After going through medical school, jumping through the hoops to match into residency, and finishing my program, I became an assistant professor, where I work closely with residents. One of the most important parts of my job is interviewing applicants for our residency slots, and the experience has given me a completely different perspective on the residency application process.
I recently hosted a webinar through the College of Osteopathic Student Government Presidents and the Student Osteopathic Medical Association on getting into the residency program of your dreams. Over 500 students registered for the webinar. You can watch it here.
One of the key takeaways from the webinar is that while grades and board scores play a role in the residency selection process, an applicant’s brand is far more important.
How to stand out
It’s critical that you know your brand. No idea what that means? Well, first off—you need to have a brand: something that makes you stand out from all the other applicants and is emphasized consistently throughout your application.
When it comes to board scores, unless you are in the bottom or top 2% of your class, you’ll blend in with the vast majority of your fellow applicants. Unless you had close to perfect scores on COMLEX (or failed multiple times), on paper, you’ll look the same as everybody else.
Same 20-30 clubs and activities, similar personal statements about “The patient experience that changed my life and then I decided to become a better doctor.”
The content, letters of recommendation, experiences and personal statements have become so similar, I’ve referred to this phenomenon as “the blend.” We have so many applicants, with such similar applications. Most look indistinguishable from the rest. Students risk infecting each other with stress, fear and hopelessness and running off a cliff together like lemmings in a fit of angst.
What should you do to stand out? Pick the ONE thing that makes you unique. Pick one virtue, one strength that, above all else, you know to be true.
Finding your distinguishing trait
For some people, it may be kindness. You are the person who, running late for cash-paid participation in a surprise bystander intervention study, stopped to help the distressed actor lying in the street.
Maybe you excel at keeping your cool. When four traumas roll in to the ED and you have a screaming infant in your arms who no one else can comfort and you’re asked to run a code, you don’t panic and you know what to do.
Or maybe you nailed everybody as the gunner on hospital rounds. No one could beat you on medical knowledge, even in trivia.
Whatever your personal strength is, focus on that. If you need some ideas, you can take a free strengths assessment here. Once you identify your strength, make sure it is emphasized throughout your application. The description of your activities, the vignettes in your personal statement and the discussion points during your interview should all center around the one strength or virtue that makes you unique.
A deeply compelling story
During the interview, have a deeply compelling story that no one will forget. A story that is not entirely inappropriate, but is unusual and intriguing. Climbed Mount Kilimanjaro? Talk about that, now that is fascinating.
I once asked my department chair: if he met a medical student who climbed Mount Kilimanjaro but had mediocre scores, would he accept them into the residency program? He responded, “Absolutely, because that tells me a whole lot more about the person and who he/she is than a number on a test.”
Pick your own Mount Kilimanjaro: the beautiful, incredible aspect of you that makes you uniquely you. This alone can get you into a program you never imagined would accept you.
In residency, most of us are clinicians as well as instructors in these programs. We want to work with a range of interesting people with heart, intelligence, compassion and courage. These are the qualities that make an incredible clinician. These are the types of people who are best-suited to the top residency programs.
That’s what it means to be an osteopathic physician—we focus on strengths within our profession and within ourselves. Rather than zeroing in on numbers, take a whole-person approach to applying to residency: Emphasize your virtues and what makes you unique.