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Interested in a spot in Georgetown University SOM? [Show Summary]
Dr. Ellen Dugan, Georgetown Medical School’s Senior Associate Dean for Admissions and Financial Aid, describes how cura personalis, or care of the whole person, drives the Georgetown experience and curriculum.
Interview with Dr. Ellen Dugan, Georgetown Medical School’s senior associate dean for admissions [Show Notes]
Welcome to the 459th episode of Admissions Straight Talk. Thanks for joining me. Are you ready to apply to your dream medical schools? Are you competitive at your target programs? Accepted’s Med School Admissions Quiz can give you a quick reality check. Just go to accepted.com/medquiz, complete the quiz, and you’ll not only get an assessment but also tips on how to improve your qualifications and your chances of acceptance. Plus, it’s all free.
Our guest today is Dr. Ellen Dugan, Senior Associate Dean for Admissions and Financial Aid at Georgetown University School of Medicine. She is a Hoya through and through. She earned her MD at Georgetown University School of Medicine and then completed her residency training in Emergency Medicine, also at Georgetown. Following four years of service in the National Health Service in rural West Virginia, Dr. Dugan returned to Georgetown and has been on the faculty there since 1990. She served on the Admissions Committee for 10 years prior to becoming the Associate Dean. In addition to her admissions duties, she is an Associate Professor in the Department of Emergency Medicine and formerly served as the Vice-Chair and Interim Academic Chair in the Department of Emergency Medicine at Georgetown.
Can you give us an overview of Georgetown University School of Medicine‘s curriculum program for those listeners who aren’t that familiar with it? [2:10]
I’m happy to. That’s our new curriculum, which they basically started revising in 2015-16. Our graduating class of 2021 was the first class to go all the way through, so it’s fairly new. It’s divided up into three phases. The first 18 months of the first and second year, or the foundational phase, are made up of six blocks of core content. They’re organ-system-based modules that integrate basic science disciplines with doctoring training if you will. The doctoring courses are called “cura personalis,” referring to and uniting the development of professional skills that are unique to doctoring, like physical diagnosis, communications, ethics. This runs through all the blocks. There are also intercessions that are one week long that are emphasizing topics critical to physicians in healthcare. An example would be the opioid epidemic. Then they have medical student brand rounds all through the first three years.
The core clinical phase is the third year, which is blocked out into 4-8-week core clerkships. Those would be medicine, surgery, OB-GYN, pediatrics, family medicine, psychiatry, neurology, and three two-week selectives, or electives. Then there’s the advanced clinical phase, which is the fourth year, and that’s made up of 37 weeks. Three of those four-week blocks are required. One is four weeks in emergency medicine, and then the other two are four-week blocks in doing acting internships where they function as interns so that they get the confidence and the skills to hit the ground running for residency. Then the best part of it, they have 24 weeks of electives, so they can basically design their entire fourth-year course other than those first three blocks that they have to do. It really gives them great freedom.
Is the elective block always at the end of the fourth year, or does that vary depending upon the student? [3:59]
It varies. They can do the emergency medicine later on. What they want to do in those first few blocks is when they’re getting ready for residency, they hone those blocks into the specialty they want to go into so that they have letters and clinical experience in that particular field.
What would you like listeners to know about Georgetown that many applicants don’t realize? Or what myths would you like to dispel? [4:22]
The biggest one is that you don’t have to be Catholic to be at Georgetown. We are one of four Jesuit medical schools in the United States and that gives us that distinction. Another thing people don’t realize is that we accept both international and DACA students. We’re not looking for who would fit our school, but we’re looking for applicants that have different backgrounds, different lived experiences that add to the class in their own unique ways. The most important thing for us because we are a Jesuit institution, is that they embody our Jesuit mission of cura personalis, or care for the whole person. We’re not just caring for patients physically, but we are also caring for their emotional, spiritual, social wellbeing. The other big dedication to service is our students work with the underserved and the marginalized populations. It’s a really big part of their education. An interesting fact is that of this first-year class, 70% did not come to us straight out of college. They come from all different experiences. Where the gap year used to be frowned upon, it now seems to be the norm more than the exception. I think there’s a preconceived notion that this school is extremely competitive. Although it’s really difficult, the student body isn’t, it’s more a collaborative environment and culture. The preclinical curriculum is pass/fail and we don’t submit rank lists to residency programs so they’re not ever really being pitted against each other. The hope with the pass/fail is that the students are learning to learn, not to learn to take step one, and with that stressor removed that they will actually retain the information and assimilate it into their knowledge base.
You’ve mentioned cura personalis and the Jesuit mission several times. In a really practical way, how does it show up in the teaching? Is it possible to give an example? [6:09]
There are a few things that we do, but it’s based on the curriculum. Students are required as part of their graduation requirement to do 20 hours of service to the underserved. Most of our students end up doing more than that. We have a Hoya Clinic, which is a student-run clinic that the fourth-years run with attendings who supervise. First, second, third, and fourth-years can all volunteer. It’s a clinic that is for homeless families that are in transitional housing in the Southeast Area of D.C. We also now collaborate with the law students in caring and advocating for patients’ health issues, not just their health issues, but the law students help us with their legal issues, their social issues, all in the spirit of cura personalis and social justice and alleviating healthcare disparities.
Then we have the Jesuit mission and reflection dinners, which are small groups where you do Jesuit readings and reflections, and then the students talk about ways to enhance the Jesuit curriculum and mission in the curriculum. We also have the Racial Justice Committee for Change, which is a dedicated group of student staff and faculty that pursues sustainable change in diversity, equity, and inclusion at the School of Medicine and throughout the Georgetown community, the University Medical Center.
What are you trying to glean from the secondary application that you don’t get from the primary? [7:53]
Well, it’s more specific to us. The primary essay is the “Why Georgetown?” essay. That’s where we’re trying to figure out what interests you about Georgetown, what resonates with you about Georgetown, what is it that you are seeking from Georgetown, and what would you bring to us.
The first short question is asking the applicant how their values, life experiences, and identity contribute to our priorities, which are racial justice, adjusting healthcare inequities, and in this particular question, exacerbated by the recent pandemic, so it’s specific more to the pandemic health inequities.
Then the second short question is a space for somebody to add additional information. People will put in why their MCAT was bad, they were ill that day, or let’s say they got into graduate school after they applied, and they want to tell us what they’re doing now, so there’s a space for that as well. Or issues even that came up during the pandemic that have affected their grades, or their health, whatever it is.
What are some of the more common mistakes that you see applicants make in approaching Georgetown’s secondary? [9:03]
I wouldn’t say “mistakes,” but I think it’s more of a lack of an understanding of who we are and what we stand for. Have they actually read our mission statement? Do they actually know anything about us?
Could you walk the listener through the process that the application goes through once they submit the secondary? [9:34]
It’s a fairly long process, but once it’s complete, it goes to the committee for evaluation for interview. That’s based on a holistic approach, looking at the whole package, meaning not just grades and MCATs, but lived experiences, clinical experience, research, and very importantly is their service, dedication, and their letters of reference, leadership. We also weigh the depth of their application, how they assimilated themselves into the community of their school. What have they done to give back to their community?
We also take into consideration difficulties people have had with COVID, meaning family issues, loved ones being ill, wifi, people that went home and didn’t have a designated quiet space, and so that’s all part of it, too. A lot of the schools went pass/fail across the board and you didn’t have an option to do grades to get grades for your science courses, so we also take that into consideration as well because that was a big thing that students faced, and are still facing, actually.
How should an applicant approach reapplication to medical school, and specifically to Georgetown, if they haven’t gotten an interview invitation, or they’ve already heard that they’re rejected? [11:53]
What we tell applicants or reapplicants, especially, is to go back to our website and take a real good look at it critically in terms of their application in reference to what we’re looking for. They should look at their experiences and see where they might have gaps as to what we’re looking for because not all schools are looking for what we are and we’re not looking for what all other schools are looking for. What we’re also really interested in is what they’re doing with their time in this gap year. We understand many won’t have a job immediately when they apply, but they should give us an update of what they’re doing because the gaps are not helpful to us. There’s a lot of time between now and the fall, or the summer when they start to apply that they can actually find those opportunities to embellish their application.
Are you open to updates in the course of the application cycle? [12:47]
Yes. We actually have a portal in our system that’s called Post-Submission Update. It’s actually listed under the banner of the secondary. There’s a portal there for a post-submission update, so they can update anything, send it all in there as well.
When travel restrictions ease, do you plan to go back to in-person interviews, or keep a mix of in-person and virtual, as we’re doing now? [13:12]
Well, as my colleagues said, “That horse is out of the barn now.” If anything good came out of this pandemic, it’s that this virtual interview provided an opportunity for people that might not have applied to us or have been able to come and interview because it’s so expensive getting hotel rooms and traveling and food and all of those things that I think this is one of the reasons why everybody’s applications were off the charts this past year, or the last cycle.
I think the hybrid version is the way we’re going to need to go. It gave an opportunity, especially for disadvantaged, underrepresented students to be able to interview with us and not feel like they were at a disadvantage because they couldn’t come to the school, so I think in-person is always better, but if that’s the opportunity for them to interview with us and that’s their only option, then I think that’s a great idea. I think we’re probably going to go with a hybrid going forward.
We were actually thinking of doing something in the spring but I don’t think we’re going to be able to do it because visitors are still not really back on campus. We thought we would have small groups come, sort of like a second look day. They’re already accepted applicants, so there’s no advantage to coming or not coming and we’d have a tour of the school and of the student panel, they could talk to students, and do a few more things that is like a second look day, but not virtual. We’re hoping that maybe we might be able to do this later in the spring.
How do you look at candidates who faced mental health issues in the past? [15:20]
As you know, no one is required to disclose any health or mental health issues. If they choose to share that with us, it depends on how they present it and what it is they’re trying to tell us by giving us this information. We have to look at this on a case-by-case basis because it’s very personal and it’s something we take very seriously, but again, it’s on a case-by-case basis.
What about somebody who has an academic infraction, or perhaps a misdemeanor on their record? [16:04]
The misdemeanor is interesting because some states will say a speeding ticket is a misdemeanor so it sounds really terrible if you have a misdemeanor listed on there. It’s in the explanation of what that academic infraction is, what the misdemeanor is, what the felony is. Again, it’s more on a case-by-case basis, how it’s presented, are they remorseful, what did they learn from this, those sorts of things.
How was application volume this cycle compared to the big one in 2021 as well as the 2019-2020 cycle? [17:02]
In 2021, we had 17,881 applications. We were up 24% and applications were up nationally 18%. In this current cycle, we have 15,993 applicants, so we’re down 11%, nationally they’re down 12%. Comparing that to the pre-pandemic to 2019 to 2020, we had 14,464 applications. We’re actually, this current cycle, if you leave at the 2021 cycle, we’re up about 10.5%. Usually, that up or down is about 2-3%, so it’s very interesting to see.
Do you have any idea what’s coming in the next cycle? [18:07]
No, we don’t. I think a lot of it is going to depend on the students and the whole grading thing and the courses that they’re able to take. Their experiences have been discontinued because of it all. It’s still up and down that way, like right now, with Omicron going down. It looks like they may have the opportunity to have those experiences again in person, so it’s going to be different.
We also were warned by the AAMC that we might see people with criminal records because they were in demonstrations or protesting, and they gave us a heads up that we may see this. It’s more of them advocating than anything, but I thought that was an interesting point that they brought up.
What advice would you give to med school applicants wanting to apply to Georgetown this upcoming cycle for 2023 matriculation, or even looking further ahead to 2024 matriculation? [19:08]
You look at these students that went through their first year of medical school, and it was all virtual last year. They brought the first-year students in for anatomy in January. If they wanted to be in there, they had the option of doing it. I’m not sure how you do anatomy and dissections virtually, but they gave them the option, and most of them all came in for it, but that was the first opportunity they had to be together. I think looking forward, hopefully, we will be rid of this plague that we are all going through and that they will be able to all be together from day one.
A lot of people were looking at this happening and saying, “Hmm, I think I might put off applying to medical school for another year, just to make sure that I won’t be sitting in my bathroom all day long and listening to Zoom sessions,” so I think we have to see what’s on the horizon in terms of the pandemic and make choices that way. But I think for the ones that are hellbent on applying this summer, when we open up again in June, you look at these next few months that you have, and look at our criteria, or look at the school’s criteria that you’re going to be looking at and see if there are ways that you could tweak your application, get those experiences in-person, especially clinically.
It’s really important that you actually have some sense of an idea of what you’re getting yourself into. I think shadowing is a huge part. A scribing job in the summer is also wonderful, it’s well thought of as solid clinical experience. It’s great if you could fit something in now that gets those experiences in, not just to check a box, but because this is what you’re interested in. You’re into medicine and this is what you want to learn and inform yourself of. Do you want to be an advocate, a scientist, and a healer, or do you want to just be a scientist? I think there are lots of things that they need to think about before they make that big jump because it’s a long road, it’s a wonderful road, but it’s really difficult.
Is research a nice-to-have when applying to Georgetown, or is it pretty much a must-have? [21:29]
As I said, when we do the holistic review, if somebody has a great application or they have no research or they just have a little bit of research, we take that into consideration. It’s really nice if they have some kind of research. It doesn’t have to be clinically-based or translational. A lot of the science majors do, they work in their biology department, let’s say, and they do even bench work. They know what assays are, how to come up with a project, they work with a PI, so they have experience with it. We like to see that. It’s not a deal-breaker, but we really do like to see that.
How do you feel about virtual shadowing? [22:28]
I think with virtual shadowing, a lot of students are basically in a Zoom session with a physician, and the physician will tell them about their background and what they’ve done, or they’ll walk them through a case. It’s not the same as seeing a physician interact with a patient and seeing those nuances of what kind of questions to ask to find out from the patient what they really want. That’s such a skill that you learn when you see a physician with patients. Virtual shadowing is the next best thing, and for some people, it’s the only thing they have, but you really need to see that dynamic up close and personal.
It’s like in the emergency room, this is the worst day of their life. They’re coming in there, they’re vulnerable, they’re scared, they are out of control, and you have such a little window to make that connection with them to make them know they’re going to be taken care of and well taken care of, so those are the things that you want to see and have an idea of, not that everyone has to shadow in the emergency department, but just that patient-physician interaction is so key.
Are there any questions you would’ve liked me to ask you that I haven’t? [24:02]
I think one that I think I would’ve liked you to ask is what are our support services are like for our students.
I like to say, “Once you are one of ours, you are ours for life, and we’re going to do everything we can to help you thrive to become an excellent physician and to be supported.” This is really difficult, but as I said before, wonderful. It’s so much information coming at you at once and you have to learn how to apply it. It’s a different way of studying. It’s a different way of applying your knowledge. Everybody’s smart when they come in, but then people are just astounded when they start to struggle, or they have a little hiccup and they don’t understand.
It’s really important that they have these support services, not just academically. We have an Office of Student Learning, and they do great things with our students in terms of tutoring sessions together or tutoring sessions alone. They do all kinds of things with their academics. As they say, “If you’re struggling, we will find you. If you don’t find us, we will find you. It’s our job.”
We also have the Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, which basically works for the institution to have a culture and an environment of equity and diversity and inclusion and to be there for those students that need that help, too. We have bias training, we have premed pipeline programs, commitment to racial justice, and RJCC.
We also have the CAPS Program, which is the Counseling and Psychiatric Services. We have two psychologists that are designated just to the medical school. Then there are CAPS in other counseling areas that are open for our students.
Then we have advisors. As I say, “They’re advised to death.” We have preclinical advisors. That could be a staff member or physician for the first and second-year students and that person’s there to help them figure out things as they come up and how to navigate things that come up. Then they also are there to help them start figuring out what it is they might want to do for a career. Then, in their second and third year, they have a clinical advisor who is a physician, and that person is there to help them navigate things and help them continue to figure out what they want to do. When the time comes they can help figure out what block streams they want to do in the third year or what sorts of things would be best to do in the summers, those kinds of things. Then the clinical advisor are also there to help the fourth years navigate this dense morass of a match system for residency. It’s really complicated.
Not only do you have a clinical advisor, you’ll also have a specialty advisor. I have one going into neurosurgery, so she has me and she has a neurosurgeon, or one going into ped, so me and a pediatrician. Even if you’re going into emergency medicine, you would have me and another emergency medicine physician, so they get a lot of support during this time, and they help you figure out what letters recommendation you need, what kind of way rotations you might want to do to for a specific spot for residency. They help you figure out your CV, how to write your CV, how to do your personal statement. There’s a lot of support. I think besides the fact that our students are most excellent, I think this is a huge help in terms of them matching the residency. We do really well.
They also have a research advisor to figure out what project they want to do. They have a requirement for graduation to do a research project and it’s called an “independent scholarly project,” so they have to do that somewhere over their four years. There’s a research advisor for that.
Then they have the big sibs, the second-year students who are assigned to a first-year student to be there as a point person to help them. There’s peer-to-peer tutoring, where the upperclassmen tutor the first and second years if they need it. We have an Ombudsman for private issues that come up. Then we have these academic families where groups of 10 from each school are put in these societies, which are made of first, second, third, and fourth-year students, alumni, faculty, staff, and so they do things together in terms of social things that are fun. They do service projects together. They do reflection, they do dinners together. You’re not just part of your class, you’re part of the school as a community, as a group. In my days, you knew your classmates and maybe a couple ahead of you and behind you, and that was it, so this is a really great way that we incorporate everybody into the school so students are part of the whole place.
Where can listeners learn more about Georgetown University School of Medicine? [30:03]
Well, we are all over the place. We are on social media. It’s a great place to actually hear from students too. Some of them do a day in the life of a Georgetown student and they have little videos. Certainly, go to our website, which is som.georgetown.edu, and look for the admissions piece. You could also read about our Racial Justice Committee for Change. It’s front and center on there. We also have information sessions that we have several times a month that you can just join a Zoom link and learn more about us. You’re able to ask questions because we have students on these panels, and we also have our outreach person. There are a lot of opportunities to get more information, and actually get it live, which is really nice. And if you email us with questions, we will answer you, usually within 24 hours.
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