just be aware that anything in your camera’s view can be called into question by your interviewers. Some applicants use their background to display their hobbies or personal interests.
Having a musical instrument that you play in the corner, or a piece of furniture you made, or an interesting art piece are all great examples of ways you can use your background to display your talents and hobbies while creating conversation pieces. Putting a bookcase in the background can definitely add to your professional look, but just remember that it doesn’t make you any more unique than the next candidate. If you choose to use this method or you can’t avoid having a bookcase in the background due to space constraints, be prepared to be asked about any of the book titles in sight. Use good judgment when setting up your space.
If you are unable to reduce the clutter in your background, are traveling and staying in a hotel, or are constrained by small work areas, you may want to consider using one of the virtual backgrounds available on Zoom. One of the more popular options students use is the blurred background. While this filter will focus on the applicant and blur the clutter in the background, it also blurs the edges of your hair and face, so make sure to practice with different angles and the video settings prior to your interviews.
While your background is undoubtedly one of the most important parts of setting up your interview space, don’t forget about the chair you will be sitting in for 4-12 hours at a time. Make sure that the chair that you are sitting in is both comfy and preferably stationary. It can be difficult to stay focused for several hours straight sitting in a chair that isn’t comfy or doesn’t have good support. Equally important, if you are a person who tends to fidget, try to avoid swivel chairs. Interviews are anxiety provoking for most people and you don’t want to be unconsciously swiveling in your chair, creating a distraction for your interviewer.
Visual, Lights, and Audio
No matter whether you decide to filter your background or not, always ensure that your video quality is optimized both on zoom and your computer’s front camera. Most candidates are able to use the front facing cameras that come standard in their laptops, however, if you are finding that your computer’s video quality is poor, do not hesitate to invest in a high definition webcam. You can usually find a high quality webcam online or at your local electronic store for less than $100. The money you are saving by not having to travel should be invested in making the best use of your interview space.
Another simple adjustment is making sure your camera is at the most flattering angle. If you have a stand-up desk, you can use that to adjust your height, if not, you can always stack some books to have the camera angled slightly down toward your face. Lighting is going to be a key component in setting up your space. Natural light is always most preferred, but not always possible. There are many alternatives that can give a similar effect, including ring lights and sun lamps. If you wear glasses, you should be aware that angling a ring light can be very tricky and a sun lamp might be a more preferable option to avoid unnatural reflections. You should play around with the lighting angle ahead of time to minimize casting shadows on your face. Having natural light beam directly on your face (definitely not directly above you and/or behind you) is the key strategy for a more professional presentation.
Now that we have discussed the visual aspects important to setting up your interview, let’s talk about the audio quality. There are many ways you can improve your audio quality. Take a couple recordings of yourself to test out your computer’s internal microphone. If your audio quality is low quality or sounds as if you are in a tunnel, figuring out whether it’s your computer’s mic vs the location you are in is key. If you have high ceilings or have to interview in a large open room, you can reduce echo by adjusting your computer and zoom settings to reduce background noises. If your audio quality is still poor, consider buying a table mic to plug into your computer, preferably one that has a mic filter.
Avoid all background noise that is reasonably in your control. While it is not always possible to control police sirens, dogs barking, or your neighbor replacing their roof, try to find the quietest space possible to interview. If at all possible, arrange for someone to watch your kids and/or pets. While pets and kids are adorable, they can be distracting during interviews. If this is not possible, try to keep them busy or distracted and take advantage of every break you are given.
Dress to Impress
When it comes to deciding on your interview outfit, keep it simple, yet sleek and stylish. Even though you aren’t interviewing in person, you should aim to make the best impression as possible through Zoom (or comparable platforms). Your look should be polished, professional, and well thought out ahead of time. Remember, you don’t want your outfit to stand out as unprofessional or uninterested in the program you are interviewing with. This type of attention is generally not looked upon favorably.
When you meet your interviewer, you want to impress on them that you are someone who they would want to promote at conferences or “invitation only” meetings. While your outfit may not seem like a big deal, it is one of the first things your interviewer will notice, and therefore affect their gut feeling about you as a candidate. Do not waste any opportunity to make a good first impression.
You can never go wrong with donning a suit or blazer jacket with a neutral top. There are actually several psychological studies that look at the unconscious provocation of emotions with certain colors (see reference section for more information). Neutral colors are always the safest go to option and are the least distracting. Men should always plan to wear a tie and women can choose to wear a nice scarf, tie or necklace. The key is, don’t be too distracting with your choices of accessories.
Because zoom only captures your top half, you can decide whether you want to go comfy from the waist down or go all out with your outfit. Some students decide to wear dress pants because of fear that interviewers may make them stand up during the interview. Others wear dress pants for the unconscious boost in confidence. The majority of students prefer to interview in comfy sweatpants or pajama bottoms. There is a lot of controversy surrounding this subject, however, just know that most interviewers are not going to make you prove that you are wearing suit pants, so the decision is up to you and your comfort level.
One of the most unnatural aspects of interviewing over zoom is simulating eye contact. If you look at the camera, you are no longer picking up nonverbal body language and expressions from your interviewer, which can disrupt the natural rhythm of a conversation. At the same time, if you are looking at the interviewer on your screen, it doesn’t appear that eye contact is being made from the other person’s perspective. If you are using a second screen, make sure that it is aligned in a way that is above and beyond your screen with the camera. If you are using a webcam, consider hooking your computer up to a second screen to be above and behind the webcam so that eye contact appears more natural.
It’s natural to want to look at yourself during the interview. However, this can be distracting and can lend you to overdoing your facial expressions. There is an option on zoom to hide your screen on zoom so you are only looking at the interviewer.
Anticipate and try to avoid all technical issues that may arise during an interview. It is always best to copy and paste the zoom links into your calendar notes so that you can quickly access them and don’t have to go back through emails. Additionally, most coordinators provide their cell phone numbers in the case of technical difficulties. You should save the number in your phone for quick reference in case of emergencies. Prior to logging on, silence all of your devices and disable notifications on your laptop.
You should log onto the meeting 5-10 minutes early, as it is always safer to ensure your zoom link is working properly and your name is displayed appropriately. Once you join the meeting, make sure your video and audio are turned off so you aren’t disruptive if you are still preparing for individual interviews or just taking a break. Please make sure your account displays your professional headshot when the video is off.
You absolutely do not want to let a technical issue reduce the amount of time you have to interview with faculty and residents. Try to avoid using phones and tablets, as they may lack some features of the video chat software, not to mention internet connection can be variable through cell phones and tablets. Along those same lines, you should use a long ethernet cable to plug your computer directly into the router. This is a great way to avoid lag or unexpected WIFI connection issues. If you do have internet connection issues, make sure to reach out to the coordinator immediately to let them know of the difficulties.
Most importantly, be patient during this process. Some interviews will have “waiting rooms” with other candidates you can talk to or you can decide to turn your camera off to take a break. If you decide to take a break while in the waiting room, don’t forget to also turn off your microphone. No one wants to be remembered for taking a bathroom break that was overheard by everyone else in the waiting room because of a “hot mic”. Other interviews will be formatted to move you from one interview to the next without breaks.
The coordinators will send you interview schedules ahead of time. Take advantage of this opportunity to plan for food and water breaks. Some interviews will only last for a few hours, while others are 8-12 hour days. These interviews are broken up into 15-20 minute interviews with individual faculty members and groups of residents. It is always best practice to come prepared with individualized questions, just as if you were going to be in person.
Taking everything into consideration, many aspects of zoom interviewing are similar to interviewing in person. It should go without saying that you should always put your best foot forward and be kind and courteous to everyone you interact with. Be thankful and actively engage with the interviewers, as they have generously taken time to consider you for their program. Most importantly, be yourself during the interview. You have put in the hard work to get this far, now you need to trust that you will find the best fit for you, as programs are also looking for who is the best fit for them.
For more information on interviewing skills, please refer to the Interviews Chapter.
Contributors: Heather Minchew and Abby York
- AAMC. Virtual Interviews: Applicant Preparation Guide. Accessed March 1, 2022 from: https://www.aamc.org/system/files/2020-05/Virtual_Interview_Tips_for_Applicants_05072020_1.pdf.
- University of Minnesota. Virtual Interviews. Accessed March 1, 2022 from: https://cla.umn.edu/undergraduate-students/career-planning/job-search-strategies/interviews/virtual-interviews.
- Lapate RC, Rokers B, Li T, Davidson RJ. Nonconscious emotional activation colors first impressions: a regulatory role for conscious awareness. Psychol Sci. 2014 Feb;25(2):349-57. doi: 10.1177/0956797613503175.
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