University of Iowa Health Care

Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences

The Application Process

Residency Overview

Ophthalmology residencies are 3 years in length and require 1 year of general medical internship before you may begin.  A few programs, including Iowa, have an integrated intern year which offers many advantages including additional ophthalmology training compared to more traditional internships.  At residency programs without an integrated intern year, you may elect to do a preliminary year in internal medicine or general surgery, or you may choose a transitional year in which you rotate through a variety of different departments a few months at a time, similar to medical school.  Transitional years have a reputation of being less demanding of your time and they can be extremely competitive for this reason.  Not only do you compete with ophthalmology applicants for these positions, but also with applicants from other competitive fields such as dermatology, radiology, anesthesiology, and PM&R.

Many ophthalmologists decide to sub-specialize after residency by means of a fellowship.  Fellowships in ophthalmology range in length from 1-2 years.  Options include areas such as oculoplastics, retina, cornea and external disease, pediatrics, neuro-ophthalmology, glaucoma, and ocular pathology.


SF Match, CAS, ERAS, NRMP…  The application process is wrought with acronyms.  The San Francisco Match (SF Match) is the program responsible for organizing and processing your ophthalmology application materials.  The Central Application Service (CAS) then distributes the actual application form to programs and eventually the SF Match performs the algorithm which ultimately matches you with a residency program.

You apply for your intern year through the Electronic Residency Application Service (ERAS), which is the same service your colleagues are using for their residency applications to other fields.  The National Residency Matching Program (NRMP) is the organization responsible for matching you with a program for your intern year.

Electronic Application

The majority of your application is submitted electronically on the SF Match website.  You can start the electronic application on June 1st, and you may as well start it early as you can save your progress.  There are two main portions to the site, your SF Match profile and the CAS application.

The SF Match profile is the page you initially see upon logging into the site.  Among other things, it includes your name, address, USMLE Step 1 score, AOA status, and photo.  Because your application timeline is ahead of your peers applying to other fields, you may not yet have received a copy of your senior photo.  This isn't a problem, as most programs do not view this photo prior to interviews.  Including the photo is actually optional and is really only used as a visual reminder of who is who when programs are making their rank lists.  If you are concerned, you can always take your own photo at home.  Unlike your CAS application, your profile page may be updated after submission of your application as long as the SF Match hasn't yet distributed your information to programs. 

The CAS application is the online equivalent of your CV.  It was converted from a paper form to a digital version in 2010 and has since undergone many changes.  The website contains text boxes for you to enter and format information any way you wish.  Take advantage of different formatting – bold, italics, and underlining to emphasize different aspects of your application.  If you prepared a CV, it will now come in handy as you can essentially copy and paste the information into these text fields.  When you are finished, your application will be converted to a PDF document which is digitally distributed to residency programs for review.  While working on your application, you should check the "preview" at the end of each section and the "final preview" at the end of your application to see this final PDF version programs will be seeing.  The system is still under development and contains bugs.  You may find that the formatting in the generated PDF looks drastically different from what you entered.  You may find bold formatting, extra spaces, or even abrupt truncation of your information if it doesn't fit in the size constraints of the text box.  This also applies to what you have copied and pasted from Word, so check carefully. 

You will spend many exhausting hours preparing your application, but keep in mind the person reviewing your application will probably be skimming the entire thing in under a minute.  You want to make this person's life easy.  It is important to carefully organize your information, include dates, and be concise.  I would avoid full paragraphs for the majority of your application, and instead use bulleted lists.  You can copy and paste bullets from Microsoft Word, use hyphens as bullets, or utilize a combination of both for multileveled lists.  The only section that warrants a full paragraph, in my opinion, is the "career objectives" section.  Here you should describe whether you are most interested in academia or private practice, how you will balance research and clinical practice, and whether you are interested in any particular fellowships.  As mentioned elsewhere in this guide, it is best to lean toward academics and maintain ties to research for application and interview purposes, as this will increase your likelihood of receiving interviews at the more academic (and generally more esteemed) institutions. 

Personal Statement

Similar to applying for medical school, you will need to write a personal statement.  This should be a single page capturing your unique background with the path that led you to ophthalmology.  Use the opportunity to grab the attention of the person reading your application, but do not go too far with your creativity.  I recommend writing your personal statement like a novel, giving a brief overview of your life and the events that led to your interest in ophthalmology.  Be descriptive and try to paint a picture in the reader's mind.  Provide just enough information about interesting events and experiences to pique the reader's interest, but intentionally leave out detail so they are salivating for more.  This will create a desire to interview you so they may ask further questions, and create easy discussion points during your interview day.  Give them examples that demonstrate important qualities in the profession such as intelligence, fine motor skills, and the ability to communicate with others.  Let them connect the dots without explicitly mentioning how these activities relate to the field, then bring everything together in a grand conclusion paragraph.  Revise, revise, revise.  When you think you are done, put your statement down for a week, then revise it again.  The personal statement is a very important piece of your application package and you want it to leave a lasting impression.  The Carver College of Medicine has advice and examples at their website.

I have heard admissions committee members joke about some of the ridiculous personal statements they have read.  Sounding crazy in your personal statement ("the eye is the window to the soul…") may quickly land your application in the waste basket.  Do not talk about how your rare eye disease got you interested in ophthalmology because admitting such a disability can greatly handicap you in a very visual specialty and may cause programs to hesitate when considering your application.  Be very careful about how you word each sentence and the conclusion to which a critical reader may jump.  Those reviewing your personal statement will be carefully searching for any clue that may give them a reason not to invite you to interview.  Finally, and most importantly, do not misspell the word o-p-h-t-h-a-l-m-o-l-o-g-y!

You must also submit a personal statement with your ERAS application for intern year.  How you approach this is entirely up to you.  Some applicants resubmit their exact ophthalmology statement while others write a completely new one.  Most applicants, however, strike a happy medium by reusing the bulk of their ophthalmology statement while tweaking a few sentences in the conclusion paragraph to state how an intern year will make them a more rounded physician.  Prelim and transitional year admissions committees realize you are ultimately going into ophthalmology and are more interested in what led you to choosing that specialty rather than why you are dying to be an intern for a year.

Program List

The final component of the online application is a list of all programs to which you would like your application to be submitted.  Choosing programs can be tricky and is discussed later in this guide.  You are billed for each program you include, and this price rises incrementally as you apply to more programs (see table below).  If you are submitting a well-pruned list, it is in your best interest to determine your definitive list prior to submitting your application, as later add-ons come at an inflated price of $35 per program regardless of how many programs were selected in the initial distribution.  If you are initially applying to over 40 programs, you will be paying $35 each at that point anyway, so there is no increase in price for later add-ons.

# of CAS Distributions


1 – 10

$60 (flat fee)

11 – 20

$10 per program

21 – 30

$15 per program

31 – 40

$20 per program

41 or more

$35 per program


last updated: 08/13/2015
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  • Vislisel J. The Iowa Guide to the Ophthalmology Match. August 13, 2015; Available from:
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