Michigan State’s College of Osteopathic Medicine provides an innovative patient-centered curriculum with multiple specialties and multiple opportunities for clinical exposure. Sound appealing? Well, plug in your earbuds because today I’m speaking with the senior associate dean of admissions at Michigan State University’s College of Osteopathic Medicine.
Welcome to the 537th episode of Admissions Straight Talk. Thanks for joining me today. 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. Complete the quiz, and you’ll not only get an assessment, but tips on how to improve your chances of acceptance. Plus, it’s all free.
Dr. Katherine Ruger earned her undergraduate degree at Northwood University, her master’s in counseling and sports psychology at Wayne State, and her PhD in education and organizational leadership from Pepperdine University. She started at MSU College of Osteopathic Medicine as an admissions’ counselor in 2009 and has assumed increasing responsibilities ever since. Since August 2022, almost exactly a year ago, she has served as a senior associate dean of admissions and student affairs at Michigan State University’s College of Osteopathic Medicine.
Dr. Ruger, welcome to Admissions Straight Talk. [1:40]
Thank you, Linda.
Can you give us, just to start, an overview of MSU’s DO program, focusing on its more distinctive elements? [1:54]
Sure. I’d love to. MSUCOM, which is what I’ll refer to it during the course of the session, is a really special place. I think it has a lot to do with the type of people that we recruit and attract, both from an admissions’ perspective as well as faculty and staff. Certainly, it’s a college of osteopathic medicine, and so our training really revolves around that holistic approach and focusing on preventative medicine. But we’re looking for students and faculty and staff who have a commitment to service, a heart for leadership. That type of community just inspires a lot of growth, curiosity, excitement. It’s a really wonderful place to be, and I know that I’m biased in saying that perhaps. But I think something that sets us apart is that we are part of Michigan State University, and we have a lot of wonderful access to resources as part of the university.
Our college is committed to local community outreach as well as international outreach. A lot of reasons why folks want to be part of our community is because they get to serve different populations of people. We have street medicine, which is where our students, in partnership with clinicians, get to go and work with individuals who are experiencing homelessness. That’s more on the local level. Then from an international perspective, we have renowned faculty that are trying to cure malaria in Malawi. We have students going out there and doing medical missions. We have them going to Peru and Guatemala. It’s really fun to be able to get them involved in a lot of different ways. It tends to be a reason why, again, folks want to be here.
You mentioned the community focus as well as the international focus. That’s a balancing act I assume, but I noticed that you have three campuses. You also mentioned that it’s obviously an osteopathic school. How do both the ability to study on three different campuses and the osteopathic nature of the program affect the educational experience for MSU students? [3:43]
Good question, and one that I’ve not been asked. The first thing I thought of was the interconnectedness of systems, which is the osteopathic philosophy in general. Because students can start their preclinical years or years one and two of medical school in Detroit, in Clinton Township, or in East Lansing, Michigan. They have the opportunity to select their geography. Certainly the vibe, if you will, across those campuses. But at the same time, there’s an interconnectedness, so students can be part of student organizations or clubs together. It may be an executive board of, for example, the street medicine club that I had mentioned before. There may be a president and vice president from across the three sites, so they collaborate quite a bit. In fact, an hour ago I was in a Stop the Bleed training with students. They are part of an organization called Community Integrative Medicine.
They reach out and do health fairs and things like that with the community, but also help train themselves to be able to be the front line of some injuries and whatnot. The person who was instructing that particular workshop was from our Detroit campus, but they were hosting it in East Lansing to make sure that the local folks got trained in those skill sets. There’s a lot of opportunity for collaboration. Then once students go out to their third and fourth year of medical school, which is their clinical year, they have the opportunity to complete training amongst about 30 different hospitals throughout the state of Michigan.
So, there’s an opportunity there to reconnect with classmates that they may or may not have experienced preclinical years together and get a feel for a different type of hospital and geographical setting.
For the three campuses, I am afraid I’m just not that familiar with the geography. Driving time, for example. How far apart are they? [5:57]
Traffic in the construction era is a little bit tough to predict, but I would say that they are within two hours of each other. But to be more specific to that, from East Lansing to Macomb, it’s probably an hour 20, hour 30 from. Macomb to Detroit, maybe 45 minutes to an hour depending on traffic. Detroit to East Lansing, an hour, hour 15.
Traffic, weather, all those good things. [6:27]
Exactly. We joke about creating some underground tunnels, so just our students and faculty can have an interconnectedness of systems.
Right. But in other words, they’re not silos. They really can connect. [6:39]
They can connect and they do. We share an administration across the three sites. Me, personally, I make sure to go to Detroit and Macomb and East Lansing regularly to be able to interact with students, understand the student experience, and make sure for the most part that it’s equitable and they are all getting the same quality of education.
Does MSUCOM give preference to Michigan state residents? [7:07]
We do to an extent. MSU is a state-funded, land-grant institution, so about two thirds of our incoming class is from the state of Michigan. That’s two thirds of 300, so it’s quite a large class, which means we can provide an enormous opportunity to Michigan residents. But also, a pretty large chunk of that is for out-of-state students or international students. We have probably between 75 and 100 that are coming from out of the state of Michigan and 200-ish coming from within the state.
There are medical schools with classes that are smaller than the number of out-of-state students you accept. [7:48]
Exactly. That’s my argument when people get snuippy about in-state, out-of-state ratio.
Now let’s turn to the application itself. Does MSUCOM screen applications before sending out secondaries? [8:02]
We do not screen prior to sending out secondaries. We send secondaries to anyone who wants to proceed with our application cycle knowing that there are certain averages, at least academically, that tend to matriculate into the college. We leave it up to the applicant and whether or not they want to continue with the process.
MSU has three required secondary essay questions. What do you hope to glean from the secondaries that you don’t get from the primary? [8:30]
Well, the secret is that this next application cycle, there will only be two.
All right. [8:43]
So you can look for that.:
Which one are you getting rid of or are you changing them entirely? [8:47]
We’re changing them entirely.
We changed them with the theme of prior years. We understand that the pandemic brought a lot of different challenges for students. I acknowledge that a lot of our students that are starting this year in medical school may have been online exclusively for freshmen, sophomore, maybe junior years of college. I think that’s maybe a detriment to some of their ability to develop their social skills, professional skills. We’re really looking to help foster that development and also assess where they are currently. Our secondary questions really are asking more about certainly applicant’s interest in our college specifically. But more so diving a little bit more deeply into what mindset they may be coming in with and what their approach is to understanding professionalism, what is important to them about that, if they have a growth mindset versus a fixed mindset. Because we’re seeing that those qualities-
Caroline Dweck. [9:55]
Pardon? Yes, exactly. Bingo.
I gave each of my kids a copy of her book when they started having children. [9:59]
Good. Who’s ever listening to this, you should go get that book too.
You’re looking for a growth mindset, obviously. As well as why they’re interested in MSUCOM, right? [10:06]
Are you concerned at all about the impact of ChatGPT and the essay component of the application process, either the primary or the secondary? That’s the big question. [10:25]
That is the big question. Who isn’t concerned about it? I would be interested to hear from other colleagues their perspectives. It’s tricky because it’s either ChatGPT or it’s 30 different people looking and editing somebody’s essay before they submit it ultimately anyway.
That destroys it. [10:53]
Yeah. I think the purpose of the essay is to try to get to know the candidate on a personal level. If that can be achieved more effectively through ChatGPT, there’s nothing we can do about it. I guess there’s plagiarism technology tools that we can use, perhaps. But I think the bottom line is we’re trying to get to know the applicants. Some of them previously maybe came in with the advantages of having an English professor as a parent and probably went through the ChatGPT informally. But we’re going to just see how it goes and make some changes accordingly if we need to. I would encourage applicants to tell their story authentically because I think we’ll start to get to know which ones are real and which ones may not be. They’re going to be challenged in the interview process to really show up in a consistent way too and be asked questions about the things that they say are most important to them.
It’s been very interesting because I have been asking that question to a lot of interviewees in different professional graduate categories. The responses vary from, “I’m really worried about it,” to, “It’s out there. I don’t see any difference between them going to ChatGPT or going to their friends.” When I’ve played with it just for fun, it tends to be very generic. It can’t produce something individual. One of our consultants, and I can link to that in the show notes, she’s a journalist when she’s not doing an admissions consulting. She is obviously a very good writer. She decided to try and write an application essay using ChatGPT. By the time she got the level of specificity that she knew was required to make a good essay, to create a good essay, she’d spent as much time with ChatGPT as if she’d written it herself. [11:51]
Yes, and probably felt better about it ultimately, if she had written it.
Well, she has her masters. She’s well beyond applying to grad school. She’s been there, done that. But it was an interesting exercise. It’s not just a matter whether it was generic or not generic. In order to make it good, she had to work as hard or harder than if she had just written it. You can say, “Well, she’s an experienced writer.” Yeah, but you’re going to have to work harder to make it authentic. [12:58]
Yes. It’s not going anywhere, so we have to learn to live with it and maybe even embrace it in a lot of ways.
Certainly in medicine they’re embracing it. [13:24]
Certainly. Yes. That I’m hopeful about.
How do you think the Supreme Court decision on affirmative action and admissions or race conscious admissions will affect MSUCOM? Should applicants do anything differently in light of the decision? Emphasize something differently? [13:31]
That’s a great question and something that we as admissions professionals have been talking about across the country. What’s unique, I guess, about Michigan and Michigan State University is that affirmative action was banned in 2006. We’ve been living this way for a really long time. What we’ve done to try to address the barriers is to create pathway programs early on. Our college, for example, has a robust system of pathway programs for high school students to attend summer camp here called OsteoCHAMPS. We do a program that’s called Future DOcs, with DO capitalized, of course. In Detroit, in Lansing, and in Clinton Township for, again, high school students. Those programs feed into a scholars program that is more undergrad-centric, but will give them opportunities to engage with osteopathic medicine. There’s some academic incentives to be able to continue with the program.
If they meet certain academic requirements, their MCAT is waived. Then they get preferential admission into the medical school. Things like that. We’re focusing on building those programs. We’re focusing on making sure that we are represented in areas in Michigan that may be underserved or that may not know as much about osteopathic medicine to help educate the community that this could be an option for them. Those are some of the strategies that we’ve employed so far. We’ve always reviewed applicants holistically. I think that helps a lot, so we’ll continue to adopt those practices and learn from colleagues at other institutions and see if there are more strategies that we can employ to make sure that the students that we recruit and graduate can meet the diverse needs of the state and the country as a whole.
For you, basically, the Supreme Court decision made no difference because you- [15:37]
Not in terms of what we do on a day-to-day basis. I think that some institutions are fearful, as are we, about it impacting the ability to have affinity groups, for example, in the college, student life aspect of it, so the clubs and organizations. We’ll just have to see what the impact this might have long term. But for now, that’s correct. Nothing has changed in terms of the rules and policies that we need to abide by in Michigan.
What is a common mistake that you see applicants making either in the primary or secondary applications? [16:11]
It’s funny, the first thing that popped in my mind is grammar, and making sure that proper nouns are capitalized, but that’s more of a me thing. I think that applicants tend to feel compelled to tell us what they think we want to hear. Like, “I need to fit in this box. What is the box and how do I place myself in that?” It’s a lot of boilerplate language, and so I just… I don’t know. I guess I encourage people to be themselves, to be authentic. Which I know is really tough because we force students to try to fit in the box through this process, and now we’re telling them not to try to fit in the box. It’s more of just telling us authentically who they are and what draws them to this profession rather than feeling like they need to sell themselves hard in the application process. I think the admissions committee members are really interested in hearing their story, just an authentic story, and being real about it.
Great answer. Thank you. [17:22]
I saw on your website that the interviews this year are going to be all virtual, online, correct? [17:24]
What can a lucky interviewee expect? [17:31]
The process evolves every year, like our secondary application process, but what I think is really wonderful about our experience is that we have hundreds of engaged alumni and faculty members in the process. Because we’ve been able to move towards a virtual interview process, really thanks to the pandemic, I suppose, it allows us to leverage alumni from all over the country. The physician that I mentioned is working in Malawi. She’s one of our interviewers, and so she may be interviewing a candidate from Malawi, or we have graduates from California or Denver or wherever. They get to just appreciate a nice one-on-one conversation. It tends to be more casual, more conversational than drilling a student on whatever it is that we want to ask about. I think that it tends to be a pleasant experience.
We also invite them, and this is optional though, but to participate in webinars that help them understand a little bit more about the college. Whereas historically, pre-COVID, if you will, we would bring everyone to the college. We would present to them about the college, we would interview them. As you can imagine, if you’re preparing for an interview mentally and you’re attending a presentation about a college, you’re probably not actually retaining any of the information. Your mind is probably just completely blank at that point because you’re so nervous. We found that it may be more effective to interview first, then offer some webinars in the evening, hours after the pressure’s off and have a more optional experience. Then they can really engage in the experience, ask questions, retain information, and feel like the pressure’s off a little bit.
And not have the cost of travel. [19:25]
The cost. Oh my goodness. Yes. I guess they only have to buy a half of a suit since…
I’m sure it’s been done. [19:35]
Citing the MSU site, it says that MSUCOM received 7,656 applications for admission in 2023. Approximately how many are in your M1 class and how do you whittle it down from 7K plus to a 300 number? [19:39]
Exactly. We have about 300 in each incoming class. Just going back to the sites, usually 200 are in East Lansing, 50 in Detroit, and 50 in Macomb in terms of disbursement. How do we whittle it down? It’s really hard because there are so many more qualified, good candidates for medical school than there are seats. It’s a really tough job, and one that our admissions committee takes incredibly seriously. What we’re looking for in the screening process. Then we interview. Then we review those results. Then we go back to the admissions committee. We’re looking for academic prowess, of course, we want to make sure that students are going to be able to succeed in the curriculum and not end up having to leave with a lot of debt, but really to apply it towards medicine.
Then we’re looking for folks who can advance our mission, and who are interested in serving the community, who are interested in being strong healthcare leaders and, frankly, disrupting the medical healthcare experience. We find that through different work experiences. The way in which students can self-reflect. Whether or not they have a growth mindset. What impact that they’ve had on the community so far, and the way in which they may be able to discuss osteopathic medicine. How that resonates with them or connects to their goals. It’s not easy and it takes a whole year, and sometimes overlapping with the former admissions process to make those decisions.
Your website encourages applicants to have not just clinical exposure and community service, but exposure to osteopathic medicine specifically. Is that experience a deal breaker? Is research a nice-to-have or something you really like to see in applicants? [21:38]
I think I can try to tackle them. The osteopathic exposure is of course important to us because we want to make sure that candidates understand and appreciate what they’re signing up for. That being said, there are limited opportunities for students, for example, in Canada where there are no DO schools or many osteopathic practitioners yet to be able to have shadowing opportunities or mentorship opportunities, et cetera. We appreciate that and take into consideration the whole person, and what they’ve had the opportunity to engage with, or even how they’ve talked about learning about the profession in general. The research piece, it’s nice to have research experience because it contributes to a student’s ability to critically think and ask good questions. Especially in the clinical setting as they’re trying to challenge certain medical procedures, et cetera. It’s not a requirement. We care more about the impact in the community and the clinical piece than we do the research piece, but it’s certainly of value. If students have it, we’re not going to use it against them.
I asked about mistakes on the primary and the secondary. What about mistakes in the interview? What are some common mistakes that you see there? Is there anything that you could point to? [23:16]
Timeliness is really important, and we make sure that we communicate time zones pretty thoroughly. Especially because we have more out-of-state students coming into the class. I think making sure that there’s conscientiousness when planning on attending an interview, that the technology and the wifi connections are good. Sometimes that comes from our side as an issue. If there’s an issue with faculty who are interviewing a student, just being able to be agile in that moment, be understanding, and flexible with any change that has to be made. That’s really important.
Treating everyone on the staff with respect and grace is all part of the process and is all part of the interview. I think that’s really important, too. Trying to think of other things. Just being conscientious, again, about what applicants choose to discuss and what questions they select to ask shows their emotional maturity and emotional intelligence, which is one of the most important factors for successful students in the clinical setting at least. I think that’s it. That’s all I can think of right now. I guess it may be different in person, but from a virtual perspective, there’s only so many things that can happen.
I think your point about how students interact with really everybody at any school they’re interviewing is highly relevant. I can think of clients who blew it by not speaking respectfully to a receptionist or janitor or whatever, the applicants. [24:55]
I have a question I ask every medical school admissions director that I speak to. That is, and I’ll tell you why, when do you stop sending out interview invitations? [25:19]
We stopped sending out interview invitations in the mid-spring. I would say the latest would be early March.
The reason I ask is because there’s this meme out there, which is wrong, that if you don’t have an interview invitation by Thanksgiving, you’re toast. [25:39]
I started just asking every med school admissions director I interviewed, “When do you stop?” Not one said they stop at Thanksgiving. Anyway, that’s my personal crusade.
Some pre-meds are concerned that if they don’t get into an MD program as opposed to a DO program, they won’t match outside of primary care. I noticed that 99% of MSUCOM students matched, number one. That 44% went into primary care, which means that 56% went into non-primary care specialties. Can you address that matching concern in a little bit more depth? [25:52]
Yeah. The data, you can’t argue with data. I don’t know what else to say. I think-
It was 55%, 1% didn’t continue. But anyways, go ahead. [26:36]
No, I think historically osteopathic medicine has been associated with primary care because that’s how it started. But it’s expanded so much throughout the years, and there’s a lot of wonderful benefits that osteopathic practitioners can provide to specialty care. You want to… Well, again, I would assume that patients would want a physician that would really be trained to look holistically at the patient. There’s that special skill of osteopathic manipulative therapy or osteopathic manipulative medicine, however you want to term it, which is more of a hands-on approach to healing. You can imagine that that skillset is incredibly beneficial in occupations like orthopedic surgery. Where it’s very tactical and mechanical, and you want to be able to feel for things, and to make sure that your diagnosis and your treatment is relevant and strong. I think that as the community has more demand for that type of care than there are more opportunities for osteopathic physicians to pursue those areas of medicine. Like I said, the data, as you had just referenced, Linda, shows that there are opportunities in just about every profession for DOs, and it’s becoming a high demand for patients.
I think one of the most common criticisms of many doctors, certainly in specialties, is they only look at their specialty. If the patient presents with something that’s outside of their specialty, they don’t know what to do with it. [28:00]
How do you view prerequisites taken at a community college as opposed to a four-year university or college? [28:16]
We don’t really think much about it, to be honest with you, as long as they’re-
You don’t think much about it in the sense that it’s not a big deal to you or that you just don’t- [28:29]
It’s not a big deal. It’s not a big deal. Prerequisites are prerequisites if they’re at the one and 200 level. Where I would have more concern is when we are asking for upper level science courses, so three, 400 level courses that aren’t typically offered at a community college level. Those really need to come from a university. An example of that might be a 300 level biochemistry class or other non prerequisites but highly encouraged classes like anatomy or physiology or pharmacology and all the other ologies.
Let’s talk about in-person shadowing. Is that something you really like to see? What about virtual shadowing? Which in the wake of the pandemic, I assume you’re still sometimes seeing it? [29:05]
That’s a great question. I think the goal in asking for some kind of experience, and it doesn’t have to be shadowing, it can be work experience, it can be volunteer experience, is to just verify that students really want this. They’ve experienced it firsthand and they still want to do it. Whether that’s via shadowing or if students are working as a scribe or working as a medical assistant, it doesn’t really matter how they achieve it. It’s just, it’s nice for us to know that you know what you’re getting yourself into because you don’t want your first clinical experience to be during medical school when you’ve already committed and put so much work into going in this direction in your career. Then you find out like, “Actually, I don’t like this very much. I don’t want to be part of this community anymore,” and somebody else really would have liked to. It’s good to figure that out sooner than later.
But we’re not saying that somebody has to come in with 1200 hours of anything. It’s more of the quality of experience and what impact it had on them.
Their reflection upon that experience probably is important too, right? [30:31]
What would you have liked me to ask you? [30:35]
I guess any outside other advice-
I talk to our students about this, what a lot of authors call the paradox of excellence. It’s just like I’ve had to be so great. I alluded to earlier being in that box. I think it breeds this sense of comparison. Applicants compare themselves to other applicants, students compare themselves to other students. It’s really unproductive, and everybody has their own story. If I could say anything to whoever’s listening, don’t compare yourself to anyone else. Don’t feel like you have to be whatever they are, and they’ve accomplished whatever they have. Everybody has a different story and different experiences and different strengths to bring to the table. Just leverage yours. Get excited about things that you are passionate about, not things that you feel like you’re compelled or forced to have done because of this paradox of excellence in the pre-med world, if you will. If that makes any sense whatsoever.
That was great advice. That was great advice. It made sense to me. It’s not the same, but you mentioned paradox. I frequently say that the paradox at the heart of admissions is that you have to both fit in, show that you fit in, and that you stand out. I think that that is at the heart of admissions, but I also think that comparing yourself then is completely and totally useless because of that standing out part of it. You can’t know, so don’t bother. Don’t waste emotional energy doing that. Follow Dr. Ruger’s advice and just be the best person you can be.
I think we’re almost out of time. I want to thank you, Dr. Ruger, so much for joining me and sharing your expertise. [31:47]
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