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To identify characteristics which students, interns and residents look for in their role models.A 45-item self-administered questionnaire was sent to a sample (n =96, response rate 80%) consisting of three groups: (1) students in years 3–6 of the medical curriculum (n =66); (2) interns (n =17) and (3) residents (n =13). The questionnaire contained characteristics that participants might use to describe excellent role models, grouped under five general headings: personality, clinical, research and teaching skills, and community service. Other characteristics mentioned by study subjects were qualitatively analysed using content analysis.Personality and teaching and clinical skills were ranked as the top three factors, and research skills and community service as the least important factors by 79 (82%) respondents. Qualitative analysis of characteristics described by respondents for their role models yielded 21 characteristics. These were clustered into three main themes: role models as teacher, physician and person. The most frequently mentioned characteristics were personal characteristics such as positive, respectful attitudes toward patients and their families, and staff and colleagues; honesty; politeness; enthusiasm; competence, and knowledge. Females rated nine personal characteristics significantly higher than males (P < 0·05). Interns and residents valued teaching enthusiasm and competence significantly more than students (P =0·01). Role models had a strong influence on the specialty choice of 53 (55%) respondents.Knowing the characteristics of excellent role models should help medical educators to formulate strategies to recruit, retain and develop them. Increasing exposure of a variety of excellent role models to aspiring medical practitioners should be encouraged.