Nuggets of Match Season Wisdom, Part 1

4 01 2015

In my last “real” post, I talked a little bit about starting the interview process and organizing interviews. Throughout the course of interview season, I was able to gather some nuggets of wisdom that should help other 4th-year medical students through the process. The ones in this post will be all about managing your ERAS and interview offers in a way that will maximize the number and quality of interviews you can get.

So without further ado—

Invaluable nugget of advice #1: It all starts with having a solid rank list. Since there is no reliable print material that helps you gauge your competitiveness for residency application, definitely talk to your school’s higher-ups about your preliminary rank list. I didn’t think of this at first and I thought it may be a little bit awkward to talk about with my mentors, but if you can find somebody who’s experienced in your field of interest and works in the program at your institution, these people are excellent resources. Who knows better than they do what residency programs want? Bonus points if you can find somebody who is not the program director, but is intimately involved in residency selection at your own program. This is particularly helpful if your goal is to stay at your home program.

So that’s just what I did. I took in my prospective list of 18 programs to three advisers and mentors. All three were in pediatrics, and all of them had contacts at several other programs. One was the assistant director of my home residency program. They were able to give me some honest feedback about programs that might be struggling, be it a financial struggle or something unattractive about the program’s attitude, negative change in leadership, or other educational deficiency.

Because different people have different opinions, I made it a point to take my list to them separately. One of my advisers even showed me this great website where you can go and actually search a program to find out whether they have any things against them as far as the accreditation goes. Unfortunately, and quite unhelpful for all of you, I can’t remember the website now. I’d be willing to bet it’s something run by the ACGME. Remember that the longer the accreditation cycle is, the more favorable the program is looked upon by the accreditation authorities.

Okay, so the list was made. Then it was just down to submitting the application, which reminds me of…

Invaluable nugget of information #2: Do not procrastinate on starting your personal statement. Seriously don’t do it. The biggest reason why is because it’s going to take you much longer than you think to write the thing in the first place. After you actually have a draft, it takes even longer to find somebody will edit it for you, send your draft along, then wait a couple of weeks for their comments. No joke, I started my personal statement in May. The application was submitted September 15. For me, that was a very comfortable amount of time to get four drafts of my personal statement polished before submitting the final essay.

Another gap in helpful knowledge of this process? There aren’t a lot of resources to indicate what the format of the personal statement should be. The following were very helpful tips from my adviser in case you need help getting started. I’m no expert, but this will help if you’re lost for a place to start.

How to write a personal statement for residency application:

Start with the classic five paragraph format. The first paragraph should be something of an introduction to your. This is generally where you put the cutesy anecdote or whatever it is to grab the reader’s attention. The second paragraph should detail why you chose your specialty, whether you performed an impromptu brain surgery while stranded in a storm on an ocean liner at the age of 10 or whether it’s because you think skin diseases are badass. In paragraph three, outline what you are looking for in a program, and make sure you are being honest because you can’t tailor this to each program that you apply to. Paragraph four is the bit where you sell your assets and describe what you will contribute to your residency program. Obviously what you want in a program and what you have to contribute should be cohesive. In the last paragraph, go ahead and tie everything together. If you left loose ends with the opening story, then tie that into the conclusion too.

There’s no real right or wrong way to write a personal statement for residency. Again, keep in mind that you cannot tailor your statement for each program that you applied to. This is one of the many reasons why it is so crucially important that you are honest with yourself and with the programs with regards to what you want. That this entire process is all about you finding your best fit in a residency program, and that is going to happen if you lie to the program and to yourself about what you really want. This can’t be emphasized enough.

Invaluable nugget of advice #3: The early bird gets the choice interview days. Make sure that you submit your application the absolute first day that ERAS opens. This is important because one of the filters that residency programs have in place to determine who gets first crack at an interview is how early the applications come across their desk. This is easy enough to do, so please don’t give yourself another hurdle to jump. Another creepy tidbit to keep in mind is that your medical school authorities can see with their software whether you have submitted the application or not. Should you wait a couple of days, you may just get a phone call from a faculty member checking up on you—this actually happened to a couple of people in my year. If you need more incentive, the next tip should help with that.

[Sidenote: there are programs out there which will NOT offer interviews until you have passed Step 2 CK and/or CS. This wasn’t a problem for me given the timeline of my master’s program, but something to keep in mind. Schedule those early to prevent them from hurting your chances.]

Invaluable nugget of information #4: Interview offers will come much sooner than you expect, so be prepared. The length of time between when I submitted the application when I got my first interview offer? Two days. No joke, I submitted the application on Sunday, and Tuesday afternoon was when my first offer came. Organization is key to keeping track of scheduled and pending interviews, so keep a calendar either on your phone or on paper.

Programs often ask for your top 3 choices for dates when you want an interview. Some of those dates feel very quickly, especially if they’re on a Friday or during the holidays. Make sure you have that calendar on you when you respond to your offers. This will ensure that you don’t give the same dates to two different programs and then actually accidentally and double booking yourself. Having your calendar also allows you to respond to the interview request faster.

This leads me to another solid bit of advice: answer as quickly as you comfortably can secure your best option for an interview day. I’ve known classmates who have missed out on a great programs altogether because they waited a couple of days before responding to an interview offer. Don’t give yourself an anxiety stroke, though, just make sure you set aside time each day to check and respond to any offers you get that day.

I was kind of person who would have been compulsively checking my email for offers and not paying attention to the rotation I was on. That is definitely not ideal for your learning or your sanity. There’s a really great little app that you can download for free on your phone called Boxcar. You can connect it to any web-based e-mail account and set up filters. Any mail you get that fits the filters will be fowarded over to your phone and alert you as soon as you receive them. This was a fantastic find. The filters that I used were filtering by subject line that included the word interview, and filtering by sender to include the ERAS e-mail address (the noreply@eraspod or whatever it is). This is key because a number of programs don’t send emails directly to you, but send them through the ERAS messaging system. Anyway, the app was gold and I highly recommend it

Invaluable nugget of information #5: If a program doesn’t reach out to you, reach out to them. If you haven’t back from a program within about a month and a half, especially if it’s a program that you are particularly interested in, go ahead and email them. The names and email addresses of the program coordinators are listed on the Freida and on the program’s website. All you’re doing in this email is inquiring about the status of your application, reaffirming your continued interest in the program, and requesting that they consider you if any interview spots open up in the future.

Friends, this sometimes works. I sent three of those e-mails in early November, and one of them—the one I was most hoping for an offer from—called me less than a week later offering me an interview. Part of the reason why this move can work in your favor is because of that graph from an earlier post, the one depicting the number of applicants and the number of available residency positions. These programs are swimming in more highly accomplished and qualified applicants than they can possibly interview, and as a result it is difficult for them to separate out to which candidates they should offer interviews. If you are one of the candidates who is on the border of being offered an interview, letting them know that you want to be there could be the push needed to clinch that interview. Of course, if an applicant isn’t strong enough to be in that “maybe” pile, this likely won’t help you, but it certainly won’t hurt.

I’ll let you know how that program worked out in a future post.

This is the best advice that I can think to pass along to you.  Hopefully it helps!

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