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What it's like to be a student on the admissions committee

Rachel Beeson
April 16, 2019

From detecting hidden talents to unearthing exaggerated claims, a med school student helps pick her future peers.

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Editor’s note: The opinions expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the AAMC or its members.

I remember my first interview vividly. I pulled out the suit I hadn’t worn in years and was relieved that it still fit. When the day finally arrived, I sat anxiously waiting, fidgeting with the notepad on the table in front of me. I was surprised at how nervous I was given how long I’d spent preparing for this moment. Still, questions ran through my head: What if I said something wrong? What if I forgot something important? What if I completely embarrassed myself? I felt the massive weight of this rite of passage, the medical school interview.

Yet my anxiety might seem somewhat misplaced, considering that I was the interviewer — not the interviewee.

As a medical student, I am honored to serve on the admissions committee for the University of Toledo (UT) College of Medicine. It’s a weighty responsibility, though, and I’m often painfully aware that I am in the position to influence decisions that can change an applicant’s life and my school’s student body.

In the more than two years since that first interview, I've learned a great deal about the medical school admissions process, about aspiring physicians, and perhaps above all, about myself.

I’m often painfully aware that I am in the position to influence decisions that can change an applicant’s life and my school’s student body.

It’s been a long road. It started out with my application to serve on the admissions committee, which included a statement explaining my interest, a series of interviews with current committee members, and approval by the college’s dean.

Once selected, student committee members at my school serve for at least one year and as many as three. Each school with student committee members approaches the process and duties differently, but at UT, around 12 students serve each year.

My training began soon after I was chosen. It included instruction about implicit biases delivered in part through an afternoon of formal training by admissions staff who taught us not to pretend to be without biases, but to instead notice our biases and consider how they may influence our behavior and decisions.

Our training also included applying holistic review, which means looking beyond candidates’ GPA and MCAT® scores to their attributes and experiences, like intellectual curiosity, maturity, and community service. We were encouraged to pair holistic review with a focus on our school’s mission to create a diverse class with members who will help improve health in the communities and regions the school serves.

In addition to such trainings, I’m expected to attend quarterly meetings where we have a chance to polish our assessment skills. We do this in small groups, sharing our thinking about what we liked and didn’t like about particular applicants and why. The goal is to better appreciate how others see potential candidates and, hopefully, apply this broader understanding to our future assessments.

Our training also included applying holistic review, which means looking beyond candidates’ GPA and MCAT® scores to their attributes and experiences, like intellectual curiosity, maturity, and community service.

As a student member of the committee, I have the same responsibilities and input as other members. Although at my school students can only comprise 25% of a candidate’s evaluators, our opinions receive equal weight in determining who to accept or decline.

Given that we were just recently applicants ourselves, I didn’t expect student members to play such an instrumental role on the committee. But often it’s our status as students that allows us to offer insights that are less available to more seasoned committee members.

Student members sometimes are able to detect aspects of an application that are artificially enhanced or dramatically overstated. We know when taking a certain course online makes it easier, when the number of hours for an experience is likely inflated, or when a personal statement is slightly insincere. On the opposite end of the spectrum, we remember what it's like to take 18 credit hours and struggle through organic chemistry and calculus II, how the loss of a loved one during college makes an already heavy load insurmountable, and the massive effort that went into research that may never have gotten published.

I'm quite grateful for this opportunity to give back to my school and help shape the future of medicine. But I've also noticed that I am gaining quite a lot along the way.

Often it’s our status as students that allows us to offer insights that are less available to more seasoned committee members.

To my surprise, interviewing candidates undeniably helped prepare me for my residency interviews. Simply being familiar with the interview environment boosted my comfort and confidence. I also learned several key communication skills, such as succinctly answering the question I was asked and not forcing in the prefabricated answer I wanted to give. I learned some unexpected personal presentation skills too, including that a chunky “statement” necklace could be quite distracting to an interviewer. Above all, though, I understood that there really was no right answer to the interview questions I’d face. All the interviewer wants is authenticity and a glimpse of who I am. What’s more, rejecting others during the admission process has helped me accept my own rejections more gracefully.

But the greatest insight I’ve gained as a student member of the admissions committee is a deep appreciation of how incredibly difficult our task is. Sometimes, applicants are just on the border, and it takes serious consideration to make the right decision for them — and my school. What’s more, so many applicants are highly qualified and committed, and there is no simple, magic formula for choosing among them. I take my duty seriously and hope I am honoring it. The students I choose will someday be my colleagues, consultants, fellow alumni, and partners as I strive to provide excellent care.

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