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Applying to Residency is Overwhelming, Let’s Start with the Basics, by Sagar Patel, MD

You’re almost through with med school — the exams, the lectures, the rotations — but here’s where things get really real. Now it’s time to apply for residency. Don’t take your foot off the gas pedal yet, though. Residency applications are just as nuanced as medical school applications. They require plenty of preparation and attention to detail to ensure you have a successful match. A key difference, however, is that applicants and residencies are both trying to find an appropriate fit with each other. It’s crucial that you research prospective programs thoroughly and produce the best application for the highest chance of a finding a good fit. You’re probably getting far more advice right now from mentors, professors, family and classmates than you can digest, so let’s start with some high-level pearls — many of which apply to those at the fellowship stage, too.

Application Preparation

In building your application, you’ll need to prepare and/or get your hands on these documents:

  • The personal statement. The goal for this is two-fold; it needs to convey that you’re well-qualified and possess the necessary skills, experiences, and maturity, while allowing the reviewer to see if you match the program’s goals and philosophies. I strongly recommend you have a mentor or advisor review your statement before you submit it.
  • Letters of recommendation (LORs). These carry significant weight and can help differentiate you from numerically similar applicants. Choose mentors who know you well and who are willing to write you a strong letter. I recommend selecting a mix of clinical mentors inside and outside your proposed specialty and research. If choosing between a “big name” who writes a generic letter versus a “non-big name” who writes a personal and strong letter, I would recommend the latter. When I was preparing my applications, I asked my mentors upfront whether they felt comfortable writing a strong letter or not, which was surprisingly well received.
  • Descriptions of extracurriculars. In general, when filling out your application, list experiences that are meaningful… and try to keep them succinct. Though you may often write in shorthand, this is one time grammar and spelling really count.

Use Valuable Resources 

The Doximity Residency Navigator is an excellent tool to help you sort and identify programs that would be a good fit for you. Online forums can also be useful to learn about a program. Another tip, when creating a list of programs, divide the list into thirds, according to your chances:

  • ⅓ reach programs
  • ⅓ middle tier
  • ⅓ safety programs

At most medical schools, an academic advisor can provide valuable insight into programs you should consider (your personal research into programs will help here too). My academic mentor in medical school was very realistic with me about the strength of my application. As difficult as it might be to hear where your application stands compared to others, it’s important to have this frank discussion to ensure a successful match. Once you’ve made your list, your school can provide you with contact information for alumni that have trained at programs you’re considering. Alternatively, this information is easily accessible on Doximity.

Get Organized

I strongly recommend you apply as early as possible. The sooner your application is in, the sooner it can be reviewed. Moreover, a weaker applicant has a higher chance of getting an interview early in the season when slots are plenty. As the season progresses, slots get filled and the caliber of the applications needs to go up. Once you’ve submitted your application, it will be crucial to keep track of everything amongst the various programs. I kept a spreadsheet with a row for each program and columns to keep track of LORs that need to be submitted, interview dates, post-interview day pros/cons, etc. Doing this as you go will make it easier to create your rank list once interview season is over. Once the interviews start coming in, you’ll also need to keep track of travel arrangements.

Interview Preparation

First, congratulations in advance on getting interview invites! I recommend you respond quickly, as dates at some programs are first come, first served. It’s ideal if you can group interviews by geographical region to save on airfare costs and travel time. And be sure to space them out enough to account for unforeseen travel delays. When I was applying to residency, I made the mistake of booking interviews too close to each other. A flight delay in Philadelphia resulted in an extra overnight stay, and I missed half of the interview morning in Vermont the next day.

Prior to the interview, you should run through practice questions to become adept at answering confidently and conveying your strengths. It would also be wise to refresh your memory regarding your CV and application and to read through pertinent research abstracts you authored, if applicable; interviewers may ask questions regarding these.

Finally, do a bit of research on your interviewers by reading their institutional biographies and recent research abstracts. This can help serve as nidus for questions to ask the interviewer. Here are a few suggestions for interview day:

  • Be courteous to everyone, including the administrative staff and other interviewees (even if they are the competition).
  • Dress professionally, make good eye contact, sit up straight, and provide a firm handshake — it’s show time!
  • After interview day has passed, consider providing a brief thank-you card to the interviewer.

With a little bit of preparation and planning, you can significantly improve your chances of a successful match. You’ve trained hard to get to this point — now it’s time to get due recognition. As hard as it is to believe, interviewing for residency or fellowship can be fun — you get to travel, meet leaders in your field of interest and brag about yourself a bit too.

sagar patel md
Dr. Sagar S. Patel, MD is currently a fellow in hematology and oncology at the Cleveland Clinic. A native of Minneapolis, he attended the University of Minnesota for both his medical school and internal medicine residency training. His disease research interests include leukemias, lymphomas and bone marrow transplantation.

Follow: @sagarpatel

Sagar Patel, MD Sagar Patel, MD (1 Posts)

Physician Guest Writer

Cleveland Clinic

Sagar S. Patel, MD, is currently a fellow in hematology and oncology at the Cleveland Clinic. A native of Minneapolis, he attended the University of Minnesota for both his medical school and internal medicine residency training. His disease research interests include leukemias, lymphomas, and bone marrow transplantation.