An inside viewpoint

What future ophthalmologists need to know about the SF Match

The San Francisco Matching Program (SF Match) is the service ophthalmology residency applicants use to apply to residency programs.


Ophthalmology is a unique field that utilizes a combination of medicine and procedures to treat pathologies of the eye and its surrounding structures. The process of applying for an ophthalmology residency is distinct, requiring fourth-year osteopathic, allopathic and international medical students to apply through the San Francisco Matching Program (SF Match) rather than the Electronic Residency Application Service (ERAS) used by most other specialties. This column will provide a basic overview of important strategies, changes and deadlines for the 2023 SF Match.

The SF Match is the system for ophthalmology and plastic surgery residency candidates and programs to simultaneously “match” and fill first-year positions. Students submit applications to residency programs they are interested in and those programs extend interview invitations to candidates deemed a good fit. Once interviews are completed, interviewees and residency programs rank each other in order of preference. A computerized algorithm matches applicants into the preferred residency positions that also rank them highly. Although not the only matching program in the U.S., the SF Match is unique in that it has an early match date (typically Feb. 1), compared to ERAS programs (mid-March).

Competitive specialty

Ophthalmology is a competitive specialty, especially if you did not train at an allopathic medical school. According to the 2022 Ophthalmology Residency Match Summary Report, 748 applicants participated in last year’s SF Match for 509 positions, 507 of which were filled. A total of 600 U.S. allopathic students participated and 75% matched, while a total of 49 osteopathic students participated and 45% matched. A total of 43 international applicants participated and 33% matched. While it is possible to match into an ophthalmology residency program as an osteopathic or international medical student, it is important to begin building your resume as early as possible to be a strong applicant.

The application is composed of several documents including a personal statement, medical school transcripts, board scores and immunization records. Compiling the required documents can be a time-consuming process, which means completing the application as early as possible is imperative to prevent delays in processing. Other documents may include:

  • Letters of recommendation: Most programs require three letters of recommendation. Typically, applicants will use two letters from ophthalmologists and a third letter from either an ophthalmologist, surgery preceptor or internal medicine preceptor. Recommendations can be written by physicians, faculty, preceptors or research mentors. Emphasis on how well-known the student is to the author versus the prestige of the source providing the recommendation varies by program. Applicants are encouraged to ask for recommendations early to allow time for completion. It is also advisable to make the request within close time proximity of working with the letter writer so the author has a stronger recall of their experience with the applicant.
  • USMLE and COMLEX score reports: Since the transition to a single system for graduate medical education in 2020, all ophthalmology residencies accept both DO and MD physicians. However, it is still common for ophthalmology programs to require USMLE STEP 1 scores, regardless of whether COMLEX Level 1 is also taken. STEP 2 CK scores are not mandatory, but with the transition to pass/fail in STEP 1, some programs have placed a greater emphasis on STEP 2 CK to determine the competitiveness of candidates.
  • Altus Suite: The Altus suite was recently introduced to incorporate a more holistic assessment of applicants. It consists of Casper (an online situational judgment test), Snapshot (a response tool used to evaluate communication skills) and duet (a tool designed to align your personal interests with those of various residencies). These tools are used to help assess professionalism, social intelligence and value alignment of candidates.
  • Personal statement: A personal statement consists of a 500-word autobiographical piece, and two 250-word short essays based on one of the following four prompts:
  1. What does resilience mean to you? Describe a situation in your personal or professional life where you have demonstrated resilience.
  2. Describe an important mentor and relate how that person has been helpful to you.
  3. Describe a way in which you will add diversity to your residency class. This may relate to your background, upbringing, life experiences, professional/personal interests or educational path.
  4. If you were to start an ophthalmology residency program, what would be the three core values you would base it on?

Important tips for writing the autobiographical essay and short essays:

  • The autobiographical essay should be used as an opportunity to tell your story.
  • Use personal anecdotes to show and not tell residencies about your best qualities and passions.
  • Make sure to avoid using cliches like, “the eyes are the window to the soul.”
  • Don’t explain what ophthalmology is or what ophthalmologists do. They are practicing physicians interested in learning about you.
  • Have mentors, family and friends review your personal statement. A great personal statement takes time and many revisions.

Other considerations

Beyond the application, there are many other facets of the SF Match to consider.

Participating in audition/away rotations

Although not required, visiting several academic institutions with ophthalmology programs is an excellent way to demonstrate interest and increase your chances of receiving an interview invitation. Candidates can arrange for these rotations using the Visiting Student Application System (VSAS) from June through September. Emphasis should be placed on programs where candidates have a genuine interest or viable connection.

The costs involved in applying

The cost to create an application for the SF Match is $100. Applying to residencies requires an additional fee, which increases with the amount of programs applied to (shown below).

  • 1-10: $60 total
  • 11-20: $10 per program
  • 21-30: $15 per program
  • 31-40: $20 per program
  • 41-50: $35 per program

Timeline of events

July 1: Portal opens.

September 1: Completed applications are released to programs.

October 17: First date interview invitations can be extended to applicants.

October 31: First date for interviews.

December 23: Last date for interviews.

January 3: Program rank lists due.

January 4: In-person open houses begin.

January 18: Last day for in-person open houses.

January 20: Applicant rank list due.

February 1: Match results released.

Nailing the interview portion

Each applicant can have up to a maximum of 15 interviews. The 2023 SF Match interviews will be performed virtually, often scheduled on a first-come first-serve basis, so students may want to create a separate email account to monitor openings for interview slots. It is critical to prepare for interviews by practicing with family, friends and most importantly, other physicians. is an excellent resource for exploring high-yield interview topics to use when practicing.

When the time comes, make sure you are in a space with a strong internet connection to avoid complications during the interview. You may want to use headphones and purchase a ring light to optimize your virtual appearance. Lastly, it is important to be extremely familiar with your application materials, as interviewers can ask about any information that was submitted.

Ranking residency programs

After interviews have been completed, applicants will rank the programs in order of preference. Some things to consider when ranking a program include: the average number of surgeries performed by residents, compensation, location, opportunities for research, prestige and program culture.

Resources commonly used to learn about each residency program include the American Medical Association’s and Doximity’s program rank list. Residency programs will also provide an opportunity for students they interview to visit the campus and meet residents and faculty at open house events.

With proper planning and attention to detail, you can ensure that your application is strong and ready to submit on the opening day of the 2023 SF Match.

Editor’s note: The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of The DO or the AOA.

Related reading:

Rules to rank by: Creating your NRMP Match rank order list

Residency interviews: Successful residents share their 9 top tips

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