Intended for healthcare professionals


Shining through at a specialty training interview

BMJ 2011; 343 doi: (Published 27 September 2011) Cite this as: BMJ 2011;343:d6045
  1. Matt Green, medical publishing director
  1. 1BPP Learning Media, London, UK
  1. mattgreen{at}


Matt Green from BPP University College School of Health explores what steps you should take to prepare for your approaching specialty training interview. He has been helping doctors to progress in their career for the past six years and will be speaking at this year’s BMJ Careers Fair.

You’ve researched your chosen specialty or specialties, selected your preferred locations of work, and successfully submitted your specialty training application forms. Your next course of action should be to start preparing for your approaching interview. The sooner you begin your preparations the better. As the old adage goes, “If you fail to prepare, you are preparing to fail.”

With thorough preparation, a clear understanding of the type of people the panel is looking for, and a good understanding of the person specification, your specialty training interview is something that you should expect to enjoy. Remember, when you are called to interview you have earned the right to be there and it is your opportunity to show your passion for your chosen specialty and why you should be offered a position.

Appreciating the underlying aim of the interview

The aim of the specialty training interview process is to select the most suitable candidates for the position. How is this done? Well, quite simply, your responses to a series of questions and exercises are scored against the person specification. Therefore a crucial exercise is to work through examples of relevant experiences in your chosen specialty, matching them to each point in the person specification. The panel members are keen to see individuals who show a commitment to their specialty.

The panel will also want to see that you are able to reflect on your practice and learn from your experience as you develop. Having an understanding of what type of learner you are, together with showing that you are a quick developer who shows initiative in filling gaps in your training, will also go down well.

Importance of your portfolio

Your portfolio will be reviewed by the panel members before they meet you and will provide their first impression of you. Therefore a well presented portfolio plays an important part in your interview. Your portfolio should be presented in a well structured and accessible fashion, ideally in a ring binder. A good way to arrange your portfolio is to follow the General Medical Council’s Good Medical Practice headings, with each section clearly marked with page dividers (ensure that you pay particular attention to any specialty specific guidance provided by the deanery or royal college). You should be able to navigate quickly to a particular section if you are asked to in the interview.

Include a well presented CV at the front of your portfolio and a contents page detailing what is in the portfolio. You should compile your portfolio with the person specification in mind and ensure that attention is drawn to how your experience highlights your commitment to your chosen specialty. Well before the day of the interview, ask your educational supervisor to review your portfolio and act on any feedback to help improve it.

You will need to bring other documentation to your interview, including personal identification, your General Medical Council certificate, qualifications, and immigration status. Exact requirements may differ between different deaneries and royal colleges, so make sure you adhere to the instructions you are given.

Maximising your score in each station

It is important to note that the exact interview format will differ between the deaneries and royal colleges responsible for overseeing the interviews. As a minimum you should expect to participate in three 10 minute stations, but there have been cases of as many as five stations running. Each interview station will be located separately and will run to strict time limits. You should expect to encounter the following stations.

Simulation patient scenario

You will be faced with a scenario that involves an actor or manikin. Treat the situation as you would if you dealt with it in a hospital setting. Take a thorough history, and at all times ensure that you are acting within your competence and are safe. As the scenario plays out, listen carefully and act on any information that comes to light. The assessors will be looking for clear communication, empathy, history taking, and the ability to ask for senior assistance if required.

Clinical skills or situational judgment test

You will be presented with a clinical case and given a short time to consider a way forward. You will then be asked a number of questions to establish:

  • Your ability to interpret the information provided

  • How you prioritise the facts presented

  • Your approach to diagnosis, suggested course of treatment, and overall care of the patient, and

  • Your ability to propose solutions to the case and to acknowledge your limitations.

Portfolio experience

The key here is to have a selection of examples that show your commitment to your specialty and to which you can refer when asked questions. These are often quite open questions, enabling you to showcase your range of achievements. You should also consider any weak points in your portfolio, such as lack of experience in a particular area and what the justification for this is.

Presentation skills

You may be asked to give a short presentation on a particular topic. You will be given the topic on the day and a small amount of time to prepare. This exercise will assess your ability to communicate and think under pressure to present a coherent overview of a topic within the allotted time. You should always use the “IMS” approach to break down your presentation:

  • Introduction outlining what you will cover

  • Main body of the presentation

  • Summary and any conclusions.

Structured interview

A panel consisting of a chair and a number of other medical and non-medical professionals will ask you a series of questions within a given time limit. The questions you will encounter generally fall into three categories relating to:

  • You

  • Your chosen specialty, and

  • Medicine as a whole.

An effective way to compose high quality answers is to follow the “NEURO” approach:

  • New—Have you already mentioned the example to illustrate a different answer?

  • Example—Is the example you intend to use relevant to the question you have been asked? Begin your answer by briefly setting the scene and putting the example in context.

  • Unique—Is your example unique in terms of helping you to stand out from your rival applicants? The higher and rarer the achievement, the better your score will be.

  • Role—What was your role in the example given? For instance, leading a clinical audit is obviously a much stronger example than playing a small part in the data collection. Does your description of the part you played deal with what is being asked in the question? Does your answer focus on what you achieved and not what others did? Do not try to pass off someone else’s achievement as your own.

  • Outcome—What did you achieve? How was it special? What did you learn from the experience? How has it informed your decision to follow your chosen specialty? How has it made you a better doctor?

Whether it is practising how you answer questions from a panel, how to approach a simulation scenario, or how to deliver a presentation, a sure-fire way to succeed is to follow the three Ps of preparation: practise, practise, practise! Get together with a group of colleagues and practise the different stations you will encounter.

Standing out on the day

What if everyone on the day has the same clinical skills, qualifications, and experience? How do you ensure that you stand out for the right reasons? How you come across in the various stations is just as important as your actual responses.

Final thoughts

  • Before the interview, check the instructions provided, ensure that you have all the documentation asked for, and confirm the time and location.

  • Dress smartly and speak clearly and succinctly. If everyone on the day has the same clinical skills, qualifications, and experience, how you present yourself in terms of dress, communication, and enthusiasm is what will make the difference.

  • Never leave an interview station with the feeling that you should have corrected an answer. Obviously you can’t go back to correct all of the answers you have given, but if you wish to give an alternative answer to a question then do so.

BMJ Careers Fair

The 10th BMJ Careers Fair takes place on 30 September and 1 October 2011 at the Business Design Centre in Islington, London.

Whatever your grade and specialty, the BMJ Careers Fair has a lot to offer. As well as courses covering CV writing, interview skills, career planning, and more, delegates can visit the exhibition stands to receive careers advice, find a new job, and identify alternative career pathways.


  • Competing interests: MG is the editor of Preparing the Perfect Medical CV, published by BPP Learning Media.