Cruel Summer for Medical Students and Taylor Swift Fans

Mill Etienne, MD, MPH


August 25, 2023

Those who run Taylor Swift's Eras Tour have something in common with those who run ERAS, the Electronic Residency Application Service. They cause agita to the people they purport to serve.

Mill Etienne, MD, MPH

Most medical students won't see Taylor Swift perform her hit song, "Cruel Summer," but they will spend thousands of dollars on ERAS as they prepare for the 2024 residency match. Medical students applying for residency tend to be as stressed out as Swifties trying to score concert tickets. Aside from the expenses of residency applications, students also face an increasingly complex application process: a match algorithm many of them do not understand and major changes to the application process that most learn about right before the application cycle begins.

I have gone through two matches myself, one for internal medicine and one for neurology, and I have also guided students through the process for almost a decade as a dean of student affairs at a medical school. Every summer, the application process is filled with numerous changes, often with little, if any, warning for the students. One year, for example, a specialty required additional essays tailored to each program. Though this requirement may have helped programs discern which students are most enthusiastic about their programs, it also disadvantaged students working on busier rotations, strapped for time to write as many as 70 additional essays in a matter of weeks.

Other recent changes have included "signaling" programs, selecting preferred regions, and pre-interview recordings for some specialties. This year, students cannot include more than 10 activities on their ERAS application. I have spoken to students at numerous medical schools concerned about the difficulty of selecting 10 activities out of dozens of meaningful pursuits throughout their journeys; this challenge is particularly acute for students who had other careers before entering medical school.

The stress continues to mount even after residency applications have been submitted. Students often feel tied to their phones because offers for residency interviews roll in day and night by email, and if they wait more than a few hours to respond, they're often moved to a waiting list for their preferred interview date. One year, while we were rounding on patients, a student stepped away to schedule an interview; while doing so, he missed out on managing a patient who developed a neurologic emergency. Thankfully, many but not all specialties have put rules in place to allow students more time to think through interview offers. Having more time to think, even if it's just 48 hours, may decrease stress, limit the negative impacts on medical education, and promote informed decisions during interview season.

To be sure, most changes are being made in an effort to improve the experience of the students and programs. But as with anything, the result has been a mix of good and bad. The transition to virtual interviews allowed students to apply more broadly to programs without worrying about travel costs. The move also benefits students with disabilities who face accessibility and other challenges with traveling. However, virtual interviews came with several downsides, including but not limited to an increased number of applications submitted (recall that this was also a benefit), interview hoarding, and challenges of connecting personally via virtual platform. Despite the virtual format, applicants increasingly are doing in-person second looks, which some worry may give those applicants an additional advantage over applicants who do not have the time or financial resources to travel for a second look. Despite these shortcomings, it is important that virtual interviews remain an option for those applicants who need it.

Another change, which has been extensively debated in medical education in recent years, was the switch to pass/fail on the USMLE Step 1 exam. Though this move decreased the stress students experienced in the first 2 years of medical school, it has resulted in a new challenge as many residency programs put more emphasis on USMLE Step 2. Many medical students feel they do not have a good gauge of their competitiveness until a few weeks before they submit their application, particularly those applicants attending medical schools that do not provide them with information regarding their class standing until right before they submit their applications.

By the time Swift's Eras Tour ends next summer, medical students will already have matched and started their residency programs. At the same time, a new batch of students will be entering the next year's match. Though the number of anticipated changes may not reach the level of seismic activity caused by the Swifties at her Seattle concert, many medical students fear that the changes may be just like tectonic plates shifting the match process away from its original purpose: to provide an orderly and fair mechanism for matching the preferences of applicants for US residency positions with the preferences of residency program directors.

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