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?

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

  1. Krysta
    February 21, 2017 at 12:48 am (1 year 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 year 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!

  2. Abdul Rahman Elemam
    February 23, 2017 at 3:21 pm (1 year ago)

    Hi Dr.Jouce Park
    I am US IMG and i am still in my medical school and i want to know exactly what can i do to get matched in this intersting speciality because think i will enjoy it much

    • Joyce
      March 31, 2017 at 11:22 am (11 months ago)

      Hello, I do not have much experience with IMG applications since I went to a US medical school. However, I have known people who matched into derm from foreign medical schools after taking a few years off to do research with a solid dermatology mentor at an academic institution. Good luck!

  3. Christon
    April 4, 2017 at 2:28 pm (11 months ago)

    Hello Dr. Joyce Park,

    Thank you for all of your wonderful insight on matching into Dermatology. Do you have any advice for an M1 as far as starting cold turkey looking for mentors or research opportunities at my institution?

    • Joyce
      April 5, 2017 at 10:53 am (11 months ago)

      Hi Christon, I looked at research areas published on the faculty member’s bios on the departmental website, decided which ones were in line with my research interests, and emailed them, asking them to meet to discuss potential research projects. You can also see if there’s a derm interest group at your school that has a list of faculty members’ research interests.

  4. Deshi
    April 23, 2017 at 3:12 am (10 months ago)

    Hello Dr. Park, I am a 3rd year medical student from the Philippines. I am currently studying for the USMLE Step 1 which I am planning to take up in the latter half of this year. I am very much interested in Dermatology residency. I have one question about applying for the Derma residency. Is a Prelim year internship required to apply for the residency? Thank you!

    • Joyce
      April 24, 2017 at 3:01 pm (10 months ago)

      Hi Deshi, in the United States we apply for our intern year and dermatology residency at the same time, during fourth year of medical school. We match into both programs at the end of our fourth year of medical school. For dermatology people can choose to do either a preliminary intern year (all internal medicine) or a transitional year (a mix of obgyn, pediatrics, internal medicine, and surgery). Both are acceptable!

  5. John
    August 16, 2017 at 2:53 am (6 months ago)

    Hey Dr. Park,
    I was wondering about building experience during medical school for dermatology such as volunteering, shadowing, attending events and conferences, as you mentioned. This might be a silly question, but would these experiences be included in my application for a dermatology residency for the admissions team to see and use to consider me qualified or not?

    Also, I am graduating from undergrad next year and will be applying to medical schools if not the same year, the following year. If I am interested in pursuing dermatology as a specialty in the future, do you recommend taking a year off before medical school to try to find research opportunities? Or maybe other additional advice that I can begin doing now or from the beginning of medical school to make me a better candidate for the residency programs later on? Are there any specific medical schools I should look to apply that are associated with dermatology programs that will aid in my acceptance to residency, or does the school not matter at this point?

    • Joyce
      September 4, 2017 at 5:43 pm (6 months ago)

      Hi John, I think the very first step is to get into medical school, and focus on extracurricular experiences that show you want to be a doctor first and foremost. You can mention that you are interested in dermatology, but in my experience, many medical students change their mind, and medical schools tend to like students who are more open to all careers within medicine. Residency programs focus mainly on what you do during your medical school career; what you do before medical school and in undergrad are more like icing on the cake. But I would focus on doing research or extracurriculars to get into medical school. The choice of which medical school depends on you. As I mentioned to another commenter on a different post, it helps to go to the best medical school you can, or try to go to a medical school with a really great dermatology department. This way, you’ll meet faculty mentors, work with them on solid derm research, and have a good letter of recommendation when you are applying to dermatology.

  6. Damien
    September 19, 2017 at 9:38 pm (5 months ago)

    My name is Damien, a current first year medical student and we are only 5 weeks in.I have big interest in Dermatology and wanted to know what I should I be doing now, even as an M1 to set myself apart. I have a good working relationship with the Dermatology program director which I have held for over 2 years now. In addition, I am working on research for publication with him and a second year resident right now and have shadowed in the department before medical school. My concern is that my school has grades instead of Pass/ Fail. I am doing decent in my classes but definitely not all A’s at this point. Do I have to receive a 4.0 through first year and medical school in order to match into Dermatology or in another competitive specialty? Also,how do students with numerical grades get compared to residency applications with Pass/Fail you think? Should I started studying for Step 1 now along with my lecture notes?

    • Joyce
      October 4, 2017 at 1:10 pm (5 months ago)

      Hi Damien, sounds like you are already ahead of the game! It’s great that you have a relationship with the Derm program director and that you’re doing research with him. I went to a school without grades, so I can’t speak from personal experience, but I think if your school has grades, then you should try to aim for a 4.0. If you don’t get a 4.0, you can still match into dermatology because of extracurriculars, board scores, letters of recommendation, etc. Programs look for someone who demonstrates passion for the field and shows that he or she will sustain that passion throughout residency and beyond.

      I bought First Aid as a first year med student and annotated it with lecture notes. I didn’t sit down and read First Aid but I added to the pages so that I could have all my notes in one place by the time it came for me to study.

      Good luck!

  7. Jessica
    October 7, 2017 at 10:32 am (5 months ago)

    Dear Dr. Park,

    Thank you for writing this post! I just wanted to ask whether you had any advice on how to be involved in writing a case report and how to go about doing one. Also, regarding research, what would you say is the average number of hours per week students devote to it during preclinical years? And, do you recommend that most derm applicants should secure a year of research before applying.

    Thanks so much!

    • Joyce
      October 20, 2017 at 7:43 am (4 months ago)

      Hi Jessica, good question. Personally, I think research is a great way to add to your CV, learn more about derm, and get to know a faculty member. I would start by shadowing members of the derm department in your preclinical years or meeting with a few of them to show your interest in the field and ask for research opportunities. If you want to go to an academic residency program for derm then research is very important. Whether you need a year off or not for research depends on your CV (what will that year add? Do you already have many vs few publications?). It’s not absolutely essential to take a year off (a few of my coresidents did not) but many applicants do because they can publish more and get to know a research mentor better. Average number of hours per week on research is very hard to say because it depends on your research project and how much time it takes. In Med school I was doing a basic science project with mice and that took at least 10 hours a week. Case reports as you can imagine take less time. Good luck!


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