Get to know Rush Medical College [Show summary]
Built on the tenets of community service and community engagement, Rush Medical College strives to graduate empathetic physicians. In this episode, Dr. Cynthia Boyd, Associate Dean for Admissions offers a closer look into the program.
What makes Rush Medical College unique? A flipped-classroom model of learning and an unwavering dedication to community service [Show notes]
Thanks for joining me for the 441st episode of Admissions Straight Talk. Will you be ready, next spring, 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 chances of acceptance. Plus, it’s all free.
Now, let’s move to today’s interview. I’m delighted to have on Admissions Straight Talk, Dr. Cynthia Boyd of Rush Medical College. Dr. Boyd earned her MD at George Washington, where she also did her residency in internal medicine, and later an MBA from Chicago Booth. She joined Rush Medical Center in 1998, and has served in a variety of roles, including Assistant Dean for Minority Affairs, Director of Medical Staff Operations, and Chief Compliance Officer. She moved over to Rush Medical College, full-time, in 2019, and is now the Senior Associate Dean for Diversity and Inclusion, as well as Associate Dean for Admissions and Recruitment. Dr. Boyd, thank you so much for joining me on Admissions Straight Talk.
Can you give us an overview of the Rush Medical College program, focusing on its more distinctive elements? [2:07]
Sure, I’ll be speaking primarily about the medical school. At Rush University Medical Center, we have four colleges dedicated to the health sciences: the College of Nursing, Health Sciences, Graduate College, and the Medical College. It has been in existence since about 1837. It was the first medical school established, actually, in Chicago. It is very focused on clinical care, outstanding clinical care, integrating that with education, research, and community partnerships.
We are located on the west side of Chicago, about five miles from the downtown area, the Chicago Loop, as it is called. Our community is a very diverse community, ranging from very wealthy, to the very poor. More recently, our curriculum was changed to become what is described as a flipped classroom, where the students do the learning. The teacher is not in front of them doing didactics, students do the learning, and then they come to class in a group of their peers to share what they’ve learned, to ask questions. It puts the focus on them as their learners, versus the faculty putting out all of the information. That’s changed within the last five years. Probably, one of the newest innovations has been our curriculum.
What does the faculty do in a flipped classroom context? [3:45]
There are specific courses, so to speak, that the students will learn and focus on for anywhere from four to six weeks like gases, nutrition, etc. But they are given readings and articles and videos, and a variety of ways to learn on that topic. Then when they come to class, there is both clinical faculty, as well as basic science faculty, at the same time. So we combine both the normal and the abnormal, in this case, both anatomy for example, as well as pathology, etc.
The students learn on their own, and they interact with each other. It is very important for them to have those oral communication/interpersonal skills to be able to have these discussions. The faculty are there to facilitate that, facilitate the learning, and also to be able to provide individual learning, if that is necessary. But it puts the focus on the student to actually review and learn the concepts.
When I went to medical school, we didn’t have that. But when you start seeing patients, and thinking about problems, it really puts you in a place of having that critical reasoning and problem solving.
Rush Medical won the Spencer Foreman Award for Outstanding Community Service from the AMC. There are a lot of medical schools with strong community service components to their curriculum. How did Rush differentiate itself in this highly competitive area? [5:18]
Well, first of all, community service is the backbone of Rush, it’s in our DNA. It’s not just the Medical School, it’s the entire organization. I think that is one way we’re differentiated — this is not just a set of opportunities for students or others to get into community and volunteer, and then they’re done. There’s a commitment from the board to senior leadership, and that is disseminated and it cascades down into the organization.
For example, we have philanthropic funding from donors to support what we do in the community but we also know the ills that are in our community; the structural determinants that affect people’s health. So our students, our faculty, our staff, our residents, everyone is engaged, and it’s interprofessional on the university side.
We have the Rush Community Service Initiative Program (RCSIP) which is 30 years old, and it was started by students. It has several components to it: education and training for our students, but also, it provides care to the community, and provides health literacy to the community. The idea of what, I am sure, came out of the Spencer Foreman award was not only community engagement, but sustaining that, and also measuring the effects. We have metrics that we look at to make sure what we’re doing is serving the community. That is something that we require for students, for the medical school, that they have a quality background or experience of service.
When we review, we don’t use the word screen. But when we review applications to decide whether or not we want to see that person in-person for an interview, we’re looking at the quality of their experiences. So, someone who may have done a couple months or couple weeks of something and then they’re done doesn’t meet the level of our typical applicants that we’re looking to see with that service orientation component. That is because most of our beyond-the-service requirements that the LCME has, our students come, and they are engaged. They are part of our community, and the community as part of their education, as well. But the organization as a whole, our mission is really embedded in the community.
How has COVID affected the curriculum and experience at Rush? [8:22]
As everyone did, we switched to virtual. Even initially, for our M3 students. Some experiences in the community were discontinued, but pretty much everything else was the same. Our third-year students were put back on the floors after a couple months. They just weren’t put on COVID patients because of concern for their safety. But otherwise, they were back on their clerkships and in the hospital. Our medical students, some of our first and second-year medical students, as I mentioned, we kept some classes that were hybrid and students were still able to do that.
There were some in-person programs, like the Explorer Program, where they were able to look at other opportunities, other careers, disciplines that had to be discontinued. But otherwise, we made a pretty good pivot from the classroom, where they meet as a group, to doing it online and virtually. The one part that was difficult, and then I would think for most people, was just not being able to see each other in person.
They really missed seeing each other, they really missed being on campus, and the vibrancy of that. Certainly, some of the RCSIP programs, being in the community, and being able to do that. So that part was difficult, but we just tried to make more time, where we interacted with them even outside of the classroom experience to let them know we were there.
This year, everybody is back and pretty much vaccinated. We’ve had a mandatory vaccination for everybody at Rush. All our medical students, 152 of them, entering this year, and the rest of them, 500+ are all vaccinated. There have been opportunities for them to interact.
I was just with a group of some students at a blood drive yesterday, along with our CEO, myself, and others. We were masked, vaccinated, and still following protocols, as required by our city, as well as our governor. But we’re in a good place right now.
Does Rush have any plans to go MCAT-optional? [11:12]
Not at this point in time. We review our MCAT requirements as a committee every year. We review the data out of the AAMC, we review how our students do in the curriculum. At this point, we’re still with the MCAT.
Is research a nice-to-have, or really important to the admissions committee at Rush Medical School? [11:34]
It’s a nice-to-have. It certainly adds to the students’ portfolio. We don’t require research. So we will see a spectrum of students who come with no research exposure, some with intermediate, and some with advanced. But we don’t require it. It does add value to their application, but we don’t require it. They have opportunities when they get to Rush. If they’re interested, they can be assigned to a PI, a principal investigator, and they’re able to look into areas and get the basics. They’re also able to do some more advanced work, if they like and if they’ve already done it, can look for opportunities to continue it. But we certainly don’t require it.
Are secondaries automatic at Rush? [12:30]
They are not. They used to be. We get about 10,000-11,000 applications and it goes up every year. So as we bring that number down, we’re reviewing and when I say reviewing I mean we get our faculty engaged with this process as much as we can to look at those applications that really reflect what we’re looking for. As I mentioned before, we actually require community service exposure.
There is also some healthcare exposure, and exposure to patients. We don’t want people coming to medicine or medical school without knowing what they’re getting themselves into, and later deciding, this is not for me. So it is a qualitative review. If someone has done multiple, let’s say, shadowing experiences for two weeks here, two weeks there, that’s not necessarily what we’re looking for. We’ve been a little bit more lenient with COVID, because opportunities may not have been available, but we’ve been surprised, as well, of what people were able to do, even with COVID.
When people have community service exposure, it doesn’t necessarily have to be in the healthcare environment. It can be working in a shelter, it can be teaching students. We have people who do Teach for America, or the Peace Corps, or whatever, just something that shows you sacrificed yourself, your time, not for employment, and to recognize that that is what medicine is about. It’s sacrificing. You’re doing something for the good of others, not because you’re going to get remuneration for it.
Community service, as I mentioned, is our backbone but healthcare exposure is where we want to see if students have had an opportunity to see what a doctor does, what a doctor’s life is like, etc. That can be experienced in the emergency room as a medical assistant, it can be in hospice, you can even have taken care of someone yourself. But it is important to know what the healthcare setting is. It’s not Grey’s Anatomy, necessarily, and all these TV shows, but it is a team approach. People are working together for the patient, and sometimes the doctor is not necessarily the number one person on that team.
That interprofessional piece of it, as well as being able to talk to patients and use communication skills is critical. We look for that in all of our applicants. Obviously, we look at their metrics, which are important. Particularly, considering our curriculum, we want to make sure there’s a good strong foundation in the basic sciences. But we don’t require any types of majors, or anything like that.
We do see people who’ve majored in anthropology, or sociology, or psychology, music, etc., and we love that, because it shows that they have other areas of interest or passion that they have succeeded in. Certainly, you have to have that foundation in the sciences, so that you are going to be competitive and successful in medical school. But we certainly don’t require someone to be a science major.
Do you have any minimums in terms of GPA or MCAT scores? [16:03]
We have a cumulative requirement of at least a 3.0. At the moment, our MCAT requirement is at 503 and above.
What do you hope to learn from the secondary that you don’t learn in the primary? [16:20]
So AMCAS is something that every student fills out for every single school in the country, and it’s a standardized application. It’s useful, very useful, relative to giving all of the biographical information and experiences. The supplementals or secondaries are Rush’s application.
We want to know if you have had an experience interacting with other backgrounds. As I mentioned, we have a very diverse community so we want to know if people have had an opportunity to interact with backgrounds, cultures, different from their own. Have they been able to have an opportunity to see what their biases are? And if so, how have you been able to manage that? We also like to know how you manage challenges. We may ask how you give an example of certain situations and how you manage that. Why are you interested in Rush? What do you know about Rush? Yeah, we’re in Chicago, a lot of people want to be in Chicago, but what is it about Rush that makes you want to join? We look for that on the application, as well. It’s really Rush’s application, so to speak, or any school’s, that has a supplemental, to really get to see, is this an individual that might be a fit at Rush?
You mentioned that you have typically between 10,000-11,000 applications coming in. Per MSAR, you interviewed 509 and Rush matriculated 155 during the 2019/2020 cycle. How do you winnow it down? [17:49]
We have a cohort of faculty who review applications from the fall until probably the early part of January, because we have rolling admissions. We do invite people well into January, sometimes February depending.
What we are doing when we look for who we are going to bring to interview, we’re looking at their experiences and their coursework. Part of the experiences that I mentioned to you before, that we require, if someone, for example, has no community service exposure, or no healthcare exposure, they won’t be invited. It’s a requirement. In the past, we have seen people with minimal exposure in those areas and when they get to the interview, they have nothing to talk about. So if someone says, “Tell me about the challenges you think a physician may face,” if they’ve never seen a physician, they can’t talk. The people who interview would say, “Well, how did this person get through the review?”
Part of the review is to see if you meet those criteria that we are looking for. Certainly, the essay is also very useful, because it gives a sense of the individual’s motivation. But if it sounds too prepared, or like it might have been something that is not that person, sometimes that may put someone to say, “Hmm, let me invite this person and see if this is really him or her, or someone else who put this together.”
It’s really those experiences, and then it’s the coursework. If someone has really done a lot of extra curricular activities, or someone has taken challenging coursework, in addition, for example, to their major, showing that they have curiosity, showing that they have other interests, that’s interesting to the reviewer, because we’re looking for a multi dimensional individual, not just someone with a very narrow focus because they will contribute not only to the class, but their care of patients.
When we see a lot of diversity, and that’s diversity very broadly, we certainly will invite that individual. That’s another area that I want to mention, is that we are looking for those students who are underrepresented in medicine. We need, as an academy, to increase those individuals who bear some of the greater morbidity and mortality in our country, in our communities. When we talk about community partnerships, we know what our community is. Our community is ¾ people of color. We like students who are first generation in their family to go to college, or students who come from these communities, because they’re the ones who, when they come to our school, they start the programs, they want to do the work, they want to go out there and interact with those folks. So we look at a variety of things, not just one thing. But I will say, we do require quality experiences in both the healthcare exposure and community service.
If someone has done only shadowing, which we look at as passive, but not really rolled up their sleeves to have a conversation, to build that empathy, to build that compassion, to be able to interact with a difficult patient, their experience may be lacking. So we’d like them to have had some exposure. Not to say they have to be doing surgery and everything else, but to know what that looks like from a patient’s perspective. Because the second week that they’re at Rush, they start seeing patients.
What are you planning for the interview day this cycle? [23:26]
We’re already interviewing. Our class this year was 152, our capacity is 144, but some of our students decided on Rush, and still came. We can’t say, don’t come.
We conduct two types of interviews. One is called an open interview, where it’s one-on-one with a faculty member, who has the applicant’s file, both the AMCAS, as well as the supplemental, in front of them, and they go through it, just having about a 40, 45-minute conversation. The other interview is something called situational judgment. And this is done by two different people, but they’re in the room at the same time, asking a bank of questions of the applicant. Different situations are posed to that applicant, and one person is interviewing, the other is observing, and then they switch off. It may be two faculty members, it may be a faculty member with a fourth-year medical student, which is a lot of fun. I’ve been doing those, because it’s just so great to see students who are in their fourth year now, and they’re interviewing for residency, asking questions of these students, because they now have a sense, being a fourth-year student, of what’s required in taking care of patients, they can talk about the curriculum. So that is about a half an hour interview. From there, it goes to the committee, once that’s completed.
Do you require the CASPer? [25:11]
We are not part of CASPer.
We ask a bank of questions based on different situations. Our committee has different subcommittees. We have the interview subcommittee that is chaired by one of our psychiatrists and so we work together as a group, myself, along with the director, this physician, and others, to put together these situational judgment questions. They are based on the competencies that have come out of the AAMC, relative to what is required, not just of a medical student, but a future physician.
We certainly have academic competencies, we don’t go into that aspect. But we look at these competencies, which include such things as capacity for improvement, resiliency, adaptability, ethical behavior, professional behavior, etc. There’s a whole set of competencies. And so we look and assess that in those interviews. The open interview gets more to someone’s academic record. Perhaps they had a bumpy road, something happened, it gives them an opportunity to explain their actual application. Whereas in a situational judgment, we don’t focus on the application. We’ve read it and gone through it, but we’re more interested in the attributes of that individual, how they might behave, or give examples of how they’ve responded or behaved in certain situations, and assess from those answers. There’s not necessarily any right or wrong answer, it just gives us a greater degree of an opportunity of the dimensions of that individual beyond just their application.
Does Rush Medical consider update letters prior to waitlist status? [26:58]
We encourage our applicants, anytime, if they have update letters, or experiences that they want to submit, to share that. Any formal letters of reference have to go through AMCAS. But otherwise, they can send those. If they are on the waitlist, we keep in touch with them from time to time, letting them know that we do have rolling admissions all through January, February, and to hang in there. If there is information, other information they want to provide, perhaps they’ve completed a research project, or some other project, perhaps they have additional information to provide on an experience, etc., we also will accept that at any point in time.
Do you have any advice for applicants and their parents on handling silence between submission of the secondary, and either an interview invitation or rejection? [28:19]
First, for parents, I would say very politely, not to get involved. This is between the applicant and the school. I understand the parents’ concern but we tell our applicants, throughout the process, and when they interview, “If you have any questions, contact us directly.” Some of that is for confidentiality purposes. Sometimes the students may not want their parents to know. I will tell you this, sometimes parents ask questions about a student’s application or whatever, and they’ve never even applied to the school. We respect a student’s autonomy. Please contact us directly to share any type of information.
In terms of being interviewed and waiting to hear whether or not you’re going to be accepted, until October 15th, schools cannot let anyone know whether or not they’ve been accepted or not, because the early decision programs are in play. Until that program has ended for schools, we don’t let people know. Early decision means people have applied to just one school, and they find out, by October 15, whether they got in or not. If they did not, to that one particular school, then they open up their application to the remaining schools. So after that, all is game. At Rush, we try to let people know within, I’m going to say a couple of weeks or so, if all goes well with our voting, what the decision is. If someone is waitlisted, that is something that can change over time.
If people have not heard anything and they’re on the waitlist, we will get in touch from time to give them a sense. But the fact is that the admissions process is ongoing and rolling. Students are declining acceptances, some are on the waitlist, some have accepted, some later in the cycle may decline an acceptance, and then that waitlist person may have an opportunity.
What we tell people is that it is a dynamic process. We don’t do it every week, we don’t do it, necessarily, every month, because we’re still interviewing weekly, but we do try to let them know, as the cycle goes on, to say, we’re still doing this, you still have an opportunity. And sometimes they’ll contact us. They’ll call and say, “Rush is my first choice, and I really want to come there.” And our director will let them know, truthfully, where things are in all of that. So I would say we prefer to hear from the student directly, because there may be things about their application that might get discussed, and we just don’t do that with the parents.
We really tell the applicants over and over, we have an email address that they can contact. If they want to talk to someone specifically, they can do that. What we don’t necessarily do is, if someone is not accepted we don’t give information back, at that point in time, about what may have been the reason for that. We do do that, if the students get in touch with us and tell us, we don’t send it out for everyone. Some do. They will say, “Well, what can I do to strengthen my application?” And this is a review of both the interview and the voting comments. So we have to wait on that a little bit. If it’s academics, it may be, you need to strengthen your academics before you reapply again, that type of thing. If the committee wasn’t happy, perhaps with some of their experiences, maybe they need to get a little bit more clinical exposure, etc. That’s something that is a conversation, as well. So we try to have conversations with people.
Let’s talk about applicants who are thinking ahead, let’s say, to a 2022 application and are trying to figure out what they should or should not be doing. Obviously, clinical exposure’s really important at Rush. Is there any clinical exposure that’s particularly good? [34:08]
So COVID is a different animal in this, and we recognize that, and that’s why I said we were more lenient in terms of what people had the possibility to do, where they live, maybe they’re in a rural environment, etc. Maybe they’re taking care of someone in their family who is ill. So we looked at that and made conditions for that. Minus COVID, though, it’s okay to shadow, to get a sense of, “Hhmm, do I like this?”, “Do I want to see a little bit more of this?” or whatever and that’s okay. But when your entire application is all shadowing, what that tells the reviewer is, you have had no active participation. Watching someone is totally different than you talking to that patient.
We see people, for example, who are clinical research coordinators. This is excellent exposure, because you actually are sitting down and talking to a patient in a clinical trial, going through the informed consent, talking about the adverse effects that could happen, or complications, hearing that person’s concern, talking about the particular disease or content condition that they’re enrolling in. You’re face-to-face with somebody, and you are using your oral communication and your interpersonal skills. That’s direct patient contact. But watching another physician or other providers do something is just not the same. So I’m not saying no shadowing, but when it’s only shadowing, the particular reviewer may not look at that as being you knowing what a doctor’s life is like, or what it’s like to be in a team, or what it’s like to talk to a patient who may be in hospice.
I just interviewed a student, a couple of weeks ago, who spent time in hospice. She went in with one idea of what it was going to be like, and she described what it was for her, and the interaction with that patient, which was invaluable. I think part of this is, you don’t know how you’re going to react to a patient’s pain, you don’t know how you’re going to react to a certain environment when you’re in the middle of it, but you need to see it, or have some exposure to it. It shouldn’t be your first time in medical school, necessarily.
Again, oral communication and those interpersonal skills are also very critical. In an application, you can’t get that. In an interview, that is one competency that I would say probably most medical schools, if you don’t have it, you’re not necessarily going to do well in that interview assessment because it’s seen as a proxy for how you interact with a patient.
What is a common mistake that you see applicants making during the application process? [37:31]
Not being prepared or applying at the wrong time, which is another way of saying not being prepared. What I mean by that is, I’ve seen people take the MCAT without having taken any of the sciences that are required.
I think applicants should research a school. Students apply, roughly, to about maybe 13 to 15 schools. What I always tell them is to research the schools that you’re applying to. For example, if you’re applying to a research-intensive school, and you haven’t done research, you’re wasting your time.
Most schools will give the averages of their GPA requirements. If you know what your GPA is, and it’s nowhere near, or could be nowhere near that average, don’t apply. If you are not competitive yet, don’t apply. If you didn’t do so well in your coursework in college, don’t apply yet. Maybe you need to do a post-bacc, maybe you need more time, maybe you need a gap year.
The other is, someone, once they take an MCAT, and it’s not what it should be, and I’ll just say that, relative to what schools are looking for – don’t keep taking it. Put in an intervention, find out what you need to do to fix that MCAT. Unless you just had a bad, bad, bad day, a bad cold, or a death in the family, and it just threw you off your game. But we see people take it over and over again, and what they need to do is stop and reassess, and maybe wait a year or two, maybe get some more academics in their foundation before they retake it. But I would say not being prepared.
The last one is applying too late. AMCAS opens up in June; most schools start reviewing in July. If you’re just starting to apply in September, October, you don’t know the school’s deadline. So research each school you’re applying to, look at the deadline, look at when you need to have everything in for it to be considered. If you’re taking the MCAT a little bit later, look at when that school may get it. It may be too late, and it might be better for you to wait until the following year.
I tell people that this is not a sprint. You think about something that you do slowly, over time, and improve over time. I think some of this you learn about yourself in the process and you may say, “You know what, I’m not ready to do this.” We’ve had people say, “I want to do this to make sure I want to do medicine.” So they’ll go do something else first to make sure this is truly their passion.
Some people are engaged in something else, maybe they’re in the Peace Corps, and they’ll say, “I have another year,” they’ll get in, and they’ll say, “Can I defer, I have another year?” Absolutely. That adds to their portfolio for us, as well. I think it’s really being honest with yourself, getting information from people who have done it, being honest with where you need to improve, and then actually working on it. Please, don’t apply if you don’t meet the requirements. If you have not had any healthcare exposure and no service orientation, and I’m talking particularly for Rush, your application won’t even get to the review stage.
What would you have liked me to ask you? [42:37]
Well, I’ll say this. I’ve been doing this now for longer than I thought I would, I’ll just say that, admissions never really stops. There are cycles to it. What I enjoy about this is seeing the students grow. I will have fourth-year students who will say, “You interviewed me, Dr. Boyd. You interviewed me, and it was tough.” I said, “Oh, it wasn’t tough.” “But you asked some good questions,” or whatever.
It’s a joy to see people go through this process, through their first year, their second. And then when they’re on the floors, and they’re actually interacting with patients, and they start talking about it, and what it meant to them, and all of that, and then to see them practicing, or in training. Because it is a process, and one builds on the other.
I know students now who were applicants, and now they’re faculty somewhere. They’re doing the work of the mission of Rush, they’re in the community. I just saw yesterday, a student who graduated, I think in 2000, and he is in Chicago working on anti-gun violence in the community, COVID, and this blood drive to get more people of color to donate their blood because there’s a shortage. When I saw him, I said, “You are doing exactly the Rush thing.” And he loves it. He’s an emergency medicine physician, and much, much more. He’s involved, he’s in leadership positions. It makes me feel good to see that. And now he’s mentoring our medical students.
Where can listeners learn more about Rush Medical College? [45:47]
You can access our website at www.rush.edu and you’ll get a sense of our entire organization, our mission, our work in the community, etc. Then the Medical School Admissions page will give you everything you need to know but if you still have questions, just contact us and we’d love to talk to you.
- Rush Medical School’s website
- The 5-Part Framework for a Successful Medical School Application, a free masterclass
- Medical School Admissions Consulting Services
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