How to Stand Out as a Residency Applicant: An Insider's Guide
Editor's Note: You already know the math. Residencies are competitive, and it's getting worse every year. On the other hand, the training bestowed by PGY1 and PGY2 residencies is increasingly important to getting on the career path of your choice.
You've probably been told by some professor or mentor that "You need to do a residency." And depending on where you want to end up in the profession, it's probably true.
The problem is that everyone else is working hard to secure a residency for themselves. On paper it's increasingly difficult to stand out. Everyone you're up against has stellar grades, leadership experience, professional involvement, research publications, work experience, and a poster presentation at Midyear.
How can you stand out against that?
To find out, I asked some insiders.
This post is sort of a "round up" of Residency Directors, Pharmacy Directors, and other influencers in the pharmacy residency sphere. In short, these are the people who review your application and then interview you when you apply for residency.
I asked each of them one question:
"How can a pharmacy student make their residency application stand out?"
By heeding their advice here, you'll gain helpful insights that will differentiate you from the sea of other pharmacy students. Use this info to find and match with the program of your dreams.
This is an ongoing post, and will be updated as I receive more responses (apparently this is a busy time of year...).
If you are an RPD (or otherwise involved in the residency process) and would like to contribute, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I will add your advice below. Thanks!
Scott Soefje, PharmD, MBA, BCOP, FCCP
Director of Pharmacy
University Medical Center Brackenridge
"I get asked this question often. My advice is the following:
- Take part in everything you can while in school. Show how you were part of activities. These days most resident candidates have extracurricular activities on their CV, most are officers in their respective organizations, but it does not always prove how they took part. Show how you were passionate about something and went beyond to take part. I look for things that are unusual, for example, I interviewed someone once just because she was in the University of Colorado marching band throughout pharmacy school. To me it proved that she could manage her time in two demanding areas, something many residents struggle to do.
- Take changes with your rotations. We look for candidates that are willing to do the hardest rotations. However, we do not always know how rotations in all pharmacy schools are laid out, so explain to us what you are doing. Do not assume we know you did a journal in every medicine rotation.
- Letters of intent are very important, and many times are what set candidates apart. It is our chance to see your writing skills. Show us you are passionate in what you are doing. Show us that you want to do the residency to further your clinical training and professional development, not just because it is the thing to do. Personalize each letter, talk about how the institution and something in that institution will fit your needs and how you can help the institution.
- Letters of reference will often make or break a candidate. Make sure the recommendation is a strong one. For most programs, a clinical preceptor is preferred, however, if you know that there is a connection between one of your reference writers and the place you are applying, use that connection. I have done an onsite interview with a candidate just because I knew one of her letter writers and she was highly recommended. We did not end up matching, but she got the interview. If the site wants 3 letters, send 3. Not 4. It annoys some sits if you send too many.
- Always be aware where you are and who is around you when you are on a professional trip. I have found candidates in line at Starbucks that have ended up matching with our program. Pharmacists have found jobs in airports, on the plane, and many places. Pharmacy is a small world and you never know who is sitting next to you on your next trip.
- Remember, the application packet is just to get you an onsite interview. The interview is where you shine. You need to show your passion for residency training, that you are doing the training for right reasons, and that you are a good fit for the program. Remember, you are also interviewing the program, so it is important that you feel good about the program. Do not interview with a place you would not go to. You might end up matching, and then things get rough.
- Lastly, rank the places highest that make you feel the best, that meet your needs, and will help you improve as a clinical pharmacist. One mistake I have seen many candidates make is to pass up a great program because they are afraid to move away. Residency training is a great opportunity to see the world and see how pharmacy is practiced in other sites. Take advantage if you can. If you are note tied to an area, be willing to explore and see what life has to offer. You might be surprised to learn that unknown, out of the way residency is a perfect fit and starts you on your way to an excellent career."
Jonathan Richard E. Puhl, PharmD
Clinical Pharmacy Specialist
Manager Anticoagulation / Ambulatory Services
Director -PGY1 Pharmacy Residency Program
Assistant Professor, Georgetown University
Assistant Professor, University of Maryland
"Standing out from the crowd is even more difficult nowadays. Everyone comes out of school with a solid GPA, and normally good rotations. Being able to show that your rotations were at strong programs, you gave insightful presentations, or had interesting projects really helps make them stand out. Doing things outside of rotations and the classroom is also important. Volunteering in unique situations or clinics can also help you stand out.
Outside of what is on your Curriculum Vitae, having great letters of recommendations can really put you ahead. Getting recommendations from different types of individuals can really show your range. Don't have all of your recommendations come from the same place (i.e. preceptor, professor, supervisor).
Last but not least is your personality. We are looking for individuals who work well with others, have great motivation, and are fun to be around!"
Christyn Mullen-Lee, PharmD, BCACP
Ambulatory Care Clinical Pharmacy Specialist
PGY1 Residency Director
"In my opinion, a candidate really stands out when I can tell that they are multidimensional. Everyone goes to pharmacy school with the intent to make good grades; however, it speaks volumes when it is evident that a candidate went above and beyond by actively participating in extracurricular activities. Having a leadership role within a pharmacy organization, participating in community service or even doing activities with a church or social organization are just a few examples.
Bottom line- I want to see that you are well rounded and already on your way to mastering the art of juggling."
Dev Chatterji, PharmD, BCPS
Clinical Pharmacy Specialist, Infectious/Disease Internal Medicine
Inova Fairfax Medical Campus
"Every year the residency application pool gets more and more competitive. On 'paper' it is difficult to standout from other candidates because programs only see objective 'data.' In person, it's a little different. Most programs are looking for the applicant that best fits and who will represent the pharmacy department well.
Basic things to keep in mind as you are putting together the application packet:
CV- Your CV needs to find the happy medium between "sparse" and "inundated with excessive details on everything you've ever done." Don't pump it up with fluff, but put anything of real substance in there. Given the number applications submitted to a program, no one is going to read details in your CV about how many patients you worked up during your 'xyz' rotation.
Have clear headings. Most places will look for things like education, work experience, rotation experience (list these in REVERSE chronological order), project experience, community service, etc. Work experience, especially in the venue that you are looking for a residency in (i.e. hospital pharmacy experience for a hospital based program) is always a plus and should be highlighted. Make it neat and readable (i.e. don't use a brush scripts font that no one can read).
Cover letter- Be sincere, this is your chance to talk about YOU. Don't just re-list what's on your CV. You can have a generic "home base" cover letter template to work from, but make sure to include program specific changes for each program you are applying to. What specifically about that program interests you?
Letters of Rec- Be sure they're from faculty and/or preceptors that know you well enough and will write you a good, honest, and sincere letter. The best letters of recommendation specifically talk about your qualities as a residency applicant. Most RPDs are not impressed if you get a letter from a 'big name' that happens to be your dean (i.e. Joe DiPiro) who doesn't really know you and writes a very generic letter.
As cliche as it sounds, be yourself. Be real and don't come off as robotic. Don't make it seem like you're asking a list of questions on a checklist.
Demonstrate genuine interest in the program you are interviewing with. And show genuine interest in completing post grad residency training. If it appears that you are just going through the motions and it seems like you are applying for residency because its the "next step" in the process or means to an end, that will be evident right away.
Remember the number of applicants each program gets every year. Even if you are completing residency training as a means to an end (i.e. pre-req for some fancy fellowship you want to eventually complete), don't make that obvious on the interview day or during the application/interview process.
While I mentioned not being robotic, don't be too casual either (i.e. don't fist pump the RPD when you meet them). Attention to detail such as being on time, following any instructions you were given, dressing/grooming appropriately are all important aspects to the interview."