Misunderstanding the Match: Do Students Create Rank Lists Based on True Preferences?

West J Emerg Med. 2020 Dec 9;21(1):4-7. doi: 10.5811/westjem.2019.10.44308.


Introduction: The "stable marriage" algorithm underlying the National Residency Match Program (NRMP) has been shown to create optimal outcomes when students submit true preference lists. Previous research has shown students may allow external information to affect their rank lists. The objective of this study was to determine whether medical students consistently make rank lists that reflect their true preferences.

Methods: A voluntary online survey was sent to third-year students at a single midwestern medical school. Students were given hypothetical scenarios that either should or should not affect their true residency preferences and rated the importance of six factors to their final rank list. The survey was edited by a group of education scholars and revised based on feedback from a pilot with current postgraduate year 1 residents.

Results: Of 175 students surveyed, 140 (80%) responded; 63% (88/140) reported that their "perceived competitiveness" would influence their rank list at least a "moderate amount. Of 135 students, 31 (23%) moved a program lower on their list if they learned they were ranked "low" by that program, while 6% (8/135) of respondents moved a program higher if they learned they were ranked "at the top of the list." Participants responded similarly (κ = 0.71) when presented with scenarios asking what they would do vs what a classmate should do.

Conclusion: Students' hypothetical rank lists did not consistently match their true residency preferences. These results may stem from a misunderstanding of the Match algorithm. Medical schools should consider augmenting explicit education related to the NRMP Match algorithm to ensure optimal outcomes for students.

MeSH terms

  • Algorithms
  • Choice Behavior*
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Internship and Residency*
  • Male
  • School Admission Criteria*
  • Schools, Medical
  • Students, Medical / psychology*
  • Students, Medical / statistics & numerical data
  • Surveys and Questionnaires
  • United States