After completing the rigorous education and training during medical school, the next step in your path to becoming a physician is the residency matching process. This process helps you secure a position in your preferred residency program in a specialty of interest. Therefore, it carries great significance in your career trajectory in medicine. 

But how does the medical school matching work?

In this blog, we’ll explore the matching process and the factors that influence successful matching in a residency program. So join us and discover how to navigate the penultimate step before becoming a physician.

Understanding the Basics

The Match is a uniform system in which residency candidates and residency programs “match” to fill first-year and second-year post-graduate positions. This process utilizes a mathematical algorithm to determine where residency candidates will continue their training. Typically, the Match process lasts from September to March, during which time candidates submit their applications, explore residency programs, and make a ranking list, culminating in March with the Match Day.

What is Matching in Medical School?

Medical school “matching” refers to the process of pairing graduating medical students with residency programs for further training in a specialty of their choice. The National Resident Matching Program (NRMP) administers and facilitates this process. 

What makes matching so important is that it ensures a fair and efficient pairing based on the student’s preferences and preferences of the programs. Moreover, it ensures that students continue their training in a program that aligns with their career aspirations and interests. On the other hand, it helps residency programs find motivated and talented students who can contribute to patient care. 

How Does Med School Matching Work?

Let’s detail the step-by-step process of the medical school matching system.

1. Application phase

The Match application process typically starts in September each year. As a fourth-year medical student, you must submit your application through the Electronic Residence Application Service (ERAS).

You should prepare your ERAS application well before ERAS opens at the beginning of June. Your application should include:

  • Personal and biographical information;
  • CV (curriculum vitae);
  • Letters of recommendation;
  • Personal statement;
  • Dean’s letter or Medical Student Performance Evaluation (MSPE);
  • Medical school transcript;
  • A photograph;
  • USMLE or COMLEX-USA transcripts;
  • ECFMG status report (for international medical graduates only). 

2. Interview phase

The interview phase occurs between October and February, during which residency programs invite promising candidates for an interview at their institutions. During this phase, you travel to hospitals, tour the facilities, and meet with program faculty. You also get to begin building a Rank Order List (ROL) of your preferred programs. Moreover, faculty members evaluate how you would fit in that particular residency program. 

To prepare for the interviews, make sure to:

  • Thoroughly research the programs you’re interviewing with;
  • Understand their values;
  • Practice interview questions with mentors or peers;
  • Prepare to discuss your experiences and goals. 

3. Ranking phase

The ranking phase refers to the part of the matching process during which you and residency programs rank each other based on your performances. You should carefully consider which programs align best with your goals and preferences, then rank them accordingly. Make sure to consider factors such as program reputation, location, and your fit within the program. 

The NRMP also takes into account whether you and your partner are in the matching process together and offers the possibility of a joint ROL process, also known as “Couple Matching.”

Here are some tips to help you with the ranking process.

  1. Make sure to rank programs in the order of your true preference rather than where you think you’ll match.
  2. Rank only programs where you’re able and would be happy to train, as putting a program on your ROL creates a binding commitment if a matching occurs.
  3. Be realistic about your competitiveness and the competitiveness of your preferred specialty.
  4. Don’t wait until the last minute to enter your ROL, as the servers may be overloaded and working slowly.
  5. Don’t make last-minute changes to your ROL.

4. Matching algorithm

After compiling your ranking list, you must submit it to the NRMP. The NRMP utilizes a web-based software application, the Registration, Ranking, and Results (R3) system, to manage matches. This system also contains an algorithm that matches applicants with the programs. The matching algorithm is a computerized mathematical algorithm that can match candidates with their most preferred residency programs. The algorithm attempts to match a candidate with their most preferred program in their rank list. If the algorithm cannot match the candidate to their first choice, it tries to place them on their second choice, and so on, until the candidate obtains a tentative match or all options have been exhausted. A tentative match refers to the situation where the program also ranks the candidate on its rank list and has either:

  • An unfilled position, or
  • The program is filled, but the program prefers this candidate over another candidate already tentatively matched. 

5. Match day

Match Day is an eagerly anticipated event that unveils the results of residency applications. It takes place on the third Friday of March, at the end of Match Week. As it’s a significant milestone in a physician’s career, most medical schools organize celebrations with faculty, mentors, family, and friends. The monumental moment when all applicants open the envelope containing their residency matches happens at noon EST. Applicants who don’t participate in the Match Day can access their results at 1:00 pm EST. Whether there’s a celebration or not, it’s an exciting day for all physicians as they begin the next step in their careers.

6. Post-match process

Not matching into a residency program can be a scary prospect. To minimize the number of students that go unmatched, American medical schools make use of the Supplemental Offer and Acceptance Program (SOAP). This program occurs Monday to Thursday of Match Week and allows students to apply and interview for more residency programs. Students can accept or decline each residency offer in two-hour time slots. SOAP cycles through three or more rounds. 

Factors that Influence Successful Matching in Medical School

Here are the factors that influence successful matching in medical school.

Academic performance

Academic achievements, including grades and USMLE Step 1 and Step 2 CK exam scores, are crucial to a successful match in a residency program and are even more important for competitive specialties. High academic achievement in clerkships and Step exams serve as a strong indicator of your aptitude, competency, and ability to excel in a rigorous residency program. Moreover, strong performance on the Step exams helps demonstrate your medical knowledge and clinical reasoning skills. Therefore, you should study hard for each clerkship and get the highest grade possible for you. We also recommend striving to receive honors on the rotation for the specialty you’re applying to give you a competitive edge. 

Clinical experience

Another factor highly valued by the residency program is clinical experience. Hands-on experience gained through clinical rotations, research projects, and extracurricular activities allows you to demonstrate your clinical skills, decision-making abilities, and professionalism. Clinical experience also indicates that you’re ready for residency training. Moreover, clinical experience in the specialty of choice also showcases that you understand the demands of the field and possess the necessary skills to further your training in said specialty. 

Letters of recommendation

Typically, most programs require two to three letters of recommendation. Submitting strong letters from faculty members, attending physicians, and other healthcare professionals can significantly increase your chances of being matched in a residency program. Make sure to request them from professionals who have worked with you before and can provide valuable insights about your clinical abilities and work ethic. Well-written, personalized letters that highlight your strengths and achievements say a lot about your potential for success in residency.

Personal statement

A compelling personal statement can showcase your motivations and suitability for your chosen specialty, thus influencing successful matching in a residency program. A well-written personal statement allows you to articulate your genuine passion for your chosen specialty. You also get to highlight relevant experiences and qualities that demonstrate your journey of preparing for a career as a physician. Moreover, you can elaborate on how your personal values and career aspirations align with a program’s mission and what makes you a great candidate. 

The Bottom Line

Understanding the medical school matching process is paramount to embarking on your professional journey as a physician. From the application phase to Match Day, by comprehending the nuances of the process, you can ensure successful matching into your preferred residency program. Moreover, you can write a stellar personal statement and submit strong letters of recommendation to position yourself for success.

Although the matching process is perhaps the most anxiety-inducing part of your journey, it’s a crucial step that shapes the trickery of your future in medicine. Now that you possess the insights and tools to navigate this process, don’t let fear and anxiety overwhelm you. Take each step with confidence and determination, knowing that you’re closer to your dream of becoming a physician every day. 

Frequently Asked Questions

Does every med student match into a residency program?

Unfortunately, while the majority of medical students do match into residency programs, not all of them do. In 2023, 93.5% of applicants were matched into a residency program. 

What happens to Med School Students who don’t match?

There are several options available for medical students who don’t match into a residency program. Some may participate in SOAP to try to secure a residency position. Others may pursue research positions, find a job in a clinical setting, or take the USMLE Step 3.

What is the easiest residency to match into?

In general, the least competitive residencies are offered in family medicine, emergency medicine, psychiatry, pediatrics, internal medicine, and anesthesiology.

What is the hardest residency to match into?

The most competitive residencies to match into include neurosurgery, dermatology, plastic surgery, cardiothoracic surgery, and radiation oncology.