Published in Non-Clinical

Top 5 Tips for Applying to Residency Programs

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7 min read

If you're looking to obtain specialized experience, then an optometry residency is the way to go. Read on to learn the top five tips to ace the application process.

Top 5 Tips for Applying to Residency Programs
In the midst of starting your final year externship rotations, seeing patients full time, moving, studying, and recovering from part one boards, you’ve also decided to pursue optometric residency. For many, this major decision requires a lot of forethought and reflection on your personal and professional goals. Deciding to make this commitment in yourself is perhaps the most difficult step.
While certainly not a requirement, optometric residency can open many professional doors. It gives you a competitive edge and instills the clinical confidence necessary for a fulfilling career. This article will walk you through the next steps to take to crush the application process. Learn how to successfully match with your dream residency program.

1. Know your professional goals

Reverse engineering your long term professional goals can help refine the decision-making process of choosing your ideal residency program. Do you primarily see your career in a hospital/community health-type setting? Commercial/retail? Private practice? Academia? Do you prefer to live in a big city? Or more rural? These types of questions will help drive the decision-making process.
For example, I knew early on that I wanted to live and practice in a rural setting. I also chose an ocular disease residency over other types. I did so because I wanted the clinical skill set and confidence to treat any patient that walked through the door. Do I see patients who could benefit from low vision or specialty contact lens services? Sure. However, obtaining a strong skill set in ocular disease management provided the biggest benefit. Ultimately, this option was the best fit for my professional goals.

2. Start early

They say “the early bird gets the worm.” When it comes to residency applications, this old adage still holds true. As you’re settling into your first externship rotation (ok, maybe the second), consider compiling a list of your top programs and reaching out to each of them over email or phone call. First, compose a generic cover letter that you can tailor and send to each prospective program. This is a great way to start. Explain a little about yourself, your optometry school/academic history, and your career goals. Most importantly, explain why you’re interested in what that specific program has to offer.
You’ll eventually apply and rank your programs through the OR Match. Beforehand, you’ll want to make contact with your top choice programs. Meet the residency director/coordinator and set up a site visit if possible.
Typically, applicants are invited to visit each residency site later in the application process. If your summer or fall externship rotation site is closer in proximity to the residency programs you’re interested in, most programs will make exceptions and meet with you sooner than intended. Coordinate residency site visits while you’re already in the area on rotation and save you a cross-country flight later on.
Establishing a good rapport with the attending optometrist(s) at your second/third-year clerkship sites and/or your fourth-year externship sites is also important. You’ll likely be requesting their letters of recommendation when you’re applying for residency, so stay in touch.

3. Show your face

As previously mentioned, setting up a site visit to your top program(s) can be a great way to show prospective residency directors that you’re an interested, qualified, and serious candidate. If several programs are close in proximity to one another, you can set up multiple site visits in one trip. Most final year externship sites are understanding and accommodating in allowing students to have time off for this.
I initially thought that an email or phone interview was satisfactory early on in my application process. However, after several site visits and in-person interviews I soon realized that these are a much better option. Visit the area and meet the optometry department/residency director of your prospective program if you can.


Being specific is key to landing your dream residency. For example, there are dozens of ocular disease residency programs, some even within the same state/city. Why are you a good candidate for this specific program? You’ll soon find that there are minor differences between each that you can capitalize on and use to help make your case. For example, you may get extra specialty contact lens exposure over here or have the opportunity to observe retina surgery and give CE lectures over there. The majority of ocular disease residencies will provide ample training on managing glaucoma and diabetic retinopathy. Thus, it’s important to be aware of the subtle differences in each. Use this knowledge to your advantage throughout the interview/application process.

4. Network with current residents

It can be very beneficial to speak with the current resident of your top program to obtain a true perspective of a “day in the life” in clinic. Get to know the current resident(s) at your prospective residency program. Doing so is a great way to refine your selection process and help with ranking sites. Do the residents take after-hours call? How many patients per day do they typically see? What age groups? Are opportunities to engage in research or give CE lectures available? Will I exclusively just see contact lens patients, low vision, or VT? Or a mix of everything? What cool things are there to do for residents outside of work? Consider asking these questions when meeting current residents.
Attending conferences and CE events can also be a great way to network with past/present residents all under one roof. The American Academy of Optometry’s “residents day” is a good example. This event provides an opportunity for students and residents to network and interact.

5. Rank your sites

You’ve aligned your professional goals with an optometric niche/specialty, you’ve decided your ideal career trajectory, and you’ve made a strong case for why these specific programs will help you attain your goals. You’ve done your research, gone on interviews/site visits, and networked with current residents. The final piece of the puzzle is to rank your sites.
It is not uncommon for applicants to rank five or more sites. You’ll have your top choices, however it is always good to have a plan B. These programs may not be your first choice. However, they will still provide a similar clinical/academic experience that align with your goals. Remember, it’s only 12 months of your life.
Congratulations on making this big decision along your academic and professional path. Take things one step at a time, and be patient throughout the process. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a residency trained optometrist who regrets their decision or advises against residency training. In fact, with the changing landscape of our profession and healthcare overall, we’ll likely continue to see a rise in new grad ODs opting to pursue an optometric niche through residency training.
Kevin Cornwell, OD
About Kevin Cornwell, OD

Dr. Kevin Cornwell graduated from The New England College of Optometry in 2015. He went on to complete a residency in ocular and systemic disease with Indian Health Services in Zuni, New Mexico. He now works with MACT Health Board, Inc in Northern California, a nonprofit organization that provides healthcare for Native Americans. He is enthusiastic about bringing eye care to populations in need, both domestically and abroad. He has been involved with several humanitarian outreach projects, in various parts of California, New Mexico, Nicaragua and Mexico. He is passionate about managing the ocular manifestations of systemic disease, and monitoring ocular pathology through retinal imaging with spectral domain optical coherence tomography. He’s also an avid health crusader and enjoys educating and encouraging patients to better manage metabolic disease. Dr. Cornwell enjoys hiking in the Sierras and recording music as a guitarist for Cornwell Studios' youtube channel.

Kevin Cornwell, OD
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