UAMS dean of admissions demystifies medical school application process

Release Date: 11/10/2011

Every year, hundreds of college students apply for graduate or professional school. It can seem an overwhelming task – multiple applications, interviews, examinations, letters of reference. Sometimes it seems like a miracle anybody gets in.

Recently, however, University of Arkansas Medical School (UAMS) Dean of Admissions Tom South took some of the mystery out of the process during a visit to Ozarks.

Interestingly, according to South, the applicant's grade point average (GPA) and score on the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) aren't necessarily the most important aspects of a person's application.

"In admissions we do not begin by talking about an applicant's MCAT and GPA," said South. "Obviously those things are important, don't get me wrong. How well you do in the classroom is extremely important as an indicator to us that you can handle the rigors of the medical school curriculum."

He added however that the way the applicant answers two very important questions carries significant weight in the application process. "Who are you?" South asked. "Why do you want to pursue medicine? Each year we got a large number of qualified candidates who aren't admitted to our medical school. If it was just the numbers game, we could admit an entering freshman class very quickly, very easily, very efficiently. We could just add up the scores and draw a line under the top 174 applicants, then do a similar thing for the stand-by list."

There are several things the admissions committee looks for beyond high scores, South said. "Are you a compassionate person? Are you a person who is given to life-long learning? Because the things we teach you today certainly will change and develop later. The technology, the medicines, the therapies - things keep advancing, so you have to have a commitment to life-long learning skills in the medical field."

One way the committee evaluates the application is to see what types of courses applicants have taken as undergraduates. "Did you take the challenging courses that stretched you, the tough courses?" South asked. "Or did you try to avoid the tough teachers and courses? We look at those issues."

South stressed the importance of the "personal statement" portion of the MCAT application. "Convey your motivation there," he said. "I've read hundreds of personal statements. The personal statement we want is certainly about you, and the best ones are where you speak from personal experience. When did you decide you wanted to pursue medicine? Maybe you witnessed a family member and saw the patient/physician relationship and that motivated you. Or maybe you were the patient. Perhaps you worked in a volunteer setting or in a hospital or clinic or nursing home. Perhaps you were an EMT or a CNA. If you've had some exposure to patient care, then you can write from personal experience how that exposure affected you, that's highly important."

Like most medical schools, UAMS has a set of pre-matriculation requirements. Applicants are required to have taken two semesters each of biology, chemistry, organic chemistry, physics, mathematics, and English. Although UAMS does not accept online coursework in meeting its requirements, high school AP courses are allowed.

South advised applicants to take the MCAT only after they have taken the core requirements. "Never take the exam ‘just to take it,'" he said. "Prepare well ahead of time when you take it, because every time you take the MCAT, it is reported on every application to the medical schools you apply to. Hopefully you'll only have to take it one time and do well on it, but you certainly don't want to schedule it at a time when your schedule is extra busy. Decompress your schedule to have sufficient time to prepare. Don't be like the one student who scheduled his MCAT on the weekend he got married! Make it count."

On the other hand, there is no stigma in taking it again if you do not do as well as you'd hoped the first time around. "Certainly if that's the case, we'd encourage you to re-take it," South advised. "Because they will have all your scores there, they will give more credence to the one more recent."

Another very important part of the application process is the medical school interview. "We conduct interviews on four Saturdays during each admission cycle," South said. "There are team interviews during which you may have two or three people interviewing you at one time. They are not on the admissions committee and don't make decisions, but they submit their evaluations to the committee, and it becomes a part of your file."

Several criteria come into play during the interviews. "We look for first impressions," South said, "because it's important how well you'd respond when you're dealing with patients or their families. You have to earn the trust of your patients so they'll follow your instructions and advice, fill their prescriptions, take their medicine."

South said sometimes students aren't socially aware of how they come across - for example they don't dress appropriately for a formal interview. "The little things are important," he said "You greet your interviewers with a firm handshake and establish good eye contact, so when you're talking with them you can relate. If you don't establish good eye contact you can't communicate."

In addition to formal dress and a forthright communicative manner, South recommended the applicant practice with mock interviews to eliminate "blind spots," nervous tics that might distract the interviewers. "You only get one chance to make a first impression," South said.

Each medical school applicant is required to submit an academic letter of recommendation from the student's pre-med committee. South said up to three personal letters of recommendation are also allowed. "Make sure your letter writer is someone who known you well over an extended period of time," he advised. "They should be able to comment on your character in and outside the classroom." He recommended staying away from the "high profile" letters. "It's great if you actually know the governor or senator or whomever," South said. "But when the admissions committee looks at a letter from a high profile person where it's obvious they don't know you from Adam, it tends to work against the applicant. Get someone who can speak to your personal attributes."

South said the admissions committee tries to be as fair as possible in selecting students for UAMS. "There are 15 members on the selection committee," he said. "That's 15 sets of eyes. That's about as fair a way as we can think of to do it. We rate everyone on a scale from one to seven, seven being highest, and then add up all those numbers. That's how we have a composite ranking for the first 174 and then the alternate list. We put about 40 on the alternate list."

Because UAMS is Arkansas's only medical school, legislative mandate requires that Arkansas residents be given preference when applying to medical school. "We also give preference to those non-Arkansas students with strong ties to the state," South said. "For example, being students from Ozarks gives you a strong tie to the state. We look at your applications a lot differently than we do those of someone who has never set foot in the state."

About 75-percent of medical school applicants major in the traditional sciences, South said. Last year biology was the top major, chemistry second. "Yet one out of four majored in something else," he said. "We've had students do well in medical school who majored in English, political science, Engineering. Russian literature comes to mind. We do look for well-rounded students."

Although medical school remains competitive, South told the group that medicine is a fascinating field with a tremendous shortage of qualified physicians. "Especially primary care physicians," he said. "Especially in Arkansas. Your skills will be transferrable and highly sought after anywhere. This is an occupation in which if you truly want to help people, you can do wonderful things for wonderful patients in the future - not only to extend the lives of your patients, but to improve the quality of their lives as well."

According to Associate Professor of Biology Dr. Sean Coleman, in addition to working closely with a pre-med advisor to schedule their coursework so that essential courses are completed by the end of the junior year - when the student takes the MCAT - Ozarks pre-med track students also prepare for medical school in other ways. "We practice writing the personal statement and do mock interviews here," Coleman said. "There are numerous research opportunities for those interested, and we do mock MCAT exams as well as general MCAT prep. And Tom South comes each year to update to familiarize us with the application process as well as update us on any changes."

For more information on Ozarks' pre-med track, go to http://admissions.ozarks.edu/academics/preprof/premed.asp.