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Keeping Your Cool: Five Tips for Rising Fourth-Year Medical Students

The Match process is an emotional roller coaster ride that feels like it lasts forever but also flies by. It is a rite of passage for medical students, as it is the culmination of everything we have been working towards. Being on the other side and looking back, I wanted to do my part and share my thoughts about how to stay grounded and sane during #TheMatch. Let’s break it down into five tips:

1. Allow yourself to question your specialty choice

This may not have been what you expected to be the first tip on the list, but it may have been one of the most helpful experiences during my application cycle. After my third-year elective in emergency medicine (EM), I was pretty much sold on the specialty, but I tried as much as possible to keep an open mind for the rest of the year. COVID-19 impacted my clinical exposure to a few fields, so it was necessary to fill in the gaps by asking myself questions: “What do I really know about dermatology/plastics/[insert other highly competitive specialty here]? Is there a part of me that enjoys 3-hour rounds? Was the operating room really not for me or did I just have one negative experience? Am I excited about the whole scope of EM — frequent flyers, low and high acuity patients, diagnostic variety — and not just here for the adrenaline rush?” (The answer to that last one was a giant yes by the way. #EMplug)

Being someone who found something likeable in almost every specialty, it was crucial to get into the nitty gritty. You might be surprised by what you find with all of this personal reflection, and it is okay to be a little scared even after you make a decision. For me, I wondered whether I really had what it takes to become an efficient, clear-headed EM physician, while maintaining compassion for all individuals in the diverse EM patient population. I drew on my own personal experiences and the physicians who modeled these qualities to push me forward.

Going through this somewhat uncomfortable process will serve you well, even during interviews. You will continually refine your answers to deep questions surrounding your specialty choice. There is no perfect specialty, but there is likely one where you feel like you will thrive because the setting, patient population, skillset and people all fit. Thankfully, you don’t have to go through this process alone, which brings me to my next tip.

2. Welcome new connections

The Match is work. It is a huge lesson in perseverance in the face of uncertainty. Having people to support you along the way makes all the difference. Lean on your family, friends and advisors who have consistently had your back. Additionally, there are future colleagues, mentors and co-workers available to you right now! People are great resources for meeting other people. If you have burning questions and want to hear from someone with whom you identify, ask an individual you trust to connect you. Even if you don’t think you have any questions, just hearing the stories of residents and attendings who survived the Match process can be a huge encouragement.

Another place to make connections are conferences and residency fairs. I attended a virtual EM residency fair where I met a handful of program directors and residents. I might not have known about their programs or even interviewed with them if it hadn’t been for this opportunity. Last but not least, don’t forget about #MedTwitter. There’s nothing like cracking up over a fellow applicant’s way too relatable post to snap you out of feeling isolated! I just have one warning, especially when it comes to social media.

3. Don’t compare yourself to other people

Just don’t do it. Remember, social media can be great, but is also a space for carefully selected highlights. Everyone has their own highs and lows, just like you.

4. Don’t get hung up on bumps in the road

Life doesn’t stop during medical school. The unexpected can negatively impact your wellbeing and oftentimes, your academic performance: Taking longer than you would have liked to get the hang of studying. Scoring lower than expected on Step 1. Failing a course. Repeating a year. Taking on “too few” (or “too many”) leadership positions. Not volunteering “enough.” Never finishing that research project. Never starting one. The unexpected can also be more personal: A death in the family. A bad breakup or divorce. Experiencing racism and discrimination. Dealing with debilitating physical or mental illness.

Whatever it was, to varying extent, we have all had life impact us during our training. But fortunately, you are more than your academic performance. Those experiences shaped who you are, and you get to decide how to convey them. Be honest about how they’ve impacted you. Vulnerability is scary especially during interview season because we want to present our blemish-free lives so that our dream programs fall in love with us.

It is great to put your best foot forward and not overshare, but this shouldn’t mean erasing whole parts of the real you. If your dream program sees your real-life experiences as a deterrent for ranking you highly, it might not be the program you thought it was. You might not flourish there when the demands of residency and the reality of life hit a crossroads. I hope you match somewhere where people see all you have withstood and all you have accomplished in spite of the bumps in the road.

5. Get pumped, rest well and have fun!

Last but not least, congratulations on everything you have accomplished so far! Do not forget to appreciate all the hard work and sacrifices you made. Depending on when you are reading this, Step 2 CK, home/away rotation(s), ERAS or interviews may be ahead of you. Whatever is coming — you have what it takes. Draw on the very things that motivate you to your core, whether it is faith, justice, equity, family, philanthropy or empathy.

And most importantly, don’t forget to incorporate healthy ways to rest and take care of yourself emotionally, spiritually and physically as you progress through your fourth year. As for me, God got me through this year. I am thankful for journaling and walks and good meals. I am thankful for the prayers and kind words of my family, friends and church community during this particularly rough process. Celebrate your past victories, take things one at a time, reach out for help and connect often, especially when faced with the unexpected. So go ahead and thrive during #Match2022 — we are all rooting for you!

Image credit: Zu Fuss Achterbahn (CC BY-SA 2.0) by yashima

Sarah Appeadu, MD Sarah Appeadu, MD (1 Posts)

Resident Physician Guest Writer

University of Virginia

Sarah is a current PGY-1 in Emergency Medicine at the University of Virginia. She is a recent graduate of the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine. In 2015 she graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with a Bachelor of Arts in biology, and in 2017 she graduated from Boston University with a Master of Science degree in Medical Sciences. She enjoys journaling, watching Food Network, and dancing to the latest Gospel Afrobeats jams in her free time.