How to Match into Dermatology (or other competitive specialties)


how to match in derm or other competitive specialties

I’ve gotten a lot of questions about how to stand out as a dermatology applicant, and I wanted to write a post as part of my “Path to MD” series on some advice on getting into dermatology or any other similarly competitive medical specialties such as ENT, plastic surgery, radiation oncology, neurosurgery, etc. As many of you know, I decided very late in the game to apply in dermatology (read my very personal account of my dermatology application process here), so these tips are based off of my own experience as well as what worked for my colleagues who are now residents in competitive fields. If you have any tips or questions, please leave them in the comments section below!

The Basics

Because dermatology is a competitive field, you have to fulfill the basic requirements. This means in general, having a board score that is above a certain threshold (view the NRMP’s breakdown of statistics by specialty here), doing well on rotations (not just the one you want to go into), having good letters of recommendation, and good grades (if your medical school has grades). Stanford was pass/fail, so we did not have grades and we did not have AOA (medical school honor society). These are general basic requirements, but keep in mind that there are always exceptions. Even if your board score is below the national average for students who matched into that field, don’t despair and give up your dream. The residency program committee takes into account your application as a whole, and the board score is just one part of that.

Show interest

This is so key and ties into every single other bullet down below. Programs want to see that you are genuinely interested in the field and that you’ve done what you can to explore the specialty. This could mean doing research, volunteering at the specialty’s free clinic, volunteering abroad in a clinic of that specialty, attending conferences, grand rounds, shadowing attendings, coming to departmental events, etc. You can show your interest in a plethora of ways!

Excel in your rotation

At Stanford we were required to do a basic dermatology rotation and then a sub-internship in dermatology as well if we wanted to apply in the field. The two rotations weren’t all that different to be honest. As medical students we had a good amount of autonomy and worked directly with attendings to see patients and do procedures under close supervision. The main differences were that as a sub-I you should know a little more (since you already had a month on derm) and you had to give a 10 minute talk at grand rounds in front of the whole department. I thought having the opportunity to do a sub-I was great because we had more opportunities to shine and show our interest in dermatology. As a medical student it can be hard to stand out because you don’t learn dermatology in medical school. However you can read up on the basics (Lookingbill and Marks’ Principles of Dermatology is a GREAT intro to derm book for your rotation) and be very enthusiastic and helpful however you can. This includes helping residents get patient information, helping improve clinic flow, and by offering to look up clinically relevant things that the residents and attendings don’t know (such as new innovative treatments that aren’t on the market yet or rare skin diseases that we almost never see). This goes without saying, but be vey nice and polite to everyone you interact with because you don’t want to rub anyone the wrong way.



Doing research is a great way to get publications that will look impressive on your application, allow you to explore the field more, gain valuable research experience that will help you with a future in academic medicine, AND to get to know faculty by working closely with them. Your research mentor will hopefully become your advocate, writing your letter of recommendation and putting in a good word for you if that time comes. Research is highly regarded at the more academic programs, so publishing more will help you stand out from the pool of applicants. The stereotype of research is basic science research in labs with animals and test tubes (like the photo above!), but you don’t necessarily have to do that. There are other types of research like clinical research, public health research, public policy research, etc. I’m personally very interested in the use of social media for public health education in dermatology, and I’m excited to make a research project out of that as well! Find an area that excites you that you have genuine questions about, and pursue that.

Working together

Get to know the faculty and residents

I can’t stress enough how important it is to have a good working relationship with your mentors! They will be able to help you so much in writing a great letter of recommendation. Dermatology is also a small field, so people talk. If you have a great relationship with a faculty member, that can go a long way. Also, the residents may not be directly influencing your application process but they will be important mentors for you now and down the road, and they will be your future colleagues. The dermatology residents at Stanford were simply fantastic; they went out of their way to even put together mock derm interviews on a Saturday morning for all of us applying! They went above and beyond to help us and that always stuck with me.

Be genuine

What does that vague heading mean? I mean be true to yourself and why you want to go into dermatology. Don’t tell faculty or residents what you think they want to hear because that’s really easy to see through. Be genuine in pursuing extracurricular activities that you’re truly passionate about, not just doing things because you think those are activities that will “look good.” I wrote an entire blogpost about doing what you love and are good at, and used my extracurricular activities in college and medical school as an example. That’s how you will be able to take those activities to the next level. If you’re doing research, try to publish. If you’re in an organization, try to take on a leadership role. Push yourself to take ownership of things and have a finished product to show in areas that you’re passionate about.

Those are some of my personal tips for matching into a competitive field. Do you have anything to add?

2 Comments on How to Match into Dermatology (or other competitive specialties)

  1. Krysta
    February 21, 2017 at 12:48 am (1 month ago)

    Hi Dr. Park,

    I really enjoy reading your blog! What advice do you have for MS1/MS2 medical students who are interested in derm but whose schools don’t have a derm department?

    Thank you!

    • Joyce
      February 22, 2017 at 11:43 am (1 month ago)

      Hi Krysta, I think you will have to find a derm mentor at a neighboring institution or try to take a year off to do research at another institution. The first step is probably to shadow a dermatologist to see if the field is right for you, and then after that, work on strengthening your application by working with academic dermatologists on research or other projects. Good luck!


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