Applying to Surgery as an International Medical Student or Graduate: Tips and  Advice

30 Dec 2023

By Maria Vashchenko


Navigating the competitive nature of applying to a specialty like Surgery as an International Medical Student or Graduate (IMG) is undoubtedly challenging. With obstacles such as the absence of a home-based institution in the United States and limited access to faculty, the journey requires meticulous planning and dedication. Drawing from personal experience, here are some valuable tips for IMGs aspiring to apply for Surgery Residency: 


  1. Early Preparation is Key: Initiating your preparation as early as pre-med or the initial years of medical school is instrumental. Identifying Surgery as your passion early on allows sufficient time for preparation for the application process.


  1. Mentorship Matters: Forming a relationship with a practicing attending Surgeon can provide invaluable guidance. If you don’t already have someone in mind, seek a mentor during surgical clerkships, as their advice and expertise can deepen your understanding of the field and pave the way for your journey to becoming a surgeon.


  1. Prioritize Academic Success: Achieving excellent academic scores is paramount. Strong board scores and grades throughout medical school are crucial factors that programs consider during the application review, making academic success a top priority.


  1. Gain US Clinical Experience (USCE) and Strong Letters of Recommendation: Actively engage in clerkships to gain USCE and secure impactful letters of recommendation. The more personalized the letter is, the more weight it carries in portraying you as a strong Surgery applicant. Generally, having 3-4 letters from Surgeons is advised. Keep in mind that some programs require a letter from the Department Chair at your institution, and if you are able to get one reflecting personal insights, it’s a huge boost for your application. 


  1. Be Well-Rounded: Showcase your versatility by participating in extracurricular activities beyond academics. In addition to excelling academically, demonstrate interest in research, volunteer work, leadership, and hobbies to present a well-rounded profile. Regarding publications, stick to the “quality over quantity” principle. Research projects that reflect your genuine commitment to a specific topic will always be valued more highly than a publication in which you participated solely to fulfill a requirement. 


  1. Network Effectively: Leverage networking opportunities through organizations like the American College of Surgeons (ACS) and the Association of Women Surgeons (AWS). Participate in webinars, conferences, and social events to expand your professional connections within the academic Surgery community. Bonus points if you present an abstract or a poster at a conference! 


  1. Craft a Compelling Story: Many applicants express generic reasons for pursuing Surgery, such as the desire to work with their hands. I suggest developing a narrative that reflects your genuine passion and skills. Your Personal Statement, experiences, letters of recommendation, and overall application should collectively convey a compelling story that highlights your unique journey to Surgery as well as your strengths.


  1. Ensure Timely Application Process: Have all necessary components ready well in advance of the application deadline. ECFMG typically takes a week or more to process most of your documents, so timely submission is critical, and even a slight delay can impact your chances. Board scores, letters of recommendation, a persuasive personal statement, and other materials should be in order. 


Embarking on the journey to Surgery as an IMG requires careful planning, dedication, and a distinctive narrative. Nevertheless, with a constructive plan in hand, it is entirely possible to achieve your dream of becoming a Surgeon in the United States. 


Best of luck,


Your fellow IMG Surgery Applicant,

Maria Vashchenko 

Maria Vashchenko is a 4th year medical student at St. George’s University, Grenada. She is a member of the Association of Women Surgeons Outreach Committee and is currently applying to General Surgery, with an interest in Surgical Oncology. She found her passion for Surgery while working on Stroke research at Stanford University performing middle cerebral artery occlusion surgeries on rodents. When not in school, her favorite way to spend her free time is being outdoors, hiking or skiing, and going to the beach.  Instagram: @imgclinical