Three Key Strategies to Help You Match into a Competitive Residency
Updated: Jun 28
In this 4-part series, we’ll be highlighting 3 key strategies for successfully matching into a competitive residency. Feel free to jump ahead to your strategy of interest:
In this introduction, we’ll discuss why these strategies can be so helpful, and in some cases so critical, to matching into a competitive specialty or competitive residency program.
Residency Match Success: Insights from Medical School Faculty
I served as Professor of Dermatology at the Baylor College of Medicine for over 17 years, and during that time, and beyond, I’ve mentored and worked on publications and projects with many medical students.
As a mentor, I’ve spoken with many medical students who have lots of questions on how to match successfully, especially when it comes to competitive specialties.
On the flip side, as a member of the dermatology residency selection committee, I’ve also spoken with hundreds of the top medical students in the country. I’ve looked over their ERAS applications and personal statements, and I’ve been simply amazed at what these students have been working on and working towards.
How do these top students secure interview invitations? What makes them so successful?
In other words, what does it take to succeed in a competitive residency match? The bottom line is that you need a strategy, and you need to implement that strategy as early as possible.
That’s what inspired my partner, Dr. Desai, and I to write our book “The Successful Match: Rules to Succeed in the Residency Match.” The book ended up being over 600 pages because we had a lot to say on the subject!
In this blog post series I want to condense down some of the information from our book and specifically our chapter on “The Competitive Edge.” Keep reading for some of these key strategies.
Common Misconceptions in Residency Match Advice
Unfortunately, there are some major misconceptions when it comes to match advice for competitive programs. I remember when I was first writing the book, and was speaking to one of my friends. I explained that one of the reasons I was really inspired to write this book was that a number of Baylor Medical students with whom I had worked with over the years would ask me for advice on matching into dermatology.
I finally decided that I wanted to distill that advice into a book, so that I could really expand my recommendations and say all of the things that I couldn't get to in the course of a 30-minute meeting.
I also wanted to be able to say things to students that were sometimes hard to hear, and that were sometimes uncomfortable to say face to face, but that were a little easier for me to say in the form of a book.
I explained all of this to my friend. She then turned to me and said, “Really? That's the book you want to write? Get good grades and great test scores. That's it. That's your book.”
I remember being really surprised. She was sort of joking, but not. However, I shouldn’t have been surprised: that’s one of the most common misconceptions about what it takes to successfully match.
Why do some students match successfully and others fail to match?
The bottom line is that great grades and scores alone aren’t enough
It is true that the foundation of applying to a competitive program is great grades and great test scores. But that definitely is not the whole picture.
I've spoken to applicants who have a USMLE score of 260 or above, along with research publications and time spent working with people in the field. And yet, they've only received two interview invitations…and one of those was at their home program.
I've also spoken to students with those same great USMLE scores and good grades but without any research…who have received over 20 interview invitations.
On the flip side, I’ve worked with students who have USMLE scores of less than 220 who have successfully matched into dermatology.
This makes it clear that there's a lot more to the residency match than just grades and scores. Great grades and scores certainly help, but they don't guarantee that successful match.
And certainly, even if you don't have those grades and scores, you can still successfully match…IF you implement certain strategies.
Strategies for a Successful Match: How You can Match as a Disadvantaged Applicant
These strategies are especially helpful if you consider yourself a disadvantaged applicant. Dr. Desai and I have both worked with multiple applicants who are facing certain challenges.
For example, we’ve mentored applicants with lower USMLE scores who have gone on to match into competitive fields such as dermatology or otolaryngology.
We also have worked with many students who have had a Step 1 or Step 2 failure who have gone on to successfully match to fields such as internal medicine or anesthesiology, and even more competitive specialties.
We have also worked with multiple international medical graduates (IMGs) who have successfully matched into very competitive fields such as radiation oncology, dermatology, and otolaryngology.
Dr. Desai has worked with and spoken to multiple osteopathic students who have successfully matched into historically allopathic programs, such as academic orthopedic surgery programs.
The strategies we outline in this series have helped these students succeed.
The Bottom Line: It’s About People and Projects
There are 3 main strategies I recommend in this series, but they all come down to people and projects.
I think it's easy to get caught up in this idea of application algorithms. But at the end of the day, it is an actual person who is looking over your application materials. A computer may be screening applications based on test scores, but in many cases, there is a person who can decide to get you past that screen. You have to think about people at the heart of this entire process.
Additionally, you have to think about projects. Many times it's those research projects, publications, or work that you've done in other areas, such as your advocacy work or volunteer work, that can make people decide to take a closer look at your application.
While there are certainly many other match strategies, I like to start with these 3 key strategies.
The first is developing a strong connection to a specific residency program. When I say “program,” I am referring to the program’s faculty members and program director.
The second key strategy is developing a strong relationship that highlights your personal qualities and will form the basis for a strong personal recommendation from a faculty advocate.
The third strategy is to craft a compelling ERAS and personal statement that really focuses on your fit with a specific residency program.
In the next post in this series, we'll start digging deeper into how you can successfully implement these strategies in advance of your residency match application.
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.