By Alyssa Brown
In the summer of 2021, I moved back to Louisville with a 12 foot moving truck full of stuff—ready to start my last year of medical school. I was aware that I would need things for Zoom interviews, but I was unaware of how many logistical hoops there would be to jump through. Call me crazy, but when I was looking for apartments, I tried to find one that had an area where I could easily do virtual interviews. Despite my best plans, I spent the night before my first interview pushing furniture around my apartment trying to find the perfect location. I originally had my set-up in my second bedroom, but this room faced the train tracks. The trains would rumble past once or twice an hour, and I decided I could not risk the noise disruption. I tugged my desk through the small door frame and pushed it to my “dining room.” I pushed it against my dining table. You may be thinking… but Alyssa, why not just use your table? Well, the table has one wobbly leg that despite my best home DIY skills would not stop shaking, so whenever I took notes on my notepad, the whole table would start shaking, moving my camera, laptop and everything else. I did not want my interviewers to think I was always in an earthquake.
Now, I tried about 14 different lamps and lighting configurations, including one that made me look like I was about to haunt the program interviewing me. I have finally found a good distance for the ring light. It is now far enough to not permanently scorch my retinas and not make me look like a ghost. Some people suggested multiple ring lights, but I found that one worked well for me. I had my overhead light on, blinds throughout my apartment closed and the right light aligned in front of me, about three or four feet away from me. I do recommend keeping the blinds in your apartment closed. The light coming through windows changes during the day and can lead to some weird shadows. I have included the brand of ring light I used, it was cheap and got the work done. I don’t think you need to spend too much, but it is a necessity for virtual interviews.
My laptop sat at eye level on a 6-quart bucket from a kitchen supply store that I normally used to store flour. Surprisingly, this makes a great laptop stand, and it is relatively cheap. I recommend just stacking your laptop on whatever brings it to eye level, which is different for every person. I liked that this had a wide base, so it was less likely to move when I was typing or writing notes. My ring light sat behind my laptop. I had a metal laptop stand to tilt my laptop, but I found it more likely to move or shake. It is subtle, but it is important to have the camera at eye level. You can test by hopping on a call with friends.
Additional things that I picked up included: a 100-foot ethernet cord, mouse to attach to laptop, keyboard, and wireless headphones. The ethernet cable is great because it can circumvent any Wi-Fi issues you might have. I also recommend a mouse and keyboard since your laptop may be propped up. The wireless headphones are mostly an aesthetics thing, but it comes in handy. If you use the typical headphones with a cord, the microphone is often in the cord, which will rub consistently against your blouse or suit creating an annoying sound. I have a pair of headphones that go over my ears and have a microphone that can be set in front of my mouth on hand in case anything goes wrong with my wireless headphones. A lot of people wore AirPods, but I do not own any, so I got a cheap Bluetooth pair that worked great. This may seem a little anxiety ridden, but it is better to be prepared than not. Also, I chose to keep my laptop plugged into my charger consistently. I had a backup charger in my desk. I also kept my phone close by and fully charged in case I needed to quickly switch over to my phone due to technology issues.
For my background on Zoom, I tried to pick things that were important to me and fun to talk about. I relate the Zoom background to a personal statement. A plain background is totally fine and acceptable. A plain background is better than a bad background. I started doing anatomical embroideries during the pandemic, and I bake all the time, so they are easy things for people to ask me about during the interviews. I had a head and neck anatomical embroidery and a personalized cutting board in my background. There are some general things to avoid: black backgrounds, large reflective things, too many things, anything that looks dirty, and facing towards a large room. I suggest having your laptop facing a wall. It may look odd in your apartment but trust me. It is very weird to have a large room behind you, and it will look weird with lighting. Also, do not face your bed if you can help it. If you cannot get a good background or need to face a room, the blur background filter is your best friend. I also suggest trying a couple of outfits before your first interview. It tends to be better to wear a solid colored blouse and suit. Some patterns can look very distracting on Zoom, which I realized after looking like a mirage in polka-dots.
On the morning of the interview, I would eat some a breakfast casserole that I meal prepped. I would make my full pot of coffee for the day. I made sure I had all the little things I wanted near me: pen, paper, chapstick, coffee, brush for last minute hair fixes, and water. I also would put a snack near me, in case I didn’t have a long break to grab something during the day.
Things will go wrong during interviews – people will be late, people will forget who they are interviewing, Zoom or other platforms will go down, and you may get cut off mid sentence – but you can always adjust. Remember to be flexible and laugh off the issues and mistakes. This is an important time to be yourself. All of these are small things, but it is just a way to present yourself and make yourself more comfortable. I liked having a routine so that I could be in the right state of mind for an interview. The goal is to have the interviewer focus on you, not everything else.
Alyssa Brown grew up in Chattanooga, TN. She went to Centre College for a B.S. in Biology and minor in History. She fell in love with surgery after seeing her mentor perform an anoplasty during the first year of medical school. She finished her third year of medical school in 2018 and wandered off the beaten path to get a PhD, before finishing her MD. She is receiving her MD degree from the University of Louisville School of Medicine, and her PhD in Biomedical Engineering and Physiology at Mayo Clinic School of Biomedical Sciences. She is in her fourth year of medical school and has matched at Northwestern for general surgery residency. Her thesis research is on diaphragm muscle mitochondrial function and morphology, which she will defend in March. She also participates in research projects focused on physician infertility, student mental health, and pediatric surgery. She has been a part of the AWS Blog Subcommittee and AWS Instagram Subcommittee for three years, and she has loved writing pieces for the blog over the past years. During the pandemic, you will probably find her baking sweets and pastries that she saw on “Great British Bake-Off,” or embroidering. You can find her on Instagram @Alyssa_b_futuremdphd and on Twitter @Alyssa_B_MDPhD.
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