Despite the exhilaration that comes with the fourth year of medical school – your future career is in sight! – there are still some very real stress-causing moments. Step 2 Clinical Skills and Clinical Knowledge, though less stressful than Step 1, still exist. For some, deciding what specialty to apply to is a huge part of your fourth year. Submitting to ERAS and waiting for interview invites is a terrifying experience. And then of course, there’s the interview trail, a beast all its own.
I lucked out – I knew coming into med school that I was interested in surgery, so had plenty of time to check out other specialties on clerkships. Nothing came close, so my specialty decision fell into my lap. That doesn’t mean I didn’t also have misgivings, but then I would do a surgery rotation and remember why I love it. Reservations about your specialty choice are totally normal. Some advice I received when deciding on specialties: Above all, do what makes you happy. Don’t go into something that you don’t like just because of higher salaries or more time off, because you will still be miserable. Residency is ridiculously hard, no matter the specialty. You don’t have to fit the “type” of student that goes into that specialty – many times I was told I’m “too nice” to go into general surgery.
Apply widely and generously, to programs of different sizes, different locations, different prestige levels, and different types – community and academic. Decide what is important to you. Location? Fellowship opportunities? Is prestige of the program more important than experience and high operative volumes? Generally speaking, bigger name programs have more fellows to take cases and thus lower operative volumes for residents. For me, most important was the feel of the program on interview days. I expected this to be a big factor for me, which made choosing which programs to apply to difficult. I applied to all types of programs – places with three residents per year and places with 13 per year, community and academic, big name places with a ton of fellows, and little ones most people have never heard of. I considered information from a variety of sources, including suggestions from residents, cursory reviews of the programs’ websites and, yes, even some Student Doctor Network rumors.
A word on interview invites: stressful. You will get some, and you will get rejected from some. Different programs and specialties also send invitations at different times. Some will wait until their full application deadline, and some will start the day after submissions open. Reply right away when you get the email – you can even set special alerts on your smartphone for ERAS emails – as programs send more invites than there are open interview spots.
Interviewing in general surgery was difficult – I won’t lie. But by far the trail has been one of my favorite parts of medical school. Go into it with a positive attitude, enjoy the company of fellow medical students and all the free food. Warning: you will gain weight. As for interview prep: Anticipate the questions. The most common question I had in interviews was, “Why surgery?”, and usually the first question was, “Tell me about yourself,” (possibly the most difficult question to answer EVER). For both, it helped to have a basic answer all prepped, that was above all concise, but also made me memorable. Everyone in surgery likes working with their hands; make your answer something they will remember about you. If you think you want to do a fellowship, even if you’re not sure which one, tell them. If you want to be a true general practitioner, tell them that and tell them why. They want to know if you’ve thought about your future and have some semblance of a plan. Be HONEST and REAL in your interviews – you want them to want you for who you really are, not because you were able to say the right thing in an interview. If you’re not yourself on interviews, you are doing yourself and the program a disservice. Do you want to go to a program and be a fake version of yourself for three to seven years? The term “match” makes a lot more sense after going through interviews: it’s the best kind of arranged marriage, a mutually beneficial symbiosis where you are looking for your “match” in a program.
And don’t forget, you are interviewing the program too – HAVE QUESTIONS FOR THEM. At least two of my interviews left a full 20-25 minutes for my questions, and most of my interviews were at least half-spent on my questions. Not only do they want to answer your questions, they want to see how interested you actually are in their program. Choosing your program isn’t something you can quantify. It’s definitely a feeling. Are the residents happy here? Go to the pre-dinner and ask questions – don’t skip these. They give you a real picture of the program. They’re also a lot of fun. I asked myself: will I be happy here, with these people? General surgery is a long road, and I want to make sure I’m happy for my five to six years of residency.
Above all, get ready for a great fourth year of medical school. Take time for yourself and your friends. I have a match list that I’m super happy with, and now all I have to do is wait another…24 days and six hours to find out where I’m going. Not that I’m counting.