When I was on the CaRMS interview tour there was one question that every program, regardless of specialty or geography, would always ask me.
It was a simple question. One that revealed a lot about your personality and character and I believe how you answered this question would could determine whether you would be a good fit for a residency.
Was it why you wanted to do their specialty? What do you see yourself doing in the future? An ethical situation?
Surprisingly, the question was “How do you handle stress?”
At first, I found it surprising that every interview I did, whether it was an MMI or a panel interview, open or closed file, would ask this simple question. Classmates who had applied to different specialties too confirmed the ubiquity of this question.
The question was even more common than standards questions of why this specialty, what are your strengths and weaknesses, etc.
How do you Handle Stress?
The more I think about it, the more I realize how good this question really is. With just one question, the interviewer can assess your inter and intrapersonal skills. They can determine what types of adversities you have overcome and whether you have a healthy response to stress that is conducive to residency. They can see if you’re a well rounded person who has appropriate stress outlets or whether you’re a person who knows how to seek help when needed.
Furthermore, it was a question where each person would have a unique take. Everyone responds to stress differently and there is no one right way of doing it.
Residency programs want happy and productive residents. Unfortunately, being a resident is often stressful and tiring. By identifying people who can cope well to the rigors of residency, program directors will hopefully deal with less burnouts and leave of absences.
How to Answer the Question
In order to answer this question successfully, you should understand what stress is and that there are appropriate and inappropriate responses to stress. Furthermore, there is such thing as good and bad stress. Just like a musician with some butterflies, often times a little pressure in our work makes us perform best.
Acknowledge that residency will be a stressful time with a lot of pressure from your staff, patients and families. You want to convince your interviewer that you will survive and thrive during residency.
The best way is to have an example of a time when you were stressed and how you managed the situation. It’s important to have a personalized and memorable story on hand that can make a lasting impression. Good examples could be the first time you called or code or being in a situation that was above your comfort level. Be descriptive.
Next, tell them how you handled the stressful situation. You should be sincere in your answer and realize that everyone handles stress differently. Take the example further and talk about how you release some of the pressures of work in your personal life. Some people find outlets in their friends and families. Some prefer to have some time by themselves. Others like to get it out of their system with physical activity or artistic endeavors. Whatever your method(s), you should tie them back your example.
“I believe I am a person who handles stress appropriately and thrives when I’m in a situation with a lot of pressure. I know residency can be difficult and stressful but I believe I have the right mindset and social supports outside to be an excellent resident. One of the most stressful situations I have been in was being on call as a new clerk and assessing a patient who was actively crashing on the ward. It was a terrifying experience but I was able to maintain my composure and approach the situation rationally. I was able to fall back to my basic training of assessing ABC’s and vital signs. Furthermore, I realized my own limitations quickly and immediately asked for more help. With extra support, we were able to stabilize the patient and transfer him to the ICU. I learned a lot from that experience about being level-headed and taking a step back to look at the whole picture.
Similarly, I have a lot of outlets outside of work. I like to run, play basketball and journal. My family and friends keep me down to earth and are always there for me. They help recharge my energy. I have also been very lucky to have found some mentors who I can share my experiences with and receive feedback from. Overall, I am a person who does well under pressures of treating sick patients and I know how important it is to have a balanced life outside of medicine.
That’s my basic approach to this question. Would you approach this question differently? How would you respond to stress?