Ophthalmology Residency Application: The Application Process

Important Aspects of the Application

Here are the most four most important parts of your application:

  • Letters of recommendation- this is the key to a good application.  In the small academic ophthalmology community, academic ophthalmologists know and trust the opinions of their colleagues.  Good letters from well-known ophthalmologists will help you overcome weaknesses in your application and make you a very competitive candidate. Ophthalmologists will have to work closely with you as a resident in both clinics and operating rooms.  Therefore, they have vast amount of interest in obtaining strong candidates who will excel during residnecy.  Admissions committees rely on those who have worked with you to tell them you are capable of handling the high demands that will be placed upon you as a resident.
  • USMLE score- a good number here will get you past the initial screening process and get you interviews to the top institutions.  It may also help you overcome weaknesses in your medical school academic records.
  • Interviews- unlike medical school interviewers who you probably have never seen again after the interview, attendings who interview you for residency will work very closely with you for three years.  In addition to the information from letters of recommendation, they want to find out more about you as an individual- your personality and work ethics are going to be very important to them.  They want to know that you are someone who is intelligent, hardworking and responsible.  After you have been selected for an interview, the interview itself will be key to a successful match.
  • Reputation of your medical school- unfortunately, the reputation of your medical school and its associated ophthalmology department factor in considerably to the selection process (I do not agree with this, but the reputation of your school will matter).  If you are from a smaller medical school or a school with a small ophthalmology department, you need  to do an away elective and obtain a letter of recommendation to strengthen your application.

Here are the much talked about but less important aspects of your application:

  • Honors- it's good to have some honors in your 1st-3rd year classes and rotations but you don not need to have honored in every class to be a competitive condidate.
  • Alpha-omega-alpha honor society- this is another nice addition to your resume, but as long as you have good USLME scores and some honors, it may not be crucial to be part of AOA.  All of your academic accomplishments will be considered together as a whole and weakness in one part can be off set by strength in another.  As long as you have solid academic records, you will be a competitive candidate.
  • Dean's letter- programs rely much more on letters from ophthalmologists than the generic Dean's letter.
  • Publication- research allows you to get the letter of recommendation.  You should finish and publish your research if possible but publication is not a key aspect of the application.

Early Match Timeline

San Francisco Match is the primary application service for ophthalmology (like AMCAS for medical school).  The application is done through CAS, or the central application service.  Residency match is different from medical school application because both the applicants and the residency programs rank their choices in order from first to last and the match service will generate a match report giving the most appropriate match between the two parties.  Therefore you will only have a single match, unlike medical school, where you may have had multiple acceptances to choose from.  Ophthalmology is an early match specialty.  The match occurs on January 15 instead of March.  Check out the SF Match site for more information- you can get statistics on previous matches to help you determine if you are competitive as a candidate.  It also has a suggested application timeline.

Here is my suggested timeline for the application process:

  • 1st-3rd Year: Perform a small research project with a mentor from ophthalmology- be realistic and choose something that can potentially be completed within a reasonable amount of time.
  • 3rd Year
    • April-May: rotate through a public hospital to learn examination skills the residents.
    • June-July: rotate through 1-2 private rotations to work with 1-2 attendings.  Don't work with too many attendings because they will not get to know you well enough to write you a letter of recommendation.  Start your personal statement and work on your application at this time.
  • 4th Year
    • August-September: complete and turn in your application to SF Match.  The ideal time to submit your application is toward the end of August and beginning of September.
    • October-December: interviews are conducted for ophthalmology.  Complete and turn in your regular match application for your internship.
    • November-February: interviews are conducted for internship and transitional year.
    • January: early match results released.
    • March: regular match results released.
    • April-June: after you finish your requirements for graduation, it's time for a little R&R!

Final Thoughts about Submitting Your Application

The personal statement for residency is similar to the one you have done for medical school. I suggest you write directly and succinctly. It is important to write separate statements- one for ophthalmology and one for internship or transitional year.


Once again, the letters of recommendation are crucial to your success.  CAS requires three letters of recommendation and it is important to realize your application will not be forwarded to residency programs until it is complete- this includes your 3 letters!  Therefore, you need to do your research and ophthalmology rotations early in order to have the letters ready in time- don't forget to allow approximately one month for your letter writers.  This means you should have completed all of your rotations by the end of July.

For your three letters, you will need two letters from ophthalmology and 1 letter from another specialty (i.e. medicine, surgery).  Most programs allow you to send in additional letters directly if needed.  I suggest you get at least 2 ophthalmology letters and 2 general letters- you will then be covered for both ophthalmology and internship applications.

Deciding how many programs to apply to can be difficult.  Work with mentors, student affairs office, 4th year medical students, and ophthalmology residents at your institution.  Look at the SF Match website to see how competitive you are as an applicant.  You want to aim for 8-12 interviews to get at least one match (most believe the magic number is 8).  It is generally better to be conservative- you can always apply to more than you need and decline interviews later if you have too many of them.  Here is a general guideline:

  • Outstanding candidates (USMLE 235+, honors, great letters of recommendation, top 25 medical school): apply to 15-20 programs, include a few less competitive programs.
  • Good candidates (USMLE 225+, some honors, good letters of recommendation, good medical school): apply to 20-30 programs and include more less competitive programs.
  • Average candidates (USMLE 215+, few honors, good letters of recommendation, from smaller medical school): don't give up yet!  This is a generalized guideline and many applicants may only have weaknesses in one area but otherwise have a great application.  Apply to at least 30 programs and include some top choices as well!