Time to Make A Game Plan: VSAS for Med Students

As a fourth-year medical student who recently applied to residencies and is anxiously awaiting Match Day, I have some free time on my hands. Although an unhealthy share of that time has gone into playing video games, I also took some time to reflect on where I was one year ago:

I was a third-year medical student fumbling through my core rotations, slowly getting a grasp on how to be a physician. Maybe I did know how to converse with patients, maybe I did actually hear that murmur the attending was talking about. But then, I remembered something else … VSAS.

Just in case you have not already heard, the Visiting Student Application Service (VSAS) is the service that the majority of third-year medical students use to apply to elective rotations for their fourth year. VSAS is already starting to kick into high gear for the 2019-2020 academic year and, by this time, a lot of medical students know what specialty they are interested in and are using the extensive VSAS database to find the right electives. For me, this was a long, expensive, and methodical process. Although every student is going to have their own approach to handling VSAS and elective rotations, I wanted to share mine for those who might find it useful.

Here are my 5 Tips for Applying to Electives on VSAS:

1. Take the time to make a game plan.

While applying to elective rotations is not as intense as applying to residency, you should still have a game plan. After all, this is a big stepping stone towards applying for residency. More importantly, VSAS costs money! Figure out what electives you would like to do, as well as when and where. Is there a specific elective or hospital you want to be at early on in your fourth year? Do you have space for an elective in a specialty that interests you (other than the one you are pursuing)? Do not forget to take into account your school’s graduation requirements, as well as the role these electives are going to play on your residency application. Remember, you want to show progress as you go through your fourth year and you are going to need letters of recommendation. Make sure your electives are arranged in a way that will give you the best chance for success. Also, remember to have all your vaccinations in order and up to date!

2. Prepare a short personal statement.

You probably thought this was something you would not have to do for a few more months, right? Wrong! A lot of institutions on VSAS require a personal statement or letter of interest along with your application. Even the core VSAS application has a “Short Bio” section to include details about yourself. Prepare a short personal statement that you can use when applying to electives. I recommend always adding a sentence or two about that specific institution to make it more personal. By doing this, you will simply have to add the statement to each application, rather than fumbling to create one and wasting time later.

3. Explore the “Institutions” tab.

This is something I did not pay much attention to initially, and I wish I did. At the top of the VSAS application, there is a tab called “Institutions.” Clicking on it will give you access to all the hospitals and locations on VSAS. Searching through these will provide you with helpful information (things such as: when applications are accepted, additional fees for certain institutions, and when you can expect to hear back about the decision on your application). While it may add some unfortunate depth to the application process, the Institutions tab still provides invaluable information to help keep you organized and prepared.

4. Keep track of all of your applications.

In addition to the “Institutions” tab, VSAS also has a “Tracking” tab that shows you all of your applications and (if available) the status of those applications. While this tool is useful, as a neurotic medical student I found it much easier to make my own spreadsheet. I broke this spreadsheet up into the block schedule created by my school. From there, I listed all of my applications for each block, as well as the status of those applications. While some may view this as excessive and unnecessary, I found that it was way easier to keep track of which blocks I needed to fill and what options I had to fill them.

5. Look beyond VSAS.

Do not get me wrong, VSAS is an incredibly useful and helpful tool for finding elective rotations. However, not all institutions use VSAS. Some prefer to use their own application service — and some are even free! While there is no document or website that lists these institutions, it may be worth your time to do a quick search, especially if you know you want to stay in a specific geographic location. (And, I can provide a list of the ones I found to anyone who is interested.)

With these tips in mind, I ended up getting several of my own elective rotations. Hopefully, now you, too, will be better prepared and feel more confident about finding the elective rotations that are right for you. Best of luck!


Masood Mohammed is a fourth-year medical student at Nova Southeastern University, Kiran Patel College of Osteopathic Medicine. He is currently pursuing residency in Emergency Medicine. Masood is also the founder of Med School Moose, a brand dedicated to helping students be successful throughout their medical education, while also providing some study materials for board exams.


Image by Marharyta Pavliuk / Shutterstock

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