How to Talk About Re-Applying for the Match in Your Residency Interviews

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Imagine this… it’s 9:59 AM on the Monday of Match Week. You’re sitting at your desk or with your loved ones, nervous, waiting for an email notification from the NRMP that will determine your future career. Thoughts are racing through your mind. “Will I match? What will I do if I don’t match? What will my family say?” And then you hear it.

 

*Ding!*

 

Your phone pings as your stomach drops. It’s 10:01 AM now and you stare anxiously at your phone. Unlocking your phone, you see this message. 

 

We are sorry, you did not match to any position.

 

What are you going to do?

 

Despite current efforts to increase the number of residency spots, hundreds of medical students find themselves without a categorical or advanced residency position every year. It feels terrible. How do I know how this feels? I know because I went partially matched at the end of the 2020-21 ERAS cycle. However, this most recent ERAS cycle, I matched into pediatrics at my #1 program. After going partially matched, I promised myself that I would always be there for other unmatched/partially-matched medical students as a residency advisor and tutor. This guide is not for you If you are not planning on applying for the SOAP or re-applying for residency. But, if you are planning on re-applying, this guide will highlight how to talk about re-applying for the match during your next round of residency interviews.

 

First Things, First…

 

The first thing you should do after going unmatched is focus on taking care of yourself. You are most likely going to have a plethora of emotions: anger, sadness, grief. You might feel nothing at all. This is common and completely okay. 

 

It’s okay to feel these things. For many of us, we’ve prepared our entire lives to be doctors. Not matching for residency can make you feel like you’re not good or smart enough to be a doctor. This is patently not true. You’ve just gone through a traumatic experience. Now is not the time to try to figure out why you didn’t match. Be kind to yourself.

 

Preparing Your Application When Re-Applying for Residency

 

If you are serious about re-applying for residency the next cycle, you’ll need to start working on your application. Your turnaround time before re-applying is painfully short. Match week occurs on the third week of March. ERAS opens up in June, and applicants can begin applying to programs in September. That only gives you six months to make potentially significant changes to your application before re-applying for residency. 

 

After a brief period of mourning, you must begin preparing your application for the next round. Aim to start improving your application about one month after Match week. Check back in with your letter writers and ask them to update your letters of recommendation (this is time sensitive) and ask them to complete your letters by mid-August. Start making a plan to figure out why you didn’t match and what you can do to improve your chances of matching the 2nd time you apply.

 

“Why Are You Re-Applying for Residency?”

 

The saying goes, “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” This is true for interviews. The first and most important rule of re-interviewing after going unmatched is to confront the issue head-on. Be honest with yourself. Interviewers will ask you why you think you went unmatched, why you are re-applying, and what you have done in the interim to improve your application. Ask yourself, “why didn’t I match?” Sometimes the reason is obvious, but in most cases, you’ll need to do some serious self-reflection and application analysis before you understand why you didn’t match. Make sure that the second time you interview, you’ve done enough self-reflection to identify which areas of your application need the most work. 

 

I’ll illustrate with two examples. Meet Jessica and Roger. 

 

Jessica is a stellar student. She wants to match into dermatology. She has great board scores (250+/260+), honors in most of her clinical rotations, is active in her community, and has done clinical research. Her mentors have told her that she should have no difficulty matching into dermatology. But, when she applies, she doesn’t get any interviews. What went wrong? Jessica looks back through her application and compares it to her peers who matched in the NRMP Charting Outcomes in the Match. She notices that, compared to her peers, she has a conspicuous lack of translational research on her application. She vows to dedicate herself to performing more research before re-applying in the next cycle. 

 

Roger wants to match into general surgery. Roger is an average test-taker with decent Step scores (220/240), has honors in surgery and passing grades in everything else, stellar letters of recommendation, and is first author on a multi-center clinical trial he hopes to publish in JAMA. He feels confident that he will match into surgery. But, when he applies, he only gets four interviews at his safety schools. What went wrong? Roger looks at the scores of people who matched at the schools he applied to and realizes that his test scores are far below the average for those who matched at those institutions. When he re-applies the next cycle, he tells himself he needs to be more realistic regarding his competitiveness and apply to programs that are a better fit for his application.  

What Will You Do to Improve Your Chances When Re-Applying for Residency?

 

After you understand why you didn’t match and why you’re re-applying (and not going into something like pharmaceuticals or consulting), make a plan to improve your application. 

 

There are, of course, things you can’t change about your application (e.g., Step scores, clerkship grades). However, plenty of students match/SOAP into residency programs with below-average board scores and poor clerkship performance. However, it’s unwise to focus on these other students during interviews; talk only about yourself. You must identify your reasons for not matching if you hope to match the second time around. For example, if you have poor grades, acknowledge them during the interview, but focus on the aspects of your application that were lacking during the last cycle and – more importantly – what you have done to improve your application in the meantime. 

 

Maybe you applied to too many “reach” schools… If that’s the case, work with your school to create a list of programs that are more appropriate for someone with your application. 

 

Or, maybe your personality didn’t come across during interviews… Seek out interview preparation with your school counselor or with a professional tutor. Often, applicants don’t realize that the joke they just made to the program director makes them sound arrogant, not clever. 

 

Or, maybe you have gaps in your application in research or extracurriculars or have mediocre letters of recommendation. Go through the NRMP’s Charting Outcomes in the Match and compare yourself to matched applicants. What did they have that you didn’t? 

 

Most Importantly… Be Honest

 

When you interview for the second time, be upfront about not matching and be forthcoming about the steps you’ve taken to improve your application since the last ERAS cycle. I cannot overstate the importance of being honest with interviewers about not matching. Your interviewers will know that you didn’t match and they will want to see that you’ve demonstrated humility and personal growth as you have sought to make yourself a more competitive candidate. If they ask you why you didn’t match, tell them why. Tell them how you felt when you didn’t match, but frame the experience as an opportunity for personal growth. Talk about the steps you’ve taken to improve your application and, most importantly, the outcomes of those steps. Aim to have concrete examples of growth and achievement to talk about during interviews.

 

The STAR Method

 

Lastly, have a few pre-prepared phrases in your arsenal to help you sound composed during interviews. Not matching is hard to talk about! The STAR method is a common interview technique used to succinctly describe problems and how you overcame them. You don’t want your entire interview to be about how you didn’t match, so keep it brief. 

 

The STAR method is a tool used to respond to behavioral interview questions by breaking each situation down into the specific situation, task, action, and the result of the situation. The STAR method is outlined below:

  • Situation → Describe the situation or problem you encountered. What happened?
  • Task → Identify a goal. What were you working toward? 
  • Action → Discuss the actions you took to address the situation. What did you do? 
  • Result → Highlight your results. What effect did your actions have on the situation? Did it resolve the problem? 

 

Let me illustrate this with a final example. Let’s go back to Jessica. 

 

During her interview for dermatology residency, the interviewer asks Jessica, “why do you think you didn’t match this past cycle?” Jessica thinks for a moment before answering, “I didn’t match last year (situation) for a number of reasons, most important of which, I believe, is that my commitment to research was not evident from my application alone.” Jessica continues on, saying, “I have spent these past few months practicing some serious self-reflection. After reviewing my application and speaking to mentors I trust, I realized that I needed to demonstrate my commitment to translational research by performing more bench-to-bedside research. Since March,” she says, “I have published two articles in major journals and have begun working on a bench-to-bedside novel chemotherapy agent for cutaneous lymphoma.” 

 

Be as specific as possible at all times, without rambling or including too much information. Eliminate any examples that do not paint you in a positive light. However, keep in mind that some examples that have a negative result (e.g., not matching) can highlight your strengths in the face of adversity. 

 

If you need help reworking your application after not matching, consider reaching out to EMP for advising from one of our many experienced tutors. 

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