An osteopathic medical student writes that she is older than most students, failed a course in her first year of med school, had to take the COMLEX (osteopathic equivalent to USMLE) several times before passing. She has earned good grades in her third-year rotations.
She said, "I found your blog one night earlier this week while doing research on obtaining a surgical residency. After reading your blog, I thought you might be able to help. What can I say to programs and put in my application to make me stand out as someone who they would value and honestly consider?"
I appreciate your reading my blog. As you have correctly pointed out, you have some problems. I hope you can handle the truth (from the movie "A Few Good Men").
1. You are an osteopathic student, which may adversely affect your ability to obtain a general surgery residency by a little to a lot, depending on where you apply.
2. You are a non-traditional student (not so bad) but your age of 33 is another issue. Should it matter? No. Does it matter? In my opinion, yes.
3. You had some trouble in the first year of school. That is usually a red flag, and many program directors would not get past that part of your dean's letter and transcript.
4. You have "struggled with the COMLEX and have had to take it multiple times" and you have not taken the USMLE.
With the disclaimer that this is strictly my opinion and I cannot say how you would be viewed by other PDs, your chances of matching to a categorical position in general surgery are slim.
What can you do to improve the odds? Here's what I would suggest.
To counteract the COMLEX issue, try to take at least USMLE Part I and do very well on it.
In your personal statement, you should own up to the concerns just as you did in your email to me except that you need to condense everything into a much shorter document. You should emphasize that you have conquered these shortcomings. You need to find med school teachers, particularly surgeons, who know you well and are willing to write exceedingly strong letters of recommendation. A letter from someone who a PD might have heard of would not hurt.
You then have to wait and see if you are invited for any interviews. If you are, you need to impress everyone with your charm, work ethic and intelligence.
You also need a "Plan B." Would you take a non-designated preliminary slot hoping for someone to falter or quit so you could transfer into a categorical position? It is risky because you might end up wasting a year or two and have to take a residency in something else anyway. That's not a big deal if you are 26 when you graduate from med school, but for you it would be.
Another option would be to do an internal medicine residency and specialize in GI or cardiology which are procedure oriented. It's not surgery, but it might be satisfying and certainly would be easier to achieve.
You didn't mention whether you had significant student loan debt or not. That needs to be factored in if you are considering the non-designated prelim choice.
I hope this helps. Let me know how it turns out.