Matching to a Medical Residency: When Being Smart Isn’t Enough

You’d think it would be enough to be really smart, talented, hard-working, and determined.

But to land a match in your dream specialty takes a specific ingredient that’s easy to overlook during the rigors of medical school training. One of my specialties is working with medical students with plenty of smarts and drive who didn’t match into their chosen specialty for a residency.

That’s a pretty tough spot to be in: You’ve made it through medical school, but your career is at a dead-end before you have a chance to start. Even your biggest strengths — outstanding academics, the drive to succeed, natural giftedness, and determination — aren’t always enough when that’s what you have in common with everyone else.

Here’s what I’ve found may stand between a newly-minted MD and his or her dream specialty:

The ability to set yourself apart in your personal statement.
The ability to stand out in your interview.

Welcome to Your Discomfort Zone.

Think of it this way: Your personal statement is your big chance to highlight three high-impact essentials:

How much you want this residency.
Why they should want you.
Why they would be making a mistake not to interview you.

Once you get the interview, it’s your big chance to show them why they want you in their program.

But the interpersonal intelligence it takes to “connect” with key gate-keepers and influencers isn’t something that comes naturally to many people, especially those in highly technical professions that emphasize logical-mathematical intelligence.

“How to portray your best self in a 15-minute interview isn’t something that’s addressed in medical school. You’re supposed to just know how to do that,” according to one of my medical student clients.

I should know. My entire corporate career involved working with technical professionals, whether in finance, IT, engineering, or actuarial science. Along the way, I did my psychology internship working with executives and professionals who had been downsized or out-placed into a career transition they didn’t ask for and certainly didn’t anticipate.

It’s the corporate version of what happens when medical students run smack into the business side of medicine: There aren’t enough residencies to go around. If your personal statement doesn’t stand out, or if you have a lackluster interview, you can be an incredibly qualified candidate and still miss out.

I know this because I’ve worked with enough deserving candidates who didn’t match the first time and ultimately succeeded once they addressed those deficits. As one of my medical student clients put it, “You taught me how to look at my strengths and weaknesses and phrase them all to my advantage in an interview.”

How to Get Smarter — In a Different Way

If you made it into medical school, you’ve most likely been at the top of your class all your life. You’ve excelled so highly in academics that maybe you’ve never really had to sell or promote yourself to succeed. Your grades have probably done the selling for you through high school, college, and medical school.

Interpersonal intelligence? Effective self-advocacy? It’s the last thing many technically or scientifically-oriented people consider a high priority.

And that’s why it’s such a competitive advantage.

A high-impact personal statement increases your chances of an interview.
A solid interview increases your chances of a match in your chosen specialty.
Interactions with key decision-makers give you a chance to show them you’re a good fit.

As one successful resident put it, “The residency interview is more ‘tell me about yourself.’ They want you to be a good fit. They only have so many spots and don’t want to waste one on someone who isn’t excited about coming there and ranks another school somewhere else higher.”

All this talk about interpersonal intelligence and interviewing skills is just the thing that can quickly escort the medically-minded right out of their comfort zone.

Interpersonal intelligence can be learned at any age and stage of your career to increase your personal happiness and career success.

I can relate. You might say I didn’t “match” either. I graduated into the middle of a recession and couldn’t find a job in psychology. Out of expediency (and with a bit of a chip on my shoulder), I took a low-level corporate job. To my surprise, I found myself getting a lot smarter in the results-oriented realm of the business world. I credit the practical, real-world communication skills I learned with saving me from becoming a bobblehead therapist. And the business savvy gave me the confidence to eventually start my own private practice.

Finding Your Comfort Zone: Multiple Intelligences

Here’s my pitch to medical students who are concerned that their personal statement or interviewing skills may be holding them back:

Think of interpersonal intelligence as just another aspect of intelligence, along with the other multiple intelligences that humans possess, such as logical-mathematical, creative, kinesthetic, spatial, and linguistic intelligence.
Know that it’s entirely possible to raise your I.I.Q. (interpersonal intelligence quotient.) The skills are simple, practical, and are best learned in a safe, private environment with the assurance that you can do it in a way that still lets you be you, only better.
Interpersonal intelligence is correlated with being successful in life, including having a good job and good relationships.
Think of interpersonal intelligence as part of lifelong learning. These skills can be learned at any age and stage of your career to increase your personal happiness and career success.

Here’s the best news: You don’t even have to get very good at it. You don’t have to transform yourself into a talk show host or the life of the party — you just need to get good enough, so they pick you.