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Not Matching and Moving On

Monday, March 12, 2018 was probably the single most devastating day of my life.

When I received that email in my inbox stating I didn’t match, I hoped to god I was stuck in a bad dream. But the days ticked by like clockwork and I knew that this was my new reality. I ran the whole gamut of emotions during Match Week from denial, betrayal, indignation, shame, humiliation, self-loathing, to finally acceptance, understanding, gratitude, and peace. I hope that by sharing my personal story of how I got through Match Week, I can be a reminder that it’s possible to grow from such an experience.

1. Allow yourself to grieve.

Going through Match Week was heartbreaking for me because all of my plans and excitement for senior year were dashed in an instant. I had to watch all of my friends move onto the next step of their lives and experience what should’ve been the happiest week of my life. It was painful receiving congratulatory texts and messages from well-wishing students curious about my plans for next year, when I had nothing to tell them. I shut off my Facebook and went radio silent for a few days.

It’s okay to let yourself feel all of the emotions you’re feeling. It’s okay to vent, to cry (which I did a lot of), to feel bitter, to cry some more, to want to disappear, to not talk to anyone.

2. Be kind to yourself.

When you’re not picked for a residency spot, it’s hard to not take it so damn personally. I immediately thought about all of the horrible personality flaws I must’ve had, why I wasn’t good enough, why no one liked me, why no one wanted me. It became a pity party real fast. We are often our harshest critics and we can set unreasonably high expectations for ourselves. Therefore when things don’t go according to plan, we are quick to dismiss everything we worked for and accomplished, and tear ourselves down mentally and emotionally by questioning our self-worth.

But not matching doesn’t take away or negate anything I already achieved. My grades, scores, accomplishments, awards, letters, research are all my own and they still mean something. I am still a person of worth. I also got my nails and hair done that week. Which I would also recommend.

3. Realize that you are not alone.

I experienced immense isolation during those first few days because I felt like I was the only one. The stats all suggest that the likelihood of not matching are slim, but it happens. 94.1% of US seniors matched this year and 78.3% of all applicants matched. That means almost 4000 applicants got the same devastating email Monday. In dermatology, 75% U.S. seniors matched and 64.5% of total applicants matched, which translates into 231 hopeful applicants not matching (115 being U.S. seniors) (2018 NRMP Data).

When I shared my post about not matching online, so many other students reached out to me telling me they were also in the same boat. I found immense comfort and strength in being able to share my feelings with fellow students going through the same experience. I firmly believe that supporting each other through this difficult time can help us heal, but the shame and humiliation prevents us from openly discussing it with others.

4. Reach out to those who have walked the path before you.

During that first week, I spoke with plenty of amazing and brilliant residents who didn’t match the first time and are now very successful in their careers. It was an emotionally vulnerable time for me, and I found immense comfort in talking to residents who underwent the same experiences and came out swinging. Successful re-applicants not only gave me practical advice about finding fellowships, SOAPing, and reapplying, but more importantly, they told me it was going to be okay when I desperately needed to hear it the most. Not only did they display the highest degree of empathy, but they also had the clarity and perspective to recognize that this too shall pass.

5. Seek advice and guidance.

I reached out to all of my mentors for advice and career guidance. My first few days were probably spent sending/checking emails and talking on the phone with faculty members. Even though I often had to stop myself from crying on the phone, I found everyone to be astoundingly supportive and generous with their time. My mentors reached out to faculty members on my behalf and were my strongest advocates and pillars of support. Having their support gave me the confidence to move forward and come back even stronger next year.

6. Be honest with yourself.

The NRMP Match is an imperfect system. The algorithm relies on programs and applicants to rank each other based on how much they want each other. But conflicting interests, internal candidates, “promised” spots, nepotism, egos, and other intangible factors still influence the rank list. And sometimes bad luck just happens. It’s easy to blame the system or external factors beyond our control for poor outcomes. And I know that’s what I wanted to do for days.

But the most painful step was coming to terms with the fact that there are always things that I can improve upon. I did a lot of self-reflection after speaking with multiple mentors and faculty members about ways I could maximize my chances of matching next year. There are always going to be external factors beyond our control influencing the match, but we can still try to give ourselves the best shot possible by always striving to be the best candidate we can be.

7. Believe in your own resilience.

Having this breakthrough is what saved me. I had to find the inner strength and courage to believe that I have what it takes to succeed. No one else will help me reach my goals but me. The human mind has an extraordinary capacity to overcome adversity and unleash untapped potential when we least expect it. That’s why we see athletes come back stronger after career-ending injuries, struggling writers who couldn’t get their work published develop highly renowned careers, and activists rally a nation after decades of persecution. It’s humbling to think that if these guys overcame what they did, I should be able to overcome this little speed bump too. Failure is not the end of the road.

8. Grow from failure.

It’s important to overcome failure, but more importantly, it’s important to learn and grow from failure. I think failure is what creates the depth in our narrative and gives us perspective in our lives. If we are not measured by our failures, then we are measured by our will and ability to better ourselves after failure. Not matching might be painful now, but the lesson it taught me about myself is invaluable.

The future seems so much brighter now because I am no longer afraid to fail. Don’t be afraid to reach out for help. Everyone deals with pain and failure in their own time, and it’s not a reflection of who you are as a person. Please talk to someone if you feel like things aren’t getting better right now. There is life after not matching.

Update March 11, 2019: I matched in dermatology!!! For those who didn’t match, I’ve been in your shoes. It’s the most devastating feeling in the world. The first few days are the most hectic. Take some time for yourself and ignore the world. Just remember that others have been in your shoes before and ultimately achieved their goals. Hang in there.

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