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How to Match into your #1 Residency Program

by winnell

Medical school is a big feat but the biggest feat is matching into a residency program. Matching into your number one residency program where you’ll be able to begin practicing in the specialty of your choice at the top choice hospital of your dreams is the ultimate goal of every medical student. 

There are many things to consider when choosing a residency.  I was able to match in my number one choice residency program, despite initially  doubting myself.   I didn’t have a formula that I knew beforehand but I knew that I would put my best foot forward and shine through on paper and during my interviews.  I had to navigate this throughout the covid-19 pandemic, which I thought would be even harder but I found it to actually be advantageous in the match process.

Choose a Specialty

First, you must choose a specialty. This goes without saying. Knowing which specialty you’re going to go into will help you easily narrow down your residency choices. If you are interested in a particular specialty, I highly suggest doing an elective during your third or fourth year or even just spending a day with a certain person in that specialty. Remember, there are many specialties that a lot of medical students aren’t exposed to while in medical school because they’re not considered part of the core rotations. So,  I highly suggest exploring other specialties you may not have experienced. Some specialties with the least amount of exposure is anesthesiology, physiatry, radiology, dermatology, urology, medical genetics, pathology, radiation oncology, nuclear medicine, neurology, ophthalmology, preventive medicine.

Establish Short and Long Term Goals

You need to define what your particular short and  long term career interests are. Are you interested in going to an academic institution because you’re interested in being involved in research? Or maybe you are more clinically focused and prefer a hands-on  procedure based clinical training. If you’re interested in somewhere where you’d like to do a lot of procedures, you might want to go to a residency that has a big trauma center and allows residents to get a lot of hands-on procedures. Some residencies won’t have as many trauma patients so you should keep that in mind as well.

Create Your Goals Sales Pitch

Once you’ve decided on the short and long terms goals, you need to follow the rules of three to create a sales pitch. This sales pitch will essentially be the one used when networking with prospective residents and program directors and will help you narrow in on what to look for and how to stand out and align with programs during interview season. When I say rules of three,  I mean establishing three separate short and long term goals you want to pursue as a physician. For example, this can look like: As a future physician, I want to teach and be involved in medical education. I also want to continue my community health outreach initiatives to reduce health disparities. Lastly, I want to be involved in clinical research regarding breast cancer genetics. Now, these are your own goals. You must then write three items you would like to see valued at your future residency. This  can look like: I want a residency program that emphasizes teaching and strong didactic curriculum. I also would like a residency that primarily treats patients in underserved communities so I can continue my community outreach efforts. Lastly, I would like to be in a program with a variety of research mentorship.

Get on their Radar 

They say your network is your net worth. If you have already narrowed in on a top one or top three or top five residency programs, I need you to start reaching out to representatives of that program. You need to find their public (not personal) Instagram pages, email addresses or find out when their next open house or online webinar will be held. Once you find out information such as that, you should definitely attend and be interactive in these webinars expressing your interest in the program and basically getting on their radar. Avoid being bothersome and excessive with reaching out because that can also backfire. Be tactful and intentional. Introduce yourself and address your contacts accordingly.

Reach out with intent 

Once you’ve put yourself on their radar,  I recommend reaching out to a resident in the program  or even an alumni of the program. This is when it helps to use the rules of three to express your goals and how they align with the program. It helps to add what you would bring to the program for a little razzle dazzle in the most humble way. Don’t underestimate the amount of influence they have with the program directors. As much as they say they don’t have much influence in the interview or the ranking process, putting a good word forward can help on your behalf. Be sure not to be that nagging stalking, pestering person that sends emails to 10 people on the interview committee or send emails every day. Be appropriate and succinct in your emails and follow up people accordingly after a week or two or so if you do not hear back.

Establish Yourself as a Leader

This is the last tip but most important! This is honestly what I most credit with why I landed such amazing interviews, the amount of interviews and even got many love letters from programs that were essentially trying to recruit me to their program. There were no grades, board scores or letters of recommendation that can trump a natural born, confident leader. I established myself as a leader in medical school on many fronts. I used and leveraged to my  platforms that work as pipeline mentorship for increasing representation in medicine.  Also, my CV and application truly  presented me as someone who was a leader  in diversity and inclusion, mental health and community outreach innovation. If you look at your CV, you should be able to describe your leadership expertise in one sentence. If your CV doesn’t convey, that, restructure your bullet points.  Whether you are a leader in global health efforts or a leader in medical student teaching and tutoring, make that your thing. Every program is looking for someone who’s a leader and who’s going to add some extra edge to their program and elevate them in some way. Essentially, people are looking for the next leaders because when they see a leader it shows them that this is someone that can potentially be a chief resident or someone who could join the residency faculty or directorship in the future.  Residency interviews are recruitment missions to find the next leaders in medicine that will boost the program in many ways whether it’s innovation, grants, social media presence, word of mouth and the possibilities are endless. 

So, remind yourself, that you are more than just stats and numbers, you are an individual with so much to bring to the table. It all depends on the platter in which you present it. 

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