What makes Chicago Medical School unique, and how to wow its adcom with your application [Show summary]
Dr. Michael Ellison, Associate Dean for Admissions at Chicago Medical School, describes how the school trains students from all backgrounds to be thoughtful and dynamic healthcare leaders. He shares his advice for students looking to pursue medical careers and to be admitted to the program.
What CMS’s emphasis on interprofessionalism means for applicants [Show notes]
Before we meet our guest today, I want to invite you to Accepted’s next med school admissions webinar, which will actually be a Q&A. The topic – drum roll – is Got Interviews: What if I’m Not Invited to Interview?, a live Q&A where I will be joined by Dr. Herman Gordon, former chair of the University of Arizona medical school’s admissions committee, and Dr. Barry Rothman, founder and former director of several postbac programs at San Francisco State. The Q&A is on October 6th, that’s tomorrow, at 4:00 PM Pacific/7:00 PM Eastern.
If you haven’t received an interview invitation yet, during the Q&A you can share your concerns, and we’ll share our suggestions from our collective decades of experience in medical school admissions. Save your seat for free!
Now, let’s move on to today’s interview. With a focus on interprofessionalism, the Chicago Medical School is one of five graduate schools in healthcare at Rosalind Franklin University of Chicago. It also has one of the larger MD programs in the United States, and I’m delighted to have on Admissions Straight Talk, Dr. Michael Ellison, Associate Dean for Admissions at Chicago Medical School. Dr. Ellison earned his doctorate in Educational Leadership from the Roosevelt University of Chicago. He has worked in higher education and specifically in medical school admissions and administration for decades. Dr. Ellison, welcome to Admission Straight Talk.
Can you give us an overview of the Chicago Medical School program, focusing on its more distinctive elements? [2:13]
Well, Chicago Medical School is a commuter based medical school. We serve a variety of patient populations, from those who are from rural communities, urban settings, suburban settings, individuals who may be coming from disadvantaged backgrounds, all the way to those people who may have more privilege and resources. We really want to make sure that we are training physicians who are going to have a broad-based education. Those individuals will have opportunities and experience with treating a wide variety of patient populations and individuals who may be coming from various backgrounds.
Rosalind Franklin seems very focused on interprofessionalism and the stated vision is “To be the premier interprofessional health sciences university.” Could you define or describe interprofessionalism? How does it manifest itself in the medical school curriculum? [3:01]
Well, we realize that to provide the best patient care, it takes a team approach and the physician is one part of the team, but the nurses and the pharmacist and the other health science individuals who are working as a part of that team help to provide the best patient care and to improve those patient outcomes.
A part of what we do here at Chicago Medical School is to incorporate these experiences in what we do as it relates to students from the various programs taking similar classes, working on similar cases. We look at how they would assist each other in those healthcare settings and how important those roles are in helping to improve the outcomes of the patient.
You will see our students interfacing in some of the classes that they take together. You’ll see them interfacing in some of the clinical experiences that they have, and you’ll also see them interfacing in some of the social and community-based outreach that we do here at the medical school, in the university.
How has COVID affected the curriculum and experience at Chicago Medical? [4:28]
Like everyone, we’ve had to do things a little differently. We’ve used hybrid methods of getting the curriculum to our students so some of the coursework has been delivered virtually. We’ve had small group settings. We’ve made arrangements that we could bring students in for lab work. This year everyone’s back on campus, and we are doing everything face-to-face. We’re also planning, should we have to go back to remote learning, but we’ve learned some lessons from the first year in terms of how to do it better virtually. Virtual, I think, has impacted us all in a way that has made us better in how we’re delivering instruction to our students.
Are you going to keep any virtual elements in the curriculum? [5:26]
I can’t answer that because I’m not responsible for curriculum, but I would say that from the admissions side of things, we’re certainly looking at how we may be able to incorporate both in-person and virtual experiences forthcoming.
A couple of medical schools have gone MCAT optional. In other graduate studies, there has been a broadening of acceptable tests and in some cases, widespread test waivers. Is there any intention or consideration of waiving the MCAT? [5:52]
There has been no deliberate conversation at this point about eliminating the MCAT from our way of assessing candidates. We are certainly doing things in a more holistic approach, where the MCAT is not the be-all to whether or not a student is going to be admitted to the program. We’re certainly looking at a student’s experiences and attributes and how they’re going to be able to contribute to the diversity of the class and what they’re going to bring to the learning environment as a part of the way that we are looking and assessing candidates we want to admit to the medical school.
Do you accept applicants from postbac programs? [6:52]
We do. We’re very fortunate to have a couple of pathway programs of our own here at Chicago Medical School, but we have accepted students from other pathway and pipeline programs throughout the country. We know that everyone’s start and journey to medicine is different so we really try to look at that holistically as we bring in a class of diverse candidates so that our students participating in the program can also learn from each other and their experiences.
Some schools really want research from applicants. For some schools, it’s nice to have. For other schools it’s really irrelevant in terms of the evaluation process. Where does Chicago Medical stand on that continuum? [7:29]
We don’t require that students have research experiences as a part of their portfolio. We’re always excited when we see students who have an interest in research. We have a dynamic team of faculty who are conducting research here on campus and always looking for students who have an interest in research, but it is not a part of our portfolio requiring students to have a research experience or background. We do think that research is very important to medicine. And so those applicants who have that interest will be able to pursue it here, but it is not a requirement.
Do you screen before sending out secondaries? Or are secondaries sent out automatically to everybody? [8:25]
We have a process right now to send out secondaries to everyone that has submitted an AMCAS application that is completed and verified.
What do you hope to learn from the secondary that you don’t learn from the primary? [8:48]
Well, the primary application goes to all of the medical schools that the students select, but the secondary application allows us to ask questions that are specific to us. We will want to see things about a person’s interest in diversity and working with communities that are underserved or those who may be from disadvantaged backgrounds. We want to see if students truly have a passion for service and want to work with individuals who may be different from themselves.
We’re also looking to see their resilience and their ability to work collaboratively in a team, because medicine is a team approach. We want to know that people are going to be culturally sensitive to their patients and bring in that personality that will make a patient feel comfortable about sharing those things that they may be a little nervous about sharing with a stranger.
What does the Casper add to your insight into an applicant? [9:56]
Well, right now, we don’t use the Casper to make admissions decisions, but we are still collecting the information to see how it could better help us to assess candidates. We’re looking at it in a variety of ways to determine if it’s really something that we want to use to make decisions, or if information about decisions of applicants who we think are going to be a better fit for us.
The most recent MSAR says that Chicago Medical received 11,893 applications, interviewed 823, and matriculated only 189. So the big cut occurs between the secondary and the interviews. How do you whittle it down? What makes an applicant jump off in a positive way and join that very fortunate, roughly 7% of applicants who are invited to interview? [10:42]
As you probably know from any of my other colleagues across the country, this is a challenging task for us. I think I could speak for the committee when I say it’s really those personal statements and the letters of recommendation and the secondary application. Those are the things that pop out for me. When I can read a personal statement and I can see the journey that the applicant has taken to get them to where they are today, that’s very important. When I could see or feel their passion for medicine, when I could see their desire to really want to improve healthcare outcomes for people, for those individuals who have had hardships and challenges and barriers in life and they’ve overcome those, those are the things that are very pressing for me.
But also for those students who may not have had unfortunate life circumstances too, they add something to our class as well. So having, again, a very diverse class of students, I think everyone benefits from that.
As we are reviewing applicant files, we’re looking for those key touch points and attributes that say that this is how the person can help improve our educational outcomes here at the medical school, but also improve the profession of medicine in producing doctors who are going to be compassionate and caring about the patients that they are serving.
Also keeping in mind that we live in a global society and there are so many different cultures and backgrounds. Seeing applicants that are coming from different backgrounds can only enrich the educational experience of our students. It’s challenging, but it’s exciting when you run across those total packages that you’re just excited to want to meet those students via interview and hope that they will see the significance that Chicago Medical School has with helping them to become the doctors that they want to be.
What kind of interview day can invited applicants expect? [13:50]
We have a very robust interview day, considering it’s still virtual. I can’t wait till we go back to in-person interviewing because I really love to see and interact with the applicants face-to-face. But I think we’re doing our very best to make it as engaging as we possibly can.
Our interview day consists of the office of admissions welcoming the entire group. I will speak with every group of applicants and share with them the expectations of the day and answer any questions they may have. Our Dean of Student Affairs will also meet with the candidates during the day. We’ll talk about student life here, we’ll answer any questions they may have about support services and programs in place at the medical school. Then we’ll talk about the curriculum, both the first and second year curriculum, and then third and fourth year curriculum when they’re doing most of their clinical rotations.
And then of course, the day could not end without having them talk with students. Students are the prime reason, I think, for the interview day and for the interviewee to have an opportunity to engage with our students. So we’ll have a student panel who will certainly consist of students from M1, M2, and M3 year to be able to share their experience and answer any questions with applicants.
Then at the end of the day, we’ll do a wrap up. We’ll ask if there are any questions, and we will wish them the very best as they go through this process. One thing that we’re doing new this year, this evening, as a matter of fact, we’re having a meet and greet with students prior to next week’s interview. We really want to make sure that the students have a very positive experience, that their questions are answered, and that they feel that this will be a good fit for them here at Chicago Medical School at Rosalind Franklin University.
Is the interview a traditional one-on-one? Is it one-on-two or three? Is it multiple mini interviews? [15:48]
We’re doing multiple mini interviews. There are seven stations and students will get an opportunity to express their thoughts with seven different individuals. If you think that you may have not done such a great job in one of the interviews, you have six more interviews to go through where people will be able to find those positive attributes and experiences that you will bring to the medical school. The interviews are with faculty, staff and students.
How does Chicago Medical School look at update letters at any point in the process, before interview, after interview, if wait listed? [16:55]
Well, I would say that because of the volume of materials that we receive, we do not encourage updates. We do take everything into consideration that has been submitted with their primary application, because they do get an opportunity in the primary application to talk about future activities that they will be involved in. One of the things that I will certainly talk with students during the interview day is the expectation of when you will hear from us and hopefully help manage that. The one thing that I’m most pleased about is that we have a system where students can check in to see updates on where they are, and we’re working very hard to make sure that we get information out to students this year within four to six weeks after interviewing, if not sooner.
What is the latest that someone could expect an interview invitation from Chicago Medical? [18:05]
Well, we interview up and through the end of March. Our last day for the AMCAS application is November 1st and our last interview day is March 17th so it’s at least a few weeks. I would say the latest applicant would probably be receiving an invitation the first week of March or last week of February.
Is there any kind of clinical exposure or experience that you prefer to see in applicants or is there any kind of clinical experience that is not so valuable, in your opinion? What about virtual shadowing? Because many shadowing opportunities have evaporated. What is your take on that? [18:48]
Well, COVID has certainly changed the complexity of how things can be done so we’re trying to be very flexible in how we look at and assess the opportunities that students may have over this period. We really want to make sure that students understand what the practice of medicine is all about and to understand that there is a lot of hard work coming through this journey. We want to make sure that you’ve had an opportunity to maybe shadow, maybe do some patient contact.
I’m a premed, former premed advisor as well, and sometimes students would say to me, “I want to be a pediatrician” and I would look at their application prior and wouldn’t see anything on their application that says that they would like to or have worked with children. So, how did this come about and where’s the evidence that you want to do this?
I think our admissions committee, or admissions committees probably all over, want to make sure that you’ve had an opportunity to spend some time in the hospital to see how it is to work with people who are ill and sick and may not always be at their best and may not always look their best and may not always smell their best. For us to be able to know that you’ve had some experience or exposure gives us an idea that you’re not going to go through the first year and then during the third year say, “Oh, this is not what I want to do. This is not what I thought it was all about.” We want to make sure that you’ve had exposure to health careers, whether it’s working as a CNA, EMT, etc. You may just be a transporter or a volunteer. You may be doing scribing and you may be doing some shadowing.
I always tell students, “I want to see that you’re doing something that shows you are giving to another person.” Sometimes when you’re shadowing, you’re just sitting and observing something. I want to see you doing something. The second thing is service to others. Are you providing service to people in the community, to people who don’t look like you, to people who may be struggling and suffering?
I think medicine is one of those professions that’s always giving. We want to see that that is something that is innate. We can’t teach you to be a giving person. We can’t teach you to be compassionate. That’s something you have to bring with you.
Is virtual shadowing something that you would discourage, or would you just encourage applicants to try to get something in addition to whatever virtual shadowing experience they may be getting? [22:06]
I would encourage them to try and get something additional. Again, one of the things that I do when I speak to undergrads is to say, don’t wait until your fourth year to start this, start in your freshman year, and it gives you four years to build this portfolio of service to healthcare and to community, that will give you ample time and ample hours to be able to have a sufficient number of experiences.
But I would encourage them to seek out additional opportunities if available. If they’re not able to get these opportunities, they should be using the personal statement or the secondary essays to explain why they were unable in order to help us to understand where there may have been some barriers or problems.
What is a common mistake you see applicants making during the application process, at any point? [23:12]
Applying late in the cycle. Copying and pasting from their original secondary application to other applications without really looking at the mission and vision and core values of the institution that they are applying to, particularly for the secondary applications. I think that’s very, very important. Another thing that I see is sometimes not utilizing their pre-health advisors or their academic advisors in their undergraduate or post-bacc programs to assist them with how they’re completing their application. What’s the most important experience for you within the experience section and why is it that? Are you giving the admissions committee members the evidence that tells us about your compassion and how you’ve grown and your ability to work collaboratively and your leadership skills? Those are things that sometimes I see in some of the applications that I review.
How do you view applicants with an academic infraction or perhaps a criminal record? Do either of these mistakes mean they can’t get in? What are you looking for if you are accepting? [24:37]
I’m one of those individuals who believes, particularly if you’re a first-generation student going to college, there are many things you may not know as you enter your college life. And so your freshman year, you’re making all these adjustments. Maybe if you go away to school, you’re adjusting to living away from home. There’s no parent looking over your shoulders every hour. You have the flexibility to get up and go to class or not go to class. Sometimes, you make a few mistakes along the way in your freshman year. We expect to see that in an applicant who may have experienced those growing up pains of moving away from home. We don’t expect to see that in a junior or senior. If you’re going to make your mistakes, make them early.
Academic infractions are not the end of the world, particularly if you’ve been able to redeem yourself. The criminal kinds of incidents may take on a different flavor. It really depends upon the criminal action. We certainly don’t want to admit any student that we can’t get licensed. That would be a horrific thing to do, to have a student invest in the educational expense of a four-year medical school to only learn that we can’t license them. We look at those situations on a case-by-case scenario, and we determine whether or not this is a student that we will be able to assist.
You mentioned that with academic infractions in particular, you want to see some redemption, if you will. What kind of redemption are you looking for? [26:57]
I’ve seen some students who had a very poor academic record their first semester of college. They barely made a 1.5 GPA, but the next semester they were back on their game and had improved all of their coursework and now had a GPA well over 3.0, and sustained that GPA going forward. That’s the kind of evidence I think we would be looking for, making sure that you’re not withdrawing from classes every term, or you have this up and down pattern. We want to make sure that the pattern is either stable or that it’s going up.
What advice would you have for applicants who had a dip in grades or had to drop out of school because of an emotional issue? [27:58]
I think we’re finally getting to a point in our society that we realize that mental health is something that impacts many of us. One of the things many medical schools are doing, including Chicago Medical School, is really trying to create this balance between wellness and learning. As professionals, we’re also trying to find this balance between work and life.
We’re certainly realizing that students may have some times in their lives where they may have to postpone their learning, to take a break and to get things under control, so that’s really not a problem. It’s making sure that you are taking good care of yourself, not only your physical but also your mental wellbeing. We want you to be at your best when you come to medical school so preparing and taking care of that ahead of time is a plus for the applicant.
What is your perspective on taking gap/growth years? [29:17]
A hundred years ago when I went to college, there was no conversation about gap years. I think I would have benefited greatly from a gap year, because I really didn’t know what I wanted to do, where I wanted to go, where I wanted to be. I just knew that my family said, “You’re going to go to college.” And I just said, “Okay, that’s what I’m going to do.” It worked out for me, I’m very fortunate.
But for students who have the opportunity – take a gap year to do research or to enhance your application so you’re more competitive candidates. Obtain that greater experience working with people from disadvantaged backgrounds or individuals who may have special needs. Maybe you have other special interests and you want to pursue those first.
I had a student many years ago when I was a premed advisor who chose to be an art major first and then came back and did his prerequisite courses to go to dental school. I was so amazed by that because he was doing something that he truly had a passion for first and then he combined his love for dentistry with his art. What a wonderful way of doing that. I think for some students, they may need a gap year to fill in those blanks and to maybe mature a little bit more and to become more self reflective of what it is that’s important to them and the legacy they want to really leave to the world.
What advice do you have for medical school applicants? Not so much the ones in the thick of it now, but for the ones thinking ahead and planning to apply next summer or the following summer, or sometime in the future? [32:19]
I would encourage students to take a look at the AAMC’s website for students. There’s tons of information there about the medical school admissions process. I would also encourage them to spend time with their pre-health advisor or academic advisor at their schools. Start the process early and be mindful that everyone’s journey to medicine looks different. Don’t compare your journey to their peers, because it may look completely different. So everybody isn’t going to be in medical school by 21. You may be 25, or you may be 31 when you get there so don’t put that pressure on yourself saying that, “I have to be in medical school by the time I’m 21 and I have to be a MD by the time I’m 25, and married with kids by the time I’m 27.”
Just take it one day at a time and do what you need to do to demonstrate that you have the passion, the compassion, and the desire to be a lifelong learner, because that’s what medicine really requires. By the time you finish medical school, many of the things that you’ve learned and the techniques you practice may be obsolete so you’re going to have to learn and keep learning as you go through this profession.
I think you should enjoy it, even though when you’re struggling through organic chemistry and physics and biochem, you’ve got to find some happiness with that. Then you have to really like people and want to be an individual who wants to improve the healthcare outcomes, not just those who are privileged, but those who may be coming from disadvantaged backgrounds, disadvantaged communities, immigrant communities, and so on and so forth.
The advice I would give is take it slow, do all the things that you need to do to make yourself very competitive. Also know that everyone may not get into medical school on their first attempt, it may take you multiple attempts till you actually reach there, but just make sure that you are the best prepared when you do enter the time slot for applying to medical school.
Is there anything you would’ve liked me to ask you or anything you’d like to share? [34:55]
I’m hoping that soon we’ll be back to in-person visits so we can actually visit various schools and see students in person, but when things do come back in person, I encourage students to participate in those career fairs and to meet the admissions professionals when they visit your schools and to just be vigilant in what you’re doing. And, again, enjoy the process.
Where can listeners learn more about Chicago Medical School at the Rosalind Franklin University? [35:48]
They can certainly come to our website at rosalindfranklin.edu and find information about not only the medical school, but also our pharmacy school, podiatry school, college of health sciences, and our graduate programs.
- Chicago Medical School at the Rosalind Franklin University
- The 5-Part Framework for a Successful Medical School Application, a free masterclass
- Medical School Admissions Consulting Services
- Deep Dive Into Duke Medical: An Interview With Dr. Linton Yee, Associate Dean of Admissions
- How to Get into Kaiser Permanente Medical School – Warning It’s Tough!
- How To Get Accepted to University of Illinois College of Medicine
- Everything Applicants Need to Know About the Dell Medical School Experience
- What It’s Like to Apply to Washington University School of Medicine