Eyes on the prize

Sights set on ophthalmology? Read this first

Ophthalmology is one of the more competitive specialties. Here’s how I weathered the storm of matching into the highly sought-after specialty.


For years, I dreamed of working with an organ the size of a ping-pong ball. Keeping my sights (pun intended) on ophthalmology, my path to matching at times felt like a modern-day gauntlet. I braced myself for high competition, relatively few residency slots, and a separate early match system, the San Francisco Match. Despite the stacked odds, I remained optimistic. Eventually, my copious efforts paid off: in January, I matched into an ophthalmology residency program at the Medical College of Georgia in Augusta, beginning in 2017.

Here is how I navigated my four years of medical school.

First year: I created a relationship with a well-known ophthalmologist. Not only did I gain valuable shadowing experience, but also, research opportunities with him led to publications. I also began volunteering with the Arizona Mobile Eye Unit, a trailer that visits rural areas and screens for ophthalmic diseases.

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My advice: Connections are invaluable. Find an ophthalmologist who is a leader in the field. If they do research, assist them with that during the summer after first year. Try to write at least one first-author publication, several case reports, and one or two review articles. Begin volunteering with an ophthalmology-specific cause like the Lions Club or Friends for Sight.

Second year: I began board study early. The average USMLE Step 1 score for applicants who matched into ophthalmology was 244 for the 2016 match. Do everything you can to ensure a high score. I maintained a top position in my class. You do not need to be No. 1 in your class to match, but being in the top 25% is a good rule of thumb.

My advice: Although grades and scores are important, do not overlook the rest of your application. Shadow your mentor during surgery, finish any pending publications, and volunteer when you can.

Third year: I focused hard on each clerkship and performed well. Most programs will base a lot of weight on third-year clinical scores and comments from preceptors. I began to write my personal statement in January while completing an elective in ophthalmology.

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My advice: Begin searching for programs in areas of the country where you have connections or extreme interest. Apply to these visiting electives as early as possible (usually through the Visiting Student Application Service). During a home elective in ophthalmology, learn how to use the slit lamp, fundus lens, and Indirect Ophthalmoscope. Learn the roles of an ophthalmic technician and how to work up a patient quickly. Collect one letter of recommendation from your experience. Ensure you have strong letters from internal medicine, surgery, and/or pediatrics.

Fourth year: I rotated at four ophthalmology programs for one month each, beginning in June of fourth year. To prepare, I read several manuals and books specific to ophthalmology.

My advice: Plan to do as many away rotations as your institution will allow. Make each rotation one where you can build strong relationships. Ask one program director for a letter of recommendation early on during fourth year. Submit your completed Match packet by early August of fourth year.

Finally, ask your mentor where they have connections and ask them to send an email or make a phone call on your behalf. Apply to as many programs as possible. Prepare six to eight weeks in advance for interviews, then breathe.

Editor’s note: The above commentary is the opinion of David Felsted, OMS IV, and should not be construed as the AOA’s opinion or advice from the AOA.


  1. Lara de Almeida

    Hi! I am looking to go on a very similar path into Opthalmology as well. I was wondering if you could give me specifics as to what you did throughout medical school or what programs you’d recommend? I applied DO and wanted input on how to choose between programs for aspiring opthalamologists.

    Thank you!
    Lara de Almeida

  2. Spencer Thatcher

    Very interesting story. Since you mentioned USMLE I’m assuming you applied M.D. I’ve been accepted to the D.O. school of my choice which I chose over an M.D. program as it’s a better school, newer facility and I enjoy the systems based style of learning they do years 1 and 2 BUT my biggest fear is the stats of only 38% match to optho as compared to MDs at 85% for the years of 18-19 according to SF. Would it be alright if I could email you about how you handled your D.O. obligations like passing the COMLEX while also studying for the USMLE and how you overcame the odds?

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