Strategy for a Successful Match: Develop a strong relationship with residency programs
Updated: Jun 28, 2022
This is the second post in our 4-part series where we highlight 3 key strategies for successfully matching into a competitive residency. Feel free to jump ahead to your strategy of interest:
When it comes to the residency match, you already know that this is a very challenging environment. For applicants who are applying to competitive specialties, or to competitive programs within less competitive specialties, they are going to have to apply to a large number of programs.
However, it’s really important for applicants to stop and think. Although you’ve got a long list of programs, what are the programs that you're specifically targeting?
In other words, it’s important to highlight a few specific programs. We’ll call these your target programs.
You’re going to need to take time to think about and invest the effort to appeal to these programs and their specific goals.
Your Home Program May Be Your Best Bet
I'll start out by saying that there's a reason why your home program historically has been your best chance for matching.
This is because you have direct interactions with faculty members and oftentimes the program director.
You've rotated through the department, and they've been able to observe your performance in the clinic.
You might have also worked on research projects.
Perhaps you volunteered on a faculty member’s initiative.
You might have gone up to them after a lecture and had a conversation, so they have been able to get to know you beyond just an applicant on paper.
They've had a chance to see your work ethic, your interpersonal and communication skills, and your teamwork.
This information is really priceless for a residency program.
In general, residency programs have to think long and hard about who they're choosing--because this is somebody with whom they're going to spend the next three or four years.
If they have that strong knowledge of who you are, that means that they're not just taking a chance on a student who they just met for one day during an interview.
Essentially, by developing that close working relationship, you've become a known commodity, and that's incredibly important to decision makers.
When Targeting Different Programs, the Key is to Make Connections
A successful match can be more difficult when you are targeting programs other than your home program. This presents a number of challenges, and this is the reason that audition electives historically have been very important in competitive specialties.
For example, in dermatology, historically, many applicants have matched into programs that were either their home program, or at which they had done a 1-month away elective (also known as an audition elective). Note that this is the same concept as before: decision makers are more likely to choose a known commodity.
Even if you haven’t had the chance to do an audition elective, there are definitely other ways to create those direct connections with faculty at other programs.
Let me give you four examples that are all centered on your particular interest in a field:
Seek writing opportunities
Work with organizations
Express your intellectual curiosity and appreciation
Express your clinical interests.
1) Seek Writing Opportunities
When it comes to writing opportunities, it is possible to work on case reports or review articles with faculty at other programs. For example, I've had students reach out to me via my website because they've read a number of my articles about diet and dermatology, which is one of my major research interests. These students reached out to me because they have an interest in that field as well, and subsequently I've worked with several students remotely on publications just based on that expressed interest.
You can reach out and take a chance. Although it often won’t lead to any writing opportunities, sometimes it does. You really won’t know unless you take a chance and reach out. I have to say that a lot of this really comes down to timing, so you can never take any of the rejections personally.
2) Work With Organizations
Let’s move on to the second strategy, which is to work with organizations. I've known a number of students who have become involved with national organizations that are centered on either a specialty or an initiative in medicine, and some of these students have become leaders in that organization.
For example, I've known students who have chaired the student committee in a certain organization. When you are on a committee of a national organization, that affords you the chance to interact with and get to know faculty from other programs who are also on those committees.
3) Express Curiosity and Appreciation
The third way to connect with programs is to express your intellectual curiosity and appreciation. For example, if you're writing a review paper on, let's say, the incidence of comorbidities in patients with psoriasis, you may come across a great paper that you end up citing in your own review article. You can then actually reach out directly to the author of that paper by just emailing them.
Almost all journal articles have the author's contact information right there in the publication. You can take that moment to simply reach out and email the author and tell them how much you appreciated their work, especially since you're writing your own review article, and you've just cited their work. You don't necessarily need to write anything further, but just making that contact can put you on the map, so to speak.
It might not lead to anything further. And that's fine because you've made yourself known. You’ve also made a meaningful gesture by expressing appreciation to somebody who's taken a lot of time and put a lot of work into their own research.
I've had a handful of people over the years email me based on one of my articles, and I have to say, it always makes a deep impression on me. I really appreciate that somebody has taken the time to write.
4) Express Your Clinical Interests
Finally, the fourth strategy is to express your clinical interests. I've given lectures and presented cases or poster presentations at national conferences. Afterwards, I've had medical students come up to me and start to discuss my topic or that specific case with me. I've been impressed by many of these students, and I've really enjoyed these conversations. Some of them have actually emailed me afterwards with details, for example, about an additional case or a specific topic, or they've sent me a review article that they specifically found helpful.
For example, one student came up to me after my talk on diet and dermatology at the national American Academy of Dermatology meeting. She told me about her own case of a particular rash that had developed after patients started going on a ketogenic diet. At that time, that was the first I'd heard of this. She followed up with me later by emailing me that reference and that started a conversation. We later ended up working on a review article together.
These are just some examples of ways that you can make these contacts with faculty at other programs.
Although it may feel uncomfortable, these conversations can be helpful, as long as you focus on NOT asking for a favor
I also want to acknowledge here that it doesn't matter where you are in your career: it can be uncomfortable reaching out to people whom you don't know. Especially when those people are higher up in the medical hierarchy.
It can feel very uncomfortable, but I want you to remember that sometimes it's just these small touch points that can develop into something further.
And even if it's very uncomfortable for you to be speaking to a faculty member, it's important to recognize that these conversations can be helpful.
They can be impactful on the faculty member as well.
Of course, I want to emphasize that these should not be about you asking for something in return or asking for a favor.
These are really just opportunities to speak to a faculty member, maybe have a conversation, and just leave it at that in most cases. If the faculty member invites you to reach back out or gives you their contact information, then you can take that opportunity. In most cases, that won't happen, and that's fine. Regardless, it's great practice to have these small points of contact.
If you’d like to read further in this blog post series, please see our other posts:
Dr. Rajani Katta is the creator of The Residency Interview 101, the online course that helps applicants quickly and confidently prepare for their residency interviews. She is also the co-author of The Successful Match: Rules to Succeed in the Residency Match and served as Professor of Dermatology at the Baylor College of Medicine for over 17 years.
Dr. Samir Desai is the author of 20 books, including The Successful Match and The Clinician's Guide to Laboratory Medicine. He has been a faculty member in the Department of Internal Medicine at the Baylor College of Medicine for over 20 years and has won numerous teaching awards.