Medical How can I get into a good residency program as an international student?

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Volunteer Staff
Mar 22, 2021
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I am an international student on a student visa(F-1) who will likely have to apply to residency programs that sponsor an H-1b visa. As far as I know, those that usually sponsor this visa are large academic medical centers in big cities. I have been really fortunate enough to get into an MD program. I am very happy to have reached where I am today. However, I can't help but think how difficult it would be for me to match at a good residency program in a specialty I like.

So, how can I stand out early on as a medical student to increase my chances of getting into a good residency program? People tell me that I should do research and get published. Research opportunities are there but will be of limited scope since my school is not a research-heavy medical school. So I'm not sure if I will have much chance of getting any publication. I am also not able to afford a research gap year since I'm already financially tight and have a family to care for.

A few other things in my mind... I did mediocre on my three attempts at MCAT. It was extremely lucky that I got into an MD school with this history of MCAT scores. I am very happy that I don't have to take another MCAT, but my past performance really worries me about my future shot at taking step exams. Is there any correlation between your MCAT performance and step scores? Finally, how important is your narrative when applying for residency programs? I was mainly interested in doing neurology, PM&R, and internal medicine, but my interests in medicine definitely became widened while doing various clinical activities during my gap year. Now I am also including highly competitive specialties like ENT and Opthalmology on my radar. Is this even within my reach given the fact that I have to match into a competitive residency program and I come from a not-so research-heavy medical school?

Thanks for reading my post and have a great day!

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If you’re gunning for a highly competitive specialty, you need research and publications, period. All MD schools have these opportunities, they may just be harder to find at some than others.

Step one is find a mentor within your prospective field. You can do this either through a formal advisor who is assigned to you at the school, or by emailing the PD for the specialty at your school, or maybe reach out to applicants who have successfully matched in the past and ask what they did. And then try to follow in their footsteps.

The other piece to keep in mind is you need to be realistic. In order to get those highly competitive specialties, you need the whole package including academics, scores and research. If you also have a visa need, you have to be that much more competitive. If you ALSO have responsibilities as a parent and feel unable to take a research year when other applicants from more highly ranked schools choose to do so without your other hindrances… it isn’t an impossible goal, but you need to understand that you are starting from a very difficult position and will need to be on your game from day 1. Whether going through that whole process is worth it for a shot at one of these specialties that are going to be a reach almost regardless, that’s a question for you and your spouse to consider together
In general, non-US citizens on F visas at US medical schools do just about as well in the match as US citizens. So the answer to your question "what do I need to do to stand out" is "the same thing as everybody else", which is what @GoSpursGo has detailed above. There will be some programs that can't sponsor visas (those whose paymaster is the VA) and some programs that won't, or will only offer J visas. But there are usually plenty of programs to apply to.

Regarding MCAT and USMLE, there is a statistical relationship -- overall, people with higher MCAT scores do better on the USMLE. But there is lots of scatter, and plenty of people who did much worse than you on the MCAT end up doing much better on USMLE. Of course the opposite is also true. The tests are different, and my only advice is to start a study plan early. In my experience, the people who often struggle (especially early) in medical school are those who are used to messing around and then only study right before the final -- that may work well in college, but is a prescription for disaster in medical school. And everything builds on everything else, so you really need to learn it, not just "learn it for the test"
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