What Really Matters To a Director of Admissions

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Session 548

Andrea O’Brien, the Director of Recruitment Admissions at A.T. Still University, joins us today to discuss student admissions.

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

How Andrea Got Into The Field of Admissions

Andrea has always worked in student affairs. She spent many years working in residence life as a director and enjoyed working with students. An opportunity came up as the Director of Admissions at a medical school. This appealed to Andrea because that meant she could continue working with students on their professional development without having to deal with students’ 24/7 issues like in residence life. Andrea has now been in admissions for about 14 years and loves the profession.

Unlocking Success: Navigating the Middle 50% Applicant Pool for Medical School Admission

For the middle 50% of the applicant pool, Andrea would start by asking students about what they have done and their academic and extracurricular experiences. Based on this information, there is usually an area that students could work on more, such as academics if they had a rough start in college.

Andrea would provide advice on small adjustments students could make. Whether it’s getting more clinical or volunteer hours, or submitting academic updates if they do apply but are not initially accepted. She emphasizes that most students getting into medical school are from the middle percentage pool and have more well-rounded skills compared to the top 10%.

'Most students getting into med school are more in that middle percentage.”Click To Tweet

Highlighting Growth and Resilience

Andrea would advise a student who had a rough start in college to focus on how they finished their undergraduate education. She wants to see how the student recovered from their rough patch and what they did to improve. Andrea looks for students who learned from their mistakes and developed skills like getting tutoring help rather than continuing to struggle on their own.

Showing resilience and growth is important. Doing well in the later part of their undergraduate education can offset an earlier rough period. Andrea also mentioned some rough starts could be explained by circumstances like working full-time while in school, which would be taken into consideration.

Extra Weight on Master’s Programs or Postbac Coursework

According to the transcript, Andrea says they don’t calculate GPAs separately for master’s or postbacc coursework. All GPAs are combined at the bottom. However, they do look closely at the caliber and level of science classes taken.

Strong performance in a full load of difficult graduate-level science classes would look favorable compared to a weaker ending to undergraduate studies. The goal is to show improved scientific academic capability, not just a general master’s degree. 

Healthcare experience is also considered over academic history if circumstances force less than ideal undergraduate performance.

Pursuing an MPH Degree

Andrea agrees with my perspective that an MPH degree alone is not the best way to improve one’s scientific academic foundation for medical school. While public health interests in epidemiology, policy, and prevention are valuable, an MPH program does not provide all the necessary hard science classes that medical schools want to see.

“You need to prove academic capability, and an MPH is improving scientific academic capability.”Click To Tweet

Andrea says the goal should be proving academic capability, and an MPH alone is not achieving that. She recommends only pursuing an MPH if one truly has an interest in public health, not just as an academic fix for a weaker undergraduate record. Hard science master’s programs with classes like microbiology and immunology would be a better option in that case.

GPA Target for Medical School Applications

Andrea does not recommend shooting for any particular GPA number, as it depends on the schools a student is applying to. However, she notes that it will be very difficult to get into medical school with a GPA below 3.2.

For students with a GPA in the 3.0-3.3 range, Andrea advises focusing applications on schools where their stats are more in line with the school’s average incoming class stats. Retaking classes to boost the GPA is also an option if the student has recently graduated and there is room for improvement. The goal is to be competitive based on the schools being targeted, rather than aiming for a single GPA cutoff.

Retaking the MCAT: The Importance of Test-Taking Skills

The Importance of Test-Taking Skills

Andrea says most students they see have taken the MCAT more than once, with many taking it twice. She acknowledges it is a difficult exam that also tests test-taking skills. Schools will look at a student’s most recent MCAT score and have no problem if someone takes it multiple times. However, taking it 4-5 times would be a red flag.

Overall, medical schools want to see improved test-taking abilities and foundational knowledge. Retaking it to improve the score is reasonable, but extensive retakes could indicate deeper issues.

Andrea notes that the MCAT tests not just content knowledge, but also tests test-taking skills and stamina. She says students may be academically prepared but have poor test-taking abilities, which does not bode well for the MCAT. Some students go in thinking they know the material but struggle with the pacing and time management required.

“The MCAT is not necessarily a skill about the material, it's a test-taking skill.”Click To Tweet

Developing strong test-taking skills is an important part of MCAT preparation, not just focusing on content review. This is primarily because medical school will also involve high-stakes exams like board exams that evaluate these skills.

The MCAT is Just One Factor in the Application

Andrea acknowledges the MCAT is just one factor in the application, but it is a factor that medical schools take seriously. While holistic review looks at the full application, a minimum threshold of MCAT performance is typically required just to pass the initial screening and be considered for an interview. This speaks to the importance schools place on standardized test scores as one metric to evaluate an applicant’s readiness for the academic rigors of medical school.

“A low MCAT score will prevent people from getting an interview... It is one factor, but it is a factor that we do take seriously.'Click To Tweet

Deciding Whether to Retake the MCAT

For a student who is not getting any interview invites with an MCAT score of 504-506, Andrea would advise taking a close look at the schools they are applying to. If the schools are very top-tier programs and the student’s score is below the average MCAT for those schools, they likely do not have a “saving grace” to get in without improving their MCAT.

However, if the schools are more aligned with the student’s current stats, then retaking may not be necessary. Andrea suggests students evaluate where their stats fit in with the average incoming class at each school on their list before deciding whether to retake the MCAT for a higher score.

What Triggers a Reviewer

According to Andrea, some things that could trigger a reviewer to say “no way” when looking at an application include:

  • The application only focuses on the applicant’s achievements and accomplishments without mentioning helping others or caring for patients. Everything is about the applicant and comes across as egotistical or arrogant.
  • A lack of compassion or empathy is conveyed through the essays or personal statement
  • Poor communication skills are displayed, such as a lack of caring about other people during an interview.
  • Very limited clinical experience or shadowing hours reported indicating a lack of understanding of the medical profession.

Andrea mentions that some potential red flags on an application could be offset by other factors. For example, if a student had a rough academic start but was able to show recovery and growth, that would be considered.

She also notes that working full-time while attending school full-time provides important context, as it demonstrates responsibility in helping support one’s family. Circumstances like financial need forcing a student to work or contribute would be viewed empathetically rather than punitively.

These types of life challenges that may have impacted academics could explain issues rather than define a candidate if they were still able to be successful in other areas of their application.

Exploring This Profession Through Meaningful Experiences

Andrea shared about students who have come to her after starting medical school saying they made a mistake in choosing this path. Often their hearts were not truly in it. She described how these students get crushed under the weight of the curriculum because their minds are elsewhere, doubting this is the right career. They struggle both academically, risking failing for the first time, and mentally dealing with expectations. Some realize it will be difficult to go back to families who believed they were pursuing being a doctor.

'We want people to go way beyond the checklist.'Click To Tweet

Andrea said this highlights the importance of truly exploring the profession through meaningful experiences, not just checking boxes. This will ensure one’s heart is in medicine before applying.

Effective Activity Descriptions on Applications

Experience Section

In the short experience section, Andrea advises students to list responsibilities and specifics of what they saw and did in bullet points rather than long narratives. She wants to know details like the type of clinic/patients to understand the context.

'I don't want you to tell me, you're a good communicator or that you would love working with people. I want you to give me examples... Tell me that, without you telling me that.'Click To Tweet

Personal Statement and Essays

In other essays, Andrea wants to learn about a student’s motivation through examples shown rather than being told attributes. She looks for stories that demonstrate qualities like empathy and compassion rather than superficial statements.

How Reviewers Screen Out Insincere Applicants

It is difficult for admissions committees to completely screen out insincere applicants given the large volume of applications. However, Andrea mentions that a “one letter word” they look for is “I” – if everything an applicant says is about themselves and lacks compassion or care for others. This can come across in personal statements focused only on accomplishments rather than impact. Interviews may also reveal arrogance rather than a genuine interest in helping patients.

While not perfect, committees try to identify a lack of fit through a holistic review of written and verbal communication. They look for signs of arrogance, lack of empathy, or disinterest in serving others in healthcare.

'This is a profession that shouldn't be about you, it should be about helping other people.'Click To Tweet

Deciding Between Equally Matched Applicants

If two students are very equal or nearly identical, Andrea says the deciding factor may be which student they think will most likely attend their school. A small preference may be given to a student from the regional area. However, if the non-regional student has been actively communicating their strong interest in attending the school, that engagement and desire could tip the scales in their favor over the equally matched local student who did not express as much enthusiasm.

Regional ties or demonstrated motivation to attend a specific school may break a tie when all other factors are equal.

Leveraging the Power of Networking Events

Andrea sees recruitment events as an opportunity to make initial connections with students, but not have in-depth conversations due to the busy nature of the events. She hopes students will follow up after getting information from her table.

Andrea wants students to take advantage of talking to representatives that have spent money attending. Students should circulate, get a feel for different schools, and see which representatives seem genuinely interested in them. They should then follow up with schools they want to learn more about through virtual advising sessions or calls. Andrea hopes students make the effort to connect beyond just collecting pamphlets.

Final Words of Wisdom

Andrea says that if you’re doubting yourself, contact schools to ensure you’re on the right track and see if anything is missing from your application. Don’t get discouraged if not accepted in the first round. The top 20% are often accepted first, but most students admitted are from the middle percentiles.

Consider taking a year to strengthen your application if not successful, rather than immediately reapplying the same. Request feedback from schools on how to improve your application for next time.

Take advantage of opportunities to connect with schools for virtual advising sessions to learn how to strengthen your candidacy. Finally, do not get overwhelmed, seek guidance, and use any rejection as an opportunity to grow into a stronger applicant with time.


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