American Academy of Ophthalmology Web Site: www.aao.org
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Residency 101: The Basics

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When should I begin the application process?
Ophthalmology is considered an “early match” specialty due to the annual January match. Consequently, the decision to pursue ophthalmology must be made earlier than most specialties. It is recommended that the application be completed and submitted by the end of August in an individual’s fourth year of medical school. Interviews typically occur between October and December of that year.

How do I begin the application process?
First, register with the SF Matching Program. The SF Matching Program is sponsored by the Association of University Professors in Ophthalmology (AUPO) and supported by the American Academy of Ophthalmology. All applications are processed through the Central Application Service (CAS). You will receive instructions for using CAS after applying to the SF Match in Ophthalmology.

How does the application process work?
The SF Matching Program was established to coordinate applicants with ophthalmology residencies and is separate from the National Resident Matching Program (NRMP). Applicants are matched for post-graduate year two (PGY-2) positions, which begin about 18 months after the match.

The ophthalmology match for PGY-2 positions occurs in January, several weeks before the deadline for the NRMP match for PGY-1 positions. Thus, applicants will know their ophthalmology results before they submit their NRMP rank list. Every effort has been made to conduct this match as late as possible in your medical school career, to permit you sufficient time to make an informed decision and to give medical school deans and faculty time to evaluate students and prepare optimal letters of recommendation.

Some excellent applicants are intimidated by the statistics of the ophthalmology match. When they learn that many programs will have hundreds of applicants for a few places, they assume that they have little chance for success in that match. However, in the most recent match, more than 85 percent of participating U.S. seniors obtained a position. International Medical Graduates (IMGs) have a much greater challenge in obtaining a position, with a match rate of about 6 percent of participating candidates.

If you are considering a residency in ophthalmology, you should become acquainted as early as possible with the SF Matching Program and the timetable for application procedures.

How do I decide where to apply?
First, consider your own needs and priorities. Some applicants have overriding geographic concerns that guide their application process. Next, seek the advice of faculty and residents in your own ophthalmology department to obtain information about various programs and to help you match your personal interests and academic strengths with the various departments. Write to those programs in which you are potentially interested and ask for descriptive information.

After reviewing this information, apply to the programs that interest you. Keep in mind that no program is necessarily beyond your reach. While acceptance into some programs may be easier than others, consider applying to only those in which you have a serious interest.

The residency application process in ophthalmology is considered highly competitive, with an average successful applicant USMLE Step 1 score falling in the 230 to 240 range. The average applicant applies to 30 to 40 programs, resulting in an average of seven or eight interviews. There is little statistical benefit in applying to more programs. Remember that your success in obtaining a position depends on your credentials, not the number of interviews. On the other hand, any applicant, regardless of academic record, is unwise to apply only to a very few programs.

What do program directors look for in an applicant?
Each program evaluates applicants according to slightly different criteria. All residency programs are concerned with past academic performance (including results of standardized achievement exams such as national boards), a well-founded interest in ophthalmology and promising personal characteristics and work habits (as reflected in letters of recommendation). Some programs may place importance on additional factors, such as research experience or career goals. It is easiest to answer this question by considering the perspective of the program director. He or she will have to work with you for three years--interacting academically, professionally and personally. If you were the director, how would you evaluate resident candidates?

What about the PGY-1 (internship) year?
All ophthalmology residency training programs require satisfactory completion of the first postgraduate clinical year (PGY-1) in an accredited program. At a minimum, six months of the year should provide a broad experience in direct patient care. In general, most future ophthalmology residents pursue PGY-1 training in internal medicine or in a transitional program. Other less commonly pursued but acceptable PGY-1 training assignments include general surgery and pediatrics.

Since the ophthalmology match results are available before the National Resident Matching Program (NRMP) forms are due, you will know your ophthalmology residency assignment before needing to rank your PGY-1 choices. You may therefore wish to contact the ophthalmology program to which you match regarding that program's preferences. As long as the PGY-1 program is accredited, few ophthalmology training programs attempt to direct a student's choice.

However, some programs consider it advantageous to pursue the PGY-1 year at the same institution as the ophthalmology residency, permitting the future resident to learn the system before starting an ophthalmology residency. This is generally not crucial, though, and the applicant should be concerned primarily with acquiring good training.

How should I schedule my interviews?
Most ophthalmology residency programs conduct their interviews from October to December, most interviewing just a fraction of their total applicants. Some programs will interview candidates in large groups, some will interview only a few on a given day. Others schedule only a single short interview session or construct a full-day program with multiple interviews.

Ophthalmology training programs recognize and appreciate that applicants have limited time available for interviews. They also appreciate the cost of the interview process to the applicant. Once a program has decided to interview an applicant, it will generally try to be flexible in scheduling. However, remember that each program has only a limited number of interview days available and will therefore have limited flexibility. After you have been called for your first interviews, contact other programs to which you applied in the same geographic area. Since travel to and from interviews can be costly, it may be possible to arrange interviews so that a minimum of expensive air travel is necessary.

Be aware, however, that some programs may be unable to accommodate your request, since interviews are often scheduled well in advance and only on certain days of the week. Do not take this as a sign of lack of interest in your candidacy. Also, since administrative errors and incomplete applications (e.g., absent letters of recommendation) can occur, call the program if you are unsure of the status of your application.

Finally, when traveling to an unfamiliar city for an interview, try to give yourself some free time to explore the city so as to evaluate not just the program but its environment as well. Check to see if the program has made arrangements for discounted housing or transportation to and from housing locations.

What information about residency training programs is available online?
Many universities with ophthalmology training programs offer descriptions on their websites. You will also have access to program information through the SF Match after registration.