Residency Applications and the Pandemic

Your guide to the Match 2020-2021

INTRODUCTION

I know this pandemic has been particularly stressful for the fourth year medical students. No away rotations, inability to network at conferences, and many research projects coming to a screeching halt, just to name a bit of what you’ve been through. Uncertainty is at an all-time high, and it’s hard to know how all of this will affect this application cycle. So, I set out trying to answer that question, interviewing multiple faculty members and program directors in different fields. Basically the consensus was…

NO ONE really knows how this is about to go.

Despite the uncertainty, I was still able to get some good insight that I really think will help you over the next few months.

YOU HAVE NOT COME THIS FAR IN MEDICAL SCHOOL NOT TO MAKE IT. 
YOU HAVE NOT COME THIS FAR TO FAIL! 
EVERYTHING WILL WORK OUT AS IT SHOULD!

I hope you keep that in mind as you read this post.

OK, so let’s get into it. This post will address two questions that are on everyone’s mind right now:

  1. How will the pandemic affect my residency application?
  2. What can I do to improve my chances of matching despite the pandemic?

How will the pandemic affect my residency application?

Official changes: 

  • ERAS deadline pushed back from September to October 21 
  • AAMC has recommended for 100% virtual interviews this year
  • Step 2 CS suspended, exam is on hold for at least a year
  • Many specialties have removed requirements for letters of recommendation specifically from people in that specialty
  • NRMP has decided to add an additional, fourth offer round to the SOAP process.
  • The Rank Order List (ROL) Open, when applicants and programs can begin entering their ROLs, will move to February 1, 2021 at 12:00 p.m. Eastern Time, and the ROL Certification Deadline, when applicants and programs must finalize and certify their ROLs for use when the matching algorithm is processed, will move to March 3, 2021 at 9:00 p.m. Eastern Time.

Potential changes:

  • Programs are considering secondary applications to help weed out applicants
  • Programs considering two types of virtual interviews
    • Live Virtual Interviews use video conference technology to connect you with an interviewer in real time (ie zoom).
    • Asynchronous Virtual Interviews where you are asked to respond to questions presented via text or prerecorded video. You would have to record your responses and send to reviewers, to be seen at a later time.

Pros and cons of pandemic related changes:

Pros:

  • Save money (no traveling)
  • Potentially better shot at staying at home programs
  • May be able to interview at more places
  • Programs SWEAR they are going to rely less on USMLE scores and find a more holistic way to evaluate applicants during this time.

Cons:

  • Can’t get a “feel” for programs or residents in person
  • (Almost) no away rotations (making it harder to get letters)
  • Likely harder for DO and IMG students
  • You won’t get to interact with your peers (other applicants) on the interview trail
  • You won’t get to travel the country
  • Mental health ramifications
  • Due to testing center closures, many applicants have been unable to take portions of the USMLE (Particularly distressing for IMGs, who must pass the Step 2 CS to obtain certification from the Educational Commission for Foreign Medical Graduates and apply to US residency programs) 
  • Even though programs SWEAR they won’t be relying on USMLE scores to evaluate people, we don’t actually know which criteria they will rely on instead (particularly this year, as most programs will have more applications to sort through than other years). Concern is that they may rely more on metrics such as school ranking.

What can I do to improve my chances of matching despite the pandemic?

OPTIMIZE YOUR APPLICATION: Don’t worry so much about the things you don’t have on your application. Fortify what you have with the tips below!

  • Present a clear picture of yourself! This year, more than ever, you want to STAND OUT. What do you want the reviewer to remember about you? What is the most interesting thing about you? For me, it was the fact that I was a “spoken-word poet interested in skin of color dermatology”. I made sure my personal statement and experiences painted this picture of me. I did NOT include activities that didn’t have anything to do with building on the central identity I wanted to portray. If you like to do 15 things and you talk about all of them, NOTHING will stand out and you will fade into the background of all the other amazing applicants the programs have to sift through.
  • Make sure your ERAS descriptions actually relay the substance of your accomplishments. Get into the MEAT of your community service and research activities! You cannot afford to be vague here, or to use acronyms without spelling things out first, etc. You have a deep understanding of the value of the things you accomplished, but the reviewer does not. It’s your job to SHOW them. You won’t get acknowledged if they don’t understand what you did!
  • Spelling and grammar. SPELLINNNNN ANNNNN GRAMMMAAAAA. Enuf said.
  • Consider professional help if you’re really struggling. I wouldn’t typically suggest this, because I’m all about saving your money in this process where possible. HOWEVER, this year you’ll be saving thousands of dollars on travel so you may have a little extra cash to pay for a personalized medical residency admissions consultant. This is only for those of you who don’t have great mentors / faculty members at your school that can help you review applications! I repeat, this is NOT a need for most people, just a suggestion for those who may need the extra help.

NETWORK AS MUCH AS POSSIBLE (although networking just got waayyy harder)

  • Virtual conferences and workshops: There are a TON of these going on these days across multiple specialties. Faculty members and residents have been offering their email addresses to 4th year medical students that are interested in their programs/have questions. My recommendation is to take them up on their offer!
  • Program specific virtual information sessions: Many programs are advertising virtual information sessions or “get to know us” sessions this year, since they know you won’t be able to get a feel in person. Go to the website of the programs you are interested in and see if they have dates and times for events like this listed. Every day, I see new fliers for events like this on instagram and twitter, so in this way social media can be your friend!
  • Virtual Away Rotations: Many programs are offering virtual away experiences so you can still work with their attendings as well as patients, and get letters. Check the websites of programs you are interested in for more information. Quick note: if you don’t have a home program in whatever specialty you are applying in, try reaching out to programs in your geographic region to see if there are any in-person opportunities. Multiple programs are willing to make exceptions for students without home programs, especially during this time.
  • Cold emails: Sooo… This tried-and-true method of networking may not be as helpful for you at this point, particularly if you haven’t been doing it all along (it’s more helpful to build relationships earlier in med school, so you can establish rapport over time). HOWEVER, it might still be helpful to cold email faculty members at programs you want to go to if you have a shared research interest, or a specific question. NOTE: Avoid sending random emails to initiate relationships with Program Directors and Chairpersons as you get close to submitting your ERAS. They are VERY BUSY at this time. Also, it is OBVIOUS that you are only reaching out to them because you are about to apply. Reach out to other faculty instead. My suggestion is, if you want to develop relationships with PDs/Chairs, have a mentor make a call for you.
  • Med-twitter: This has been becoming a more popular way of communication between faculty members / programs / residents / medical students. If a faculty member tweets something of interest to you, it is very reasonable to respond expressing your agreement or interest. Just be careful not to slide into anyone’s DM’s inappropriately. Be really wise in these twitter streets.
  • A few pertinent don’ts: Don’t ask anyone to be your mentor this late in the game, M4s. You’ll just annoy them, everyone is busy this close to the application cycle. More guidance regarding this point HERE. Don’t slide into a faculty member’s instagram DM’s to learn about the program or ask questions. I knowww, I knowww, your friend did it and told you it went well. It’s a RISK though. DM’s are just not a professional way of communication. It may change in the future, but right now it aint it.

RESEARCH: not too much to say here because it’s late in the game, and there isn’t much time but…

  • GON ‘HEAD and SUBMIT any projects you’ve been working on that haven’t been submitted yet.
  • It’s also not too late to submit case reports

What did you do to help during COVID?

  • This was an interesting pro-tip that came up as I talked to different faculty members: people want to know what you did to help during COVID. Did you volunteer for a COVID screening telephone line or testing center? Did you help out delivering groceries to elderly people? Maybe you developed an app that helped people locate food banks or other resources during the pandemic? Many faculty members mentioned that they are interested in knowing about these experiences, so find a way to add them to your application!

Be as knowledgeable as you can as changes arise. Here are some helpful links:

  • The NRMP COVID-19 FAQs regarding the applicant transition to graduate medical education during the COVID-19 crisis (regularly updated, last updated June 23) https://www.nrmp.org/covid-faqs-3/
  • Check out my last minute ERAS tips HERE.
  • Networking/mentorship tips HERE.

ALWAYS REMEMBER THE FOLLOWING:
YOU CAN.
Mindset is EVERYTHING.
Never take advice from someone who doesn’t believe in you.

Be on the look-out for the next two posts:
Virtual Residency Interviews Guide -> Dropping Aug 19th
How pick a program without vibing it out in person -> Dropping September 2nd