Leila Amiri is the Director of the Office of Medical College Admissions at UICOM (University of Illinois College of Medicine). We go step by step through the admissions process at her medical school.
Leila talks about how she has directed her team to evaluate applications. We look at day one, when your application gets processed and sent to the medical school. How do they look at secondary applications, the full application, and the MCAT score to determine who gets an interview invite? Once somebody is interviewed, how do they determine who gets an acceptance? Learn how all this process happens.
Additionally, if you’re somebody who has applied to the University of Illinois and you’ve been rejected, now you can see behind-the-scenes, what goes on and maybe where your application fell short.
[02:45] A Brief Background About Leila and Her Moral Obligation
For Leila, it all started with her being a peer advisor as a Biology undergraduate, working her way through the ranks as an advisor and becoming the Director of Advising. Then she got really engaged with and appreciating the passion in the premed students. She began to look for an opportunity to be able to work with them exclusively. So once the position opened up in the admissions at the medical school where she was working, she took advantage of it. So she started working as an Admissions Director back in 2009 in Florida.
Being on the other side of the table is what Leila found as a struggle. Believing in her students, she knew what they needed was a chance. And if one medical school would give them the opportunity, they could go there and prove how great they are and how they can enhance the lives of everyone that they touch moving forward.
Being on the other side, she realized the moral obligation with admitting students. They want good people and and who have traveled the distance. They want students who will really put their heart out there for their patients. And the other piece of it is looking at the student’s capability to make it through the curriculum. This was the piece she says she really learned about once she came to the side of the table.
The fun part of being on the admissions side is interacting with students while letting those students who don’t make it the first time, know that there’s always hope. There are ways you can do to make your application stronger and better. Or submit it to the school that’s the right fit for you.
[06:30] Behind the Scenes: What Should the Next Class Look Like?
Every year, the application cycle opens and medical schools get their first big batch of applications by the end of June so they can start sift through and see who they want to interview.
Leila works for a mission-driven school, specifically working for social justice and the commitment to the under represented and underserved communities. Every year, they have a process for screening applicants. But their committee sits down and revisits the process to make sure they’re looking for the right intangible pieces of the application.
At their school, their faculty are okay with students who had some hiccups along the way. The records may not be outstanding but they’ve stuck to it and they’ve persevered and they’ve tried as hard as they can to make it through.
The other part of the application would be all the experiences and activities the student has spent and invested to make sure they understand what it means to be a physician. They should understand what the job looks like and who they will be serving. Do they understand that this is a lifetime commitment? This isn’t a job, this is a lifestyle that they’re choosing. So it’s expected of them to be able to take care of people as long as they can.
Leila explains that they usually start with revisiting their screening process from last year. The mission is the same but who did they accept last year, were they happy with who they brought in, and what they would want it to look like next year.
[09:25] How Students Can Align with the School’s Mission
If you look at the mission of University of Illinois, they’re similar to other schools where they have the 3-pronged mission relating to research, service, and providing care. What Leila likes about their program is that as they bring students in, about a third of them fit each part of the mission.
All this being said, not everyone is going to be interested in research. These are the students who have spent a lot of time and effort working with communities and patients. So they’re meeting the service mission and the providing care mission.
As they looked at the students they’ve admitted this year and last year, they see that aside from the fact that they’ve seen a third of the students fitting each of their categories, they’re also exhibiting excellence. They’ve had students spending thousands of hours doing research and have had couple of publications. They were awarded some of the grants in their institutions. They’ve had some time in the clinic as well as doing service. But those hours are much less compared to the time they’ve spent doing research. This is okay.
[11:30] The Step by Step Screening Process
Leila says they don’t have a minimal threshold where below it students won’t be considered. But they’re one of the schools that doesn’t release secondaries to all students. This is their first pass. If a student doesn’t receive an invitation to complete a secondary, that signals to them that based on the academic credentials presented to them, they don’t think there’s a possibility that the student passed. Leila describes this bar as being very low. This would mean a student who struggled in every single science class they took, have had a few failures, had to retake them, and those repetitions weren’t all that good.
Then they come to the students who have received the secondary. They’re average was sitting around 3.6-3.7 but this range is so broad. They will see students with 2.5’s and 2.9’s who even got admitted as well. What they want is a student who’s taken a broad range of science classes. They struggled in the beginning but they managed to understand how to do well in science and they’ve held an upward trajectory as far as they could until they graduate.
Additionally, they also have a postbac program. For students who have done well in terms of their service and have done extremely well in terms of their patient care but their life circumstances have prevented them from dedicating their time to their studies, they would invite students to join their postbac or prematriculation programs. This way, they have opportunities to learn with their faculty to give them the academic skillset they need to be successful.
[14:15] How They Look at a Low GPA
Leila explains there are reasons students don’t do well in school. They could just be having a lot of of fun time in college. And a lot of times, these students could be involved in a lot of things like leadership, sorority or fraternity, service, etc. So basically they were spreading themselves too thinly. Because everyone is an A-type personality, they aren’t willing to give those things up. They don’t give themselves the opportunity to do well.
So if that distraction was removed from you and you only had the time to study, what will it look like? Either you’re reapplying or maybe a couple years had passed and you want to do medicine now, you really need to take some science classes in order to show them what you have. Leila explains this is where the manual process begins. Because when they calculate the GPA, it includes all the undergraduate classes. And sometimes, it’s hard to get that GPA to move. So once they see this separation, they look at it separately. They will calculate it manually just to see where the student’s GPA is. This means looking at them one by one and looking at what they’ve done.
One of the process their committee has approved is to remove a full year of course work from a student’s record. So if a student comes in and freshmen year is really tough, and the GPA is bad but then everything is great, then they’ll take it out. So they go from being a 2.7 to now 3.5 or 3.6 because they’ve removed all of that.
Then there’s another scenario where if they have the good grades and all these extracurricular activities and the MCAT, they know it was just freshman blunder. What’s important is for students to be clear with us. If there’s a dip like that in their GPA or maybe a life happens along the way, let the committees know. Otherwise, if they don’t give an allowance for you to make a mistake, you should be looking elsewhere.
[18:35] How to Improve Your GPA: When to Take a Traditional Postbac vs a Master’s Degree and Other Factors to Consider
Leila describes the drawback to the traditional postbac in that the undergrad classes feed into the GPA. Getting that GPA to move is very hard. If you tried as hard as you could and still couldn’t get the As then do a postbac. It’s going to be a longer process but you need to figure out how to do well in undergraduate classes before you can move forward. But if the reason you had low GPA is because you weren’t paying attention to school because you were to busy enjoying life, then think about the next level. This could be a master’s degree. The beauty with this is that the GPA sits separately. So they no longer have to look at the 2.5 but only at their Master’s GPA which could be 3.89. But this should only be done only if the reason you didn’t do well was because you were spending time doing other things rather than studying.
Now if you were studying, the master’s isn’t your best option because if you come in to the master’s and do poorly, you’ve proven to the admissions committee that science really isn’t your thing because you’ve tried it twice and it didn’t work out. Then you know it’s the issue of how bad was the undergrad GPA. Or is your master’s enough or not.
If you jump into a master’s degree right at the end of the undergrad and applies the same year, the master’s isn’t helpful because the transcript they get is the undergrad transcript.
Also find out if they school takes updates or no. If you apply to schools that don’t take updates, there’s no point in applying because you can’t update anything. If they do, then you can consider this. But Leila points out that what does one semester of As (about 9 hours) do in light of the past 4-5 years where the student had not done well?
Also, is one year enough? Sometimes, the one-year master’s degree only gives students only about 20 hours of science. Some committees will say 20 hours isn’t enough. So Leila says the better option for that is to do a regular two-year master’s.
For career-changers, they go for the one-year master’s and if you’re going to do fine in this, then move forward. But if you didn’t do well as an undergrad, then you need to complete the one year master’s and then apply the following year with the full transcript, which then becomes two years. Leila says it’s all about the timing.
[22:00] Screening Process for the Interview
Their screening process, as Leila explains, is to look for mission-related aspects of the application. They look for certain attributes to show they’re able to blend well with their community and have an appreciation of them. Academically, they will look at the times you were on the Dean’s list, etc. And if you’re as strong as the students they’ve admitted the previous year or even stronger, they’ll invite you for an interview.
Another important piece for them is that having multiple campuses, two of which have different emphasis, they want to make sure the secondary really addresses the student’s fit to any part of their community.
The things they ask of them to do are things related specifically to what they have available on the different campuses. After that, they want to make sure to look at the application as a whole – well-written personal statement, etc.
[24:25] What the Admissions Committee Look for in a Personal Statement
Leila explains that when she’s done reading a personal statement, she wants to be breathless in wanting to meet this person. That being said, the personal statement should help the admissions committee understand where your motivation and commitment to dedicating your life and alleviating the suffering of others come from. And how do you maintain that? So you really have to dig deep. Do not regurgitate what you’ve done in your experiences since it’s all there. But help them understand at the deepest level. So Leila wants it to be a conversation, almost, between the student and the admissions committee. They want the personal statement for you to really highlight who you are.
Additionally, Leila reveals some red flags which you might want to avoid talking such as talking about the skills of a doctor and what a physician should be like or when you use an analogy that’s not something you’re not familiar with, this is problematic. Or when you talk about a bad experience you had with another physician and so how you’re going to change the world of medicine. None of those speak to them because it comes from a place of lack of knowledge.
Until you’ve gone through the training and you’ve been there and you’ve held the hand of the dying patient, it’s hard for them to say what the skills are.
It’s different from saying you’ve been a patient and these are the things you saw and you’d love to emulate this, then this shows you have this understanding. Ultimately, it has to be a personal sharing of what it is that motivates you to be out there to take care of people.
Leila also goes on to say some of the best personal statements she has read are based on their experiences and the reflection that leads them to understanding it’s where they have to be otherwise nothing else will work. So walk the admissions committee through how you reflect it on life and how you can use your special skills to make it better for the rest. The entire application shows reflection even when you write your experiences. Moreover, it’s not all about you. Otherwise, the patients will be lost in all of that. So you need that reflection.
Leila says students forget about that because told to make themselves shine and to share about themselves and they don’t think the admissions committees can already look in the grades so you don’t have to tell them this.
[35:38] How They Use Secondaries
Leila explains they use the secondaries for the interview invites and for inviting students into different campuses. Again, they’re looking for the reflection piece and to make sure students know what the school has to offer. The school therefore needs help in order to figure out where they need to be placed especially that they have different campuses.
The reason they ask applicants what they’re interested in doing because they want them to be active members of their community. Ultimately, it allows them to determine whether they’re the right fit. On the other hand, they’re on their best behavior to prove to applicants that they do deserve them as students.
[38:10] Verifying the Truth: How Do They Validate What Students are Telling?
Leila explains they have rural county indicators in Illinois where they start all the way back from where they grow up, high school, and are they understanding of the rural community. They also have a specific program for rural medicine called RMED located in their Rockford Campus. They have a special application process separate from their regular admissions process. Students would go through both processes. Literature out there suggests that students who’ve been engaged in rural communities are the students who will have the greatest likelihood of going back.
Moreover, they ask for the student’s history in their state, where they’ve lived, rural activities they’ve participated in. They usually conduct a committee interview with community members from all across the state including hospitalist, politicians, faculty members, care providers, members from the farming community. So there is expertise in this that goes beyond just the admissions office.
But for students that don’t go through this track, Leila says it’s all about looking at the entirety of the application. So if you use the analogy of running a marathon and you haven’t done that and if you talk about rural medicine knowing that’s a big area of interest for them and there’s no indicators in your application, it doesn’t matter how strong you are. Leila admits it’s going to be difficult for them to get you an interview invitation due to the disconnect between what you’ve done and what you’re saying.
[41:45] What They Look for on Interview Day
As previously mentioned, they want you to match what they read about. It’s that first impression when you come in. They look at your ability to communicate effectively with them. Interviewers are generally two faculty members and a student or faculty or staff member. The faculty will be looking at the student for fit as a future mentee. The same for the student there who looks at you if they can see you as a classmate. And for Leila, as an administrator, is she tells interviewees to think of her as a future patient. So she will look at you for communication. How well are you able to articulate your responses to the questions?
Moreover, Leila admits the interview process is also more of the recruitment side knowing that students also have their options as to which school to go to. So they will also try to prove to students that they appreciate everything they’ve done, they have the resources and the people who can help them get to the next stage. So it’s both recruitment and making sure you’re going to be a good fit with their community.
[44:20] Comparing Between Students and What to Do When You Don’t Get Accepted
Leila explains they take everything they have at their disposal. So it’s the entire application, performance during interview, and can the person come in and add to what they have or need in their community. So they basically look at the student who makes a better fit to them.
If you don’t get accepted, Leila recommends that if you had the interview and it didn’t go well, it’s important to reflect on what happened as you were going through the interview day. You may have three really good interviews, but if you were unkind to a staff member or to another student, this might hurt your application. So you have to reflect on the entirety of the experience you had that day and what happened during the course of the interview.
The biggest comment she gets from interviewers, for which she feels the same, is that the person didn’t give them the opportunity to meet them. You’re sitting across them who are asking questions and you’re so concerned about their opinions, well, you should have your own opinions. Whatever they are, you should be able to justify them.
So for her, the worst thing that happens in interviews is if the student doesn’t allow the opportunity to meet them. Plus, there are things like using bad words or not paying attention and fidgeting or on the phone.
She also recommends that you take full advantage of all resources available to you. Go to your advisors. Be honest about what happened during the course of your interview. Ask your advisor to contact the medical school as there are things that an admissions director may be able to tell an advisor and not the student. Then the advisor can help the student understand that.
[50:27] The Timing of it All: It’s a Rolling Admissions!
Leila points out that timing is everything. Being a rolling admissions schools, as most are, it’s easier to shine in 500 than it is 7,000. As applications come in and they’re completed, students are invited and admitted. They reserve seats all the way through the process. But by that time, they’ve already seen a lot of students come through.
So be sure to submit your application as early, but then you need to be ready. So don’t just submit it just because people tell you to apply early. Request your letters way ahead of time. Keep reminding your faculty members and get the letters in. Leila says that every year, they have close to a hundred students whose applications are not completed and rejected because they didn’t get their letter in time. It’s true it’s not your fault since you’re not the one uploading the letter but it may be your fault because you asked too late. MCAT, for instance, you don’t take it until September and you won’t get scores until October. And many schools are done inviting for that year in October. So they’re looking for Spring invitations.
Nevertheless, it’s not the end of the world if things can’t happen this year and you wait to apply the following year. Have all your science classes in place. They will look at students who don’t have everything in place. Have you met all the required classes and how did you do in them?
You have to understand the “deadlines” for applications for medical schools don’t mean anything. Since students are so used to having deadlines, they think the applying to medical school is the same. But it’s important to change that verbiage that instead of a “deadline,” it should be that applications are open and it’s first come, first serve.
Leila adds students shouldn’t be taking a test after November because the score won’t come in on time and they wouldn’t have fulfilled all of the requirements. She doesn’t really know how to change this culture.
However, this is reflective of the individual. If you can’t follow very simple directives on how to do paperwork and when to send things in, then you might have it all together to be a great physician either.
[57:30] CASPer for Screening Students
As with the CASPer, they haven’t been using it explicitly in the admissions process as they’re still studying it. But for those who use them, it’s for considering students whom they might have otherwise considered just based on the metrics. But because they’ve got other great personal or ethical attributes, they could make a good addition to the class.
I would always like to describe CASPer as a personality test on steroids with a lot of moral ethical stuff and as fast as possible, you need to give your answers to the scenarios given to you. A lot of students are worried about it but there’s really no need. Just give your initial responses to the different scenarios. For the most part, this could challenge your typing speed which is something you should start practicing.
Leila adds that non American students don’t do as well on the CASPer because their responses are judged from an American lens. First generation or even second generation immigrant students with strong heritage presence in their home may not do as well. So this is something you may want to work on as well.
[01:01:30] Letters of Recommendation
Leila highly advises students to review their letters, meaning really think about who you’re asking letters for you. They get letters from faculty members who don’t really know the students well. They’ve also received letters from faculty members who haven’t been supportive of the candidate’s application. So think long and hard about who you ask to write letters for you. The letters are supposed to give them additional information. They are a pain to ask but they’re so important because as she puts it, it’s the only other thing they have to help them with the application. So make sure the letters are good.
At their school, their letter process is manual. Oftentimes, their application can’t be competed because they’ve not yet manually reviewed them. So if you haven’t heard from them in a week once your letters are complete, call the office and ask. With 7,000 students with three letters each, this is a huge amount!
[01:04:05] Final Words of Wisdom
Ultimately, Lelia says there are multiple ways to do this. This is your dream. And if you want to realize this dream, no one is allowed to take it away from you as long as you’re doing the things you need to be doing. Don’t give up. But there have to be enhancements. This means don’t keep applying with a 2.5 and 498 on the MCAT and wonder what’s going on. Don’t keep applying when you haven’t done the spot check. Look at the different parts of the application and see what’s going on. There’s a lot of opportunities for you to be a physician. Talk to them. Work with them. And good luck!
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