An Admissions Director on Putting Your Best Foot Forward

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Session 346

Christian Essman is the Director of Admissions at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine and podcaster. His podcast is called All Access: Med School Admissions. He joins me to talk about the admissions process, transparency, and more!

Meanwhile, be sure to check all our other podcasts on Meded Media and get as many resources you need to help you along this premed path.

And if you haven’t yet, listen to All Access: Med School Admissions Podcast on iTunes, Spotify, and Stitcher.

Listen to this podcast episode with the player above, or keep reading for the highlights and takeaway points.

[01:55] The Medical School Admissions

Christian describes his path to the medical school admissions as an evolution over time. He was premed at one point. Always been interested in healthcare, he worked in some emergency departments for a while.

He also got involved in an organization doing recovery and preservation of organs and issues with some transplant surgeons from Ohio state.

Living with his wife in Cleveland at that time, he got involved with Lifebanc doing professional education. Then he created an elective at Case Western’s medical school to teach first and second year students about organ donation and transplantation. He did this along with the transplant surgeon from university hospitals. He has been working at the institution for a while now, teaching for a couple days a week.

The admissions office was undergoing some restructuring since the previous dean of 25 years was retiring. They then created the position of Director of Admissions and made the Dean for Admissions more of a part-time clinical position and part-time administrative. Christian has been working full-time for 14 years now as the Director of Admissions.

[Related episode: Should I Contact Med School Admissions Committees Before I Apply?]

[04:52] Saying No to Applicants

Christian explains that there are very few slamdunk decisions in this position. And he admits it’s tough having to make judgment calls. There’s a lot of grey area. It’s so hard because you can’t just interview 6,000 people. 

Somehow they hope that while they may not get an interview at their school, at least they could get an interview someplace else. But in the end, if it wasn’t him making those decisions, it would be somebody else.

'It's tough. We have to make judgment calls. There's not a lot of black and white. When you're reviewing applications, there's a lot of grey area in there.'Click To Tweet

All this being said, a lot of the decisions are not being made alone. They have several screening processes. It’s not just one man or woman making decisions. It’s usually a committee or team of people that make decisions on applicants.

[Related episode: When Should I Expect an Interview or Be Told I’m Rejected?]

[06:40] Thoughts on Opt-Out Organ Donation System

Some states are in that position where you get to opt out. Ohio is an opt-out state. For instance, when you have your driver’s license renewed, you’d have to tell them you don’t want to be an organ and tissue donor.

Some states have already passed this legislation. But it has been legislatively decided. In order to increase organ and tissue donors, it should be something people have to opt out of. 

'It's not a conversation that sometimes comes up at home but when it does come up, it's usually under the worst circumstances. 'Click To Tweet

Having to make the decision for their loved ones at such a time is not always easy. Therefore, it would have been easier for the loved ones if this were the default. Christian is up for this, although he also understands there are people out there who think otherwise.

[10:20] Talking About School Cutoffs and Minimums

At Case Western, they put out all their stats on their website for the entering class. They put ranges, not just the average or the median. This is important so people can see what the incoming class looks like.

'We should not only advertise who matriculated but also who we accepted because sometimes that range is even a little bit broader.'Click To Tweet

As to why schools are a bit hesitant about not talking about the minimums, Christian thinks this could be more of a perspective where they’re sending out a message that they don’t want your money.

On the other hand, you might miss good applicants because they missed some kind of metric cutoff. This is especially true for nontraditional students who bring a lot of interesting backgrounds and dynamics to a learning environment.

From the students’ perspective, the students are just looking at the MSAR and they think the median is the average. They’re missing a large opportunity to do a lot more research into the schools. Second, they’re missing out because it’s not a full range.

'If you get in some place, go. Don't worry about the bumper sticker. Just go to medical school if that's what your goal is.'Click To Tweet

If your goal is to get to medical school, then don’t look at the school. Just go. But if your goal is to go to medical school and go to the top 20-25 medical school, Christian warns “buyer beware.”

[19:25] Is Research Necessary?

Case Western is known as a research-intensive institution and this is how they get up on people’s radar. They’re the largest biomedical institute in the state of Ohio. Hence, there are a lot of opportunities for students who like research. This is not just in their medical school but in their university as a whole.

'We're known for these opportunities to do research here. They have to do research in our curricula. But they don't have to have it coming in.'Click To Tweet

If students who apply don’t have research under their belt, they look for other else that the student has. Usually, the student that doesn’t have research experience gets involved in-depth in some area. Or they could be a student-athlete and just doesn’t have as many hours to do athletics, academics, and all the extracurriculars, including research.

Moreover, they look at how they balance the class. Nobody who chooses to come to their school loves research. They know they have to do it and are interested in doing it. But there are some students who choose to come to the school because of the clinical opportunities.

[Related episode: Is Research More Important than Clinical Experience?]

[22:07] Picking Their Students

A pool of students is brought in for an interview over the course of months. And at that point, everybody’s metrics are in the same range.

'Some medical schools blind the interviewers to the academic metrics because they don't want that bias.'Click To Tweet

When you interview somebody and they have a 4.0 and an MCAT score that’s through the roof, you would tend to be almost biased sometimes whether consciously or unconsciously. For this reason, a lot of schools are now blinding interviewers to that.

At this point, it comes down to people’s backgrounds and the things they’re bringing to the table whether through their personality or experiences. 

Once you get into the admission committee meetings, it’s less so about their academics and how spectacular they are, but more so, how do they project themselves. They look at their presentation and how they interact with interviewers and other people on interview day.

Then it comes down to whether they fit the institution and the curriculum. These are the nuanced things than just the numbers on the paper or screen they’re reviewing.

[25:05] How Their Qualified Applicants Fit Into Their School

Christian explains that qualified applicants that fit into their institution usually have things in the application which they value.

A lot of curricula now are small group-based curricular models. So they look for people that like to collaborate with others. They don’t expect everyone to have a lot of group case-based learning in their undergrad experiences as very few colleges offer that.

But you can glean from their application some opportunities where they had to interact and collaborate with others.

This could also be translated into an employment situation. People shouldn’t just disqualify them just because it’s not medically related. Hence, they try to tease out some of this stuff at the application level.

Then on the interview level, they look at how the applicant presents themselves and responds to the questions. Find things in the curriculum that you’re really interested in. For applicants from different geographies, apply broadly. But try to find that connection as well.

'If the applicant does their homework and asks perceptive questions, that can sometimes help facilitate these conversations.' Click To Tweet

[31:00] About the All Access: Med School Admissions Podcast

This all began when Ian Drummond of the Undifferentiated Medical Student podcast came to him and introduced this idea of interviewing medical schools. It took a couple of years to get into a place in his life and time that he could finally do it.

Meanwhile, Christian has been in the admissions for a while and has made some great connections and friendships from people across the country. They do things the same but they do things differently.

So he found this great opportunity to feature them on the podcast and talk about these different medical schools and how students can get in there. They go through the application process and what they look for in applicants.

Basically, they cover curricular highlights, what’s unique about their school or how it’s set up. They discuss how students can get in, what the interview day is like, what people can expect once they show up on interview day and more details.

Then they wrap it up with what happens after acceptance and what else students need to know about their institution.

Christian also recommends listening to different episodes and try to look for themes. And if it sounds like consistent advice then maybe you could stick with that. 

It would be so great to get this transparency from the admissions departments of each of the schools. Especially that, a lot of medical schools do not have adequate premed advising, or some even don’t have premed advising office at all.

'For some advisors, it's not their primary job to help guide students through the application process so they go with what they heard and try to do their best.'Click To Tweet

[40:00] How to Reach Out to Medical Schools Appropriately

The AAMC has a strong set of resources for prospective students. Christian recommends starting with these. Then listen to podcasts like The Premed Years, which is consistent with other resources.

If you don’t know where to reach out to or you don’t have an advisor, call medical schools. 

You need to understand though that it can be tough to get through to them as a lot of medical school admissions offices are small teams. Sometimes, there are only two people in the staff or as high to 6-7, compared to undergrad admissions that have an army of people.

If you’re writing an email, try to limit to only 1-2 questions. They may not have time to answer all your questions. So try to keep it to a brief introduction and stick to 1-2 questions.

Then if you get a response from somebody, it’s appropriate to reply back and say thank you.

'Just be brief. Don't get too detailed.' Click To Tweet

Again if you haven’t yet, listen to All Access: Med School Admissions Podcast on iTunes, Spotify, and Stitcher.

[45:20] Final Words of Wisdom

Only apply when you think you’re putting your best foot forward. If you’re a rising Senior, submit your applications now.

And if it just doesn’t feel right and you feel you still need more shadowing or research experience, hold off.

This process is far too long. It’s a huge commitment – emotionally, financially, and psychologically.

Apply when you feel you can really put your best foot forward and this will give you the edge. A thin application is not going to get through. Take the time and apply a year afterwards if you need to. Finally, enjoy other things in your life because once you get on this train, it won’t stop.

'Really do this process one time and be done with it.'Click To Tweet


Meded Media

All Access: Med School Admissions

Listen to All Access: Med School Admissions Podcast on iTunes, Spotify, and Stitcher.


The Undifferentiated Medical Student Podcast with Ian Drummond