Like everything in life, applying for residency this year is going to be radically different. There won’t be any long cross-country plane flights, no driving across state lines, no crashing at friend’s places to save money on hotel nights. Residency interviews are going virtual. Medical students that need help with the residency applications virtually, can use this helpful tool to make better decisions.
For some students, this virtual process is great news. Students who know they want to stay at their home institution won’t have to spend money on unnecessary travel expenses. With reduced expenses, students can also apply to more programs and interview at more programs without breaking the bank. Interviewing at more places may also give students perspective on how varied residency programs can be in their structure, composition, and outcomes. Students can also save time by not spending days on the road, and use that time to take more rotations and prepare for the coming year.
For other students, virtual interviews will be challenging. Evaluating the program based solely on virtual interactions with faculty and current residents will be difficult. Walking through the hallways and offices, you are trying to get a job in is much different than going on a glossy “virtual tour” of the facilities. Seeing the current residents at work and their interactions amongst themselves gives applicants a deeper perspective on residency life than simply talking with a select few residents over a Zoom chat. Lastly, driving through the town or city, going for the pre-interview dinner, and walking to and from the hospital gives applicants a sense of what it is like to live in the town.
For all students, the application process will become more challenging and competitive. As students don’t have to take as much time and money to travel, most students are applying more broadly. This will make it harder for all students to stand out from the crowd. It will also make things more difficult for residency program directors. Sifting through an increased number of applications without having any in-person interaction will be challenging. Previously, program directors could heavily rely on impressions of the applicants from the current faculty, residents, staff, or others that interacted with the applicants during the interview day or during away rotations.
Needless to say, away rotations aren’t possible this year, so students don’t have a chance to get a sense for a potential residency program match, and residency programs don’t have a way to evaluate the candidate’s performance in real-time. Granted, not all specialties rely on away rotations to evaluate potential PGY-1s, so these changes may not affect all medical students. However, as the cost to interview has decreased for all students, many more students are going to apply to more places. As more students apply to their programs, program directors will have to rely on ways to rapidly screen through applications. Do they know the student from their own institution? Have they heard about the student from their colleagues at other institutions? How are the student’s exam scores and grades? Does the student have research or volunteer or leadership experience? These areas, and others, will be more heavily weighted in all applications this year.
While many of these factors are outside of student’s control, there are still many steps that students can take to ensure a successful residency match. First and foremost, talking with trusted faculty and mentors at each student’s home institution can provide invaluable advice on how best to maximize each student’s chance at a successful match. Often, faculty can reach out to their contacts at other institutions should the need arise. In order for students to evaluate programs, students will need to take advantage of the current resident’s availability to answer questions by phone or email.
Students shouldn’t hesitate to contact residents at the programs they are interested in to hear more about the program or residency life, yet they should also be judicious in their use of the resident’s time. Courtesy and respect are all the more important when the only interaction is through email. Lastly, students should prepare an area of their homes or apartments that is appropriate for video conferencing. The background should be plain and free of distractions (e.g., please don’t video conference from your bedroom!). Lighting should be appropriate, and the video and audio quality should be clear without interruptions.
Everybody should be prepared for hiccups in the virtual residency application process. Internet connections will get dropped, and Zoom will quit unexpectedly. Patience will be incredibly important during this residency application season. Perhaps now more than ever is the time to find that silver lining on the thunderstorm cloud that is COVID-19. As easy as it is to get frustrated with the changes, finding a positive aspect of the current situation will be important for everybody. A positive outlook can help all of us get through these crazy times.
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