For the Class of 2016, last week was a big week as they started officially applying to residency positions. It is an exciting and hopeful and scary time. You often see articles talking about how there is an impending doctor shortage because there are not enough residency positions available or that The Match is tougher than ever. This has a lot of students worried about their prospects for the future. How competitive am I? What are my chances of getting into [fill in the blank] residency? If you are a student with some bumps on your transcript, this can be even more strenuous. What should you do if you have failed a course or two? Had to repeat a year? Failed a Step? Didn’t do as well on a Step exam as you would have liked? In honor of Taylor Swift’s recent visit to Indy, I will advise you to Shake It Off!
No one is perfect and America loves a comeback story. The narrative of striving, falling, getting back up and trying again is a very powerful one and is one that a decent number of residency programs are interested in hearing. While there are many competitive specialties and residency programs, there are also a number of programs that are on the look out for diamonds in the rough. The key is finding them and the way to do that is to have a plan for residency applications. Have a well-thought out back-up strategy by either applying to more than the average number of residency programs or applying to a back-up specialty.
More important is owning your story. Residency programs know that no one is perfect. People fall down and bad things happen sometimes. Of more importance is that you show that you have determination and dedication. But it also takes another element, showing actual growth. For it is one thing to continue to at a difficult task, but it is quite another to continue to beat your head against a giant wall that you are not equipped to scale. So how does one grow from a stumble? By being a professional.
A professional is not someone who always does the right thing or is always correct. Instead, a professional strives for perfection and the biggest tools that a professional has in this task are self-reflection and self-awareness. On a regular basis, we all should take a few moments to reflect on our performance that day. Where did I succeed? Where did I fall short? Why did I fall short? What can I do better tomorrow? What do I need to learn or remember in order to be better tomorrow? Brief, frequent self-reflections like these help drive us to be life-long learners and push us on to greater success so that we can serve our patients and their families as best we can. Then use these reflections to start to become more aware about what your weak areas are and in what particular situations you need to pay more attention so as not to fall again. This is how you grow and develop as a physician. So how does this apply to application and interview season? Reflect on your stumbles and falls. What part did you play in each of these situations? What weaknesses do you have that need to be worked on so that this does not happen again? What is your plan to work on these issues?
Residency programs want to see that you can grow and adapt and change when struggles come. Take ownership of your story in your personal statement and/or on interview day. Certainly you don’t need to continually beat yourself up in these discussions, merely point out where your weakness is and then quickly pivot to what you have already done to make this area better. If you have specific examples of successes, even better. For example, did you fail Step 1 and/or a couple of NBME shelf exams? Point out that these failures led you to take some time to reflect on what your learning style is. Maybe you had never even considered that question before. Then not only did you reflect on that, but you made major changes in your study habits and style to maximize how you learn best. Show them that since you have made those changes you have done very well on all exams since then and you are poised to be successful throughout the rest of your career.
A flaw in your record does not have to be fatal. Cheesy but true, you have to see your flaws as opportunities for growth and then actually make the necessary changes. Residency programs will be able to see the growth you have made and a number of them will be willing to take a chance on you. But you first have to do what it takes to truly “Shake It Off”!
The views expressed in this content represent the perspective and opinions of the author and may or may not represent the position of Indiana University School of Medicine.
Dr. McKenna is a graduate of IU School of Medicine, where he also completed a pediatric residency. He served as chief resident and was an Assistant Professor in the Department of Pediatrics and the Associate Program Director for the pediatric residency p...