HealthApril 17, 2020

Tips for a strong psychiatry residency application

By: Brian Wu, MD, PhD

Many medical students who choose psychiatry had an experience with a mental health patient during their clinical rotations or other settings that sparked a lifelong interest in the field. If you’ve decided to specialize in psychiatry, you might be wondering what a successful psychiatry residency application looks like. How can you improve your chances of matching with the residency of your choice? Here’s a look at what can make your application stand out.

Show a strong USMLE/COMLEX score

According to The Successful Match, psychiatry residency programs do put a strong emphasis on your USMLE Step 1 (or COMLEX Level 1) score. Indeed, a survey from the National Residency Matching Program® found that 91% of residency programs in the field cited the USMLE Step 1/COMLEX Level 1 score as a factor in selecting applicants to interview. This score helps show resident directors whether you’re likely to pass the American Board of Psychiatry certification exam.

Of course, different specialties have different definitions of what a “good” score is. According to The Successful Match, the mean scores of students who successfully matched into psychiatry were 226 (USMLE Step 1) and 514 (COMLEX Level 1). The mean scores of students who didn’t match, on the other hand, were 215 and 489, respectively. Be aware that some programs expect you to have completed your USMLE Step 2 CK before applying and that these scores will also be taken into account when they consider your application.

However, The Successful Match notes that a less-than-stellar USMLE Step 1 score doesn’t necessarily exclude you from matching. Many programs will still consider you if your academic record is strong, and you can explain a low score in your application. And if you haven’t taken the USMLE Step 1 yet, the USMLE reports that by January 2022, Step 1 scores will be reported not numerically but on a pass/fail basis. This change has been applauded by organizations like the American Academy of Family Physicians as “a better way forward for medical student wellness, career exploration and specialty selection.”

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Strengthen your application with research

According to the American Psychiatric Association’s (APA) Roadmap to Psychiatric Residency, you should seek out opportunities for research, publications and presentations. While psychiatry residency requirements don’t typically include research, experience with this does help your residency application stand out and could improve your chances of scoring an interview. The Roadmap notes that if research opportunities in psychiatry aren’t available to you (and these can vary widely depending on your program), consider projects in areas such as patient safety and quality improvement, education, curricular design and clinical case reports.

One of the best ways to access opportunities for research within the field is to join a professional organization. The APA offers a special membership to medical students, and one of the perks is attending the Annual Meeting. You can even compete for the chance to give a presentation at this meeting. The Psychiatry Student Interest Group Network also offers psychiatry research opportunities that can help you network with others in the field. Involvement in an organization looks great on an application.

Carefully craft your personal statement

When it comes time to complete your residency application, you might be feeling a little uncertain about the personal statement. Part of this, as the Roadmap notes, might be that this is the least structured component of the Electronic Residency Application Service® application. It’s a chance for you to talk honestly and authentically about why you want to specialize in psychiatry and what experiences have led you to this choice. Although it’s the least structured, it’s also one of the most critical parts of your application to get right. The Successful Match notes that it’s a factor for granting interviews in 90% of psychiatric residency programs, making it nearly as important as USMLE scores.

The Roadmap notes that one common pitfall candidates make in their personal statement is trying to cram in too many topics. To avoid this, choose a single experience or theme (such as what sparked your interest in this field) and develop that fully. If you plan to write about a sensitive issue—such as personal mental health or substance use experiences—be sure to discuss this with your adviser so that you present these topics in the best light.

Although it should go without saying, you should also avoid technical errors: Your statement needs to be grammatically correct and free of spelling mistakes. The statement should be in a 10- to 12-point font on one single-spaced page.

When applying for your residency, keep in mind that psychiatry is a specialty that looks for well-rounded, creative individuals who can “think outside the box” and solve problems in innovative ways. Evidence of that quality should be reflected in any successful residency application for this field.

Brian Wu, MD, PhD