Color-Coding Has Its Limits

Interview season is crazy and exhausting and fun and exhausting and AWESOME.

For those of you who are nonmedical, interview season is the fourth year winter when all other medical school responsibilities evaporate like a bottle of wine at a Thanksgiving dinner political discussion. No clinical responsibilities, easily avoidable committee responsibilities, sometimes cancel-able friend responsibilities.

If anyone asks you for something that you don’t want to do, you just say, “oh, sorry, I have an interview.”

The beautiful calculus of “oh, sorry, I have an interview” is that:

  • Having an interview is a beautiful, wondrous thing worth celebrating;
  • Asking where you are interviewing is just a little bit taboo, enough to dissuade some people from questioning entirely;
  • Those in charge of medical school are doctors themselves and largely remember this glorious time as the last light-stress period of their entire lives and are unwilling to take it from us.

So yes, it’s fantastic. There is, however, a two-part downside: the beginning of the interview marathon is horrible. HORRIBLE. As I wrote before, the ERAS submission and waiting process is brutal – there’s no other way to say it. For specialties like pediatrics, family medicine, and internal medicine, the wait is at least mercifully short – a few days. For some reason, though, other specialties (like orthopedic surgery) wait months before they even start reading applications and offering interviews.

My personal theory for why this is (borne from the curious coincidence that the long-waiting specialties are among the most competitive, like orthopedics) is that programs are attempting to weed out any candidate who may have a lethal brain aneurysm. By making extreme Type A personages wait for months under stress, any congenital vascular abnormality would certainly reveal itself and explode under such sustained periods of high blood pressure.

I am exaggerating, but only slightly. One of my good friends at another medical school is applying into interventional radiology, one of the more competitive fields. She has four interviews scheduled so far, a handful of rejections, and forty-seven – 47!! – programs from whom she has heard nothing. ERAS submissions went in September 15th. It’s almost December.

This friend is wonderful, but I am deeply concerned for her health. I am especially concerned that, given another week or two of this, that her head is going to pop off her shoulders, like some deranged Bugs Bunny cartoon character getting squeezed by a giant gloved hand. Or…


That is a top Google images result for “head exploding looney toons,” and although it doesn’t quite capture the image I wanted it quite appropriately captures the mood.

Anyway. Once the waiting is over and it’s time to interview, the other downside I referenced earlier is that there’s… there’s just a shitload of traveling. Planes, trains, automobiles, hotel rooms, car rentals, long lost friends’ couches, sometimes airport floors… there’s a lot of traveling. It really does become exhausting after a few weeks, and interview season can stretch to more than three months.

That said. The upside of interview season – being the boss of your own schedule, sleeping until whenever you want, watching all the TV you promised your normal friends you’d catch up on – far outweighs these pedestrian complaints. I just came back from a two-week family vacation in Japan, made possible by a parentally-purchased plane ticket and because I could. Next week I’m spending extra time on the west coast to catch up with friends and family – an opportunity that I’ve never had over the other four years of school. It’s amazing.

The interview days themselves are also not overly stressful, aside from the inherent stress of needing to be on your guard and inappropriately nice to everyone. Probably the toughest part of the actual interview experience is remembering what was what at each program. After a few, the powerpoint-tour-interview-lunch-interview routines all blend together, and it becomes pretty much impossible to tell one program from the next.

To combat this, I have resorted to an old friend: color-coded Microsoft Excel spreadsheets! I am so adept at this, at color-coding the ever-loving shit out of my life, that my mother wrote about it in the Huffington Post.

(Note: if you read that, it is a horrifically twisted exaggeration of how neurotic I am, not unlike how exaggerated most things I write are (with the exception of the total cluster that was “Is There A Doctor On The Plane,” which is as verbatim an account of the thoroughly scarring experience as I can generate)).


After each interview, usually on the plane home, I sit with my beautiful, friendly, macro-enhanced* rows of little white Excel boxes and type out my thoughts. For each school, I obviously have a column for OVERALL IMPRESSIONS, PROS, and CONS. There is, of course, also a spot for additional information such as “Advisor X considers this program Darth Vader-style evil” or “Former classmate I can’t stand matched here.”

*I do not, in fact, know what a macro is or what it does. But it sounds cool to say.

This whole writing-it-down-in-a-spreadsheet sounds great. It certainly looks great. There are colors, tiers, italics, and each program’s numerical data. But as I review my musings today with the advantage of a bit of time and space since my last entry… oh god. I wrote all the same things.

For Program A, here are some pros:
“-no wards
-residents seemed relaxed
-low-stress interview day
-awesome swag”

Here are my pros for Program B:
“-cool swag!
-very laid-back interview day, no pressure interviews
-chill, relaxed residents
-no ward months”

Every single entry for every school included the phrase “very strong program,” “will provide great clinical training,” and “loved the program director” Every one.

Now what the hell am I supposed to do?

2 thoughts on “Color-Coding Has Its Limits

  1. dear nathan,i loved it and the cartoon too. but what does swag refer to? is it attitude? welcome home from japan. it sounds like it was a amazing experience. thanksgiving was terrific. there was a tent in the yard and we had 30+ at the table. amy made all the main dishes. sasha made risotto-fantastic -which she learned from kyles brother ,who is a chef. kyle spent many hours making twice baked potatoes and a green bean dish. i made the chutney and many cookies. amy made banana cream pie, choc. pecan pie,pecan pie, apple pies, lemon tarts, fudge cake,rugula.

    there were 2 french people there and a young girl from australia,who has lost her visa and has to go home. the video of you and your father as sumo wrestlers was so funny. on cbs this morning, was a piece about the tokyo train master who bows each time he walks into the station. what was your favorite activity or city.? hope to see you on your return from california. love,grandma

  2. Pingback: Tail of the Trail | STATUS HAZMATICUS

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