Matching with one of the best residency programs in the US is the dream of every medical school graduate. But what makes these programs the best? Why do they attract so many applicants and what do they offer that other programs do not? Choosing one of the best residency programs in the US out of the most competitive and least competitive residencies is another challenge you can set for yourself. This article can help you decide which program to choose, as here you’ll find a list of the best residency programs in the US and what sets them apart from others.
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The Best Residency Programs in the US
Making the determination of the best residency program in the US relies on several factors. According to the NRMP (National Resident Matching Program), there are almost 40,000 different residency programs in the US, spanning several institutions, specialties, and sub-specialties. This is a record-setting number, and sorting through all these positions is not easy to do if you’re not sure what you’re looking for.
So, we’ll narrow the selection down, just like you would when writing your residency rank order list or ROL. The following list will be based on the most popular residencies by specialty and then the most popular program within that specialty.
Want to know the top 8 books residency applicants need to read? Watch this video:
1. Specialty: Medicine/Pediatrics – Duke University School of Medicine
The Duke University Medicine/Pediatrics residency is one of the only three residency programs offered by the prestigious School of Medicine, along with an Internal Medicine Residency and a Medicine/Psychiatry residency. The program is considered one of the best pediatric residency programs and spans four years and is divided between a 12-month internship in the beginning and then three years of clinical rotations balanced between general medicine and pediatrics.
The Medicine/Pediatrics residency is spread out over five different teaching hospitals, including Duke University Hospital and Duke Children’s Hospital and Health Center. Residents can also participate in the Combined Medicine-Pediatrics Continuity Clinic, which is a primary-care clinic aimed at providing health care to underserved communities in and around the Raleigh-Durham area. They can also take advantage of global residency rotations offered to countries like Tanzania, Sri Lanka, and Australia.
Research opportunities are another area in which the Medicine/Pediatrics residency program distinguishes itself, as many resident researchers have had their work published in journals like the Journal of Pediatrics and Academic Medicine.
2. Specialty: Emergency Medicine – The University of Southern California in Los Angeles
Out of the several medical schools in California, the Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California offers prospective residents multiple locations to complete their training in emergency medicine. The Health Sciences campus located in central Los Angeles offers many distinct teaching facilities, including the County Hospital, the Keck Hospital, and the USC Norris Cancer Hospital.
Two cutting-edge research institutes accompany these facilities, and their specialties include neurogenetics and regenerative medicine based on stem cell research. The school prides itself on the many clinical and research opportunities residents can avail themselves of, along with the many sub-specialties residents can train in within the larger realm of emergency medicine.
The program spans four years and encourages junior residents to gradually become independent over that period. The internship requires first year residents to spend 27 weeks in both the adult and pediatric emergency departments, followed by off-service rotations in various departments around the Keck Hospital from the ICU and Cardiac Care Unit to orthopedics and radiology.
3. Specialty: Neurological Surgery – The University of Alabama at Birmingham Heersink School of Medicine
The Heersink School of Medicine is one of the most renowned medical schools in Alabama, and its neurological surgery residency program ranks as one of the most sought-after residencies for neurosurgery residents. More than 5,100 surgeries are performed at the UAB hospital every year, giving you ample opportunity to apply your training and benefit from a world-class teaching hospital.
The entire program lasts seven years. Students must first complete their general residency requirements: 3 months in general surgery, 3 months in clinical neurology, 3 months in neurosurgery, and 3 months in neuro-intensive care. In the following four years, they pass through several specialties and sub-specialties such as vascular, tumor and spine services.
Residents benefit from the versatile teaching methods the school employs, ranging from in-person lectures to digital simulators and real-world practice with cadavers. The school also encourages residents to pursue self-learning and acquaint themselves with evidence-based guidelines covering current surgical procedures and the latest research on neurological disorders published by UAB faculty members and residency directors.
4. Specialty: Physical Therapy – Emory University School of Medicine
The physical therapy residency program at the Emory Medical School is well-regarded throughout the country and often places high in rankings of the best physical therapy residencies in the US. The program is based around a multidisciplinary approach to physical therapy, highlighting the range and scope of physical therapy injuries in everyone from stroke and geriatric patients to children and athletes presenting with various types of injuries.
The medical school offers seven unique teaching locations for PT residents, starting with the Emory Rehabilitation Hospital, where residents can perform rotations within the hospital’s various departments. Another teaching hospital where PT residents are exposed to various types of conditions is the Atlanta VA Hospital, where residents participate in the physical therapy and rehabilitation of injured veterans.
The program lasts three years and stretches across all of the on-campus facilities from the Grady Hospital, which is a Level-1 trauma center where residents benefit from hands-on training to rotations at the world-class Shepard Center for Rehabilitation. Second and third year residents can also take electives in other sub-specialties like pediatric physical therapy or physical rehabilitation for patients with musculoskeletal injuries.
5. Specialty: Plastic Surgery (Integrated) – Penn State College of Medicine
The seven year plastic surgery residency at Penn State admits only two residents every year, which makes it essential that you read over plastic surgery personal statement examples to ensure all aspects of your ERAS application are outstanding. You may also wish to engage an ERAS application service. The plastic surgery residency at Penn State offers residents access to full-time plastic surgeons working both at the Hershey Medical Center – the residency’s main teaching site – and in private practice.
First and second year residents participate in various clinics learning practical and technical skills to perfect their suturing abilities, in addition to working on cadavers to improve their microvascular skills. The emphasis on practical abilities is a feature of the program. The Penn State plastic surgery residency is attached to the Clinical Simulation Center, where students can perfect their surgical technique on various types of patients presenting with various conditions like cleft palates and other craniofacial anomalies.
In the later years of their residency, residents rotate through other departments to apply their surgical skills while also deepening their knowledge of other medical specialties. They simultaneously practice in the burn unit for one month, followed by three months in aesthetic and plastic surgery, also at the Hershey Medical Center.
6. Specialty: Thoracic Surgery – Baylor College of Medicine
Baylor College of Medicine is one of the leading training centers for surgeons out of all the medical schools in Texas and medical schools in the US. The five-year program at Baylor consists of residents training on cardiothoracic and general thoracic surgery with the option to continue their training for an additional two years. The two added years are for trainees to perfect their understanding of thoracic surgery by undertaking research projects in general and thoracic surgery.
The first year introduces residents to the fundamentals of various types of surgery, like cardiac, vascular, and trauma. Subsequent years see trainees expand the scope of their learning by pursuing research interests to gain the knowledge that will be applied in their final years when they return to the hands-on part of their residency. The last two years gives residents the opportunity to fine-tune their abilities in more complicated surgical procedures like organ transplants, aortic surgery, and robotic surgery.
The Baylor University Medical Center is a high-volume surgical center performing nearly 1,700 surgeries every year, primarily on adults. Aside from the Medical Center, residents can also perform rotations at any one of Baylor’s affiliate hospitals, like the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center or the Texas Children’s Hospital, which has become a leader in pediatric heart surgeries, performing more than 1,000 surgeries every year.
7. Specialty: Orthopedic Surgery – Harvard Combined Orthopedic Residency Program
This five-year program offered by the Harvard Medical School is spread out over four major hospitals/teaching facilities: Massachusetts General Hospital, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, and Boston’s Children Hospital. The reach of this program goes even further, as residents can also perform rotations at various outpatient clinics and other satellite centers in Boston and the surrounding areas.
The school admits a maximum of 60 residents per year exclusively to the orthopedic surgery residency. It has a full-time teaching staff of 120 faculty members comprising some of the best and most talented orthopedic surgeons in the country. Five months are devoted to orthopedic clinical rotations in the first year, followed by alternating rotations in off-service specialties like plastic surgery, neurosurgery, and general surgery.
All these rotations are performed across the four teaching hospitals. As trainees progress through the program, they become more independent and can choose their desired rotations based on their research interests. In the final years, residents plan their own schedules while also meeting their residency commitments. Research opportunities abound, given the school’s access to premier research institutes like MIT and the Harvard School of Public Health. With the cachet of the Harvard name behind them, successful residents can also transition to the private sector in diverse fields like bioengineering and biotechnology, if they have doubts about how to get a job after residency.
8. Specialty: Otolaryngology – Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine
Johns Hopkins is one of most recognized names in medical education in the US and worldwide. Its over 20 residency programs attract graduates from all over the world and are highly competitive. For example, the otolaryngology residency at Johns Hopkins admits only four graduates every year (two for each specialized track), although it does not state how many people apply.
However, for context, the general surgery residency program at Johns Hopkins also admits four residents from over 300 applicants, which is an acceptance rate of only 1.3%. If you are asking yourself, how long is residency, an otolaryngology residency can last for either five years or six-and-a-half, depending on a resident’s research interests and career goals, The Clinical Track takes five years and gives residents access to five different teaching sites, including Johns Hopkins Hospital in downtown Baltimore, the Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center, and the Greater Baltimore Medical Center.
Two more sites in the suburbs of Baltimore complete the five teaching hospitals where residents can perform their rotations. The Research Track takes six-and-a-half years and prepares entrants to further their medical knowledge about otolaryngology but also lets them participate in various research projects funded by the National Institutes of Health. Residents pass through foundational rotations in surgery, anesthesia, and otolaryngology. As they progress, they grow their knowledge in other specialties like head and neck oncology and reconstructive surgery.
How To Get into the Best Residency Programs in the US
You can use the BeMo Residency Match Calculator to see how you stack up against various residency programs in the US and Canada. The calculator takes your degree type and USMLE Step 1 and USMLE Step 2 scores to see whether you have a weak or strong chance to match to over 20 different specialties, including some on this list.
You have to enter your USMLE scores to use the Residency Match Calculator, which should signal to you how important all your standardized test scores from your MCAT scores to the USMLE and COMLEX-Level 1 (for DO graduates) scores are when applying for residency programs.
What do residency program directors look for when deciding who to admit? Here are some areas to pay attention to.
1. Write Multiple Drafts of Your Personal Statement
Writing and perfecting your residency personal statement is something essential since it is one of the main documents you need to submit to ERAS. In Canada, the CaRMS personal letter is a similar type of text, but every residency program in Canada sets forth unique requirements that are not universal.
In the US, you don’t have to write a new personal statement for each program you apply to (ERAS only lets you submit one statement per program), but you can create as many as you want to practice. Once you have written many drafts of the same essay, you will be able to nail down your voice and keep a consistent tone throughout, signifying how much time and effort you put into it. If you struggle with writing or just want to craft the most compelling essay possible, consider residency personal statement editing.
Residency personal statements are not the same as medical school personal statements, and you should know the difference before you start writing one. A residency personal statement focuses on why you are pursuing a particular specialty, like pediatrics or thoracic surgery, and what your goals are within this field. It also asks you to articulate why you are choosing the program you are choosing and what stands out about it to you. These content requirements are much different than a medical school personal statement where you recount your personal reasons for why you want to become a doctor.
2. Create an Excellent Residency CV
A residency CV is one way to enliven your application. You can use your residency CV to illustrate how diverse and multidimensional you are by listing extracurriculars for medical school or including information about internships, research, and academic and non-academic achievements.
You should create and maintain a medical student CV for your time in medical school and add to it periodically as you gain more experiences and complete more core competencies. This way your CV stays up-to-date, and admissions officers can see how you have progressed over the years, rather than judging you solely by your test scores and transcripts.
Learn how to get electives and clinical experience in the US and Canada as an IMG and add them to your CV if you have the added challenge of applying for residency with a degree you earned outside the two countries.
3. Find Out All You Need to Know About the MSPE
The MSPE (Medical Student Performance Evaluation) is another essential component of any residency application. But, again, the format and structure of your MSPE is determined by the school you are applying to, so the best advice would be to find out as much as you can, as early as you can, about the specific requirements so that you can prepare.
4. Get Strong Letters of Recommendation
ERAS letters of recommendation are different from medical school recommendation letters since applicants have to enter their referees’ information into the MyERAS portal and send a request form to their letter writers seeking the latter’s approval. Once the letter is ready it can be uploaded to your online file and sent to your program of choice.
But the content requirements are key as well. The letters should focus on the strengths you demonstrated during medical school that set you apart from other candidates. You should ideally ask for letters from former professors or other instructors, anyone who had a supervisory role over you and can attest to your competency and professionalism.
The best residency programs in the US combine several features like multiple teaching sites, mentorship from expert-level instructors and faculty, clinical and leadership training, and research opportunities. But you should choose a program based on multiple factors, like whether the school’s mission aligns with your values, or whether its location in another city is attractive to you. You’ll have to spend at least five years in any residency, so make sure the program will support you both materially and intellectually.
1. How should I choose my residency program?
Choosing your residency involves multiple steps, so you should start thinking about it in your second or third year. As to how to choose a medical specialty, which will ultimately determine the residency you select, you should reflect on what you want to achieve as a physician. Do you want to work with children? Do you want to help people with spinal cord injuries? Do you want to give someone a new heart? Many reasons go into how people choose a specialty, but you should go with what feels right for you.
2. Should I choose the most competitive or least competitive residency program?
Your desire to pursue a particular field or specialty should decide which residency program you choose, not whether it is competitive or not. With that said, it’s not out-of-the-ordinary to consider competitiveness when deciding, but you should focus more on which path will ultimately bring you the most personal and professional satisfaction.
3. Should I get professional residency application help?
Applying for a residency can be overwhelming, especially for already-harried medical students. If you are thinking about a residency prep company to help you navigate the application process, then you should vet them thoroughly before hiring them so you know you’ll get your money’s worth.
4. What are the qualities of a residency program I should look for?
You should examine each residency’s offerings carefully to make sure they match your professional interests and your personal criteria. The American Medical Association gives five main areas that all applicants should consider when choosing a residency program: perceived goodness of fit, reputation of program, work-life balance, location, and quality of residents in the program.
5. What are the ERAS application requirements?
The ERAS application requirements include uploading letters of recommendation, personal statements, official transcripts, and your MSPE or Dean’s Letter. There are also application fees based on how many times you apply. The more you apply, the higher the fees.
- 10 programs per specialty - $99
- 11–20 programs per specialty - $19 each
- 21–30 programs per specialty - $23 each
- 31 or more programs per specialty - $26 each
6. Can I apply to a residency program as an IMG?
Yes, international medical graduates (defined as anyone with a medical school degree from an institution outside of Canada or the US and not accredited by any US licensing body) can apply for residency programs in the US if they register with the Educational Commission for Foreign Medical Graduates to be certified to take the USMLE exams. Applicants must submit all their foreign medical school information to be verified, so they can get ECFMG certification.
Once certified, applicants must also prove they are eligible to apply for residencies in the US by providing all the necessary documentation.
7. Is there any difference between applying as a DO or MD graduate?
An MD vs a DO graduate will have different outcomes when it comes to matching because MD students are often matched with the most competitive programs. But DO graduates are always in demand in the programs that are the least competitive because they are more in-demand and require many doctors to fill their ranks. Specialties like internal medicine, family medicine, and pediatrics are all primary care specialties, which are the easiest programs to match with since the demand is greater.
8. Should I only apply to the “best” residency programs in the US?
No, you should apply to the programs that match your personal criteria for what you want to get out of your resident years. Spending up to five or seven years in a program you chose simply for its prestige or competitiveness will end up hurting you more than anyone else.
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