Episode 4: Status Portal, Terminology, and Committees! Oh, my!

A discussion with Joni Huff, Director of Admissions at the University of Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine, regarding the status portal and some of the confusion surrounding it, application status terminology, and details about committee meetings.

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

Episode 4 Transcript

Ben Ferguson: Okay! This is episode four of the Pritzker podcast. Welcome back. I am Ben Ferguson and I’m joined as usual by Mary Bister. Hey Mary.

Mary Bister: Hey Ben.

BF: How goes it?

MB: It’s pretty good. How are you?

BF: Not too bad. Fortunately we’re joined again by Joni Huff who is a Director of Admissions at the University of Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine and she is a genius when it comes to admissions, so we’re happy to have her. On today’s episode, we’ll be talking about some of the terminology and some of the confusing things about applying to Pritzker–or so it seems–and those things include being on hold, being continued, being waitlisted–what are the differences between those things?–and what’s up with the status portal? So Joni, welcome to the show.

Joni Huff: Thank you guys for so much for having me again.

§ “Status glitches? What’s the portal all about, anyway?”

BF: Not a problem. So Joni, let’s just start off–there have been a lot of rumors, especially on studentdoctor.net, regarding some possible system glitches with the portal. Is there any truth to that?

JH: There is, actually. We have the fortune of having a lot of applicants who apply to us on opening day and who are very quick and wonderful in the speed at which they complete their application and so occasionally we’re caught a little bit on our heels. That definitely happened this year. The main part of the glitch is that for most applicants, if this is your first application cycle, you perhaps realize that the MCAT is now being offered considerably more frequently than it was last year when it was only offered twice, and so what that meant for admissions staff at all of the medical schools is that all of our computer systems, who are used to only seeing one or two MCAT dates, one or two MCAT scores, and only half fields available for that, all needed to be adjusted to accommodate all of the different dates that the MCAT is being offered. So some of that has led to some confusion with the way that our computer systems feed from your AMCAS application to our internal system to something that students see, like the applicant status portal, so we did have some glitches, and thankfully, because our applicants are so on top of things, they called immediately with some confusion, and we know from Ben and Mary that there was confusion on studentdoctor.net so we got to work right away in fixing the portal so that it would not be as confusing for the students. So, hopefully the confusion at least from a glitch perspective is gone and I’d be happy to talk about what the portal is kind of designed to do and what the different possibilities might mean on the portal.

BF: Sure. Let’s get into that.

JH: Okay. So basically, we created the portal last year so that applicants would have as quick of a response and update of their application as possible. As those of you who listened to previous episodes may realize, we typically have about 7,800 to 8,000 applicants each year, so if everybody is calling to find out if their letters of recommendation have gotten here, if we have their secondary application, and so on, it can take a while to get through to a human being. So we thought that this would be a good way for the applicants to be able to keep track of their application process. So, most of the information I think on the portal is fairly straightforward. We basically just show your name so that you understand that you’ve logged in to the right spot. There’s an indication on whether or not AMCAS has verified your application. What that means is, as you know, you send your transcripts to AMCAS and they then verify all of your courses and that you have reflected those courses appropriately on your AMCAS application. Medical schools do not receive your transcripts so we need to wait for AMCAS to verify you to say that everything on this application is true and correct. So we cannot move forward on your application until that AMCAS is verified. So that’s one field.

Then, we let you know whether or not we’ve received your secondary application, and since that comes to us electronically, it should update within just a couple of days. So if you think that you submitted your secondary and you check back on the portal a couple of business days later it still says no, that we have not received it, I would encourage you to double-check to make sure that you did in fact submit it, and if you did, then call us and we’ll figure out what might be going on with that. Your payment, again whether or not we’ve received that, will be listed on the portal. Many of you pay by credit card and so that updates pretty quickly. For those of you who may be mailing a check, I always suggest that you wait about seven to ten business days for your check to actually get through the university mail system and reach us.

Then, again, the letters of recommendation: We’ll let you know whether or not we have received all three letters of recommendation. Since we require three and only three, our system–basically, the computer tells the portal once three spaces are filled to say that we’ve gotten those letters. That’s when it switches to “yes”. So it is possible for those of you who may have submitted five individual letters, we may or may not have all five once we get the first three. We say that you’re complete because that’s the number that we require. For those of you who come from schools where an admissions letter of recommendation packet might be sent or a committee letter is sent from your health professions advising office or through a reference collection center, we treat that one packet as your complete packet. So there’s a way for our computer to flip that to “yes” as well once we receive a committee packet.

Basically, the MCAT and the final decision are the two that can have the most confusion to them. One is that when your MCAT is received, the computer knows that and it will flip that applicant status portal to saying “yes, we have an MCAT score”. If you have decided that you are also going to be taking a future MCAT, when a human being is looking at your application, we are waiting for that second MCAT to come in. So for example, it might say that your MCAT is received but that no decision has been made and you might not receive an email from our office saying that things are ready to go because we’re waiting for that future MCAT. So what I would say as a general rule of thumb is: You know the date that you took your latest MCAT, you will know whether or not you have received the score. You receive it actually a day ahead of when we receive it. So, the way that our timeline works, typically once you are complete, it will take us about four to six weeks to make a final decision on whether or not you’ve been granted an interview. So, say, you took the MCAT July 13th; your score would have reached you around August 13th, it would’ve reached us at just about the same time, and so then we will be able to put your application in the queue for evaluation, and so you could expect to have a decision back anywhere from September 13th to the 1st of October so a four-to-six-week timeframe. So for those of you that have a future MCAT coming, that’s how you can basically figure out if we’ve received it yet and if you’re starting to get an answer soon.

Then the final decision for interview invitation has been made–if the answer is no, again it could either mean that we are waiting to receive your MCAT or it could mean that you are currently in queue but we haven’t made a final decision for you yet. So, if when you look at your portal, everything down the pipe is “yes”–we have everything we need but still don’t have a final decision–that typically means that you are awaiting a decision, and like I said it can take about four to six weeks once you’re complete to get that decision. Once you do have a final decision made, it will be reflected on this applicant status portal. It will say either that you have been invited to interview, and we give you text that helps you to understand what the next steps in that process are, and who will be communicating with you to set up your interview. Unfortunately, there are many people who we are not able to grant interviews to and so we will let you know if that is your decision as well.

And then, the third and most confusing response is to be placed on hold in our process. So what that basically means to us is that–and this is one of the glitches that happened, so for some people who had a future MCAT date, they were being told that a final decision had been made and that you were placed on hold. That is not true. Basically, we were waiting for your MCAT score; the computer was just sending you the wrong message. So when we do place someone on hold, it is once we have received your MCAT score, once we have given your application a complete review and what it typically means is: We are excited about your application but we’re not yet 100% certain of your fit to Pritzker. So it could mean that maybe you’re an applicant who has one pre-med requirement that you’re not taking until the fall semester and so we’re going to wait to see what that final grade is before we make a final call on whether or not you’re going to be invited to interview. It could be that we’re not really certain that Pritzker is a great fit for you and we can’t tell from the responses on your essay question whether this really is a good fit for you and if you’re really interested in Pritzker. So if you have an indication that you’ve been placed on hold and you really are interested in Pritzker, it’s a good idea to send an email to the admissions office to say, “I was placed on hold. I’m really interested. Please let me know if there’s anything else that I can submit to you.”

If you are placed on hold, I always encourage you to stay in touch with any updates that you might have. For example, if you applied in June and you finished up a summer project that you are involved with or you now know your classes for your senior year or maybe you graduated and you’re in the workforce and you want to keep us updated with what you might be doing that way, it’s always a good idea to send us application updates so that we know what all you’ve been involved with and that you continue to be interested in Pritzker.

BF: That was good.

MB: That was good actually. There was a lot of good information there and I think you cleared up some questions that people might have about the status page and what the information on there really means.

JH: Good. I hope so.

BF: So just to clarify, because I’ve actually never seen the portal page–I applied a long time ago, but is it designed at all to give you the final admission decision from Pritzker or is it just used for interview decisions?

JH: It is, at this point, in this year, only used for interview decisions. Last year, we did have a section saying whether or not a final, final decision had been made. The problem though is that–because again these are computers talking to each other–it could say that a final decision for interview had been made and “no, you’re not being granted an interview” and then on the next line a final decision has been made regarding your admissions and it would say “no, not yet”, which is confusing because on one hand we’re saying we’re not going to grant you an interview, which is certainly required, and on the other hand, we’re saying but no we haven’t made a final decision.

So, the other thing, too, is that when we admit somebody to Pritzker, David Owen, the other director of admissions, and I love to make those phone calls to say you’ve been admitted, and we want you to hear that information from us as opposed to hearing that information or seeing that information on a website. And so, we ultimately decided that it would be fine to learn from a website whether or not you’ve been granted an interview, but obviously the stakes are high when it comes to admissions, people get very excited, very anxious about what their decision is and we want that communication to come directly from us.

BF: Good. More personal that way.

JH: Yes, absolutely, and it’s fun! I love making the phone calls and hearing people scream.

BF: Sure, yeah. I mean that was one of the more memorable moments of my life, I can say that.

§ “Hold? Continued? Waitlisted? What’s the difference?”

BF: What is being continued, and is that different from being on hold or different from being waitlisted? What exactly is that?

JH: Yes. So we only utilize the phrase “being on hold” in terms of the pre-interview process, so you could be on hold for an interview with us. Once you have come to our campus to interview, the Admissions Committee will make one of three final decisions on your candidacy. So, one decision obviously that we love to make and we hope everybody loves to receive is that you’ve been admitted to Pritzker, which is great, and we hopefully will call you and tell you and then that you’ve been admitted to Pritzker. The other decision that can be incredibly difficult both to make and to hear for an applicant is that you are not being admitted to Pritzker. What that mean typically means for us–obviously if we receive close to 8,000 applications and we interview between 650 and 700 applicants, we think that you are highly qualified and a very good candidate when you come to interview, so, although we know that it can feel that way, we certainly hope that being not continued further in the process and not admitted into Pritzker, that no one takes that they’re not a good person. It’s that they are not the best fit that we see for the Pritzker School of Medicine, and it could be that we honestly don’t have what that person needs to pursue their medical education.

The third decision that you mentioned, Ben, is to be placed in the continued category. So this is again a newer change. This one just went into place last year, and we decided that we didn’t feel comfortable automatically placing people on a waitlist because, as applicants typically know, this admissions process is a rolling process for us. And so, every single week, we are interviewing more people, every single week we are making more Admissions Committee decisions, and so what we wanted to do was instead of automatically waitlisting somebody if they don’t get an outright acceptance is we place you on the continued category, and what that could mean is that you simply were in a section of our interviews and a section of our Admissions Committee that was incredibly competitive and we had a lot of great candidates, and because we interview throughout February, we obviously can’t make all of our offers at once. We need to pace ourselves, and so for many people who are not outright admitted, they simply, later in the year, are able to gain admission once we have a better sense of what our overall interview pool is looking like and how people are responding to being interviewed at Pritzker.

So, what continued means is that we did not give you an outright admission at this point, but every time the committee meets, they will be reevaluating your candidacy in light of the other applications that they are evaluating during that meeting. So basically, if you are continued, what we encourage you to do is to be in touch with David and I. Again, if you come from a school in the Northeast or the South, you would be in touch with me, and if you come from a school in the Midwest or the West, you would go to David, and we can tell you if there were any questions that the Admissions Committee might have that you could clear up for us. As you heard in the episode with Dr. Waggoner when we talked about interviewing and he was talking about how you meet three different people: Maybe two of your interviewers loved you, one of your interviewers not so much, and we need to figure out what’s going on there. Maybe it is that we really enjoyed talking to you but we weren’t quite sure how much you were enjoying being at Pritzker. So what we encourage you to do if you’re continued is to be in touch with us and we can tell you what questions the Committee had. Then hopefully, you’ll be able to typically write a response to us to tell us an answer to that question. Sometimes, like I said, it is simply that you were in an interview cycle with a lot of other really competitive candidates and we could only take a certain number from that Admissions Committee meeting, and in the next meeting, you’ll be evaluated again, but there weren’t any questions that we really had about you. It was more a situation of pacing.

Then, not until May 15th, which is the date that all of the students who are accepted to medical schools across the country need to decide which medical school they’re going to, do we have a firm understanding of who will be coming to Pritzker and at that point we begin to create a waitlist. So those students who are still continued as of May 15th will be offered an opportunity to be placed on the waitlist for future consideration should we have a shift in our class.

BF: And is that a ranked waitlist?

JH: It is not, actually. The way that we kind of operate at Pritzker is that we want to take the people who we think are the best fit for Pritzker overall and we also work very hard to build a class. We don’t necessarily want to just admit the first 112 students who come our way who we think will be great doctors. We’re looking to build a class that has a lot of different experiences, a lot of different strengths, hopefully different weaknesses as well, and a class that will really go well together. And so, as that class starts to form by the May 15th deadline, if there is somebody who drops out of the class, we look to the waitlist to see who else could bring that same perhaps personality, quality, experience level, range of experiences, so that those contributions are still present in the class.

MB: So typically speaking, and I know this depends totally on whether people decide to go elsewhere during the summer, but how many people do you ordinarily take off of the waitlist?

JH: It can range tremendously. I’ve been here for about three years and this past year, the class that actually started orientation today, we had incredibly, incredibly slight movement in our class from the time of basically June 1st until we started class today. I would say we probably made 10 to 15 offers off of the waitlist. In previous years that I’ve been here, it’s been as high as 30, so it really just depends on the individual’s decision that people make. We certainly understand that it is very difficult and very traumatic to sit on a waitlist, and so we go with the philosophy that as transparent as we can be, the better, so we can start to let you know how we’re thinking and f it’s likely that it will be a heavy movement cycle on our waitlist. That typically, though, we don’t know a lot about until July or August. There is still a lot of stability in June as people have just made their final decision, and then it tends to operate like dominoes. One person decides to change their mind and go to a different school, then that school pulls somebody off of their waitlist. That person might be coming off of our class so we need to pull somebody off of our waitlist. So honestly, when we say we have no idea, to some extent we really don’t. We just need to wait and see how things happen and we can make some educated guesses based on what people tell us, but ultimately, dominoes can kind of take effect whenever during the summer.

§ “When does the committee meet, and who is evaluated?”

BF: Joni, earlier you mentioned that a student who is not granted an interview at one committee meeting will then be looked at the next potentially. How often do those meetings occur and are all eligible students looked at at a given meeting or only specific students?

JH: Well, the committees are considering admission, so you said interview, which I’m guessing was just a mishap and I knew what she said but other people are listening so I just wanted to clarify that. Sorry, Ben. Yes, what happens is that the Admissions Committee will meet on about a weekly basis once the interview season is underway. So although we start interviewing September 17th, the first voting Admissions Committee will not happen until the first couple of weeks in October because we don’t have anything to evaluate yet; we need to wait for enough people to interview.

What we typically do is the committee is able to consider about 60 applications or so at a time, and what we do–there are a couple of different subcommittees that are in play. So, while there are three subcommittees that will evaluate candidates–and it’s just randomly assigned, and each subcommittee has the same number of faculty members and students and all of that, so no one committee is better or worse than another–and then basically, after all three committees had a chance to meet, everybody gets together to make the final decisions so that we know that we are not admitting 100 people all in the first month that we’re interviewing. We need to make sure that we pace that out a little bit so we decide who will be admitted ultimately. And really, that can change from meeting to meeting so it’s hard to say that we accept a certain number. What we try to do is to see who we have the greatest enthusiasm for and if there are meetings that that means we’re making 30 offers, that’s great, and if there are some meetings where that means that we’re making 20 offers, that’s okay too. We definitely want to make decisions based on the level of enthusiasm that we have for each candidate.

Certainly though, where some things can get into trouble is if between the three committees there are a total of 60 people who the three committees want to have accepted, we’re going to need to pace that out a little bit, so that’s when somebody can wind up being continued mainly because of the number of people that we want to accept during that cycle. At each committee meeting, every single candidate is discussed again, and what ultimately happens is that the members of the Admissions Committee come up with a final recommendation on whether they want that person to be admitted immediately or if it’s somebody that they do not feel is a good fit at Pritzker, and so at each meeting, because of those various conversations that can happen, it could be that a candidate is met with so much enthusiasm–because of the application that they presented, because of the way in which they interviewed, because of the feeling that we have for that candidate–that we might make a decision in under two minutes because it is such a home-run decision and we know immediately that this person will be a great fit for Pritzker. Sometimes people present different challenges and I’m sure everyone out there has kind of had the dreaded “what if I got a C+ in organic?” or “what if my sophomore year was awful but then I rebounded from there?”. Situations like that could take additional committee discussion, so while each and every applicant is discussed, it certainly can be that the length of time could be different for each candidate, but we definitely want to make sure that everybody gets a fair and just review.

Then, basically the order in which you go to the committees depends on the order in which you interview. We don’t do anything special or tricky with that. We just funnel people in as their interview day commences. Because of the number of days that can be in between the interview and the next available committee slot for review, most candidates can probably expect to hear a decision in about six weeks.


JH: Thanks guys.

BF: Thanks Joni.

MB: Thanks for being here, Joni.

BF: A lot of info.

MB: As always, a great explanation.

BF: So that’s all we’ve got for episode four. We would like to remind you to email us at pritzkerquestions@gmail.com with any questions or suggestions you may have for future shows. Also feel free to submit a review on the Pritzker podcast page on iTunes and let us know what you think. Any feedback you can provide will help us to improve the show and make it more informative. Take care.

MB: Bye everyone.