It’s finally here! I finally sat my butt down and typed out my thoughts on how I feel a student should navigate through the process of applying for a residency. As a disclaimer, my thoughts are not the be all end all… I’m sure my “methods” could be tweaked here and there. This post (and the following post!) are simply my attempt to provide structure and guidance to students as they go through the application process, because God knows I would have died without my mentor telling me what to do each step of the way
I chose to outline the application process in a timeline fashion in the hopes that it would demonstrate the benefits of spacing things out and getting things done early if you can. Mad rushes in the application process are definitely no bueno .
So without further ado, let’s get started…
HOW TO APPLY FOR A RESIDENCY (Part I): Getting Started (aka Luck Favors the Prepared)
- First, figure out what you want
Before you can effectively start sifting through residency programs, you need to figure out what you want to get out of your residency. Do you really like oncology? Do you want to interact with and teach students? Do you want experience in both a hospital and ambulatory care setting? These are things you need to ask yourself so that you can find programs that match your interests. Obviously, if you’re interested in oncology, it wouldn’t be the best thing to apply to a residency that doesn’t have an oncology rotation. Pick a few things that are the most important to you and stick to it, because if you’re going to do a residency, you want to get as much as you can out of the experience, and this can only happen at a program that exposes you to your interests.
Another thing to consider is location. Do you want a big city or a small town? Do you hate cold weather and thus might not survive in a place like Minneapolis? Whatever you decide, let me say that I firmly, firmly (firmly!) believe that you shouldn’t let fear limit your location. I feel like so many students sell themselves short by only applying for programs in their college town/hometown, especially at Stlcop. This is not to say that there aren’t circumstances that might require you to stay… two residents that I graduated with and deeply admire are married, so they chose to stay in Stl. BUT, if you are not in a situation that would necessitate you to stay in a particular city, then I would strongly encourage you to explore your options. Don’t let the fear of being alone in a new place scare you! There are so many amazing cities and programs out there that you would be doing yourself a disservice by not applying because of fear. At the very worst, it’s only for a year.
- Do your research and make a list of possible programs
Once you’ve figured out what you want in a residency program, start doing your research. The best place to start is with the ASHP Residency Directory and the ACCP Residency Directory. ACCP also publishes a hardcopy directory of residency programs, but to be very honest I’m not quite sure how to get your hands on one (a friend gave me theirs last year). Let me warn you that this step takes a lot longer than you think, so I would get started ASAP. There are literally hundreds of programs out there, and you have to manually sift through them to find the ones that match your interests. My suggestion would be to start sifting through the online directories by city/state/region (whichever is more important to you)… arm yourself with the list of things you want in a program and hop to it.
A program’s listing in the ASHP or ACCP directory will provide you with a brief overview of the program, but I would recommend that you also visit the program’s website because it will provide you with so much more detail. As a warning, sometimes the link listed in the directory doesn’t work, so be prepared to Google the hospital/clinic that the program is at and search for “pharmacy residency.” Once you’ve read up on the program and it seems like a program that you would be interested in, make an excel sheet/word document to compare programs. This part sounds really lame, I know, but I swear it helped me so much. On the excel sheet, I simply took my “important things” list and used each item on the list as a point of comparison. For example, all of the programs that I was interested in had a teaching component, but what kind of teaching? Precepting? Small group discussions? Giving lectures? I typed out details for each point of comparison and used the information to compare programs.
For reference, I dug up the Excel sheet that I made last year for you guys to see: Residency Program List
Creating this list helped me see what I liked and maybe didn’t like about the programs at a glance. It also helps you keep things straight in your head and prevents you from having to memorize too much. Something important to remember: this list is not final. This list of programs is a list of potential programs that you might apply to, not a list of programs that you will be applying to. The point of this list is to help you weed out the programs that definitely aren’t what you want and to hone in on the ones that have the highest potential for being a good fit, so that when you show up at Midyear, you have a focused list of programs to visit during Showcase.
- Ask for references
Every residency program you apply to will ask for three letters of reference. As sure as I am Asian, I am sure of this fact. Since you are applying to a residency, it is prudent for you to get letters of references from people who can speak to your clinical ability, which would be your preceptors during your 6th year. The “most” clinical rotations are ambulatory care and acute care, so a letter of reccomendation from one of these preceptors would definitely be a plus, but are by no means required. My advice would be to think about all of the rotations that you will finish before Midyear, and out of those rotations, which ones allowed you to demonstrate the most clinical ability in conjunction with which preceptors you feel would be able to write you the strongest letter of recommendation. These are the preceptors that you want to contact, and contact EARLY. Keep in mind that there are a lot of students applying for residencies, so these preceptors will have a lot of work to do in a short period of time! The earlier you let them know you would like a letter of recommendation, the longer they will have to prep and craft you the best possible letter.
When asking a preceptor to write you a letter, I think it’s a good idea to flat out ask if he/she would be able to write a strong letter on your behalf. Sometimes you may think you were a rockstar on a rotation, but your preceptor might not, and if you ask, your preceptor will definitely let you know if it will be a strong or weak letter of recommendation. If a preceptor says that they are not able to write you a strong letter, than it might be prudent to choose a different preceptor.
If a preceptor agrees to write you a letter of recommendation, be sure to thank them. They will be spending a good deal of their free time on you, and they’re choosing to do it so that you can achieve what you want… if you ask me, a little gratitude is definitely in order. Since you probably won’t know exactly which programs you are applying to until after Midyear, let your preceptor know that you will be following up with a list of finalized programs once Midyear is over. Preceptors will be able to start drafting the main body of your letter without knowing the exact details of your program, so it’s ok to ask for a letter first without having any concrete details.
** Side note: I had a nightmare experience with one of my letters of recommendation as I mentioned in this post here. This is not to scare anyone, but rather to make you aware. It might not be a terrible idea to have another preceptor in mind as a backup in case you find yourself in a situation like mine, but this isn’t a must… I’m just paranoid now .
- Make your curriculum vitae (CV) and write a letter of intent
Besides three letters of recommendation, all residency programs will also require you to send in your CV and a letter of intent as a part of your application, so you can go ahead and get these done early. A CV is basically a very professional and fleshed out résumé. I won’t go into too much detail here about how to create a CV because I know there are good workshops at school that you can attend for help and instruction; however, I will include my CV as an example along with two links to references that I used when I was creating my CV. The only thing to keep in mind with a CV is to keep everything on the page clean and uniform (no crazy fonts or formatting), and to make your CV personal to you. Residency program directors can sniff out a pre-fabricated CV template from a mile away, so create your own instead of copying one you found.
My (old) CV: CV
Now for the letter of intent. Let me just say this was the most difficult part of the residency process for me. I know that sounds crazy, but something about having to write an entire page about how awesome I’m supposed to be was just weird. But it was something that I had to get over and do, because your letter of intent is a critical part of your application. Your letter of intent is your only shot of letting the program know who you are and why they should choose you. The letters of recommendation that your preceptors will write will help shed light on your work ethic and capabilities, but your letter of intent is your voice, and after all, a residency is ultimately choosing you, not your preceptors.
The general flow of a letter of intent is as follows: 1) why specifically you’re interested in the program, 2) what qualifications/personality traits you have that would make you a good fit for the program, 3) what your career goals/future plans are, 4) a conclusion that includes contact information. I don’t claim to be an expert on writing letters of intent (I’m pretty sure I was on the phone with my mentor the whole time whining about writer’s block), but here are a couple of tips that I found to be helpful:
- Use as many varied and specific adjectives as possible without sounding like Merriam Webster. A lot of people are “hard-working,” but it sounds a whole lot better if you’re “goal oriented and adaptable.”
- Be concise. Residency programs have hundreds of applications to sift through, so a wordy, unfocused letter of intent isn’t going to make you shine amongst a sea of applications.
- If you have a unique circumstance/experience that can highlight your strengths in some way, write about it. For example, I wrote about my family’s move overseas and how that forced me to be able to take care of myself while I was alone in the U.S. Having a unique story will make you memorable.
And true to the awesomeness of ASHP, they provide a reference to help you write your letter of intent: “Professional Pearls for Writing a Pharmacy Residency Letter of Intent”
And as an example, the letter of intent I wrote last year (don’t laugh! it’s cheesier than Wisconsin): Letter of Intent
That should cover everything up until Midyear, so I’ll stop here for now. I know it’s a ton of information and it might seem really overwhelming. But remember:
And you can always, always, always comment with questions.