6 Myths about the APPIC Match Algorithm

Posted by: Kenn on March 15, 2013 | No Comments »

Myth #1: The computerized nature of The Match limits freedom of choice for both applicants and internship programs.

This is a common misperception and one APPIC has been trying to correct since they switched to a computerized matching system. The fact is, using a computerized algorithm provides both applicants and internship sites freedom of choice while ensuring decisions are handled in an efficient and ethical manner. Using such an algorithm guarantees the most favorable outcomes possible for all parties involved. Remarkably, the matching algorithm does not need to be computerized at all; it could be done entirely by hand. Using a computer simply makes the process quicker and protects against human error.

As described in my previous blog article, APPIC Match Algorithm Explained, the Match algorithm uses Rank Order Lists provided by both candidates and internship sites. The Match does not involve any form of arbitrary or contrived assignment of applicants to programs, rather it is based entirely on what student’s have submitted. Each party has the freedom to choose whomever they want to put on their lists. Furthermore, an applicant CANNOT be matched with a program that is not on their Rank Order List; just as an internship site cannot be matched with an applicant who is not on their Rank Order List.

Myth #2: To increase the chances of getting a match, students should rank sites based on how highly they think a site prefers them, instead of how much they prefer a site.

Applicants should always construct their Rank Order List based on their true preferences. The likelihood of matching at an internship site should not be taken into consideration when choosing where a site goes on a student’s Rank Order List.

The matching algorithm attempts to place an applicant into a site in sequence based on the applicant’s stated preferences. An applicant will not match to an internship site for two reasons: (1) either the program did not rank the applicant, or (2) the program has filled all its positions with more desirable candidates. The fact that an applicant does not match to one program does not affect the applicant’s chances of matching to the next program on their list. Similarly, ranking additional less preferred choices will not jeopardize or affect the applicant’s chances of matching to a more preferred program.

As an example, consider the below fictional Rank Order Lists from three internship sites and two applicants.

Stress Clinic
1 Position
Child Center
1 Positions
 State VA
2 Position
1. Kate 1. Tom 1. Jane
2. Tom 2. Jane 2. Tom


Tom Kate
1. Stress Clinic 1. Child Center
2. Child Center 2. State VA
3. State VA 3. Stress Clinic

Kate has listed her sites based on her true preferences (which is what you should do), while Tom has listed his according to where he believes he is most likely to obtain a position (something you should NOT do).

As the Match algorithm runs, Tom will be tentatively matched with the Stress Clinic because there is an available position and he was ranked by that site. Next, an attempt will be made to place Kate into the Child Center. The Child center unfortunately did not rank Kate on their list, so she is not matched there. Next, an attempt will be made to match her to the State VA, but again she was not ranked and therefore cannot match at that site either. Because Kate did not match with either of her first two sites, an attempt will be made to match her to the Stress Clinic. Since the Stress Clinic prefers Kate to Tom, Tom is replaced with Kate.

From the above example, it is clear that Kate did not jeopardized her chances of matching with the Stress Clinic by placing that site lower on her list or by not being ranked by the other sites. Similarly, Tom did not increase his chances of matching to the Stress Clinic by putting the program higher on his list.

Now that Tom has been replaced with Kate, the algorithm tries to match him with his second choice, the Child Center. The Child center ranked Tom very high, so he matches with them. Unfortunately, Tom actually wanted to go to the State VA, which he would have matched with, but because his Rank Order List was arranged based on where he believed he was most likely to obtain a position, he missed out on going to his preferred site. Tom jeopardized his chances of being matching where he actually wanted to go by ranking other sites ahead of his preferred site.

Myth #3: To increase the chances of getting a match, it is better for students to know or guess how the site will rank them.

As shown in the previous example, applicants should always rank sites based on their true preferences, regardless of how they feel the site will rank them. Students can actually hurt their chances of securing their top choice by crafting their Rank Order Lists based on any other criteria other than their true order of preference. This advice comes from Greg Keilin, PhD, vice chair of the APPIC board and the match coordinator. “The system is designed to respond to people’s choices,” says Keilin, who sums up his ranking advice in a chapter of the book “Internships in Psychology: The APAGS Workbook for Writing Successful Applications and Finding the Right Match” (APA, 2003). “You want the computer to know your top choices so it can advocate for you,” he adds. “If you submit a rank order list that is anything other than your true preferences, it’s self-sabotage.”

For example, if a site is your last choice, but ranks you higher on their list, there is no benefit in ranking that site higher on your list. The algorithm is designed to try to match you with your top choices first, yet your chances of matching to your last choice won’t be reduced if your more-preferred sites don’t work out.

Knowledge of how an internship site ranks you has no effect on the chances of matching. Therefore neither applicants nor programs need to engage in inappropriate behaviors or propositions when building their Rank Order Lists (e.g., “I’ll rank you high only if you rank me high”). It simply doesn’t matter.

As an applicant, if an internship site makes such comments to you, know that information regarding your rankings of other programs is never shared with internship sites. So continue to create your rank order list based on your true preferences. If you match at that site, the program may continue to think you ranked it first, regardless of where you actually ranked the program. However, if you match to another program, the first program may be disappointed, but you have received a position you preferred more. Trying to pressure applicants or programs into inappropriately high rankings does not help in the Match process (and is a direct violation of APPIC Match Policies).

Myth #4: Applicants or Internship Sites can somehow “beat the system” based on how they make their Rank Order Lists. Conversely, applicants can be treated unfairly based on how other sites make their lists.

By now you should notice a theme in these answers. The best strategy for applicants to follow is to build their Rank Order List based on their true preferences.

Consider Tom in our previous example. Tom listed the Child Center second on his list but he actually preferred the State VA most of all which he listed 3rd. Since Tom was already tentatively matched to the Child Center, the algorithm will not even look at his other choices, which were actually his more preferred sites. This is the case even if the other sites listed Tom as very high on their list. Tom missed out on the internship he really wanted. The Match algorithm is to give student’s Rank Order List priority. In short, ALWAYS rank your sites based on your ACTUAL preferences.

Furthermore, based on how The Match algorithm works, an applicant’s rank at one internship site cannot influence that applicant’s chances of matching at other internship sites. So you don’t need to worry about the possibility of being treated unfairly based on how other sites rank you. Your chances of matching at each site are independently evaluated.

Myth #5: The Match algorithm aims to maximize the number of matches, not to give each person the best match.

The Match algorithm starts with a student’s first choice and continues down their Rank Order List one at a time. The algorithm will only move to the next ranked site if the student cannot be tentatively matched to the previous site. This can only happen in two instances: (1) either the program did not rank the applicant, or (2) the program has filled all its positions with more desirable candidates. The more internship sites a student lists on their Rank Order List the more opportunities they have to match.

This myth has caused some students to reduce the number of sites they rank thinking the algorithm will try harder to match them because they have fewer sites listed. This is a very bad idea and can only limit the number of potential sites the algorithm will try to rank you at. Students who utilize such misguided strategies only hurt their chances by eliminating sites they might have matched with or betting on a single site choosing them.

Myth #6: Students should prioritize internship sites in their hometown.

Although students should always build their Rank Order List based on his or her actual preferences, it is unwise for applicants to limit themselves geographically and expect to match. Students who rank internships based on their location alone, often apply to sites that are not a good fit for their strengths and skillset. This decreases the likelihood that the site will rank the student highly, which means the student may not match.

According to the 2008 APPIC Applicant Survey, the match rate dropped 13% for respondents who limited their site choices geographically due to family, financial or health reasons. A better idea: Cast a wide net and be willing to move to that perfect site not so near you.