What is a Residency Match?

Mary McMahon

A residency match is a successful placement of a medical resident in a training program under the system used in the United States for getting doctors into advanced training. At the end of medical school, students interview with residency programs in their area of interest. Students and programs generate ranked lists by preference, and an automated system attempts to slot every student into a residency program, creating a match. Students who do not match can later apply into unfilled residency programs.

Residencies allow doctors-in-training to have ample opportunity to interact with patients and gain hands on experience.
Residencies allow doctors-in-training to have ample opportunity to interact with patients and gain hands on experience.

The residency match process is highly competitive and has been accused by some critics of being unfair in some situations. Unmatched students may find themselves applying to programs they were not interested in initially, or even switching specialties in some cases. This is especially true of people pursuing competitive medical specialties like plastic surgery, where there are often not enough spots available for all graduating doctors, forcing residents to wait or switch specialties.

Med school graduates must complete a residency training program.
Med school graduates must complete a residency training program.

The residency match process starts with applications and interviews held in the later part of medical school. Students will need to travel to various programs to interview. For elite medical students, travel expenses may be covered and programs may woo applicants with free lodging and other benefits like meals during the interview process. By a set date every year, students must submit a ranked list to a matching service. All residency programs do the same. These lists are kept confidential.

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A residency match is a successful placement of a medical resident in a training program.
A residency match is a successful placement of a medical resident in a training program.

A computer algorithm is responsible for trying to fill as many match requests as possible. Sometimes this may be easy, as when a student and program both rank each other first. In other cases, the computer may have to go far down the lists of students and programs to find appropriate matches. Once the residency match information is released — an event known as “Match Day” — doctors are contractually obligated to attend the programs they matched into, and the programs cannot refuse the doctors assigned to them.

Typically, several days before Match Day, students are told whether they matched, but they are not given information about where they matched. A formal release of information is made at a ceremony held by the medical school. Students who did not get a residency match will need to peruse lists of open programs to see where else they can apply. Rarely, a graduating doctor is unable to match into any residency. More commonly, people who didn't match initially go to different programs, with a possibility of applying to transfer later, or decide to change specialties and apply into programs with more openings.

Residency is an important part of training for physicians that lasts from three to seven years.
Residency is an important part of training for physicians that lasts from three to seven years.

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