Episode 7: More Admissions Talk

A discussion with Dr. Anthony Montag, Professor of Pathology and another Chairman on the Admissions Committee at the University of Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine, about more admissions and interviewing topics.

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

Embedded Links:
Dr. Montag’s Physician Profile

Episode 7 Transcript

Ben Ferguson: Okay, hello folks. This is episode seven of the Pritzker podcast. Thanks once again for joining us. I am here once again with Mary Bister. Hey Mary.

Mary Bister: Hi Ben, how are you?

BF: Good. How are you?

MB: Great.

§ “Dr. Montag: The Man”

BF: Mary’s taking exams this week and next week so if she sounds tired, that’s why. But we are also joined by Dr. Anthony Montage, who is a Professor of Pathology here at the University of Chicago, and he is also a chairman on one of the Admissions Committees here–we’ve got three Admissions Committees here, and he is the chairman of one of them–and welcome, Dr. Montag.

Anthony Montag: Thank you.

BF: So today, as you might imagine, we will be talking to Dr. Montag about some admissions issues, but first, why don’t we, Dr. Montage, just have you sort of introduce yourself and your background before you got to the University of Chicago?

MB: Okay. I’m a native of Iowa and grew up in a rural area and attended Iowa State University as an undergraduate major in invertebrate zoology, went to medical school at Marquette, which is now Medical College of Wisconsin in Milwaukee. I did one year of internal medicine following medical school then switched into pathology, did two years of pathology and the year of medicine in Milwaukee and then transferred to the Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston where I did three years of anatomic pathology, which is microscope pathology, autopsy, cytopath, and then finishing the fellowship in gyne-path at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital, I came to the University of Chicago in 1985. So this is my first job.

BF: Cool. What’s made you stay so long?

AM: It’s an interesting place to work. I interact with a lot of different people and because of the way our Division is structured, that the medical school is not a separate professional school but it’s just part of the Division, people from evolutionary biology or organismal biology feel comfortable calling a pathologist and sending a grad student over to work on bird ovaries or primate finger pads or just anything that they need histologic examination on. So I think the thing that makes it interesting is the stuff that walks in kind of unexpected from graduate students in different parts of the University.

BF: You do a lot of teaching of course work; you’re obviously involved with admissions. What other sort of roles do you play at the university?

AM: I teach the histology section of the anatomy block, and then I’m involved in a graduate course for non-MDs on cancer biology, and then I teach a couple of the sections of the sophomore clinical pathophysiology and therapy course.

BF: So that keeps you busy, I’m sure.

AM: Yes, and then we have 25 residents in our department, and I have a bone and soft tissue fellow, so there’s one person each year that is specifically studying orthopedic tumors, and I oversee that person.

§ “Dr. Montag: The Admissioner”

BF: Can you talk a little bit about your responsibilities on the Admissions Committee?

AM: Well, as you’ve said, we have three parallel committees whose function is really identical. It’s just that we have so many people to consider and we want everybody to get discussed and so we’ve split it up into three parallel committees, and so I chair one of those committees, and that committee has about 10 to 12 people. Each time it meets, it considers 18 folders. Everybody reads the folders. People are assigned one or two cases to be the primary discussant and so each person who’s applied who’s had an interview gets discussed by one of the committees. Then the decision at the committee is passed up to an executive committee which considers the people that have passed through each as the three parallel committees. So the executive committee is kind of an über committee that has to take the product of the three parallel committees and then make the final decision as to who is continued, who gets an offer. I think our process is labor-intensive and that’s why there are so many committees because each applicant gets three interviews: administrative, student and faculty. Then they have their letters, they have their supplemental essays, and their AMCAS. We are paperless luckily; otherwise we’d be cutting down trees for all this, but everything is reviewed by the people on the committee and then the person is actually discussed not just on the basis of their grades and MCAT scores but on everything in the application. Then I probably interview two to three applicants a week on average.

MB: I know a lot of students wonder how particular parts of their application are going to be perceived once they get to the committee, so one issue that comes up a lot is how am I going to be perceived if I have a liberal arts degree versus if I have a degree in chemistry or biology? How do you look at that?

AM: I think our school likes people that have different backgrounds, and I think if a person has a liberal arts degree but has done the required premedical coursework and has done well in the premedical coursework, I don’t think that that’s a negative for us. Definitely if a person has a very high GPA for their non-science classes and a not-so-high GPA for the science classes, that will be taken into account and could be a factor that would hurt them. But if a person shows that they’re a uniformly good student in both and they’re interesting and they do well on the MCAT, I don’t think it makes a difference if you’re a chemistry major or a philosophy major.

MB: How do you look at people’s backgrounds as far as coming directly out of school versus non-traditionals, and within sort of the non-traditional group, being somebody who has been out of school, say, a year or two doing a Peace Corps mission or a research in a lab versus someone who is actually switching from an entirely different career? I guess if you could give a little insight on your thought process–do you look at building a whole class around these people or do you take each individual applicant separately?

AM: I think we look at everybody separately. I mean, when I applied to medical school decades ago, if you were not 23 years old coming straight out of college, you were unlikely to get in; even a year or two hiatus was considered very unusual, and I think people value the Peace Corps, Teach for America, other experience, and they also look at people who had other careers. We had an applicant recently who had had a career in art and then had decided to go back, do post-baccalaureate training to pick up the science classes, and was applying, and there was actually some logical progression over the four or five years that they had this career where they found themselves gravitating into medicine. If it’s a good compelling story and it’s logical and they clearly do well in their post-bac, that person is somebody that could add something to the class. So we definitely don’t discriminate against people just because they didn’t come straight in out of college. I think the issue of research is very positive for this place. If you’ve taken a year off to do a Howard Hughes fellowship or something or just working in a lab really involved in the research, those are things that are regarded as positives.

BF: Just as a follow-up to that, Dr. Montag, we’ve spoken previously about the apparent increasing prevalence of people taking trips abroad and doing mission trips and so forth. Would you say that that’s becoming sort of a new prerequisite for medical school, like what was once research?

AM: Well, it seems like some exposure to international medicine or underserved populations is very desirable, and I think there’s a little bit of danger that it becomes like another checkbox. I see applicants that have the one- to two-week experience in Costa Rica at a clinic, which is scheduled through a commercial company that provides these experiences that they actually pay for this experience, and I do wonder if that should be considered a better experience than somebody volunteering at some clinic in an underserved area of their own city for one afternoon a week for a year, which actually wouldn’t cost you $2,000 like the Costa Rica experience and would show that there’s maybe a little more of a mind set that this is something that you’re engaged in as opposed to a one-time event. My own personal feeling is that I look at these very short-term international experiences carefully and say, is this an experience through some agency/philanthropic missionary or medical thing or is this a commercially-provided experience? I think a one- to two-week commercially-provided experience doesn’t really enhance an application for me very much.

MB: Very good to know.

AM: I think there’s an industry rising up to meet the need for some type of experience to have on people’s applications, and I just think people should read the applications more carefully and ask themselves, is this an experience that really provides something to the person that’s formative or is this something which is heavily scripted?

BF: Yeah. We’ve talked on the podcast before with other guests and among ourselves too because we interview as well. Sometimes, it’s really easy to see through people just padding all their activities to try to get to the maximum 15 or whatever just by adding very small things to make it look like they’ve done a lot, when in reality they’re not really doing anything of substance. So it’s probably better to do the substantial things but have fewer of them than have more things that are not as meaningful.

AM: Yeah, I would say so. I think the corollary of that is in college applications, five to ten years ago, I think people were expected to be in every single activity. I think there’s more of an emphasis now on showing that you have a passion for a limited number of activities.

MB: This is sort of related. I’m just wondering if there’s any sort of mistakes or things that you see over and over again where you just say to yourself, “Oh I wish this person hadn’t done that. They would be a much better candidate if they had only done this instead.” Or–I guess that’s a transition into advice that you might give for putting your application together.

AM: I’ve had people contact me because they have a relative who’s applying or something and they say like, “What advice can you give them?” I guess one thing I would say is that there is a limit to the activities you can put on the AMCAS and you need to think about it. I’ve seen applications where the activities they put down seem to all focus around Greek life, for instance, so that it looks as though everything they do is actually contained within belonging to their fraternity. That’s not necessarily good because it makes you look like you’re kind of very narrow in your exposure while you’re in college. We’ve had people during their interview have been asked questions about their personal statement on the AMCAS application and have not been able to answer questions about their own personal statement. It’s possible that you write this and it has been a few months and you forget, but the person interviewing you read that statement probably 10 minutes before you walked in the room, and you should probably review your application again so that you really do remember what you wrote down on the personal statement.

I think there are people that particularly for us, we have the administrative interview, a student interview and a faculty interview and they act differently in the fact that we interview them than they do in the other interviews, or even they walk in the door and sit in the lounge area in the Dean of Students Office and they interact with other applicants, and everything that happens is on stage from the minute they walk in. I mean it’s all fair game. If their interactions with the other applicants are somehow odd, there are secretaries there who are going to know. Or if they walk in and their interaction with the secretary is not good, that secretary is going to give input as well. There have been people that have had wonderful faculty interviews and the rest of their day has clearly shown a different person than they showed to the faculty. I will say these people are not as bright as their scores because if they were really that bright, they would figure this out.

Then we pay a lot of attention to the secondary essays. When the questions then are on the secondary–we actually do read those and people need to actually think about the secondaries as much as the personal statement.

MB: What are some positive things that you really like to see?

AM: I like to see that people have tried doing something that is outside of their comfort zone, that they have kind of put themselves in a situation where it’s not all kind of on the college campus. Again, if they’ve done something where they’re volunteering at a clinic where they’re going to meet a different type of person than they may have grown up with or they go to school with, I think that’s very positive. I think shadowing experiences where you follow a doctor around is a nice thing to do. I think applications that have four or five shadowing experiences listed–that’s not a very positive thing. I think people that actually take a role, even if it’s just a role as a volunteer where they actually have to do something for a patient, even if it’s just in a more clerical patient transport way, is probably more valuable than following a radiologist or an orthopedic surgeon or thoracic surgeon around for a week and then following another kind of doctor around for a week. I think surprisingly a lot of people in the committee–maybe not surprisingly–but a lot of people in the committee value involvement in sports teams. I certainly wasn’t a very sports team-oriented person in college, but I think people that have been on teams do bring something in terms of cooperative learning and cooperative work. It’s something that if it’s on the application is valued, I think, by our committee. If somebody is clearly a three- or four-year–maybe it’s a small college varsity sport, maybe it’s a club sport–but this is something where they really have to be in a cooperative situation.

§ “Dr. Montag: The Mystery”

BF: Why do this? Why get involved with admissions? What was your admissions role interest in it?

AM: I think it’s probably citizenship. I mean if you’re in an institution, you kind of owe the institution some of this activity. I think it’s interesting because you do see amazingly interesting applications, a very diverse array of students, international students, students from extremely rural backgrounds, students that are from inner city urban backgrounds. You see all different combinations. You do get an idea of–some people have a bad year in their freshman or sophomore year in college and they recover and they have good performance their last two years of college, and you can see a story there that this person maybe had some issue one year of college, some personal thing. There have been people that have had a very close relative die just before finals in their sophomore year, and then they recover and you can look at this application and see this person’s character as you see how he moves through his college years and recovers from this thing. It’s interesting to get an idea of these people through their applications and I suppose that’s why this is my third year. That’s why probably I keep doing it is because I find the applicants to be interesting to read about.

I’d say with the issue of research, one of the big mistakes I think people make is putting a research experience down on the application and then not being able to talk about it. There are some schools that have scripted research experiences where essentially you have a research semester, which is a class which is something their pre-med organization has kind of arranged for the pre-meds to do. So they do this and then if you ask them what they did, they really can’t tell you what the hypothesis was or what the project was about or what the significance of the work was. I think if people have done any kind of research, whether it’s epidemiological research, something that’s more sociology-oriented, or basic science, they should be able to tell you what it was about, what the techniques were, what their part was, and also why the work would be significant. What does it have to do with medicine anyway, or people? If they can’t talk about it, it would have been better to leave it off the application. I think that’s one of the big mistakes I’ve seen people make, that they clearly don’t know much about what they were doing. They were there in a very technical or student-observer capacity.

BF: Do you have any sort of closing advice or closing thoughts, I guess?

AM: I mean, they probably hear this, but there are schools that have a reputation for taking the grade point average and the MCAT scores and making a scattergram with the X and Y axis and then drawing a circle in the upper right-hand corner and just accepting those people. I think we’re very far from that. There is no real minimum MCAT score, GPA cutoff. Clearly if someone is abysmal, they’re not going to get considered, but they take into account a lot of factors: background, research exposure, community service exposure, exposure to medicine in some interesting way. You can’t really say, well, if you have below a 3.7 or if your MCAT is below 31–you can’t really make a cutoff. I think our students are highly qualified and most of them have very good scores–we have some with amazing MCAT scores, but that’s not really what we’re looking for. We definitely have turned down people with very high MCAT scores over 40 because we just didn’t think they fit with our class. I think that’s probably not a bad thing to keep in mind that we’re not so focused on just one or two aspects of the numbers, that we’re not going to look at the whole person.

BF: Good to know. Good to keep in mind.

Okay. That was episode seven of the Pritzker Podcast. Hope you enjoyed it. Hope it was informative enough for you. As always, you’re encouraged and welcomed to email at us pritzkerquestions@gmail.com if you have suggestions or questions or comments about the show.

MB: Please send us feedback.

BF: Please do. We would like to know how you think we’re doing.

MB: Is that too much graveling? Too much graveling maybe.

BF: Not at all. More graveling.

MB: I don’t know.

BF: Begging, even.

MB: Please, please, okay.

BF: And also there’s iTunes so comment on iTunes if you get a chance. Don’t worry–it’s not going in your file.

MB: We promise.

BF: Yes, exactly. So until Episode 8, this is the Pritzker podcast. I’m Ben…that’s Mary.

MB: Goodbye everyone.

BF: Take care. Bye.

MB: Bye.