Office of Pre-Health Advising

what-schools-look-for

What Professional Schools Look For

What Admissions Committees Face

Imagine you're a doctor on an admissions committee for a medical school. (The same kind of scenario applies to professional schools of dentistry, veterinary medicine, etc.) You're a busy person, with patients to see, research to conduct, classes to teach, and your own life to live. But you also want to help shape the next generation of doctors, so you've agreed to help decide who gets in to your school.

The pile of applications is huge: ten thousand applicants and only two hundred spots. You know that nearly half of those applicants will get in to a medical school, but most of them won't end up in yours. You have two big problems:

  1. How do you pick people to admit who are likely to come to your medical school? You don't want to admit a bunch of people who will go somewhere else, but you also don't want to admit so many people that you run out of spots for them.
  2. How do you go through ten thousand applications? You have other work to do, and you'd like to go home and see your family at some point!

If you think about it, that means that professional schools are not going to be going through your application with a fine-tooth comb, at least not at first. If a doctor considering who to admit spends three hours per application on ten thousand applications, that's thirty thousand hours. Since there's less than ten thousand hours in a year, it's literally impossible for the doctor to do that!

So what's the solution?

The first step is to think, "if an applicant can't handle the courses in the first year of medical school, then we shouldn't admit them." The applications have a couple of big clues as to who can handle the courses: overall G.P.A., G.P.A. in the sciences (or, for some professional schools, in the prerequisite courses), and test scores (MCAT for medical school, DAT for dental school, GRE for physician assistant school, etc.). Admissions committees really do look at every application that meets their stated minimum qualifications; there's no "secret thresehold" for grades or test scores that results in automatic rejection. But if grades and test scores are below levels that previous experience has indicated are necessary to assure a student will make it through med school, there had better be evidence that the applicant has figured out what the problems were and addressed them.

As these early hurdles are cleared, grades and test scores become less important--just one part of the mix. But the stack of applications is still quite high, and while it's now down to a size where an admissions committee can give each application a closer look, they still can't spend hours on each. Instead, they're interested in four aspects of each application, each of which is described in detail in a section below.

Can the Applicant Do Well in Professional School Classes?

This question is mostly addressed by grades and test scores. It's easy to evaluate if grades and test scores are high, or if they're low. But in between there may be questions. In those cases, admissions committees may look at letters of recommendation from professors who have taught the applicant. They may also look to see if grades are tending to improve over time, if the reason for low grades is clear (perhaps early difficulties are explained in the personal statement or committee letter), if there's other evidence the student was struggling (such as lots of course withdrawals), etc..

Does the Applicant Know What the Profession Is Like and Are They Committed to It?

Once again, consider yourself in the position of a doctor on an admissions committee for a medical school. You've admitted a terrific student--we'll call her Maria--with great grades and great test scores. Maria is a delightful person, and  has a well-rounded education. Maria comes to your medical school and does well through the coursework of the first two years. Then, during the third year, as she begins rotations, Maria realizes she doesn't actually like working with patients. She decides she doesn't want to be a doctor, and leaves to pursue a Ph.D. in biology.

How do you, as the doctor who helped admit her, feel? Most likely, like you made a mistake. You "wasted" a precious spot on someone who didn't want to be a doctor. You don't want to make that mistake again.

As an applicant to medical school, this is the main reason why you need to get experience in the professions before applying. They want you to have seen a doctor having a tough day, complaining about what he does for a living. They want you to have worked with a patient who is non-compliant and rude. They want you to have seen the harsh realities of medicine: the paperwork, the blood, the dead and dying.

For pharmacy, optometry, occupational therapy, physical therapy, physician assistant, and dentistry, they also want to know that you've committed to their field in particular. If applying to become a pharmacist, for example, what is it about pharmacy in particular that attracts you?

Finally, physician assistant, and to a lesser degree veterinary medicine and physical therapy, would also like you to have a considerable amount of practical experience coming in. Students in those areas rarely take residencies after their professional schooling, so the schools like them to have done more before applying.

This question is addressed partially by the experiences you've had by the time you apply, but should be reinforced by the personal essay, letters of recommendation, and interview.

Can the Applicant Work Hard at Something Self-Directed and Excel?

Doctors, dentists, pharmacists, physical therapists, occupational therapists, optometrists, veterinarians, and physician assistants are professionals. That means they have to manage their own time. A doctor, for instance, needs to spend time with patients. But she also needs to keep up on the latest medical advances. If she works at a hospital, she may be inolved in helping to run the hospital. If she has her own practice, she needs to look after the business side of things. Doctors may also choose to spend time doing research, or teaching, or community outreach, or some combination of those things.

And so applications committees like to see applicants who have put energy in to an activity where there wasn't someone else telling them how to allocate their time--where the applicant had to figure out how to make it work. Depending on the applicant, this might take the form of:

  • Athletics at a competitive level
  • Excellence in a fine art: music, dancing, painting, creative writing, etc.
  • Starting a business
  • Community organizing
  • Leadership in student government or in clubs
  • Scientific research
  • Academic excellence beyond the pre-med core (e.g. a senior thesis)
  • Raising a child as a single parent
  • Coming to the country as an immigrant without any support network such as family

Whatever the activity is, an ideal applicant has pursued it far enough to have a tangible result: an award, a published paper, a new volunteer organization. In addition, many of these activites highlight other aspects of the applicant's experience and character: teamwork, compassion, seeing the big picture.

What does not work is to do a little bit of a lot of things: a few volunteer hours at a soup kitchen, a guitar lesson or two, a summer washing glassware in a lab. Find one thing like this, and do it thoroughly, and do it well. Make sure it's something you enjoy or feel passionate about.

How Is the Applicant Different?

Admissions committees want a set of students who each bring something different to their school: a different set of goals, interests, or experiences.

In addition, let's imagine being a doctor on an admissions committee one more time. Out of the original ten thousand applications, many were quickly eliminated due to test scores or grades. Others appeared not to be strongly committed to medical school. Some had OK grades and test scores but didn't have anything particular going for them. Some were jerks who had gotten this far by working against their fellow students. And some, of course, looked great and have been accepted. But there are still a couple of dozen acceptances to give out, and a couple of hundred applicants in the "maybe" pile. The admissions committee is sitting around the table, staring at the stack of applications, trying to figure out whom to take.

"What about the one who wants to be a priest, as well as a doctor?" asks one.

"Or that one who did the origami projects?" says another.

"There's the one who wrote about being backstage with Beyonce — her application was interesting," says a third.

"Or the drama major?" asks a fourth.

In that kind of situation, no one ever says "What about that one who took pre-med courses and volunteered in a hospital?"

When an applicant is on the bubble, it pays to be memorable!

In reality, every person is different from everyone else. But their applications don't always make that clear. When applying, find a way (usually in your personal statement) to make it clear what about you is different and memorable.

The Interview

The last hurdle in the admissions process is the interview. As an applicant, your job in the interview process is to answer the four questions described in the previous four sections of this page. But different schools, and different doctors, handle interviews differently. In some, you'll be interviewed by panels of doctors, in others it will be one-on-one. Some are open file, meaning they know everything about your application; others are closed file, meaning they know nothing that you don't tell them at the interview; and yet others are semi-open, where the interviewers have read your personal statement and letters of recommendation but don't know your grades or test scores. Finally, some schools use a series of mini-interviews, many of which involve role-playing or discussing hypothetical scenarios.

One common strategy employed by the people interviewing you is to ask challenging questions that sound like they disapprove of some part of your application. For example, they might ask this of someone who went straight from high school to college, applying to med school after their junior year:

"How do you know you really want to be a doctor? You haven't tried anything else."

That same interviewer might ask this of a post-bac:

"You changed your mind about what you wanted to do before. How do you know you'll stick with it this time?"

Both questions are really getting at the "Does the applicant know what the profession is like and are they committed to it" question, even though they both sound critical.

Likewise, if it's an open file interview, the interviewer might ask about specific grades: "What happened in Chem 1? You got a C-." In a case like that, they want to hear what you did wrong (taking on too much? trying to go it alone? not being sufficiently prepared?), what you learned from the experience, and why it's less likely to happen again--not an excuse or a shrug.


The pre-health office will provide mock interviews by appointment.

Last modified: Jun 15, 2017

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