Interview with Dr. Rona Woldenberg, Associate Dean for Admissions at the Zucker School of Medicine at Hofstra/Northwell [Show Summary]
We interviewed today’s guest almost three years ago about Hofstra/Northwell’s fairly new medical school. A lot has changed since then and Dean of Admissions, Dr. Rona Woldenberg, bring us up to date on what’s new at the Zucker Medical School at Hofstra/Northwell, while also sharing gems on medical school admissions in general and Zucker in particular.
Dr. Woldenberg discusses recent changes at Zucker, and offers tips for med school applicants [Show Notes]
Today’s guest is Dr. Rona Woldenberg, Associate Dean for Admissions at Zucker Medical. Dr. Woldenberg earned her MD at the University of Pennsylvania. She is board certified in diagnostic radiology and neuroradiology. In addition to her duties as Associate Dean for Admissions, she is also a Professor at Zucker School of Medicine.
For those listeners who may not be familiar with Hofstra/Northwell Medical, what would be the first thing you would want applicants and potential future physicians to know about Zucker SOM? [2:06]
There are a few guiding principles that are different. We are learner-focused as opposed to teacher-focused. The education is driven by the learner which is critical. Student learning is also very much action-focused. We don’t believe in a passive learning process. Students are engaged from day 1 in clinical medicine with our EMT curriculum, which they do for the first nine weeks of med school, and they all become licensed EMTs in New York state. Getting that certification allows them to build a team-based approach and to be an active learner.
Can you provide an example of how being learner-based as opposed to teacher-based is reflected in a particular subject? [3:32]
It allows us to fully integrate the curriculum. It allows the learner to have a comprehensive approach to a patient where they can learn in an integrated fashion – learning biochem of the liver while dissecting a liver in anatomy of lab, while looking at liver slides, while looking at physiology of the liver. Learning is dictated by the need of the student, not the need of the faculty member teaching the course.
Since we spoke almost three years ago, the Hofstra/Northwell Medical School became the Zucker School of Medicine at Hofstra/Northwell at Hofstra Northwell University. Can you tell us about the gift that triggered that name change? [5:23]
Donald and Barbara Zucker gave a $60M gift of which $50M is dedicated specifically to scholarship. We are in a time now where schools are trying to go loan free, tuition free, with the primary focus of making the education as affordable as possible. We are proud that our students tend to be in the lower third of loans needed after medical school. We meet with each student one-on-one to help with financial planning.
Let’s look at the Zucker Medical application process. Any tips for the Zucker secondary? [7:01]
Ours is fact-based. We don’t make you write 5-6 additional essays. We do ask about an obstacle overcome and how you addressed it, which speaks to resilience, an attribute a physician needs. You have to be able to accept your failures, be resilient, and be an effective medical student. The response is meant to be a paragraph long, and we do ask a couple of other fact-based questions, but we don’t want to make it that much more difficult for applicants to apply.
One of the questions is, “If you are not currently a matriculated student, what have you been doing?” What are you looking for in asking that question? [8:40]
We follow the trend in medical education, and a lot of students do gap time. 30% of our students come straight from college, and 70% do at least one gap year. That gap year may be research-based, may be Teach for America, may be scribing to be more immersed in medicine. If they explain the rationale behind their choice that is helpful. Medicine is a long journey, and you want to make sure an applicant is ready to assume the professionalism and responsibility that comes from that, as well as that of being a medical student. We encourage a gap year, but it is not necessary.
I understand that Zucker is now using the CASPer and MMIs. Why the CASPer in addition to the secondary? [10:20]
The CASPer is a situational judgment test and allows on the front end a screen for a component of professionalism. There is research about how professionalism in med students predicts it in medical practice, and we are trying to find out the professionalism of the applicant pool. 92% of the applicant pool took CASPer as the majority of schools now require it. It helps us in assessing the professionalism of the applicant, and once we have that, we can go have the MMI be more mission-specific, so looking for attributes that resonate in our educational environment, like teamwork, feedback and self-evaluation, leadership, judgment, and moral/ethical construct.
How was Zucker affected by the change in traffic rules last spring? [13:12]
Log on and look at the traffic rules. We put an insert into every applicant’s folder, because some schools say if you violate those rules it can cause problems.
Med schools can no longer communicate with one another, especially on the back end of the process. Before, schools could communicate, they could say “I’m taking X who has a spot in your school, and they have until Y date to accept.” We can no longer do that. We have to communicate directly with the applicant and rely on them to give us information if they are willing to. All of us were quite concerned on how this would impact us, but it essentially has enabled us to create a process that improved our communications with applicants, those waitlisted, and those accepted. It not only improved it, but allowed for constant community. We were able to figure out which students were more interested in staying with us, which were not, and we’ve actually recruited our strongest class to date. We anticipated it being more of a difficult process, but it ultimately allowed us to develop processes that ended up working in our favor.
What is effective communication from the applicant’s side?
With regard to Letters of Intent, they really come to life at the back end of the process, when they’re waitlisted at the first-choice school. That is where the letter of intent is useful.
Another change that we haven’t mentioned, according to the recommend rules, you have to cut down to three schools by April 15th. Trimming it down three schools by April 15 has opened the door for other acceptances occurring prior to one-spot-one-school, which favors the applicant because it gives them time to decide and they know a little bit earlier.
We had students who prior to April 29 were holding ten schools. We ran the numbers and had 19% that were holding more than 5 schools on April 29. We’re in the Northeast, a heavily populated competitive area, it’s unfair for those waiting for the floodgates to open. We’ve maybe made it a little bit more balance and much fairer for the applicants who are going to get in and can benefit from the earlier acceptance.
When we spoke last, Zucker had just graduated its second class. Now you have graduated an additional three classes. How are Zucker graduates doing in the Match? [19:21]
“Amazing” is the word I would use. We are matching students all over the country in the best residencies in all different fields, from cardiothoracic surgery to primary care. We are not focused on a particular specialty or type of doctor. We have 120 residencies and fellowships in the health system, and expose our students to all types of medicine, with the opportunity to really engage in whatever area they want to, and we’ve had an almost 100% match rate over the past three years. Last year it was 100%. It is a very strong process, and we are very proud.
I’d like your input on the following situation. I get it, and I suspect you do too. Let’s say you speak to someone who really, really wants to be a doctor, but who hasn’t shown they can handle the demands (academic, interpersonal, or emotional) of medical school. What is your advice for that person? [21:10]
There are a lot of different approaches. When going through the process, have a plan B and plan C. It’s a competitive process, with 2-to-1 apps to acceptance. Allopathic vs osteopathic is one plan. Would you consider going to a good foreign MD program? Consider doing a medical masters program – there are plenty around the country embedded in medical schools, which would allow you to speak to and prove you can do well in medicine. Those have certain MCAT and GPA requirements, and are not cheap, so there could be affordability questions, but you want to figure out how to show a med school you can do well in a med school environment and in a medical masters you could perform as well if not better than you do on an assessment.
And on a forward-looking note, what advice would you give to med school applicants thinking ahead and planning to apply in 2020? [28:13]
Try and do your research. Our dean, Dr. Smith, says if you get into an allopathic school in the U.S. you are in good shape as they are hard to get into, and it is hard to get accredited. We are going through our second LCME round, and accreditation is very hard — so much goes into being an accredited school.
You will be a good doctor from any of these accredited schools, but the schools are very different. Which school is the best fit for you, if you have the luxury of being accepted at more than one? Another aspect to medicine is that it is a meritocracy. You can end up in the best residency program no matter the U.S. News ranking of the school you went to. You don’t have to go to a top-5 U.S. News medical school to get into a residency program in orthopedic surgery. If you succeed where you go, you will do well in the residency match process. The important thing is to go where you are most likely to be happy because that is where you are most likely to succeed. It is a really nice thing that you don’t have to go to the most prestigious program to get a particular position.
What would you have liked me to ask you? [30:38]
Maybe how we have hit the ground running and become successful in a highly competitive environment. A lot of that has to do with the resources that we have. We are a small school, 100 students a class in a huge health system that has 23 hospitals in the system, yet we have kept the school small because of our desire for one-on-one relationships with faculty members, mentors, etc. This has allowed for intimate relationships that help our students succeed very quickly. “Student centered-ness” is critical. Also, so much of what you learn in medical school you will learn from your peers. Peer learning allows you to become a good and successful physician and we have institutionalized it. We have confident students who take ownership of their own learning, and are carrying the banner, doing great in residency programs around the country.
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