The Match and COVID: Stolen Interviews, Swag Bags, and Stress

Laura Arenschield

February 03, 2021

The final numbers won't look much different, but the 2021 Match results will be unlike any before. As of mid-January, only 16 more institutions were confirmed to be participating in Match Day this year, resulting in about 800 more positions, said Donna Lamb, president and CEO of the National Resident Matching Program (NRMP). The Electronic Residency Application Service reported about 50,000 individual applicant submissions, a slight increase from prior years.

The stats may be similar, but the current residency application cycle may lead to wildly different results after the pandemic forced interviews to be conducted virtually and caused the cancellation of most away clinical rotations. Troy Amen, a fifth-year MD-MBA student at Harvard Medical School, Boston, and co-president of his student class, says the lack of on-campus, in-person experiences means students feel more in the dark than ever. The same is true for institutions. "The programs are also suffering because now they don't know which students are a good 'cultural fit' for them," he said.

Standing out has always been a concern for prospective residents, but Amen says fears are even higher this year. "[Institutions are] struggling to vet out 850 applicants, and they have no connection to us."

Organizations have scrambled to keep the process as fair and informative as possible. "Everyone is trying to do the right thing here," said Alison J. Whelan, MD, chief academic officer of the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC). She says that although the process has significantly changed, the heart of it remains the same. "The bottom line is directors really want to fill their intern class, and schools and students really want to match."

Since the NRMP was established in 1952, it has never had to contend with a pandemic of this scale. The unprecedented circumstances have led to some much-feared and some unexpected changes, like top candidates "stealing" interview slots, "swag bags" sent to entice residents, beefed-up online profiles, as well as "Zoom fatigue," a spike in homefield advantage for institutions, and massive anxiety for those students staking their future to a city they may have never seen in person.

What Was Lost and What Was Gained

"It's really hard to get a real feel for the program when you've not been there in person," said Christopher Smith, MD, director of the internal medicine residency program at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston. Smith recalled interviewing for residencies 25 years ago. His wife, a teacher, took time off to travel with him.

"She would 'interview the town' while I interviewed the program, and we compared notes at night," he said. Because of COVID-related travel restrictions, just physically seeing the city in which they may live for years wasn't an option for many. "I have a lot of sympathy for students applying right now," Smith said.

For the residency class of 2021, the first shoe really dropped last March, when the AAMC issued guidance strongly recommending that programs pause clinical rotations away from their home schools. As established doctors know well, and as graduating medical students confirmed, these rotations are crucial to understanding a program's culture and gaining experience that can boost candidacy. "I'm applying to orthopedic surgery, where away rotations are the gold standard for impressing attendees and residents at institutions away from home," said Amen.

The pandemic completely cut off that key source of information to determine the right fit. It also meant applicants couldn't have as diverse a portfolio of recommendation letters, something many worry may be detrimental to their soon-to-be-released Match rankings.

Unlike the loss of away rotations, the forced shift from in-person to virtual interviews had some meaningful benefits. Students no longer incurred expenses for airline flights, hotel rooms, and rental cars. Many organizations and programs have been trying for years to figure out how to lower the financial burden of interviews to make the process more equitable for those at economic or other disadvantage.

"The equity piece of this is huge ― decreasing barriers and leveling the field a little bit is a really huge advantage," said Kate Shaw, MD, residency program director and associate chair of education for the obstetrics and gynecology program at Stanford University, in California. In some ways, this latest change is an extension of a strategy Shaw and others had already begun implementing.

"Over the last 5 to 10 years, we've been working to address the implicit bias in the application process, so we've gone to a holistic review of applicants, where we don't have score cutoffs. We look at the whole person," she said. "And we did that in an effort to increase diversity and equity." Shaw and others hope that the accidental positive changes from COVID restrictions may be intentionally preserved long after the pandemic ends.

Homefield Advantage vs Swag Bags

Many medical students applying to residencies this year say they have given greater weight to their home programs than they might have without the pandemic. "I didn't get a sense of anyone's culture other than my home institution," said Alex Skidmore, a fourth-year medical student at Washington University in St. Louis. "I definitely am ranking Wash-U higher."

The desire to emphasize the known quality of a student's home institution isn't surprising to program directors. Shaw said she thinks this year's Match could well end with a higher percentage of students matching either in their home programs or in programs close to loved ones. "The value of being close to family has come up in our conversations, where students are considering the right program for them but also the other life factors," she said.

To overcome this homefield advantage, many programs have beefed up their websites, including providing video tours of their facilities. They also "upped their social media game" and encouraged residents to create online groups for prospective residents to share information about programs and life outside of work. Some residents even offered video tours of their personal apartments to applicants.

Without in-person access to facilities and staff, a program's online presence became a deciding factor, applicants said. "If you have a bad website, it's like having a dirty building to interview applicants in," Skidmore said. For many prospective residents, an institution's internet presence was a "make or break" factor. "It's the only thing I saw for many programs, and when we are doing the amount of research we are doing remotely, when I saw a program with a bad website, it made me not like the program as much," he said.

Some programs, hoping to woo candidates as well as to provide them with more insight into what they and their cities have to offer, sent "swag bags" to candidates. These included things like gift cards for food delivery and offerings from local businesses. Washington University in St. Louis's pediatrics residency program sent gooey butter cakes ─ a St. Louis staple ─ along with other treats from small businesses and copies of magazines that showcased the city's dining and entertainment scene.

Other programs, even those at the same medical institution, felt quite strongly that those types of packages shouldn't be sent. "We interviewed almost 500 applicants, so there was no way we could have afforded that," said Dominique Cosco, MD, director of Washington University's internal medicine residency program. "Our normal recruitment budget is almost $100,000 in a normal year, and that got cut because of COVID. For us, it was thinking about allocations of resources."

Interview Slot Theft and Zoom Fatigue

Remote interviewing also meant that applicants could accept more interviews, something that raised a big concern. Without expenses or travel time, would top-tier candidates take more interviews than normal and thus take limited interview spots from other qualified candidates? Maybe so, says the AAMC's Whelan.

"We didn't have systematic data, but we heard from enough schools and programs...that students who were maybe not the top-top ranked students in the class but in every way solid were receiving fewer interviews than previous years," Whelan said. This is despite guidance that recommended programs add interview slots to serve as a counterbalance.

Some students say they accepted more interview slots in the beginning of the interview season, partly because they could, and partly because some thought of early interviews as "practice" for later interviews. However, as video interviews piled up, some of them described feeling "Zoom fatigue" and said they later canceled interviews with programs they didn't anticipate joining.

More SOAP, Less Clarity

As for what comes next, the NRMP is preparing for a longer-than-normal Supplemental Offer and Acceptance Program (SOAP) than in years past. SOAP usually offers three rounds of matches after the initial Match Day; Lamb said things are different this year.

"SOAP will be the same number of days, but we've added an additional round on Thursday afternoon," she said. Will it be unnecessary or not enough? Nobody knows. "How big SOAP actually is going to be is one of the things that we really don't have a sense of right now and probably aren't going to have a sense of until the Match."

Uncertainty is the name of the game. More than any other Match before, programs and applicants won't know how results from this pandemic year stack up for a few months at the very least. "I really want to see what this looks like on the other side," Smith said. "Are applicants happy with the way it looks when they come here? Do they feel like they matched with the right place?"

Whether this unprecedented year will be remembered more for positive changes moving forward, including more flexibility on remote interviews, or for less-informed decisions that result in dissatisfied participants is also unclear.

"I think after the Match is over, we'll be talking to everyone to get more perspective on what people who are applying now would tell the next class, and how programs can adjust," said Kathy Diemer, MD, assistant dean for career counseling at Washington University in St. Louis. At the very least, those who are involved in this year after year can start thinking about what the future should look like.

"We're going to need to do some kind of debriefing after this is over, both program directors and our students as well, so we can determine how to move forward next year and beyond."

Laura Arenschield is a Columbus, Ohio–based, award-winning reporter for MDedge who has been writing about science and health for more than a decade.

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