Episode 2: The Application

A discussion with Joni Huff and David Owen, Directors of Admissions at Pritzker, about the process of applying to medical school (and some tips for doing so).

If you have questions for us, please send them to pritzkerquestions@gmail.com.

Embedded Links:
The Application Timeline
Pritzker Secondary Questions
Are You Too Old For Facebook?

Episode 2 Transcript

Ben Ferguson: Hi again, this is the Pritzker Podcast—the second episode—and I am Ben Ferguson, and as always I am joined by Mary Bister. Hey Mary.

Mary Bister: Hey Ben, how are you?

BF: Not too bad. In this second episode, we will be talking about all things application, and we are fortunate to be joined by our very own Joni Huff and David Owen, who are the Directors of Admissions at the Pritzker School of Medicine. Hey Join, hey David.

Joni Huff: Hey Ben and Mary.

David Owen: Hey Ben and Mary.

BF: Thanks again for joining us. We know you’re really busy with all the primaries flowing in and some of the secondaries starting to trickle out.

JH: We’re happy to help.

DO: That’s right—and we’re up to over 5,000 applications already.

BF: That’s pretty impressive.

§ “The Application Timeline”

BF: That’s pretty impressive. So, like I said, we’ll be discussing all things applications in this episode, and I think I’ll start off with the first question. Joni, why don’t you take this one? I think I’d just like to ask about the basic timeline of the application process, especially to Pritzker, in terms of deadlines and the general flow of the application for anybody who isn’t familiar with the application yet.

JH: Sure, no problem. What I would say is, given about 50% of the applicants are going to be applying to come to medical school directly following their undergraduate years, I’ll explain it in the context of that, but certainly we have the other 50% taking time off, so for those who might want to take time off, they just need to adjust the timeline accordingly.

BF: Sure.

JH: So, basically during your junior year, the first thing to pay attention to is whether you have a premedical committee at your college or university who will be writing a letter of support for you. And so, you just want to make sure to be checking in with that office, hopefully from the time you start undergraduate, but certainly in the late fall, early winter of your junior year, to see what steps you need to do in order to get your committee letter written for you. So, that’s something that will be individual to each college or university.

Nationally there is an application service that is called the American Medical College Application Service, very elusive title there, and so that application service is a common application that will go to basically all of the medical schools within the United States. So, with that one application you can apply to as many medical schools as you would like to. That application in May opens up so that you can look at the questions and start to have an idea of what is being asked in that application. It’s basically some biographic information, a list of your 15 experiences that you’ve had while you have been in school or since the time you’ve been in school—so any extracurricular activities, athletic participation, research, volunteer work, all of those things go in that—and then also a personal statement. The question on the personal statement is basically, “Write a personal statement,” so those can take a lot of different shapes and maybe in another episode we can talk about that in more detail as well. In June, usually around the first week of June is when you can actually submit that application to all of the medical schools. You will also send your transcripts with that application and AMCAS, the application service itself, will verify your academic record for the medical schools.

Because this is a common application and the medical schools don’t have any input on what is being asked, you will likely receive a second application directly from each medical school to which you have applied. Some medical schools will read your AMCAS first and decide if they are interested in you enough to want to send you a secondary application. Other medical schools like ours believe that we need the full application before we can make any decision. So, we will send everybody a secondary application. Those secondary applications typically come any time from July through the fall, depending on when you submit your AMCAS, and the questions can be—the toughest one I’ve heard of so far, which is not ours, has about eight essay questions on it. Then, I’ve also heard of some secondaries where you’re basically just filling out some more biographic information and they’re pretty quick to fill out.

Then, once you have submitted that application, most medical schools will also ask you for letters of recommendation—typically around three or four separate letters, and then also your committee letter if your college or university offers a health professions advisory committee. And then, once all of that information has been received by the medical school, you’re typically done in terms of your application being complete. Then it’s up to the medical school to send you an interview offer, if they make that choice, that they would like to bring you in for an interview, and then from there you will go to the campus interview and hopefully receive an acceptance a few weeks later.

So, many medical schools use a process that is called “rolling admission,” which means as soon as we have information, we start making decisions about your applications. There are some medical schools that say that they are not rolling admission, which typically means that they announce acceptances on one date. Rolling admissions schools can start making offers October 15th. And so, those of us who are rolling will start making offers October 15th and then we’ll continue making those offers up until our class is full and we’re ready to stop making offers. Those schools who are not rolling admission will typically release all of their acceptances at one time, usually in February.

The important thing to remember, though, is even though the final committee decision will come all at once, you are still in competition on a rolling basis to secure an interview space. So, whether the school says that they are rolling or non-rolling, it’s really important to get your applications in as soon as possible so that you have the best chance of gaining an interview. Obviously, without that interview you’re not going to be able to gain an acceptance to that medical school. So, it’s still really important to keep everything as early as you can.

BF: And specifically for Pritzker, when are some of the deadlines for the secondaries and when do you guys start giving out interviews?

JH: Our deadline to complete the AMCAS application is October 15th, and then our overall deadline is December 1st. Given the time that we’re in right now, which is the middle of August, already our first two interview days are full and probably one more is as well because I haven’t checked in the last two days, so it’s possible that we have even our first week of interviews already full. As soon as we start getting applications, we start making those interview offers. Our interviews will finish the last date in February.

BF: Given that David’s already said we’ve got 5,000-plus applicants to Pritzker, given that they all get secondaries as well, how many of those typically are interviewed?

JH: We will interview a total of about 600–650 applicants. So, typically we will get about 7,500 to 8,000 people who pick Pritzker on their AMCAS application. Like you said, we send secondaries to everybody, and then, of that group, probably about 5,000 will finish the rest of the application and will do their secondary application and will do their letters of recommendation, and then we invite about 660 people to interview after that.

BF: David, do you have anything to add?

DO: Just reinforcing the importance for us and for all schools that are on rolling admissions: getting things completed professionally, but as early as possible. I can’t stress how important it is to get us the information earlier in the application cycle rather than later. Maybe an example from last year’s application cycle: In January we were reading the last roughly 1,000 files of individuals who had completed in the last roughly about two weeks before the December 1st deadline, and we had six interview slots to be able to give out to those 1,000 individuals. Prior to that, back in August and September when we were reading files, we were giving out interviews to every sixth or seventh or eighth file that we were reading, and so that’s the profound difference of being early in the application cycle versus being later in the application cycle.

§ “What should I *not* do?”

MB: I think you’ve said a lot about the things that you should do to make sure your application gets in on time. I’m wondering if there is anything that applicants should not do. Some of the things I’ve heard about in the past are things like plagiarizing your personal statement off the internet or calling the admissions office five times a day every single day to see whether or not your letters of recommendation have arrived. So, I was just wondering if you could give any “don’t’s” in the application process. So, why don’t you start, David?

DO: Well, don’t behave unprofessionally, and perhaps that captures two of your points. One is not plagiarizing anything…not stealing ideas or themes. And students feel a little uneasy because they feel like they are just like everybody else and that they can’t write anything that’s original, but in fact, as they interpret their own life, they are putting their own spin on their experiences. They’re telling us how they grew as a human being—the sort of interpersonal skills that they developed, the way they touch people’s lives—and that makes them unique. And so, if they just reflect on their lives, figure out what it was that they did to improve the lot of people around them and how they grew as a human being as a result, they’ve suddenly become really unique and they don’t have to borrow themes from the internet or other places.

And similarly, the notion of being attentive to one’s application—making sure that everything is in—versus harassing admissions offices on a daily basis to find out if their decision has been made, they should project themselves into that position and how they would want to be treated by an applicant: Would they want to hear from that applicant on a daily basis, or would they instead appreciate a biweekly or a monthly follow-up only if the school requests those sort of things? If the school says this is how you should check on their application, that’s how they should check on their application then. So, they should follow the guidelines that the school gives about how to keep track of their application. But they should pay attention to it. It’s their application. Nobody cares about it like they do, and so they should take responsibility for it.

MB: Neat. Did you have anything you wanted to add, Joni?

JH: I would just say a couple of things. I think David definitely covered all of the main points, which is primarily to be professional and to really treat this application process and the staff members behind the application process as you would want to be treated as well. I think along with that, just to emphasize this point, is to make sure that professional language is always being used. I’m always amazed at how casual people will be in their essays. You really shouldn’t be using the word “awesome” unless something is truly awe-inspiring. It just sets a different tone. It makes you sound perhaps less mature than the way that you want to come off as somebody trying to enter this profession.

I wish it could go without saying, but it’s also not a good idea to use any of the usual curse words that we’re taught to avoid. We see applications that use those words as well. And certainly, we understand that a lot of people, in your casual conversation, it’s not that big of a deal to use those words. But when you’re applying to a professional application service, you definitely want to make sure you look professional, and that holds in both your written language and your spoken language.

The other common mistake that I think people make, which can be somewhat difficult to explain, but a lot of times people want to go into this profession because maybe they had a bad experience with a physician earlier in their life, and so they want to become a physician so that they can be that great physician that they eventually found for themselves. Or, they are very intelligent people and certainly our healthcare system is not without its flaws, and so one of the things that maybe inspires them towards this profession is the ability to help, not just on an individual basis, but also on more of a systemic basis. The trick with that is to not write essays in which you are ripping on the doctors or on the healthcare profession. People tend to do that actually with more frequency than you might imagine, and while I think it is certainly important to be realistic about what your life as a physician could be or what you hope it will be, keep in mind that there are often physicians on these admissions committees reading your applications. So, you don’t want to say, “This doctor was awful, horrible. I know I could do it better because I’ve just graduated college, and I haven’t even started medical school yet, but I know more than this doctor who’s been in the profession for 20 years has that I was shadowing.” You just don’t want to fall into taking that tone with your comments about what you might find to do better within healthcare.

MB: Wow, I think that was really helpful.

DO: And it’s also easy to forget that this is one-way conversation, that all of the essays that you write, the personal statement, the secondary essays, are one-way conversations, so you can’t gauge how the reader is reacting to your comments, and so you have to scale them back a little bit. You have to write them for a general audience because the primary application is to all the med schools—the secondary applications to a specific school—but it’s still to a more general audience. And you have to think from the standpoint of, “Is this person going to understand what I’m saying?” Humor is risky for that reason because you can’t tell if the person actually got the humor or not.

MB: Right.

DO: And poetry is a little risky because you don’t know whether they’re understanding the use of that poetry or the use of that quote. And so, just remember that this is one-way conversation and you’re not getting any feedback at all from the reader as they go through this.

JH: And one of the things, basically because of what David was just talking about, that I always recommend that students do: Most students are aware enough that they should have their personal statement evaluated by a lot of different people to check it for grammar, that it makes sense. And people tend to go for the persons that they already know. So, they might have their premedical advisor look at it or writing tutor at their college or friends or family physician…something like that.

I always recommend that you also have someone who really does not know you read through the essay. So, maybe give it to somebody that your mom works with or give it to your roommate’s sister or something like that so that someone who doesn’t know you at all and can’t interpret your comments because they’re already familiar with you can give you a pretty unbiased read of your statement. That’s really how we look at it. We don’t know you either, so if a stranger is able to read it and say, “Wow, this is a really good statement,” then you’re probably doing pretty well with it.

DO: Great point, Joni. And I would just add one other notion to that is think about the advice you’re getting from your various sources. There’ll be no end to advice that you’re getting throughout this application process. And think about, does this person who’s giving you the advice know what they’re talking about? If your mother’s friend or your roommate says this is not what med schools want to hear, how do they know that? If they are on an admissions committee, maybe they know that. And if they’re not, maybe they don’t know that. So, you need to think critically about the source of advice as well as how well it applies to you, and so everything needs to be evaluated that you’re getting. But I think Joni’s advice is right on. Get someone who doesn’t know you to read it so they can tell you whether you have achieved the goal that you’ve set for your personal statement.

BF: Wow, that was great. I think we should have done this podcast a few years ago. I would have been a lot more successful, I think.

JH: You’re at Pritzker, Ben. How much more successful could you be?

BF: That’s true. What else could I ask for?

JH: Exactly.

§ “What does Pritzker look for?”

BF: Speaking of when Mary and I were—back a few years ago—applying, it seems like at least from my perspective, some schools just would not give you the light of day in terms of attention to applicants, and I can’t help but think that that may have been as a result of my GPA or MCAT score, which were not stellar by any means. And just leading into that, I want to ask you guys if there are any specific grade or MCAT cut-off scores that you guys absolutely do not go under or whether you just tend to look at the entire applicant.

JH: Well, I think the biggest thing that we try to do is to gain an overall perspective of your academic readiness. And certainly, the GPA and the MCAT can go into that perspective, but what we try to look at is, first of all, where is this person coming from? Is this a person who is able to go to a very strongly performing high school? Did you have a lot of AP credits going into college? Or is this a person who maybe didn’t have that kind of high school preparation, so the first year or two of college was more of a struggle because they weren’t as prepared.

So, we try to look first at what the person’s background is. Then when we consider GPA, we are looking not only at what that score is of your GPA, but how are your science classes, how are the rest of your classes? When we look from freshmen to junior or senior year, is your GPA going up as your classes get more difficult but perhaps as you’re also figuring out how to do the whole college thing, or are they going down? And certainly, as you might imagine, an upward trend is much better than a downward trend.

We’re also looking to see how competitive your course selection was. Did you basically take the easy way out and not take very advanced-level courses? Or did you challenge yourself where you could? Now, some of the difficulty with that is a lot of people will have the tendency then to bite off more than they can chew every single semester and will come through with a straight-C average because they jumped a little bit too far. So, you basically want to strike the balance between understanding where your strengths are and pushing those strengths but also knowing enough to know that you’re human. There are only 24 hours in any day. And so, you need to be able to balance your course selection with some classes that are certainly a challenge to you but that also won’t be so overwhelming that you’re not able to show us that you can handle the classes.

And then, certainly we do look to see what that total GPA is for our entering class. And, David, correct me if I’m wrong but I think our GPA for the class of 2007 ranges from about a 3.0 to a 4.0. Within that, I would say the bulk of the students are clustered in about a 3.5 to a 3.75 range. So, if you think about a bell curve and where that highest curve is, I think most of our students will probably fall between a 3.5 and about a 3.8 would be my guess.

And then, the other thing, too, certainly that we pay attention to is your MCAT. With that, we are looking at not only your total score but also at every section. So, if for example, one section is a 7, but then you have 14s in the other two sections, that to us is not necessarily a stable score because we’re wondering what happened with that one section. So, we’re looking not only at the total score, but also at the way that each section is divided. And really, the GPA and the MCAT measure two different things. The GPA shows us what you can do over time, and an MCAT shows us basically a snapshot that is a standardized exam that you take along with the rest of the country so it can help us to understand how you fare among applicants in the rest of the country, but it’s also a standardized test, so a lot of students will say, “Well, I realize that my GPA is 1.7, but what if I get a 4.2 on my MCAT…will that make everything okay?” And the answer is pretty clearly no because the GPA is telling us what you’re willing to put in effort-wise day-in and day-out.

And that certainly is, I’m sure you can understand, what medical school is all about. It’s not a quick sprint; it’s a marathon, and if you don’t have good study skills in place, that’s something that we ask your GPA to direct us to—is whether you have the study skills, the tenacity, the motivation to really put yourself into the medical school environment and do well with it. So, we’ll look at both of those scores and basically make sure that you are academically capable of handling medical school. And then, from there we look at all of your other experiences and achievements to help us determine if Pritzker is the best fit for you.

DO: And, Join referred to balance two or three times in our discussion—that’s really important, and part of that balance also is what you’re doing outside of class at the same time that you’re taking those courses, and that gives us a further context to understand the rigor of your abilities and the focus that you bring to your academics and your non-academics. And as Joni said, we turn to those experiences that you’ve put on your AMCAS application and your interpretation of them as you write those experiences to get a sense of the array of interpersonal skills you’ve developed, how closely those align to medicine and will they allow you to succeed not only as a med student but as a physician later on.

We don’t expect you to be fully formed in the array of qualities that a good physician needs, but we do hope that you’ve worked hard at developing some of those skills that you’ve observed in a good physician. And so, that implies also that you’ve observed what a good physician is like, that you’ve taken the time to shadow, to spend at a hospital or a hospice or a nursing home or a clinic to see what it takes to be a caregiver to someone who is distracted by their illness or the illness in their family. And so, all those elements come together to give us a good sense of whether you’re appropriate for medicine in general and specifically for us then.

§ “Numerology”

BF: Joni, you mentioned the balance specifically on the MCAT scores. If someone were to take the MCAT twice or thrice and have differential scores both times, is Pritzker a school that will consider each of those different sections separately or is it the whole exam looked at at any one time?

JH: What we basically do is, I guess, not the SAT, ACT strategy that many colleges and universities use, which is probably actually how I got into college, when you take an exam more than once and they basically pull your best score from every section and recreate that as your new score—it doesn’t work like that. So, what we’re basically looking at is each test somewhat in isolation and then compared to previous performance. So, for example, there was an applicant that we were working with this year who took the MCAT, really in the applicant’s own words, a little bit too cocky of an approach, didn’t really study, thought they would be fine because they were always fine with standardized tests, and the first exam came through with a total score of about a 26. Then, the applicant took it again, having understood that the test takes preparation, takes time, and the second time it was taken received a score of about a 35 or 36. So, in that situation we can look and clearly see that there was a lot of improvement that was made and that we felt the student would be academically ready to handle the rigors of medical school. It is not common for the scores to be that big of a gap. A lot of times when somebody retakes the MCAT, they’re really only going up a point or two higher.

So, what we look at is to see if the sections all came up together or if, for example, physical sciences, the first time you took it you got an 8 and the other two sections were an 11, and the second time you took it you got a 10 in physical sciences, but then your other two sections dropped down to 9s. That’s going to be a concern for us because what we’re trying to do is to basically make sure that you can handle the kind of exam that takes an eight-hour commitment sitting in front of a computer and that if you put a lot of focus on one section, that the other two sections aren’t falling as a result of that concentration.

So, in that same scenario, if that person brings their physical sciences up to a 10 and the other two sections stayed an 11, that would signal to us that the applicant was a good, strong MCAT performer. So, we basically look at everything very individually, so it’s hard to say, but we don’t do average scores. We don’t just pull your best scores. We won’t look at only your most recent MCAT and then not compare it to previous attempts. So, I’m probably not doing a very good job of explaining it, but we basically look at it in its entirety from one score to the next.

DO: And, Mary, earlier you said what are the common mistakes that are made, and I think this is one area of common mistake of taking an MCAT before you’re ready to take it, or taking the MCAT before you’ve had the course work that the MCAT tests upon, taken the MCAT before you’ve had the chance to take practice exams, and so students need to think carefully about the amount of time that they’ll have to devote to studying for the MCAT. They ought to treat it as though it were a course that they were taking. If they were taking three courses or four courses a semester, they’ll treat the MCAT as the fourth or fifth course that semester and spend time like in class, spend time as in studying, devote real time to preparing for the MCAT. And if that means that they have to delay taking the MCAT and delay starting their application, that’s fine. That’s perfectly fine. It’s important to apply to med school when you’re ready to apply, when all the pieces are lined up that demonstrate your greatest strengths at one time, not in a piecemeal fashion.

BF: I know back when I was applying—I took the MCAT in 2003—and back then it was the old-school pencil-and-paper format, and I know a good rule of thumb for us, or what we were always told, was that you should never take the MCAT more than twice, and if you want to take it a third time, you better have a really good reason to do so. But with the new computer format of the MCAT and having it being offered much more often throughout the year, is that still a good rule of thumb, or can people feel safe to take it more than that these days?

JH: I think that’s a great question, Ben, and I think that with the computer-based tests and having more dates available, I think a lot of people are asking themselves that same question. But your original advice is what I would hold to. Just as David was saying, you don’t want to take the MCAT unless you are totally ready to, and I think if you take it more than twice, it starts to send a little bit of a warning signal to the medical schools like, do they not understand maybe how important this exam is? Are they just taking it and taking it and taking it and not giving themselves time to perhaps take a step back, evaluate what went wrong the first time and have enough time to correct for it? I mean, if you sign up for it one day and take it and don’t do well and try to take it again two weeks later, how much have you really been able to accomplish in that two-week timeframe? So, it can still send a signal to the medical school that maybe you’re not being as thoughtful with the process as you maybe should be.

And, David, correct me if I’m wrong, but I would still say plan really to only take it once. And what I would do is make that plan to allow you with one more outlet that if it doesn’t go well, who knows? You could wake up with a migraine… You could wake up and your car breaks down on the way to the test center and that’s gotten you frazzled… Those situations can certainly happen, so I think it’s always a good idea to take your first MCAT far enough in advance that if something catastrophic happens, you have one more chance to take it before you need to join the application process. But otherwise, I think it’s a really good idea to plan to take it only once. And if you have to do it a second time, that’s fine. But if you’re looking at taking it a third time, then I think you really need to take a step back, talk to a premedical advisor, talk to one of us and we can help you figure out what you need to do before you take the exam again. Because certainly, showing some progression from one exam to the second is a lot different than having basically three exams where nothing has changed. The more evidence you give us that nothing has changed, the harder it will be to overcome that evidence, if that makes sense.

MB: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense.

BF: Sure.

DO: That’s great advice, Join, and it’s easy to treat it—or increasingly it will be easy to treat it—like the SAT or ACT where you’re encouraged to take it multiple times to get a better score with nothing intervening or no thought as to, like you said Joni, what went wrong in the previous exam, and it creates a question about your problem-solving skills if you just keep retaking it without stepping back and thinking, “What went wrong? How do I fix it?” and going on. So, great advice, Joni.

MB: You’d given us an idea of what the GPA spread was for this current incoming class. I wonder if you could do the same as far as MCAT scores go.

DO: Sure. Our MCATs spread, from the same class that Joni referred to, from 42 to 26 and the middle 50% was roughly from a 36 to a 30.

§ “What’s up with the secondary?”

BF: Joni, you touched briefly earlier on the differences between schools in terms of their secondary applications, and I have noticed—well, I applied to Pritzker and I’m sure a lot of the current applicants have noticed as well—that Pritzker’s secondary is a little bit different in terms of the philosophy of the questions. Can you just talk about that because that gets a lot of attention, to put it briefly, I guess.

JH: OK. Yeah, I think sometimes people love our secondary and sometimes people cannot stand our secondary, and I think it’s for the same reason, which is basically that one of the things that we are really trying to do in our secondary is to come to know the applicant as a person. It can be really hard when you’re doing a common application to really let your personality show through, and what we’re trying to establish is who are the people who we think will be the best fit for our medical school, for the mission of our school? Basically, does this entire medical school, our campus, our community, our medical center—do we line up with what you as the applicant really hope for in your medical school environment? And so, the questions that we ask do require a good deal of thought. And so, again, some people either love them or hate them. They are not fluffy questions by any means, but we really think that they’re questions that allow us to get to know you as a person. It’s really hard—and you guys can let me know if you found this to be true as well—it’s really hard to do a generic answer to our questions. Certainly, I think you’ll get a lot of similar overlapping questions and a lot of different secondary applications. And the tendency, which I think a lot of people exercise, is to cut and paste a little bit, which to some degree makes sense, but we try to ask questions that are really unique to Pritzker and that help us to get to know you really well as a person. And I can tell you and I’m sure David can tell you or, perhaps more accurately, our families can tell you that we certainly spend a lot of time reading these applications. Every word that you write to us will be read. So, the effort that you take in completing the secondary certainly is not an effort in vain. We read every word that falls out of your pen.

So, I think that’s the approach that we really want to take with our secondary. This is just my guess, but the essay questions that we get responses to, I would say a good portion of the time is the deciding factor between why we want somebody to come and interview and maybe why we’re not as excited about bringing the person in to interview. David, do you think that’s accurate?

DO: I think that’s a very good characterization. The content of the essays, both the personal statement and the secondary essays, is really important. And even the content of the descriptors of your 15 experiences can be rich in information if you make them so. And that’s so helpful to us. It gives us so much more confidence in our decision to bring you in for an interview.

And then, also think practically about this. The goal of an interview is to come to know you as a human being. The more you take away that job from us, the more likely we are to bring you in. There’s less that we have to do during that interview. There’s more time spent on coming to understand your fit of recruiting you to our school. And so, do the groundwork in your secondary application and then your primary application of teaching us who you are and what your skills and values are.

§ “To pad, or not to pad?”

MB: I did have one little question about those 15 experiences that you can put on your AMCAS. I know a lot of people are concerned that if they don’t fill up all 15 of them, that they’ve somehow damaged their application. I mean, how easy is it to tell if someone is just really reaching and padding to get to those 15, or is it better to just do eight or nine really solid experiences?

JH: Honestly, Mary, it’s phenomenally easy to tell when somebody is padding their application. The thing that’s great about the fact that we read every application is we get to know the colleges and universities really well. And we get to understand what are the experiences and opportunities that are available to the students. So, if it’s a student organization that we’ve never heard of, or if it’s something that we say, “Wow, I visited that campus three times and I’ve never heard anybody mention this,” we’ll usually research it a little bit to find out more about the program, not necessarily because we think that the applicant is doing something wrong; we don’t default to that impression. But we think it’s part of our job to know your colleges and universities really well. So, if something is pretty fluffy, we can usually pinpoint that really quickly.

David, do you want to talk about what we hope to see in the description section, because I know a lot of times students say, “Can I answer it in three sentences? Or do I really need to take up every single character that I am given the opportunity to take up with this response?”

DO: Sure. I think there are two strategies you have to employ simultaneously. So, there are schools like us that read every word, like Joni said, that drips right out of your pen. But there are other schools who don’t have the time and staff to do that, and so they are looking for shortcuts—as many shortcuts as they can find. And they’ve employed methods to try to do justice to your application using the shortcuts. So, since your primary application is to the general array of schools, you should target to that whole array. And so, for your experiences, that means the first sentence or two should describe the things that you did in that activity. Lots of verbs, lots of action words, telling those schools who want those shortcuts precisely what your activities were.

For schools like us, we want that but also want your interpretation of that activity: how you grew as a person, how this aligns with your values. Then, go on to interpret that experience. Tell us about the ways that you touch lives or the ways that you grew, the skills that you developed and how this fits in your value set, where that value set came from, and do that interpretation work. And so, maybe that means filling up all eight or so lines of that experience, but be sure to start off with those first couple of sentences just being descriptive of that activity. And similarly, if it’s an obtuse activity, then by all means explain what that activity is. If it’s one that is obvious, such as tutoring, we know what tutoring is so you don’t have to explain what tutoring is, but give us the context of it. And then, again, for our sakes, then please interpret those.

JH: The one other thing that I would add is a lot of times students maybe have a strong commitment to service. So, if they’re home over a winter break or if they’re home over a spring break, maybe they’ll engage in a one-day service activity. And over the course of their college education, that can add up to a lot of different experiences. And from our perspective, it is perfectly appropriate to cluster those as one experience and to title it something like “Volunteer Experiences” and to just state, “When I’m home on winter breaks and spring breaks, my mom works at an at-risk children’s daycare,” or something like that. “And so I go in and volunteer with her.” Or, “As part of my church, every time I’m home over these breaks, I will spend one day doing a cleanup project.” It’s okay to cluster those—I don’t want to call them smaller in terms of their value but the activities that have less duration and perhaps less impact but nonetheless demonstrate your strong commitment to service—it’s okay to cluster those together as one experience instead of trying to stretch out three hours two spring breaks ago volunteering at a soup kitchen as one experience all on its own.

MB: I think that will be really helpful for students who are trying to get through the process and figure out what they want to put in those sometimes-intimidating empty spots. So, thank you very much for those answers.

§ “Is Facebook off limits? SDN?”

BF: Joni, you mentioned a little bit ago about researching into students’ activities and the students themselves a little bit beyond the application. Is that something that goes on with things like Facebook and studentdoctor.net and things like that, not just at Pritzker but at any medical school?

JH: I would say that it is increasing attention in a lot of the medical schools. It’s something that we’ve talked about at some of our meetings. It’s something that health professors advisors at colleges and universities are starting to talk to their students about. My basic rule of thumb is to not put anything in a public arena that you feel could be used against you at some point. Keep in mind you are entering a profession, one that has, just by its very nature, a very fine line in terms of a lot of the ethics, the doctor-patient relationship, all of those questions. The medical profession really is not a black-and-white profession. And so, if you have something in a public arena that calls your ethics or your values into question, then medical schools might be less willing to take a chance on you and say, “You know what? Let’s bring them in to this very grave profession where your ethics and your morals and your values are going to be tested on a pretty regular basis.” So, that’s my general advice.

Certainly, I think a lot of places look at studentdoctor.net, and we do as well, not to try to figure out who people are and try to bust people for doing something or saying something that upsets us. We really look at it to see if a lot of the people have the same question, then obviously our instructions weren’t really good. So, we’re basically looking at SDN to see if there are aspects of our application process that could be easier for the students. We don’t tend to spend a lot of time looking at Facebook and trying to find people on it. As I hope you’ve been able to gather, we spend a lot of time getting to know the applicants reading through the applications. So, we don’t want to go through 8,000 Facebook or MySpace accounts to see what you might be saying. But at the same time, if there is something about an applicant or an interviewee, a lot of times it’s our medical students that will see something that they find questionable. Maybe you came to our campus and you stayed over with one of our students. You stayed overnight through our student hosting program and you invite that person onto your Facebook page. If that student begins to see things on your page that thy find would be a little bit questionable, it has come to our attention before. And the student will say, “You know what? I’m not sure if this person is the best fit for Pritzker. Check this out.” I do know of medical schools who will look on MySpace and Facebook for any applicant that they’re interviewing. So, I would say it’s really important to make sure that whatever you have in a public arena is something that you would feel fine with your grandmother seeing, you would feel fine with me seeing, you would feel with a future patient seeing.

§ “Who reads all this crap?”

BF: Sometimes as an applicant, at least I felt this way, it feels like there is a lot of separation between the applicant and the medical school. It seems like the admissions people at each medical school are just sitting up on their ivory tower, and it may as well be robots just making these life-altering decisions for the applicants. But believe it or not, these are actual people making the acceptance decisions, and so if you guys could just talk about who those people are, who reads the applications, and who makes these decisions?

DO: There are three of us who read the lion’s share of the applications: Joni, me myself, and Sylvia Robertson, who’s the Assistant Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid. We read over the applications and as we have questions, we pass them off to somebody else to get a second read. If someone is, we think, really close and we’re not sure, then we get a second read on those applications. And so, as Joni said earlier, we devote a heck of a lot of time to reading these applications—a lot of evenings, a lot of weekends—so that we can come to understand the individuals as best as reasonably possible before we make a decision about them.

JH: And that’s definitely for the interview screen component of the application that we do that. Once somebody comes to interview and we’re making a final decision on whether or not this applicant will be invited into our medical school, that application goes to an admissions committee. The committee numbers about 30 people in its entirety, and the composition of the committee includes faculty members—both basic science and clinical faculty members, it includes the three of us that David just mentioned as well as Herbert Abelson, who’s our Associate Dean for Admissions, and it also includes medical students. We invite our senior medical students to apply to the admissions committee. They go through an interview process as well, and we think it’s really important to be able to get the student’s perspective on the applicants to help us with understanding—certainly, David and I have never been to medical school…a lot of the members of the committee maybe were in medical school years ago—and so I think it’s important to get the student perspective—those people who are in the school right now, taking the classes, interacting with their classmates, to really help us understand if this applicant is going to be a good fit for our program.


BF: OK. So, this has been the second episode of the Pritzker. I hope you’re enjoying it so far and hope we could answer most of your questions. As always, if we haven’t covered something that you would like us to cover, please email us. We have a new email account at pritzkerquestions@gmail.com. Feel free to shoot us an email at any time asking us anything. We’ll try to answer it on air. And once again, I am Ben Ferguson, and I’ve been with Mary Bister. Take care, Mary.

MB: Take care, Ben. Bye bye.

BF: Bye.

DO: Thanks, Ben and Mary. This has been a pleasure chatting with you.

BF: Yeah, thanks very much for taking some of the time to answer some of these questions.

MB: Yeah, we appreciate you joining us.

JH: Our pleasure.

BF: Well good, take care, guys.

JH: Thanks. You, too.

DO: All right, bye.

MB: Bye.