Four Important Tips to Help You Match With Your Dream Residency Program

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June 7, 2021
Matching into residency is the ultimate goal and arguably the purpose of medical school. The years spent in the library—starting with the basic sciences and physiology, proceeding to clinical medicine and rotations, and followed by subinternships—are all to get you into a program that will train you to become an attending physician. It’s important to understand what residency programs look for so you can spend your time in medical school building yourself into a candidate that programs want to match. 

Residency is increasingly competitive every year. If you want to be a top-notch candidate, start perfecting your application during year 1 of medical school

Let’s begin by discussing the initial filters that may keep you out of your dream program, then find out how to get to the top of the rank list.

Tip 1: Board Scores—Don’t Get Filtered Out of the Stack Early!

Many programs have early filters that may immediately get you removed from the stack of applicants who are offered interviews. The easiest, fastest way to be denied an interview is to fail to meet the programs board score cutoffs. Programs realize board scores aren’t everything, but if you can’t pass the boards comfortably, it may say something about your ability to learn and retain, and, ultimately, your ability to pass your licensing exam. For this reason, it’s important to excel on your boards and pass these cutoffs.

Keep in mind that every program assigns a different value to board scores. Some programs value them highly and others value them less, but the bottom line is this: your boards are not only a filter to keep you out of the program, but can also bump you up on the rank list even after you’ve met the score thresholds programs have set. This means your first priority needs to be mastering your studies and excelling on the boards. Step 1 is now pass/fail, so it’s even more important to do well on Step 2CK. The following reasons are why excelling on your boards and growing your medical knowledge should be your priority—take these to heart!

  1. The information for Step 2CK is genuinely useful—it’s medical management and you’ll need it for the rest of your career.
  2. This filter could keep you out of residency! If you’re an accomplished physician and have awesome research and amazing achievements, nobody will take a deeper look into your profile or application if your score falls below their cutoff—especially in more competitive fields.
  3. It adds points later. Many programs, even after they’ve pulled you in to take a deeper look at your application, will give you more points and bump you up on their rank list further for better and better scores.

Take your studies seriously, put in the effort, and master the material for Step 2CK. Don’t cut corners, use the best references possible, and remember: this could change your future career, permanently!

Pro Tip

Your first priority is mastering the material for medical school and excelling on your boards. This will not only get your application further reviewed, but it could bump you up on the rank list later.


Tip 2: Rotation Grades—Your Top Priority for Ascending the Rank List 

The next question is, what do programs care about beyond the boards? If you have an impressive board score and nothing else, you will not match. This is where you have to be more than just a multiple-choice master. Generally, the next most important aspect of your application are your rotation grades. These grades answer the question “How good of a resident will this medical student be?” For this reason, your rotation grades—and even more importantly, your grades on your subinternship—are extremely important. 

Your rotation grades are not only a filter as to whether you will get an interview, they are also heavily weighted when you’re ranked on the match list. This is why another top priority is to get honors on all your rotations. Acing your clinical rotations is based on your attitude, work ethic, and medical knowledge. However, keep in mind that many medical schools base a large portion of the rotation grade on the shelf exam. This means no matter how excellent of a medical student you are, if you don’t have the knowledge and can’t score well, honors will be out of reach! 

This compounds the importance of the clinical information and is the reason why a high-yield, concise, and well-written question bank for medical students and the right study approach are needed for matching. This clinical knowledge will amplify your Step 2 score and rotation grades and is another reason why a high score on these standardized exams is critical for matching.


Tip 3: Specialty-Specific Research—Further Rise up the Rank List

Beyond your boards scores and rotation grades, the next most important set of accomplishments are specific to the field you want to match in and can make you a more impressive, top-notch candidate. 

First, be sure to get honors on all your rotations and subinternships in your specialty of choice—this is a must. Next, demonstrate research or some type of academic accomplishment in your field of choice. Usually, this is in the form of research and publications. Publications in your field demonstrate a more genuine interest in the field you have chosen and also insinuate that you will be a more academically active resident who is more likely to engage in research and publications that further your intended field. 

Programs are getting so competitive that it is now standard to have some sort of publication and research in your intended field. While this is not mandatory, excluding research from your application requires some other unique experience or accomplishment in your intended field. The easiest way to show interest in your field is to have a good set of publications and research accomplishments. This may take time, so start early! In year 1 of medical school, it’s a good idea to find a mentor and begin working on research-related projects. 

If you’re stuck between specialties and are still trying to figure out what field you will apply into, keep your research generalizable. For example, if you’re deciding between emergency medicine and psychiatry, projects focusing on psychiatric care in the emergency department may be a good project. If you change your mind, that’s fine! When you do decide on your intended specialty, try to get involved with quality research that shows your dedication. 

Finally, remember: even if a publication does not happen or the research is in progress, you can still list the experience on your application. Program directors know that research is a time-consuming process. Also, keep in mind that larger, more academic programs will have a strong preference for research in the field.


Tip 4: No Research? No Problem—Get Involved in Your Field

While applicants are recommended to have research in their field of interest, some students may not be interested in research, may not have research opportunities, or may not have time to engage in research by the time they decide which field they want to pursue. In this case, the goal is to get involved and, most importantly, demonstrate involvement in academic activities related to your field of interest. Leading clubs, attending conferences, developing clinical guidelines, contributing to medical education, leading or being involved in journal clubs, and being involved in the residency program (yes, even as a medical student) and curriculum are all ways of demonstrating dedication to your specialty. 

Remember, you’ll need something concrete that you can list on your application so programs can see your interest and dedication. It’s always more important to be actively involved in something and create or lead than be passive. For example, “member of internal medicine interest group” is not impressive—anyone can be a member. “President of internal medicine interest group: coordinated student, resident, and faculty get-togethers, journal clubs, and arranged annual research conference” is much more impressive and conveys you are more likely to be a leader and be actively involved and engaged in the residency program. 

There is no correct answer to what fits into this category—it just has to build a story that makes you into a unique candidate. Be creative and passionate and let your work and accomplishments demonstrate your interest in the field.

Pro Tip

You can demonstrate your interest in your field in other ways than just research. Just be sure it’s something unique and concrete and answers the question “Is this student really interested in this field?”


The Ultimate Application

The best possible application will have it all: strong board scores, clinical research, leadership, and outside activities that all show you’ll be an excellent physician in the field. Don’t cut corners—this is your future! Use the best resources for medical students, put in the time, be a team player, and get deeply involved. If you demonstrate your commitment, you’re sure to get into a great program!


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