Find out what’s new to the U. of Colorado SOM curriculum [Show Summary]
The University of Colorado School of Medicine has introduced a new curriculum that includes clinical training starting in year two and a longitudinal approach to patient care. Dr. Jeffrey SooHoo, the Assistant Dean for Admissions explains everything applicants will want to know about these changes and gives the inside scoop on how to get accepted.
Interview with Dr. Jeffrey SooHoo, Assistant Dean for Admissions, U. of Colorado SOM [Show Notes]
Welcome to the 478th episode of Admissions Straight Talk. Thanks for joining me. Do you know how to get accepted to medical school? Accepted’s Dr. Suzi Schweikert does and she shares her knowledge and insight in Accepted’s free guide, Med School Admissions: What You Need to Know to Get Accepted. Download your free copy!
Also, thank you and a shoutout to Nareg Keshisian who left a five-star review for Admissions Straight Talk on Apple Podcasts. He wrote:
“Linda does a great job answering many of the questions that are on students’ minds. These podcasts give greater insight into what schools are looking for in applicants that would be otherwise difficult to find elsewhere. I would highly recommend them to other applicants who are looking for more information about the admissions process for particular schools.”
Thank you again, Nareg. Your feedback is deeply appreciated. Giving insight to applicants into what schools are looking for is exactly the goal of Admissions Straight Talk. Your words are high praise.
The next step in achieving Admissions Straight Talk’s goal is introducing today’s guest, Dr. Jeffrey SooHoo. After attending Boston College as an undergrad, Dr. SooHoo earned his MD at Loyola Stritch School of Medicine in 2009. He did his residency at the University of Colorado in Ophthalmology and a fellowship in glaucoma, also at the University of Colorado. He has been Assistant Dean for Admissions at the University of Colorado School of Medicine since 2020.
The University of Colorado School of Medicine introduced a new curriculum almost exactly a year ago. Can you walk us through it, focusing on its more distinctive elements? [2:14]
Absolutely. Our new curriculum is called the Trek Curriculum and all the different elements are named after elements of a hike in Colorado. It was named by our students. You start out in the Plains and progress to the Foothills followed by the Alpine and finally the Summit.
There’s a number of things that I’ll point out as being unique features of the curriculum. I think the biggest change is the move of the core clinical year from the third year of training to the second year of training. That decreases our core preclinical time from two years in the classroom to just one.
A question I get often is, “Dean SooHoo, do you now expect me to learn two years of material in one year?” And the answer to that is no. We thought really critically about the elements of our preclinical curriculum and what needed to be in there to prepare you to be a clinical student. I think there was a lot of in those first two years that, while interesting and maybe relevant to medicine in some way, didn’t necessarily need to be learned during the time before you went out into the clinical space.
Students are eager to get into the clinical space. We also think it’s better for learning for them to have clinical experiences earlier because it allows them to think more about the science behind the medicine. It also gives them a human framework in which to place that knowledge. Then they ask better questions because they say, “Oh, well, I saw Mr. Jones and he has this condition. Let me try and understand the pathophysiology of his disease, or let me understand how his medications work.” They have a clinical framework in which to put that knowledge. I think that’s one of the biggest changes.
The other change is that in that clinical year, we’ve moved from a clerkship model, where for example, you do six weeks of pediatrics in its own little silo and then eight weeks of surgery in its own little silo, to a longitudinal, integrated curriculum. During that core clinical year, students have those experiences throughout the year. They might have pediatrics on Wednesday afternoons throughout the entire year. That allows them to form relationships with patients. The students will have a core panel of patients that they follow through different clinical experiences. If a patient that they follow in the clinic is having surgery, they go with that patient to that surgical experience. Rather than following pediatrics or surgery, you’re following a patient through their experience of care. The patient gets to know that student really well.
The other thing that allows you to do is to develop relationships with faculty members longitudinally over the course of a year. If pediatrics, in the old model, was your first rotation, you might just be trying to get up to speed on taking a patient history and how to present the patient, and you might not really be able to put your best foot forward. But if you work with the same preceptor for half a day every week for an entire year, if you have an off week, or if you’re still working on some skills at the beginning of the year, the preceptor gets to see you progress as that skill develops over the course of a year. They get to coach you and mentor you in a way that just wasn’t possible in the old clerkship model.
A lot of questions come to mind. Let’s say a student is doing pediatrics Wednesday afternoon and of their patients is having surgery at a different time. And what happens in years three and four? [5:35]
To answer the first question, I’d say it would depend. All the students have time in their week that is unstructured. They don’t always have something that they’re committed to and that allows them to have time for independent study and exploration. Maybe you’re interested in my field, ophthalmology, but it’s not really a core specialty that you have to be in every single week, so you want to go explore that. There might be a patient that you want to follow to an encounter.
Because the LICs are housed in a particular spot, you might be based at Denver Health Medical Center for one of the LICs where there’s a director, a core group of faculty, and a coordinator. They can help navigate some of those challenges. The students have some support in that way.
LIC stands for Longitudinal Integrated Curriculum? [6:45]
Clerkship or curriculum, depending on who you ask.
In year three, we have what are called Advanced Science Courses, and there are blocks of time that are based around a particular subject or content area like for instance, neurosciences. It’s a blend of clinical care and clinical rotations, as well as some didactic classroom teaching. These came out of some conversations that students had when they would be on the floor in a clinical experience, and they’d say, “I would really love a lecture from Dr. So-and-So, who taught us immunology in the first year. If I had him here right now, this would make so much more sense.”
So we said, “Let’s make that happen.” Let’s have them in the neurology clinic and then let’s have their neurosciences professor come in that same time frame and say, “What did you see? What kinds of questions do you have? Let’s tie it back to the basic science and to the science behind the medicine.” We have a number of those advanced science courses that students progress through during the third year.
The fourth year is similar to how it is now. Students have a lot more elective time. It’s a lot more about career exploration and deciding on career. Depending on your ultimate career choice, we’ve designed different preparation for Residency Boot Camps to get students to the point where they’re ready for that next step, which is residency but with a focus on their specific career interests.
I noticed that the College of Medicine has two branches, one in Colorado Springs and one in Fort Collins. Do these branches duplicate the main campus or do they have their own specialties and foci? [8:32]
Good question. The curricula are the same across all our institutions and our outcomes are the same. However there are some nuances. The Fort Collins branch is a full four-year campus up in Fort Collins. The students spend all of their time there during medical school. It’s a smaller cohort of only 12 students. It’s ideal for students who thrive in a smaller environment. The students are very close. They lean on one another very heavily, and it’s a smaller faculty, so it’s a more intimate learning environment. There’s a Veterinary School at Colorado State University. There’s an emphasis at our Fort Collins branch on One Health which is the concept of understanding how the health of both people and beyond are interconnected, whether that’s animals or the health of our environment and ecosystem and recognizing that we’re all part of that same framework. There’s a bit of a special flavor there.
Colorado Springs isn’t a full four-year branch campus, so the students in the Colorado Springs branch typically do their core clinical year in Colorado Springs and then potentially some of their advanced clinical training as well. There’s a big community focus in Colorado Springs because there are fewer learners down there, so maybe fewer residents or fellows. The students tend to work a little bit more closely one-on-one with a faculty member and are out in the community, so there are more opportunities. Because it’s a smaller community, there’s a really tight connection. The overall curricula are the same and the learning objectives are the same. They take the same tests and the outcomes are all the same.
What is the size of the class in the different locations? [10:33]
The entire Medical School Class, as we’re approved by the LCME, is 184 in total. Twelve of those students are in Fort Collins. Roughly twenty will do their clinical training in the Colorado Springs branch. We typically have another about twenty students who do our rural program, where their LIC takes place in rural communities throughout Colorado. And then we have LICs that are at different clinical sites throughout the Denver Metro area. Some of those are on the Anschutz Medical Campus in Aurora, at either the Children’s Hospital, Colorado, the Rocky VA Medical Center, or the University of Colorado Hospital. Some of those would be at other clinical partners throughout the Metro area, including our city and county hospital, Denver Health Medical Center.
What is the secondary like? [11:38]
I think our secondary is similar to most other schools. We do ask a Colorado-specific essay. Typically in any given year, you can find it on Student Doctor Net if you’re interested in hearing what we’re asking. Typically, we’re asking about value alignment. Something like, “This is what we’re about here at Colorado. Tell me how your experiences might align with how we think about the future of medicine.”
Colorado School of Medicine requires the Altus Suite – that’s the Casper, the Snapshot, and the Duet. What do these tools provide you that the rest of the application doesn’t? [12:07]
Each tool can be used differently and has a little bit of a different flavor to it. Casper is probably the part that people are most familiar with and it’s an online situational judgment test. The goal is to have a standardized way of assessing some non-cognitive metrics to think about the competencies that we expect of our incoming students and eventual physicians. We focus a lot in our metric discussion on MCAT and GPA and while those are predictive of academic success in medical school, we know that they don’t tell the whole story for everybody. The situational judgment test gets at other things that we might be interested in, whether it’s empathy or the nuance of how you might look at a particular situation. We’re really trying to decrease our reliance on only cognitive metrics because while those are important, we also know that there are a lot of other things that are parts of being a physician. That’s what Casper does for us. It gives us another peek at who you might be as a whole person which we can’t always tell from the application in a standardized way.
Duet is a value alignment tool. Applicants have to take a survey. They only have to take it once, and it applies for all the schools that they’re applying to, but it asks them to rank different aspects of their training that they might find more important than one another. It’s all good things. It’s like Good A versus Good B, and you have to say which one is more important to you. The schools do the same thing. The deans and student leaders take the same test on their end, and then it creates a value alignment score.
Finally, Snapshot is a one-way video interview tool, and that’s a standardized set of three questions. I’d say we rely on that the least at this point, mostly because it’s the most time-intensive for us to delve into. We get some of that information, like verbal communication skills and how you respond to questions, from the interview process. We’re less reliant on that assessment but it is something additional that we can bring in if needed. The nice thing is, I think a number of schools are requiring these tests but students only have to do it once.
I’m wondering how much value differentiation there really is in the Duet. [14:41]
That’s a great question, Linda. I think at the end of the day, most medical schools are more alike than they are different. Doing this podcast, you probably hear more similar answers that you could insert into another school than you hear some wildly divergent way of thinking. But I think schools have personalities and cultures. Hopefully, Duet allows us to get a sense of that and help both the applicant and our side understand where those meet.
I want to go back to the curriculum change that you made. In terms of curating the sciences that are included in the first-year curriculum, have you taken out the portions that you feel are not mandatory for doctors to know? [15:29]
I would phrase it a little bit differently. I would say we’ve tried to move content to only have what we think is really important to be a good clinical student. We get you to a point where you’re ready to see patients in a clinical setting, and then to continue your learning within a clinical framework.
Do students have classes in the second year? [16:10]
The LICs are going to have a didactic component to them and there’s time set aside for other didactic learning. We find that the students are much more energized, and frankly, the faculty are much more energized when the discussions are more contextualized for students and they have patients that they’ve seen to help.
Does the University of Colorado Medical School have any preference for in-state versus out-of-state residents? [16:44]
We don’t have a specific quota. I think there are some universities that have a specific amount of state funding that’s tied to a specific percentage of your enrollment. We do not. That being said, we do end up seeing Colorado students overrepresented in our classes compared to their application numbers. Only about 6-7% of our applicants are from the state of Colorado, and typically about half of our class ends up being from the state of Colorado. There are a few reasons for that. Students might have an experience with our campus prior, whether they’ve done research or worked here or something like that. And then students that get in that are from Colorado are more likely to matriculate, whether that’s due to finances or support system.
Does the University of Colorado screen before sending out secondaries? According to MSAR, about two-thirds of applicants receive secondary. [17:33]
We actually screen in a relatively significant way. As you say, only about two-thirds receive a secondary. My thinking on that is if I’m going to ask for more of your money, and I’m going to ask for more of your time in writing an essay that’s specific to my school, then I really need to be serious about you as a potential candidate for my medical school. We’re not one of those schools that just reflexively sends a secondary to everybody. We don’t have any strict cutoffs by which we screen. There are some metrics that would automatically get you a secondary if you seem academically qualified, but everything gets at least some kind of manual review. We feel like we owe it to the applicants but ask me again if the numbers get higher than they are now.
The University of Colorado received 14,106 primary applications in the 2020-2021 application cycle. You reviewed 8,549 secondary applications, and you interviewed 744, ending up with a class of 182. How do you winnow it down? [18:36]
That was my first year in this role. It was a record year. We’re very lucky in admissions, that we have a large group of faculty and other stakeholders who volunteer to participate in the admissions process in various ways. That’s actually how I ended up in this position as I had been involved as a volunteer for many years. We read them and we do our best to say, “What is this person’s story? Do we think we want to interview them and find out more about them?” The hard part is that we interview, as you had mentioned the numbers there, about 8% of the secondary of the total completed applications. I’ll send a reviewer 50 applications, and I say, “Statistically, we can interview four or five.” One thing I will say is that you worry about being in the wrong batch of 50. For any given number, there’s no strict cutoff. If you look at 50 applications and you’ve got 10 that are amazing, then great. But at some point, someone has to then have 50 where only two were amazing, or whatever the number might be.
The other problem is that the applicants are very competitive. We could certainly interview more. We could certainly accept more. I would just over-enroll my medical school, and I’d lose my job. That’s the hardest part. The screening is so difficult. There’s occasionally an application that’s a slam dunk, and you can’t wait to meet the person. There’s occasionally someone that really doesn’t seem prepared for medical school. And then there are the ones that we just agonize over because they would all be great, most likely, but numbers-wise, we just can’t interview them all.
I say this on my interview day to the applicants. I know it feels like this black box. You spend your whole life doing this stuff. You spend hours writing these essays and crafting this narrative about your most meaningful experiences. Then you send it out, and you hear nothing for a while. Or you get an interview from a school that you thought was a total wild card reach, and the state school that you thought was your safety school just ghosts you. It’s a really human endeavor on our side as well. We’re doing the best we can, but some of it’s just a numbers game. There are more qualified applicants than we can interview or accept.
What makes an application jump off the page for you? [21:41]
It can be a number of things because applicants often want to know this very question. My standard answer is, “Well, if there was a formula, it would be on Reddit or Google or Student Doctor Net.”
What I love about medical school is the backgrounds of the students who come in the door are wildly divergent. Everybody comes together with this shared goal of learning how to take care of people and then on the back end, everybody does the opposite and goes out into the world and does very different things.
We see applicants that are what I call well-balanced. They’ve done the normal checkbox things. They’ve had some clinical experience, research experience, leadership experience, and volunteer experience, and they’ve done those things in a way that’s authentic and also in a longitudinal fashion. That has really informed their values and how they think about being a physician. I also see applicants sometimes that are what I call well-unbalanced, where they’ve really excelled in one particular area, whether it be research or community service, and they’ve really thrown their whole selves into that.
We also try and contextualize what people have done. What have your opportunities been? Did you go to a really small college that doesn’t have a lot of research mentorship? Then I actually don’t expect you to have as much research experience as someone who went to a top research institution. Did you work two jobs during college? Then you probably weren’t the president of five different clubs.
As much as possible, try and contextualize it. There’s no single right answer. I think what I look for is congruity, which is, “Is what you’re telling me about yourself in your personal statement and why you want to be a physician backed up in the things that you’ve done? Do those look like the same person to me? Have you performed academically in a way that suggests that you’re going to be successful in medical school?” I don’t want to bring someone in who hasn’t shown that they’re ready for the academic rigor of medical school.
What can applicants expect from interview day at the University of Colorado Medical School? [24:31]
We’re a virtual experience at this point. I think we’ve gotten pretty good at trying to get at what we’re trying to figure out. As you mentioned, there’s a group component, because we like to see people interacting in teams. Medicine is a team sport. I want to see how you communicate with others and respond to questions and think critically about different scenarios that we might present to you.
It is very low key though. It’s not supposed to be stressful. It’s actually a decent amount of fun, both for the interviewers and for the applicants. There are no curve balls. It’s not a “gotcha” kind of thing. We are just looking to find out who you are. We’re also doing the same thing. We want the applicants to learn more about the school and to get a sense of who we are as well.
What would be a typical group project for the group interview? How is that conducted? [25:37]
We typically have some kind of scenario that the group needs to solve together. We’ll say, “Here’s what’s going on. Your group has 15 minutes to come to a consensus on a solution. Here are the three possible solutions, all of which are reasonable.” It’s real. Also, it’s not about which one you choose, it’s about how the group arrives at that decision together.
Do you want applicants to have both research and clinical exposure? Or is it something that’s nice to have? [26:11]
I think it depends on what else you’ve done. As I said, if you’ve spent a lot of time doing other work, let’s say community service or activism or you helped start a nonprofit, you’re demonstrating that you’re a leader. Not that you had to have done that but it’s just an example. if you’ve done something in a really exceptional way that took away the time that someone else might have used for research, I think that’s okay.
The pillars of our curriculum are leadership, curiosity, and commitment. I’m looking for a display of those attributes in your application. If you did research for four weeks one summer, that’s fine if that was the experience that was available to you or that’s what you had time for. But it’s different than if you had done a longitudinal experience over a course of many years. It’s different when you have a letter from that mentor who says, “Linda was the best student I’ve ever had. And I wish I could clone her and have 20 of her in my lab,” versus “Linda did four weeks of research with me and did a good job.”
They’re different experiences. The other thing I’m looking for is a reflective component. If I say to you, “Tell me about your research experience.” You could have the exact same hours and experience as another person, but you might be able to reflect on it in a way that’s more nuanced, or that tells me that you’re taking in experiences and considering how you fit into the wider world of science and medicine. It’s not necessarily just about the number of hours or the name of the experience.
The University of Colorado School of Medicine website says that it does not want update letters or communication before the interview. How do you view letters of intent or correspondence from waitlisted applicants? [28:50]
We don’t have a good process for managing, especially on the front end, as you say, when we have 11,000-14,000 applications. I don’t want to invite a bunch of extra correspondence to my office. Of course, the waitlisted pool is a much smaller group of students. I understand when students reach out and I do respond but it’s by no means expected.
What’s the most common mistake you see applicants make either in the primary or the secondary application or throughout the process? [29:34]
I’d say overall, I certainly see people who don’t have the right advice in terms of if they should apply or where they should apply. I’ll sit down with applicants who haven’t been successful and I try to help them figure out what went wrong. If you applied to X number of schools and got zero interviews, either your paper application isn’t good enough, you didn’t apply broadly enough, or something along those lines. If you got 10 interviews and didn’t get in anywhere, then you have an interview problem. We try to figure out where the problem is because sometimes applicants don’t have the best advice.
In terms of the primary and secondary, I’m going to go back to what I said earlier about congruity. It’s when the application doesn’t match what you’ve done. I see applicants write these flowery essays about community service or X, Y, Z. Or they’ll list as a most meaningful experience, some very short encounter. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had short experiences in my life that ended up being meaningful as well. But for the three most meaningful experiences that you’re allowed to highlight on this application, I’m looking for something more in-depth.
I think it goes back to the commitment pillar of the curriculum. We think of that in a number of different ways. That’s commitment to the profession of medicine, commitment to patients, commitment to the community and society, and commitment to each other. I want to see that you’ve made a commitment to something in your life and stuck with it, and I want to know what you’ve learned from that.
If you were a premed today, and obviously you went through this, what is the one thing you would be doing to prepare yourself for medical school? [31:41]
There are a few different things. Certainly, the academic preparation is critical because medical school is difficult. I see students who have not struggled very much in their premedical school, and then come in and are really surprised by how difficult medical school is. I try and do some expectation setting with applicants and students, which is, “Were you expecting medical school to be easy? Because it’s not.”
The flip side of that is it’s not impossible. You see a lot of doctors in the world and none of them are individually the one unique person that was able to get through medical school. A lot of us have done it. It’s very possible but you have to be ready.
My answer is probably a little bit different nowadays but what I love most about the profession of medicine is the stories. I would walk around and find everybody that I could in the health professions field and ask, “What do you like about medicine? What don’t you like? How did you get here, and what do you wish you had done differently?”
I would just ask that over and over again and just hear the stories. Some of it might apply to me, and some of it might not. I think it’s hard to get a sense of sort of how complex the whole process is. You see someone in their position and you just assume they’ve had some very linear path and everything had gone perfectly. But everybody has a story and everybody has had challenges or hard days or difficult patients. I think humanizing that aspect of medicine for me has been really important as I progressed through my career. I would work on doing that earlier.
At what point in the application cycle would you advise an applicant to wait until next year? [33:57]
I think July is still fine. The one thing I’ll say about the submission is when you are submitting your primary application, make sure you have a complete application. If you submit your primary, but let’s say your MCAT score is not going to be back for another six weeks, then it’s functionally like you haven’t submitted it yet. I don’t have the time to say, “Oh, this person looks great, but they don’t have an MCAT. Let me put it in this bucket, and then I’ll revisit it later.” We don’t have the bandwidth to look at it until you’ve got the pieces that we need to make an informed decision.
I don’t think there’s any strict drop-dead deadline. I’d say July is okay, August is fine. If it’s September, just wait.
What would you have liked me to ask you? [35:12]
I think we covered a lot of great ground.
There are a couple of myths that I’ll dispel. One is that there just isn’t a formula and the numbers aren’t in your favor as any individual applicant. You could have the best application in the world, and you apply to my school and you might not get an interview. It might just be the people who ended up reading your application this cycle. I hate to say it but it could be when it came through the door whether the first or last one I read of the day. It’s not perfect in any way, shape, or form but I don’t think most things are in the world.
As I said, it’s a very human endeavor. It feels very personal when people don’t get an interview or don’t get accepted, but we interview 8% of our completed applications and we accept about 3% of our applicants. I get calls from people, “Joe is so great, why didn’t he get an interview or get accepted?” And I say, “Well, 97% of the people don’t get in.”
In any other situation, you’d say, “Oh, okay. That makes sense.” But somehow, it’s so much more personal when you’ve put so much time into the application. Medical school is just hard to get into. Just understanding that on an individual level, you might be excellent. In the pool of people, you might be average or below average, or you might get lost in the shuffle. That’s just the reality of how it shakes out.
The other thing I’ll say is medicine is fantastic. You’ll hear naysayers who tell you not to do it or that it’s not how it used to be. I’ll tell you that the way you think it is now is not how it’s going to be throughout your career. It’s going to change. Show me an industry that hasn’t changed over time and hasn’t evolved. But the core of what medicine is about hasn’t changed. It’s about learning to take care of people in times of need in a really specific, and what I consider, a very special way.
I’m an eye doctor, as you mentioned. I do a lot of surgery, particularly cataract surgery on people. What that means is someone walks into my office, and 10 minutes later, they sign a piece of paper saying, “Sure. You can cut into my eyeball and take out my lens and put an artificial lens inside my eye.” They’ve never met me before. They don’t know anything about me. But they see the credential. They hear how I talk to them and explain things and they feel comfortable.
There’s a real privilege that comes with that, with getting to take care of people in that way. That’s not going to go away. For all the insurance companies or the red tape or the electronic medical records or any other stuff that you have to do, you still get to take care of people at their most vulnerable. People trust you. I would do it again in a heartbeat.
Where can listeners learn more about the University of Colorado School of Medicine? [39:54]
We have a website, that’s medschool.cuanschutz.edu.
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