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I Thought the Match Was Finally Over

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The 2021 Match has been, undoubtedly, one of the most interesting and chaotic of its kind since its inception in 1952. Medical students underwent an entirely virtual interview process and vied for the few coveted spots in top-ranked programs all while never actually setting foot in any of these places or meeting their potential, future colleagues in person. It was certainly overwhelming at times.

Yet for myself and the 48,700 medical students who participated in this traditional “baptism by fire,” it was all supposed to be over at 12:01 p.m. on March 19, 2021. I had already begun processing this incredible next step in my career. Did I match into my top-ranked choice? No. Did I match into one of my favorite programs? Yes. It was certainly bittersweet, just like any Match result. Even those who get their first choice might have second doubts: how they might have thrived more in this city versus that suburb; how this program performs “x” number of procedures; or how another program has a famous faculty member. But these are the growing pains of becoming a physician. What is not as palatable is what came afterward.

More than three months have passed since Match Day, and emails from all the programs to which I applied continue to bombard my inbox. They all start out the same: “Congratulations on your match into a program other than ours,” followed by reminders to answer surveys regarding their handling of this unique, virtual interview season. Should you forget or decide not to reply, you’ll start receiving even more “friendly” reminders — and this is the sticking point for myself and so many peers.

Let me preface this by saying I am entirely in favor of surveys. They are an important tool for collecting data, through which universities, medical schools, and even the federal government regularly revise their agendas and ways to achieve them. To say they are as widespread as they are essential would be an understatement, yet I would also bring attention to two important factors regarding their use.

First and foremost, the Match is an emotionally, financially, and cognitively taxing process that ensnares the life of every medical student like no other. All students stress themselves silly trying to get into the best possible program, while some worry about matching at all. Relationships with significant others might become strained if partners need to quit their jobs and move across the country. As for couples matching — another formidable beast — months of sleepless nights are spent reassessing scores of possible program combinations, each applicant juggling their own desires with a desire to support their partner. 

Second, medical students are not invincible mountainsides forever begging to be data mined. They are humans, emotion-filled souls with dreams, fears, and joys of their own. No amount of kind words in an email can wipe that away when a survey is asked to be filled for the first, second, or third time. As I see it, many students will answer these surveys honestly and fairly, but others might give overly positive answers as they float on cloud nine toward their top-ranked program, or overly negative replies out of spite for not matching into a certain program. This will simply bury any useful feedback underneath emotionally charged responses to unsolicited emails sent well after this process should have ended.

Just for perspective, some of us applied to 40 or more programs this year, which might mean dozens of surveys, dozens more reminders, and long hours filling out forms. I only accepted 16 interview offers, yet already received double that amount in survey requests. Between moving to Washington, D.C., residency onboarding, studying for Step 3, preparing for upcoming shifts, and training a new dog, I want to toss anything Match-related into the tightest locked box in the darkest corner of my attic. I have spent enough sleepless nights getting to residency and will endure even more over the next four years. I just don’t have the brain space to focus on both my training and the less-than-pleasant process that got me here. I am sure many of you feel the same.    

So as we begin our new programs, I offer some possible solutions. Many of us will enter residency leadership and should encourage our administrators to respectfully minimize survey-laden emails next cycle. We can remind them that, though this year has been especially challenging for them (having to sift through hundreds of applicants they only met on a computer screen), it was harder for us. All the studying we did and effort we put into impressing an onslaught of interviewers makes climbing Mount Everest seem like a leisurely stroll. You should certainly pursue survey-based studies examining the impact of virtual interviews on your program, if that interests you. Just remember, you were in your participants’ shoes not more than one year ago. Perhaps the NRMP can help acquire most of the input they need from those 46% and 71% of applicants who happily matched into their first or top three choices. Or perhaps it can consider drawing a hard line with different programs not to survey rejected applicants who sent letters of intent.

Simply put, there is no one right answer to this problem. Both sides will not be satisfied with any singular solution, but that does not mean we should not listen to each other. Every residency program’s staff partly consists of fellow physicians who understand both sides of this delicate and intense process. We are now full-fledged residents and ready to join them on this next great journey in our personal and professional lives. Survey, study, and prepare for the future, but Match Day is long behind us, and we need to move on.

Share your thoughts on residency program emails regarding Match Day in the comment section.

Robert C.F. Pena, MD, MEng is an emergency medicine resident physician at George Washington University Hospital in Washington, D.C. His interests include critical care, medical and nonmedical humanities, politics and health policy, medical education, personal fitness, and biomedical engineering.

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