by Kyle Wilson, Grad Student Year 4, University of Maryland School of Medicine MD/PhD program

The time for third year medical students to start applying for “away” electives is quickly approaching. Historically, most radiology residents have not participated in an away rotation; when done correctly, they can improve your chances of matching into a competitive residency program.

Away rotations afford you the opportunity to work in a new location, with a different patient population and new professors. It offers you an extended view into the machinations of a different program—ideally, one where you would consider applying for residency. On the other hand, it offers the faculty of that program an extended view of you! You’ll need to be at the top of your game, all while settling into a new environment. For advice on presenting your best self during an IR elective, read this article.

Assuming that you have decided that an away elective is right for you, you need to determine what you’re looking for in your elective. Do you want letters of recommendation? Exposure to a specific procedure? Exposure to a specific faculty member? Completing an IR rotation at your home institution before applying for your away rotation may help you answer some of these questions. (NB: If your home institution doesn’t offer an IR rotation, an away rotation is highly encouraged!)

Once you know what you’re looking for, you need to decide where you’d like to do your elective. Unfortunately, not all IR away electives are organized through VSAS. Luckily, Alex Jo of the SIR MSC has built a database of IR away electives here. You should spend some time talking to other students who have already rotated through the institutions you’re considering. Make sure that they were able to get the experiences you’re seeking; otherwise, you risk wasting very valuable rotation time for naught!

After you know where you’d like to apply, you should try to determine the best time to do your rotation. The consensus is that any time from August and until early October of your fourth year is best. This allows the faculty you rotate with to write you a letter of recommendation in time for your residency application. A July rotation is suboptimal, because the program will be busy with their new IR fellows. An October rotation can still be useful for convincing a program to interview you, but you’ll want to have your letters arranged by that point.

The timing is arguably the most difficult aspect of applying to away rotations. Apply as early as you can, per the dates listed on the program’s website. Positions are often competitive to nail down, and you may be faced with the decision of whether to apply to several institutions for a single elective block to ensure placement. Carefully consider the ramifications of this. Some applications are reviewed by program directors as well as the administrative staff. You may want to avoid having to withdraw an application to a school to which you will be applying for residency later on. Keep close track of the timelines for this reason.

Finally, you should contact your chosen site early on. Discuss your career plans and goals for the rotation, and see if you can get an idea of what they expect from rotating students. Use this as a final chance to confirm that the site and time you have chosen will work.

Away electives take more time and effort than opting for an elective at your institution. Expect to work hard; the bar is set high for visiting students, who are often expected to treat the rotation as an audition, and generally to work harder than the students from the host institution. However, the rewards are significantly greater as well. I urge you to spend some time considering this opportunity, and, if you choose to rotate at another institution, to do your very best and enjoy yourself!