Happiest Outcome Guaranteed: How the Match Works

Rank order lists are open! We’re really getting down to the wire now. We now have a little more than a week left to rank our programs and submit lists. Then a two week wait where the algorithm holds our fates hostage. Ugh.

This cycle has gone by a lot faster than last cycle did for me. I don’t know if that’s because I had an interview later in the game, or because I’ve been working 10 hour shifts, 4 days a week, so my weeks go by faster. Probably both. I’ve also been pretty conscious this cycle of trying to enjoy my life for what it is, rather than waste away waiting for Match Day. I’m trying, at least.

Image of me and my grandpa beside a ferris wheel
As I’ve shared, I’ve been trying to enjoy the things in the Salt Lake area that I’ve been meaning to check out for the past six and a half years. I am obviously WAY too excited that I finally rode on the ferris wheel inside of Scheels outdoor store. That’s my grandpa who rode it with me.

This week I wanted to go over the matching algorithm. All of us participating get it, but it can be hard to explain to people used to the more traditional acceptance/waitlist/rejection model of admissions. Essentially, The Match allows programs to make a list of applicants they’d like in their program, in order of most to least preferred. They generally rank about two times as many applicants as they have positions for. In essence, they rank an “acceptance list” and then a “waitlist”. Meanwhile, applicants submit a list of programs they interviewed at, in their preferred order. Then, the computer attempts to make the best possible matches. It wants all of us to match to programs if we can, and to match to the most preferred program where it is possible to match.

Fellow applicants out there, share this with your loved ones who want to support you on Match Day, but might have no idea what’s going on with The Match!

Before we get started on the algorithm, I want to recommend a post from my friend Mandy which answers some questions about what Match is and how to rank.


Okay folks. Let’s hop into this algorithm.

The best way to go about it? Let’s run a match. Here’s our scenario.

Seven applicants, three programs.

As a side note, all of the squiggly lines on Program B’s rank order list represent applicants other than the seven we see here, all of whom ranked Program B as their first choice.

It already looks crazy. But wait for it……..

Here’s what it looks like after I ran it through the matching algorithm.

It’s also important to note that Program A offers 2 slots, Program B offers 4 slots, and Program C offers 2 slots.

And we all wonder why the match process confuses our families.

Now let’s break down what happened. The first applicant is named WD (top left corner). WD interviewed at 2 programs– Program A and Program C. Each of those programs has 2 open slots. WD ranked Program C 1st on their rank order list. So, the Match begins by trying to match WD to Program C. WD was ranked as the 4th most preferred applicant on Program C’s list. Since no one else is currently matched to Program C, WD is matched to Program C… for now.

The Match moves on to the second applicant, named BS. BS only interviewed at Program A. Program A then ranked BS as their most preferred applicant. BS matches to Program A and no one can displace them.

The Match now attempts to match the third applicant, MB. MB interviewed at all three programs, and they ranked C as their first choice. However, Program C did not rank MB, so MB cannot match there. Because MB is still unmatched, The Match attempts to place them in their second choice program, Program B. MB is second on Program B’s rank order list. Since Program B has 4 available slots and MB is in their top 4 applicants, MB matches to Program B and no one can displace them.

Due to the squiggly lines in Program B’s rank order list all representing applicants who ranked Program B #1, Program B is now full.

The Match continues with applicant SB. SB only interviewed at Program C. Fortunately, they are ranked #1 on Program C’s rank order list. SB matches with Program C and no one can displace them.

Program C is now full.

On to applicant 5, RD. RD interviewed with Programs B and C, but decided not to rank Program C. The only program RD can match with is the program they ranked– Program B. The Match attempts to match RD with Program B. Unfortunately, RD is ranked fifth on Program B’s rank order list, and the program only has 4 spots. As I mentioned earlier, squiggly lines in Program B’s rank order list represent applicants that ranked Program B as their first choice. MB, as well as the top three “squigglys” are all matched to Program B, and cannot be displaced by the lower ranked RD. Since RD only ranked Program B, and all slots are filled there, RD will go unmatched.

The Match now attempts to match the next applicant, LL. LL interviewed at Program A and Program C. LL prefers Program A. Program A has listed LL as their 2nd choice applicant, and they have 2 slots. LL matches to Program A and no one can displace them.

Program A is now full. But… there’s one more applicant?! Well, turns out, our friend RS still has a chance.

The Match moves to the final applicant, RS. RS interviewed at all three programs and chose Program A as their first choice, Program B as second choice, and Program C as third choice. However, Program A has been filled by their top 2 applicants. RS was ranked 3rd, but cannot match to Program A because BS and LL are preferred applicants and are both matched to Program A. So, the Match attempts to match RS with Program B. Program B had four slots, but also filled all four slots already with applicants who are preferred above RS. So, The Match tries to match RS with Program C. Up to this point, SB and WD have been occupying the 2 slots at Program C.

HOWEVER... and this is where things get interesting…

RS is ranked 3rd on Program C’s rank order list. WD is ranked 4th. RS outranks WD and bumps them out of Program C. RS is matched to Program C.

Now WD is unmatched. Remember that Program C was WD’s first choice, and WD still has a second choice that the algorithm can attempt to match them to. However, WD’s second choice is Program A. WD is ranked 4th by Program A, and they only offer 2 slots. Those slots have already been claimed by the applicants who were ranked first and second by Program A. So, in the end, WD goes unmatched.

So, here’s a summary.

  • WD went unmatched
  • BS matched to Program A. Program A was BS’s 1st choice, and BS was Program A’s most preferred applicant for a class size of 2.
  • MB matched to Program B. Program B was MB’s 2nd choice, and MB was Program B’s 2nd most preferred applicant for a class size of 4.
  • Three other applicants we didn’t talk about filled up Program B.
  • SB matched to Program C. Program C was SB’s 1st choice and SB was Program C’s most preferred applicant for a class size of 2.
  • RD went unmatched
  • LL matched to Program A. Program A was LL’s 1st choice, and LL was Program B’s 2nd most preferred applicant for a class size of 2.
  • RS matched to Program C. Program C was RS’s third choice, and RS was Program C’s 3rd most preferred applicant for a class size of 2. RS was able to match to Program C, despite not being in their top 2 applicants, because one of their top 2 applicants (LL) matched their 1st choice, Program A.

In conclusion, be kind to anyone you know who is going through The Match.

It’s long and drawn-out. We find out if and where we’re going to school much later than a lot of other graduate school applicants. Unlike most master’s degrees, genetic counseling admissions is extremely competitive and a multi-step process. As demonstrated by our pretend applicants here, number of interviews doesn’t accurately predict admission. We put ourselves out there, sometimes 2, 3, or 4 cycles, and try to achieve our dreams.

And we will not know anything until the morning of April 26th.

Anyway, if anyone out there wants to see a much better example of a match being run, check out this video from the National Resident Matching Program. Different match, same algorithm.

Well, there’s like 3 weeks left. I’m scared and I’m excited. And I’m mostly glad we’re going to Disneyland that weekend.

I’m wishing the best for everyone. 💖

-Laura Cooper-Hastings

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