Kenneth V. Iserson, M.D., MBA
Professor Emeritus, The University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ

Medical students frequently ask, “To how many programs should I apply?” No magic number exists, since the real answer depends upon your wants and needs, including your specialty choice. To answer this for yourself, consider the following questions:

  • How competitive is your chosen specialty? Generally, the more competitive the specialty, the more programs to which you should apply. Iserson’s Getting Into a Residency rates the difficulty of getting a position in each specialty.
  • What geographic and academic restrictions do you have? The more you limit your options, the more difficult it may be to find a position.
  • How competitive a candidate are you for your specialty? List your strengths that specialists in your desired specialty view as plusses. Have your mentor or specialty adviser help you.

Then, after discussions with your mentor or specialty adviser, apply to a generous number of programs. Always apply to a few extra “pie-in-the-sky” or “reach” programs, those to which you really want to go but are afraid will not accept you. A few extra applications will cost you almost nothing and you just may get in.

As a general guideline, U.S. medical students who matched to the specialty they most desired submitted an average of 29 applications, while unmatched graduates submitted 50 applications. Prior graduates (already in another residency or in practice) and IMG applicants submit many more.

Finally, how do you apply to programs? Generally, you will use the Electronic Residency Application System (ERAS). In 2016, 47 specialties, including many combination specialties such as Pediatrics/Emergency Medicine, use this application system. This online system is straightforward, with the instructions available online, through your dean’s office, and through the ECFMG (for IMGs). The key thing to remember is to make your ERAS list once and then apply to those programs. Do not continue to add to the list piecemeal.


Based on: Iserson’s Getting Into a Residency: A Guide for Medical Students, 8th edition
Tucson, AZ: Galen Press, Ltd.


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