deciding on residency programs

How to Decide Which Residency Programs to Apply To: 5 Tips to Help Guide Your Decision

If you’re reading this, you’re likely getting ready to make a decision that will determine where you’ll spend the next three to seven years. (Bless you partners of future neurosurgeons.) So, how do you decide which residency programs to apply to? Well, having just gone through the process ourselves, let me share with you what my husband and I learned. Here are five factors to consider when deciding which residency programs to apply to for the Match.

Figure Out What’s Important to You AND Your Medical Partner

Set time aside to sit down and ask each other questions. Discover your true feelings about their chosen specialty, your fears and excitement about residency, your preferences on location, what your med partner is looking for in a program. Oh, and of course, is there quality Mexican food to be found…You know the important things.

For me and my husband, our priorities have shifted over the years. As we put together our residency program application list, we made sure that both our opinions were considered and heard.

Commit 100% to a Specialty and Route

You and your med student may or may not be completely sold on a specific specialty. Once you’ve committed to a specialty or two, though, it’s important to commit to a route. Some specialties offer transitional years. Other specialties are known as categorical and combine all the training years together. 

Figuring out the exact route your med partner wants or is open to will help you narrow down the residency programs to apply to. This will require some legwork to research which programs offer what, but it will help you narrow down that list before you hit submit.

Consider the Strength of Your Application and Talk with Advisors

Help your med student walk through their application piece by piece and analyze just how strong it is: 

  • How did Step 1 and 2 go? 
  • Were there any clinical rotations that didn’t go so well? 
  • Do they matter for your specialty choice? 
  • Are your letters of recommendation strong? 
  • How are you sitting with published research articles?

Each applicant’s process is going to look different because each specialty is either more or less competitive. The AAMC has a nifty site (your med student has to use their membership to access it) called Careers in Medicine, Specialty Profiles, where each specialty has a profile description with various things like work, salary, training, subspecialties, etc. Under the ‘competitiveness’ tab, check out the characteristics of entering residents. This will give you an idea of how competitive your med student is in comparison to past applicants.

Next, chat with your student advisor and/or a mentor within the specialty. Ask them to review your application and get their take on how many programs you should apply to. If your school doesn’t require you to meet with a student advisor or mentor already, make an appointment! You need as many connections on the inside to help you successfully match.

Do some research to find what the magic number is to increase your chances of matching.The advice given is that now isn’t the time to try and save money. So, if it means applying to a few more programs to feel secure about your options, do it. You can see the average number of applications per applicant on the AAMC’s website on its ERAS Statistics page to get a feel for past Match seasons.

Make a Spreadsheet and Do Your Research

It can be overwhelming when you pull up the list of potential programs. For us, we were looking at well over 100 orthopedic surgery programs, so we made a spreadsheet. Here’s what we did:

  1. The first question we asked ourselves to narrow down our list was, “Are we willing to live there?” If the answer was “no”, we didn’t apply to that program. It was an easy way to knock programs off our list. That being said, if there was a program that my husband was especially interested in or heard good things about, we kept it on our list, even if the location was less than desirable.
  2. After we made this first preliminary list of programs, we made a spreadsheet. We started with the basics: location and program reputation. We then went through it together and narrowed our list down to the magic number of applications we agreed on.
  3. Next, we added to our spreadsheet. Add categories that are important to you, your med partner, and your family. Here’s a few unique examples we added to our spreadsheet:
    • I added categories like family-friendly resources, cost of four bedroom homes, and whether or not there is a Burn Boot Camp (I love the community and format of this gym, so this would be a big plus for my own mental health).
    • My husband added resident autonomy, responsibilities, and operative exposure.

Hot tip: Utilize your spreadsheet throughout the entire matching process. It will come in handy when formulating your rank list. 

Talk to Current Residents and their Significant Others

Other important resources to help you decide which residency programs to apply to are social media and support groups. Reach out on any social media groups or medical family support groups you are a part of to see if someone can connect you with current residents and/or their significant others. Ask questions to see if the program is one you’d like to apply to or not. 

Hot tip: I’d recommend continuing doing this through the end of interview season.

We talked to a handful of residents from a few different programs. It was nice to hear directly from someone who was living in the city and experiencing the program firsthand to help us solidify if we wanted to keep the program on our list or not.

A Final Word

The Match process is hard. It can be soul-crushing, mentally taxing, and make you doubt everything you and your med student have worked for up to this point.

BUT, you can do it!

You are stronger than you know. This is an exciting time! Look for the good and you’ll see the good!

My last tip for this whole process would be to start doing the mental work you need to do (whatever that may look like for you) so you can be excited about wherever your residency adventure takes you when you open that envelope on Match Day. You got this!

Other articles you may be interested in: 

  • Come learn with me how to navigate the other side of med school before, during and after. I am the blogger behind The Med School Wife (themedschoolwife.com). I hope to be a resource to those applying to medical school and their significant other. Some posts are more formal and informative, others are casual and personal.

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