Milling around the basement of Turner Auditorium at Johns Hopkins Hospital, about 100 medical students nibbled on snacks, sipped diet sodas and anxiously awaited the hour.
Around the room, conversation was stilted. As the clock ticked down, they sat through an a cappella gospel performance, and not one, not two, not three, but four speeches.
And then, precisely at noon, the secret was revealed. Each student tore open an envelope.
Yesterday was "Match Day," the annual ritual by which 15,000 medical students at 125 schools across the country found out where they'll spend their residencies - the post-grad training that lasts from three to seven years.
Match Day was started 56 years ago to create a fair way to dole out residencies. The program is run by the National Resident Matching Program, a private, non-profit organization.
This year, 94 percent of the applicants were matched to a residency program; 84 percent were matched to one of their top three choices, according to the matching program.
Everyone at Johns Hopkins - and almost everyone at the University of Maryland School of Medicine - was matched. Those who were not matched must now begin the even more stressful "scramble," contacting residency programs individually to seek a slot.
Some specialties have become particularly competitive. Plastic surgery and dermatology are becoming more popular, largely because these disciplines offer comparatively high pay and short hours. However, the number of slots in these specialties is much smaller than others, such as internal medicine or pediatrics, heightening the competition.
For Hopkins students Caitlin Costello and Nicole Edmond, the match was a very good one.
Standing among their classmates, Costello and Edmond ripped open their envelopes. The pair, close friends who had endured the hardships of four years of medical school together, shrieked with delight and hugged: Both got their first choice, and would be staying in Baltimore, working in the Johns Hopkins psychiatry department.
"I'm very excited. It feels like home because I've been here for four years," Costello said.
Equally pleased was Dr. Thomas Koenig, the medical school's associate dean for student affairs, as well as a psychiatrist who will work with the pair during their residency.
"I'm so happy they're gonna stay with us," he said.
Koenig knew where they would go even before the envelope-opening - as dean, he had known everyone's destination since Wednesday.
"We knew he couldn't tell us," Costello said. "But it was weird to see him [before noon], knowing he knew. When I talked to him, I was wondering, is that an `excited you'll be in our program' hello, or a `sorry you'll be leaving us' hello?"
Koenig said that for most of Hopkins' students, it's a happy day: Because the school is among the best in the country, most students get one of their top choices.
Paulette Grey, who will study family medicine, was matched with her first choice, Provident Hospital on the south side of Chicago.
Although she'd grown up in Louisiana, she'd been born in Chicago and has lots of relatives there.
"I'm ecstatic," she said, blinking away tears. "I don't have the words to describe how awesome this is."
Grey was prescient - or a bit cocky. When she lost her cell phone two months ago, she decided to get a new number, with a new area code: 312, which happens to be Chicago's. "I thought it would be a good show of faith," she said, laughing. "Now people [in Chicago] can call me for free."
Provident has special meaning for Grey, who is African-American. The hospital was started in 1890 by famed African-American surgeon Daniel Hale-Williams and a group of African-American doctors and ministers to serve the black community, which was then generally excluded from other Chicago hospitals.
"The history of the institution is so rich," she said.
At the University of Maryland yesterday, the same drama was unfolding. "There's a lot of nervousness," said Dr. Joe Martinez, assistant dean for student affairs at the school.
Maryland students Amanda Doherty and Parijot Didulkar were really hoping to get matched to the same location. They're already matched to each other: They're engaged. They had put in for a "couples match," requesting the same locations in the same order.
When they opened the envelopes, they were happy. They'll both be going to University of Indiana Hospital in Indianapolis, their fourth choice, out of 30. Didulkar will study general surgery, Doherty will do pediatrics.
Not everyone was as happy. Juan Baez and his girlfriend, Cheryl Adackapara, hoped to be posted to the same city, she for pathology, he for radiology. They also put in for a couples match.
They got what they wanted - kind of. They're both going to Boston, to Brigham and Women's Hospital. But Baez will spend his first year at Hopkins, meaning that starting in July, the couple will spend a year apart.
"The outcome was fine," Baez said afterward. But he admitted the first year would be "the hard part."
Some students found out they'll follow in family footsteps, literally. Delphine Robotham will be a pediatric resident at Hopkins - something she's been dreaming about since she was a girl, when she wandered the Hopkins pediatric department with her father, Dr. Jim Robotham, who now works at a hospital in Rochester, N.Y.
"I'm so excited," she said, standing with her younger sister Melissa and her best friend Meredith Goodell, both of whom live in Baltimore.
"I'm having a party Friday night," Robotham said. "The title was `Who Wants Me?' That's gonna change, now that we know who wants me."