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Passing the Selection Interview for SET

Updated: Nov 10, 2022

So you want to be a surgeon? The biggest hurdle to becoming a surgeon in Australia is getting onto SET training. To achieve this, you have to sit an interview. This interview plays a large part as to who gets on and who doesn't (about 75% of the entrance score in orthopaedics).

After my experience as a SET interviewer, here is my advice on how to do well on the interview. Just a disclaimer that the below guideline is based on the Orthopaedic SET interviews. I am not sure if the other subspecialties work the same way.

The interview

The interview is based on a number of stations. In each stations there are 3 panel members. The panel is required to encompass a female interviewer, a non-surgeon (ie nurse, theatre coordinator, lay-person) and a director of training at a hospital. Remaining spots are filled with surgeons. You enter the interview and are presented with a scenario and asked a number of questions and have about 10 minutes to get through it.

Each interviewer will mark you on 3 criteria, with each criteria being scored out of 5. The first is "Core Competency" the second "Communication" and the third "Secondary Competencies". Each interviewer will mark you completely independently and there is no discussion amongst interviewers.

Core competency

The competencies are details on the college website (learn them):

Each station is designed to assess one core competency.

To achieve a maximum score in this criteria, your job is to tick off a pre-defined set of expectations. You have to say all the right things. To make sure you say all the right things, make sure you read and re-read the scenario, as every phrase/word is designed to trigger something to mention. Don't ignore any parts of the scenario.

Eg: You are a junior unaccredited registrar at a tertiary trauma centre who has been asked to work 3 late shifts in a row and now have been rung by a senior fellow to attend to a multi-trauma case of a non-English speaking child who was involved in a car accident caused by a drunk driver...

In the above example, each highlighted word would represent something that needs to be talked about. The scoring for this part of the interview is very objective and didactic. A discussions takes place prior to the interview between all interviewers and a decision is made as to what needs to be covered. You can go back and change/add to your answer if you have spare time at the end, albeit too much back and forth will decrease your score for communication.


This score tends to be more subjective and is scored a little differently by each interviewer. However, in general, this score represents how well you have presented, how coherent you were, your train of thought, and your generalized communication skills. To help achieve a maximum score, practice does help. Other things that may help include:

  • Dress appropriately.

  • Stand up straight as you enter the room, introduce yourself to all panel members.

  • Listen attentively to the question.

  • Sit up straight.

  • Be aware of your body language:

    • Use your hands appropriately, don't fidget.

    • Make eye contact with all panel members

    • Nod and acknowledge where appropriate

    • Smile when appropriate, do not do so when not!

  • Talk at a reasonable pace and with a reasonable volume.

  • Have a good train of thought: Beginning, middle and an end to your answer.

  • Control the tone of your voice.

  • Don't get angry, flustered or argue.

  • When all finished, thank everyone and leave in a calm orderly manner.

The hardest thing to get right is your train of thought. And this is probably the thing most amendable to practice. Regardless of the question or scenario, you need to have an ordered way to answer the question, however, the big caveat here is that you can't throw out irrelevant jargon, as that will work against you. Don't talk crap. A good way to improve this section is to visualize what you would do in real-life. This will help improve the flow of your answer.

Also remember that your opening paragraph will likely set the tone for the rest of your answer and needs to be catchy, brief and capture the essence of the question being asked. First impressions matter. This part cant be generic! We've all head the generic opening lines and they all suck and as soon as one hears a generic opening line they start to tune out.

Fig 1. Example of inappropriate attire for the interview

Secondary Competencies

This score is meant to cover the other competencies not primarily being assessed. If you think of all the competencies as being characteristics of a good surgeon, then you can think of this score as being the interviewers' opinion of how good a surgeon or person you are (likely to be). It is somewhat subjective and allows the interviewer a chance to give a global mark as to what they think of the "whole package". There are certain things that have to be ticked off in section 1 (Primary Competency), however this section encompasses everything else. To score well in this section you need to be (or at least portray) a decent person. Things that help include:

  • Don't lie or exaggerate: We know when you say you'd do something that you would definitely not do in real life. To reiterate, we know when you lie or exaggerate!

  • Think outside the box.

  • Think about the team, financial costs of health, patients family, nurses and allied health.

  • Self reflect.

  • Teach, learn, research.

  • Say what you'd actually do in real life.

Hopefully the above guide helps out a little. If I've left something out or you'd like more information, please email us:

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