What Makes a Strong Residency Application?

Curious how program directors view your residency application? Research from NRMP Program Director Survey breaks down everything you need to know.

There’s a moment we all have in medical school. No, not the one when your friend/relative/loved one asks you if you could “just take a quick look at this rash,” and not the one when you realize there’s actually a reason for the suggested daily maximum caffeine intake. I’m talking about that moment when you realize you’re going to actually apply to residency, and you start to wonder how to make that residency application as strong as possible. For some people, this realization comes early—in first year, when they’re joining an interest group, or in second year, when they’re choosing a rotation schedule. In fact for some students, it comes even before they start med school; the rest of us call these people “gunners.” If you’re like me, it comes a little later in the process, sometime during third year when it suddenly dawns on you that you’re actually going to have to pick one of these things to do—forevermore. 

Whether that moment has already come for you, or you’ve just had it as a result of reading this article, I have good news! And sadly a little bad news too, but we’ll save that for later. The good news, though, is that you don’t have to wonder, or speculate, or rely on med student folklore to know how to strengthen your residency application. Program directors will just… tell you. Every two years, the NRMP (the Match™™™) surveys program directors, and in 2021 they asked how those program directors decide who to interview and who to rank. Here’s that survey—pay particular attention to pages 10-13.

To get at key aspects of your residency application, let’s extract some ideas here—a rough analysis of the frequency score (i.e., what proportion of program directors said they considered a given factor) and importance score (how important they felt that factor to be).


To get interviews

Grades and scores are indeed important in your residency application. They’re frequently used, and felt to be pretty significant. And the most critical of all is a failed attempt at a board exam, so make studying for those a priority (not that you weren’t already). That said, it’s not all numbers—the MSPE is one of the most highly valued parts of your application.

In terms of your personal qualities, your letters of rec, personal statement, professionalism, and perceived commitment to the specialty you’re applying in are all frequently used and highly weighted (and about evenly prioritized with your academic stats). 

There are also some findings that may surprise you: the reputation of your med school and your interest in an academic career aren’t as commonly evaluated or highly prized as med students often believe they are.

Education and Academic Performance Characteristics Considered in Deciding Whom to Interview (%)


To get ranked

The overall order of things doesn’t change much. Scores and grades are still at the top. But in general, your academic characteristics take a backseat to your personal ones, and in particular, your interview performance. Your interpersonal skills, your conversations with faculty and residents, and your perceived commitment to the specialty you’re applying in all factor strongly into a decision to rank you.

Mean Importance of Personal Characteristics and Other Knowledge of Applicants Considered in Deciding Whom to Rank


So now you know! There’s a wealth of information in that document—it’s worth spending a little time looking through the full charts. I did promise some bad news though, so here are two things to keep in mind. First, some technicalities. This survey is from 2021, when Step 1 was still graded. So how have things changed? Step 2 is almost certainly more important now, and likely Step 1 less (though failing is probably still a red flag). Unfortunately, we’ll probably have to wait until 2024 to get this kind of feedback in the new P/F paradigm. But! You have access to program directors at your home institution, and you can ask them (or med student clerkship directors) if you feel comfortable. I know that situation can feel a little dicey sometimes, but remember that if you succeed it makes them look good too.  

Second, while knowledge is power, these aren’t… easy. Boards are really hard. Rotations are really hard. Being personable in interview after interview on Zoom is really, really hard. So it’s a good thing you’re talented, motivated, and have so many people in your corner (you’ve got us, at least). We’re rooting for you!

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