Your Hard Work is Not Impressive

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Every now and then, I review letters of intent from intern or resident applicants that have something along the lines of, “When I was a student, I regularly worked 80-hour shifts,” or “When I was an intern, I often did 14-day-long shifts.”  I understand, working that much is ridiculous.  Being able to do it successfully demonstrates significant grit.  It’s hard to push through that and still have a smile on your face.  Unfortunately, for internship and resident applicants, this level of work is expected.

In the VIRMP standard letter of recommendation, there is a question, “How would you evaluate the work ethic of this applicant?”  This is not a question designed to separate the top 5% from the rest.  This is a question designed to determine: “Can this person perform the minimal duties required for this position?”  For better or worse, we have an expectation in medicine that people work long, ridiculous hours and shifts.  I have an acquaintance who’s in a human surgery residency program who worked 45 days straight, most of which were 12+ hour days.  I’m not saying this is right.  I’m not saying it’s good (it isn’t).  But it’s the way things are.

So, I expect anyone entering an internship or residency can pull an 18-hour shift without complaint.  I expect that they can work 7 days straight.  For better or worse, there are dozens (or hundreds) of applicants who CAN and WILL do this.  So if you can’t or won’t, there’s someone else who will.  I think this is a tragedy because it precludes people with families or physiologic conditions which don’t allow for them to work this much.  Nonetheless, it is “industry standard”, at least right now.

As a result, your ability and willingness to work that hard isn’t noteworthy.  It is expected.  It doesn’t make you remarkable or enhance your application.  It’s space you don’t have to waste, because you have to keep the letter to one page.  Use that space to provide an example of how good you are to work with, or how diligent you are, or some other valuable, unique characteristic.  Now, if you want to assure the reader that you CAN work that hard, by all means mention that you HAVE worked that hard.  But don’t expect it to set you apart.  Everyone applying to an internship or residency is willing to work hard.  What do YOU bring to the program?

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