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Interview With a Program Director

September 11, 2023
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A successful career as a physician begins with a comprehensive medical school education and ends with graduate medical education in a residency program. Although landing a coveted residency requires a record of demonstrated achievement, candidates also need to reveal to program directors what they will bring to the practice of medicine.

To help students stand out in a crowded field, Saint James School of Medicine spoke with residency program directors about what they look for in medical students. Here, Timothy Baxter, MC, FAACP, the Program Director for the Arnott Health Family Medicine graduate medical program in Elmira, New York, along with Lindsay Wright, the Arnott Health program coordinator, and chief resident Roland Zhang, MD, share their thoughts on how med students can stand out and find the residency match that best aligns with their goals.

What Graduate Medicine Residencies Look for in Applicants

The process of landing a residency isn't all that different from getting into medical school. While program directors look for a record of achievement as a med student, they also prioritize soft skills like interpersonal communication, thinking and reasoning abilities, and traits like dependability, resilience, ethics, and the ability to learn, grow, and improve.

In fact, Dr. Baxter emphasized that test scores don’t always predict an individual's success as a doctor. While the Arnott Health program uses filters to identify the strongest candidates among the thousands of applicants, it doesn’t put as much weight on test scores or the number of attempts an applicant made to pass the first step exam after medical school.

“Just because you're not a good test taker doesn't mean you won't be a good resident,” he said. “Some excellent test takers, who didn't make it through their intern year, had board scores that would light up on our key.” He notes that being a great physician requires much more than knowing facts and figures, so he looks at the entire med student and their goals, passions, and personality.

Beyond Grades, Community Service, and Test Scores

The sheer number of applicants means that programs like Arnott Heath have to use qualitative filters to shortlist candidates. However, once the team has a manageable number of applications to review, they look for some specific qualities.

One element Dr. Baxter looks at is an applicant’s interest in family medicine. He notes that he’s personally interviewed medical students who only apply to family medicine as a “fallback” if they cannot get a placement in their preferred specialty. Program directors discourage applicants from this approach, reminding students to only apply to graduate medical education programs they sincerely want to pursue.

According to Dr. Baxter, the best way to show sincere interest is by submitting a well-crafted personal statement that clearly outlines your reasons for pursuing the field. He also looks for recommendations tailored to the specialty. Letters of recommendation are critical to making a successful match, as both Dr. Baxter and Lindsey Wright said that a lack of relevant recommendations is a surefire way to have an application filtered out in the first round.

Baxter and Wright also emphasize the importance of the personal statements. Although many med students believe the sheer number of applications keeps decision-makers from reading submissions, that’s not the case. Most read at least a few hundred essays and use them as an opportunity to get to know the applicant.

“The nice thing about the personal statement is they need to be entirely true to themselves. It is solely about them,” Wright said. “There's always one thing that has happened in your life that has caused you to want to help people. So write about that in your personal statement.”

She also cautioned against writing a personal statement that’s too generic and simply reiterates that you want to be a physician or focuses too much on the specialty. The best statements explain what sparked your desire to become a doctor.

Red Flags to Avoid

Wright emphasized that applicants should include explanations (and, when appropriate, documentation) for any weaknesses in previous educational programs, such as multiple attempts to pass Step One, taking longer than usual to finish medical school, or failing classes. Without an explanation, the review team would have no idea whether the issue was due to something like an illness or a more significant concern that speaks to your potential for success.

Inauthenticity is another warning sign that a candidate isn't right for the medical school residency. Dr. Zhang notes that during interviews, he considers how well the candidate will mesh with current residents and enhance the team. Having confidence in yourself and your abilities, showing your true personality, and not trying to impress or sway a director with empty compliments or effusive praise will help you stand out and earn a place so you can start making a difference.

Saint James Medical School thanks Dr. Baxter, Dr. Wright, and Dr. Zhang for their excellent insight. Reach out to learn more about this topic.

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