Home-field 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. Dr. 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 home-field 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,” Mr. 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’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 Dr. 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,” Dr. 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.