Our guest today is Dr. Benjamin Chan, Associate Dean of Admissions and Idaho Affairs at the University of Utah’s School of Medicine and host of the Talking Admissions & Med Student Life podcast. Dr. Chan earned his bachelors at Stanford and his MD at UUCOM. He then trained in General Psychiatry at George Washington University in DC. He has also completed a fellowship in Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, has an MBA from University of Utah and a Masters in Education from the University of Cincinnati. He is also an Assistant Professor of Psychiatry and inpatient attending physician at the University of Utah Neuropsychiatric Institute.
Dr. Chan, can you give an overview of the Utah COM’s curriculum focusing on the more distinctive elements of the program? [2:20]
We are an allopathic medical school, which means we offer the MD degree, which is four years long. We are known for innovation, in particular trying new teaching techniques. TBL-based learning is new, and it’s essentially students teaching each other – they break off into small groups, do cases, debate, and learn.
We also have a bench-to-bedside bio innovation project. There was a question of how to take bench research to help patients more quickly, so we decided to break up students into multi-disciplinary teams, including other graduate students like in computer science, biology, or physics, and the teams interview and shadow doctors. We provide some lab space and startup money and they go back to their lab and brainstorm ideas and design prototypes. We have an annual gala when everyone comes together to present their designs, judges interview and play with prototypes, and there are winners – it’s essentially a science fair on steroids.
One winner a few years back is currently in stage 3 trials with a UV light that kills bacteria. It is a catheter that kills bacteria before you insert it into the skin, which could have huge implications, since you don’t always have the sterilization capability.
The curriculum is divided into four core areas that students participate in throughout their four years at UCOM: Service, Scholarship, Mentorship; Clinical medicine; Medical Sciences; and Medical Arts. Clinical medicine and Medical Sciences are what most people think of when you talk about medical school. How do the other two areas play out in the Utah experience? [5:25]
Students learn a lot of hard facts – anatomy, physiology, and pharmacology. How does one take that information and communicate it with your patients? You can have all the clinical and scientific knowledge in the world, but if you can’t share it in a way that makes sense to your patients, that does you no good. So there is a science to medicine, and there’s also an art to it. We have medical humanities, so we talk about death and dying, how to interact with diverse patient populations, and how to deal with bioethical issues as they arise, which is incredibly important. With service, scholarship and mentorship, we pride ourselves on the fact that our students stay up-to-date on the latest news and research, so the vast majority participate in a research project of some sort. We also have a formalized mentorship program.
I noticed in reviewing your site and preparing for the call that there is a strong focus on “practice-based learning.” Can you describe that approach in the medical school setting? [11:26]
The first two years of med school are historically classroom-based, and then very clinically-based. We strive to have students in the first two years practice in the community. We pair them with primary care physicians or specialists to help develop those skills. We have a course called Clinical Method Curriculum, where they learn physical exam skills or how to interview a patient, or how to write a progress note. We also have a Clinical Skills Lab, which is a mock patient room with fake patients, actors in the community who pretend they have problems. These are both great controlled environments, but we want to let them do it for real, which is what practice-based learning means.
You are the host of the Talking Admissions & Med Student Life Podcast. Can you tell us about that show, and why you decided to scratch the podcasting itch? [13:19]
I did my residency in Washington DC and my fellowship in Baltimore. Since I had made some good friends in DC and was dating someone there at the time, I just decided to commute to Baltimore. The commute was long so I listened to the radio a lot and got hooked on NPR and the Diane Rehm Show, so when podcasts were introduced I started taping them with an iPod Touch and then listening to podcasts rather than the radio since I didn’t want to listen to all of the commercials.
I took over the admissions office in 2012, and whenever I would give a presentation, afterwards I would linger to take questions. The first thing I noticed is that the very smart people would hover near the front since they didn’t have questions per se but wanted to hear me answer the questions to gather info. The second thing I noticed is that the first person in line and the last person in line tended to ask the same question, so I was constantly repeating myself. So I decided to create a podcast series to talk about admissions and what happens in medical school so I didn’t have repeat myself as much. I see it primarily as a service – there is so much information out there, and I like to cut through the clutter – I just tell it how it is.
Let’s talk medical school admissions for a minute. You had 3871 applications and winnowed that down to 500 interviews for 125 spots in your last incoming class per MSAR. In-state applications had a roughly 18% matriculation rate, but out-of-state applications had a 1% matriculation rate. How does your staff sift through all those applications and winnow it down? Other than stats, what separates those invited to interview from those not accepted? [22:35]
Our admissions process does not discriminate on race, religion, age, or anything else, however we do discriminate heavily based on state residency. We are a state school, and our mandate is to serve the citizens of Utah and Idaho, as we have an agreement with them. So if you are from Utah or Idaho, your chance of being offered an interview and ultimately being accepted is much higher. We have 125 positions, and 100 spots have to be for a Utah resident or non-resident who graduated from a Utah high school, college or university, so having a Utah connection certainly helps. For the remaining 25 spots, 10 are for Idaho residents, and then there are 15 non-resident spots.
This past year we actually had 4,300 applicants, 800 of whom were Utah residents, so we had thousands of people applying for those 15 spots. In terms of who stands out, it is important to have a really strong community service track record. Truly great applicants are dedicated to important causes – there are people in the community that need their help. Our process is very holistic. The MCAT and GPA are important, but so are community service, research, leadership, and shadowing doctors. We look for well-rounded applicants. There is a lot more to being a good doctor than doing well on tests. We also look for good judgment with choice of recommenders.
Should applicants to Utah have research in their background? [31:44]
Research is one of our recommended criteria. Having said that, we do have a broad definition of research. It can be as part of a class, and does not have to be in hard sciences. It just has to be hypothesis-based.
How do you evaluate multiple MCAT scores? [34:26]
From a logistical standpoint we only look at the most recent score. We understand life happens, and the most important thing is to improve the second time around. More philosophically, I shield the committee from the scores, since we have found that scores create bias. We found that if someone has a perfect MCAT there are excuses to admit even if they have nothing else noteworthy. On the flip side, if someone has lower scores but outstanding community service, great research, and interviewed well, those low scores create bias. We have created a culture that eliminates that bias – the committee can’t see the scores. They focus on the personal statement, letters of recommendation, different activities, and interview day performance. Our ranking formula is the MCAT/GPA is 1/3, interview day performance is 1/3, and selection committee vote is 1/3. We do have minimum thresholds for secondaries, which is a 3.0 GPA and 492 MCAT which is 25th percentile. Our overall average for incoming students is a 510 MCAT and 3.7 GPA.
How does graduate education and grades fit into your evaluation of a candidate? Let’s say the applicant’s grades as an undergrad were less than stellar and then they got motivated and did a graduate program in public health with a strong science curriculum or an MS in epidemiology or another relevant masters degree and they did very well. How does the masters GPA fit into your evaluation? [42:33]
We calculate the GPA as an entire GPA – we don’t split off undergrad from others. The committee doesn’t weigh in or talk about it. I would suggest to applicants that they should not get into the habit of trying to convince others they belong in medical school because of academics. Little warning bells go off if we see the excuse, “I didn’t do well, but I did a post bac program to show you I can.” My concern with many post bac programs are that they aren’t very holistically minded, rarely with community outreach, or people in research labs. The focus is overly academic in detriment to the rest of the application. What matters to us is, “Are your motivations the right motivations? Are you mentally prepared for the rigors of medical school?”
What can someone invited to interview expect? [45:51]
We have three different assessments. The first is the multiple mini interview, which is like speed dating with eight stations, and is fairly straightforward. The second is the Situational Judgement Test, which is a pencil and paper test with multiple choice questions focused on ethics. The last one is new, and is our Standardized Video Interview – applicants log in before interview day and are posed four verbal questions and one typed question. The question flashes on the screen, the applicant is given 30 seconds to think about it, then the webcam turns on and records a response for 2.5-3 minutes, and the last one is typed out. Those are stored in the cloud and admissions committee members can review them at their leisure. You can practice as much as you want, and have to do at least one practice question before you can go live. One practice question is, “Talk about a time as a leader you had to settle a dispute or conflict.”
What are some of the more common ways that applicants blow their primary and secondary applications or their interview? And for the applications, I’m not talking about low grades and MCAT. [53:34]
Spelling mistakes or grammar mistakes are a couple – we are a detail-oriented program, so it’s astonishing to me when people don’t use spellcheck. If you have tons of typos or grammar issues you aren’t getting in. It looks really bad if you don’t proofread.
Another issue is with the 15 experiences on AMCAS – you should really strive to have all of them filled out. It looks strange to the committee to only use 10 of them. Were you not busy enough? Really competitive applicants have everything jam-packed in – it looks bad when you stack, trying to expand your application.
Including things from high school is another one – it’s odd when people talk about things they did 5-8 years in the past. If glory days were then, that’s what you’ve got to do, but that shows there’s been no growth.
Applying to medical school is professional, so there is no reason to include high school. Spend time on your application to construct it in a way to put your best foot forward. I like to tell people your application is a reflection of who you are.
And on a forward-looking note, what advice would you give to med school applicants planning to apply to UUCOM in the 2018? [58:09]
Check out our website, we have tons of info there. We have a FB page, an Instagram page – like and follow us to understand more about what’s happening and our culture. We also have a YouTube channel with 30+ clips about how to prepare your application and what med schools look for. My hope is that if you look at our social media stuff and it helps your application to any school improve, I count that as a win.
• Utah College of Medicine Admissions
• Talking Admissions & Med Student Life with Dr. Benjamin Chan
• The 5-Step Guide to Successful Medical School Personal Statements, sponsoring webinar
• Medical School Admissions Consulting Services
• What is Med School Really Like? An Interview with UUCOM student Natalie Wall
• The Man Behind Active Learning at UVM’s Medical School
• Keeping Healthcare Human: The Arnold P Gold Foundation
• Johns Hopkins Medical: How to Get In
• The Unbelievable Story of an Orthopedic Surgeon