Preparing for Residency

Application do’s and don’ts from doctor who oversees the Match

Brendan Murphy , Senior News Writer

AMA News Wire

Application do’s and don’ts from doctor who oversees the Match

Jul 1, 2024

Few people are as well-positioned to offer advice about the residency-selection process as Deborah Clements, MD. A family medicine residency program director for three decades, Dr. Clements now chairs the board of National Resident Matching Program (NRMP), the organization that oversees the residency-selection process for the vast majority of physician specialties.

During a session at the AMA Distinguish Yourself Medical Student Summit, Dr. Clements—an AMA member—answered questions from medical students about the residency-selection process that culminates in the Match.

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Here are a few of the key do’s and don’ts that Dr. Clements outlined for residency applicants.

Dr. Clements told the story of a colleague who listed scrimshaw—a form of art that involves carving whale bones—as a hobby on their application without much actual experience in the activity, figuring it was unlikely to come up and sounded sophisticated. That applicant ended up interviewing with a program director who was an expert in scrimshaw. It didn’t go well for the applicant, Dr. Clements said.

“Always, always tell the truth,” said Dr. Clements, chair of the family and community medicine department at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. “It will come across to us on your application if something isn't accurate.”

“The No. 1 thing I looked for as a program director was authenticity. You don't need to be false and humble. Have some humility but also know what your strengths are. I'm looking for a cohesive picture about what somebody wants to do with their life.”

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Personal statements are limited to a single page. Make sure that your messaging in that space talks about where you’ve been and where you want to go, Dr. Clements said.

“Please don't tell me about my specialty,” she said. “You're not in it yet. I know about my specialty. Tell me about why, maybe, you want to be in that specialty. Why did you choose to go into medicine?”

"Tell me a story that illustrates who you are as a person,” Dr. Clements advised. “In the virtual stack of 1,000 applications I get, your personal statement is there to make me be compelled to want to know you more. I want to know this person. I want to hear more about their story.”

Dr. Clements also cautioned against using an AI tool to write your personal statement.

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A personal statement is an opportunity to show growth. One way to do that is to address any misstep that might be part of your applicant portfolio.

“If you had a challenge in medical school, address that challenge,” Dr. Clements said. “Do that in your personal statement. Better to be up front about it and know right away because we're not going to miss it. Then we're going to wonder: Why did they avoid talking about that? You don't have to belabor it, but certainly address it.

“From my perspective, I prefer a candidate who's had a little bit of difficulty somewhere because I know how they respond to a challenge. I don't want the first time you’re challenged to be when you're in my residency program taking care of my patients and you don't know how you're going to react.”

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Letters of recommendation from other trainees don’t go a long way, Dr. Clements said.

“Don't get letters from residents and fellows,” she said. “I know you work with them the most. They just don't carry the weight that letters from attendings do. Now what a lot of people will do is say to the residents and fellows, ‘Could you speak with attending so-and-so? I'm going to ask for a letter of recommendation. Please give them your feedback about me.’ That's an OK thing to do, but it's the nature of it.”

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With United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE) Step 1 scores no longer part of the residency-selection process, programs have fewer metrics to draw from. As part of a holistic review process that relies less on testing, values take on new importance.

“When we think about a holistic review and really trying to get to that place, a lot of it comes down to values alignment,” Dr. Clements said. “What pieces of data do we use to determine where your values are? It's your job to make sure that gets into the application.

“You can get that it in there by showing me what extracurricular activities you're doing,” she added. “Is that consistent with your values? Can you do that by showing me the research topics that you're interested in? Certainly in your personal statement should be reflected in your letters of recommendation.”

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