Matchmaker, Matchmaker, Make Me A Match

Some were obviously nervous. Others chatted happily with friends. Most were dressed in business casual. On an overcast Friday morning, Columbia students crowded into Bard Hall and waited.

Every year, medical students across the country participate in a strange and specific ritual known as Match Day – en masse, they open paper envelopes to find out what residency program they got into, and where they will spend the next several years of their lives.

It was the first day of spring, and it was about to start snowing.

Student Eugene Jang is going into orthopedic surgery, a particularly competitive field. His first choice was Columbia, and he looked a lot calmer than the other students. “He’s not calm at all,” said his wife, Susan. “I’m hiding it very well,” Jang admitted.

Adetoro Adegbola is director of student services at Columbia’s College of Physicians and Surgeons. This is the second Match Day that she’s been through. “It’s what they work for the entire time that they’re here,” she said. “Some people are really excited where they match, some people not so much.” Last year, she remembers one corner of students celebrating, and another looking devastated.

The matching itself is done through a computer algorithm run by the National Resident Matching Program. Throughout the fall and winter of their fourth year, medical students fly all over the country to interview with different programs that are interested in them. They then rank their favorites, and the programs do the same. Then the algorithm matches them up. Notably, it favors the student’s preferences over that of residency programs.

Will Rosenbaum, a Ph.D. candidate in the department of mathematics at UCLA, studies the type of matching algorithm that the residency matching program uses. “The goal of the algorithm is to match residents to hospitals such that no one has an incentive to deviate from the matching,” he said. Even if they did want to deviate however, residents don’t have the option to switch – they are locked into whatever program they get into.

On the Monday of Match Week, every student receives an email telling them if they have matched or not. The ones who don’t match go through something called SOAP, the Supplemental Offer and Acceptance Program, unofficially known as The Scramble. Those students must quickly try to get into residency programs that still have open spots.

The students that attended Match Day on March 20th knew that they had a job – they just didn’t know where it would be.

Just before 12 p.m., Dean Lisa Mellman gave a short speech, and then the entire room counted down from 10 until the clock struck noon.

“Come and get it!” yelled Mellman, and students rushed to a table laden with envelopes.

There was screaming as they gathered in circles to discover their fates. Many cried, took photos, and called their families.

Elizabeth Ackerman was there with her husband, David, to support their daughter, Christina Ackerman. “As parents, we just want them to be happy,” said Elizabeth, who lives in New Jersey. “But close by,” she added. Both Christina and her boyfriend Garrett Banks decided to couples match, a process in which two people can list their choices together, and rank pairs of programs. Was couples matching more difficult? “On a scale of one to yes? Yes!” said Banks.

Both got into their first choice schools. Ackerman will be going to Yale-New Haven Hospital for obstetrics and gynecology, and Banks will be at New York-Presbyterian, Columbia University Medical Center for neurosurgery. Though they chose to be in different cities for their residencies, those cities are close enough so that the couple can stay together. “We thought a lot about it and we ranked it number one because we thought it would be manageable,” said Ackerman.

Rosa Cui, also going into obstetrics and gynecology, picked Columbia as her first choice. Earlier in the day, she was feeling unsure of her chances. Unbeknownst to her, her friend and fellow classmate Becky Martinez had already arranged a surprise cake with an icing design of a uterus with a Columbia’s signature crown on its head. A bold move, but a good bet – Cui did indeed get into Columbia.

At the end of the ceremony, there were 12 leftover envelopes out of 155. For the people who didn’t attend the event, an email is sent out with the same information.

Dean Mellman, participating in her 10th Match Day, made the rounds throughout the event, hugging and congratulating students. “Everybody matched,” said Mellman. “Everybody has a job. Everybody will start earning a paycheck to pay off their student loans.”