BY: PATRICK WASCOVICH, UT Southwestern Medical Center
This article orginially appeared in UT Southwestern's Center Times Plus.
One of the greatest challenges faced by academic leaders during the COVID-19 pandemic has been selecting the next class of medical students without being able to meet any candidate in person.
For several months, UT Southwestern Medical School faculty and administrators have been on an unprecedented journey – conducting virtual interviews with prospective students for the Class of 2025.
“We planned this way ahead of time and we were very deliberate in our approach. We knew we could not meet face to face with anyone in the 2020-2021 cycle,” said Dr. Craig Rubin, Professor of Internal Medicine and Chief of the Division of Geriatric Medicine, who leads the Medical School’s Admissions Committee.
Experienced faculty interviewers like Dr. Keith Argenbright, Director of the Moncrief Cancer Institute and a Professor in the Harold C. Simmons Comprehensive Cancer Center and the Department of Population and Data Sciences, had to quickly adjust to this new dynamic.
“I like to focus my questions on the candidates’ readiness to be a physician and their fit for the UT Southwestern culture,” said Dr. Argenbright, who is in his fourth year as an interviewer. “It’s challenging enough to pick up on the cues that indicate these soft skills in an in-person interview. It was even more challenging in a virtual 25-minute interview.”
UT Southwestern typically receives about 5,000 applications each year, but last year brought a double-digit increase at UTSW and other medical schools across the nation as more college students decided to pursue medical careers. At UTSW, about 800 candidates are selected each year for consideration from those who apply between May and October. This cycle’s applicants were slotted into a 14-week interview schedule that began in late August 2020 and continued through the end of January.
Each candidate receives two 25-minute one-on-one interviews from among more than 100 UTSW faculty members who volunteered to help implement this new virtual admissions model. Typically, faculty members involved in the process interview four candidates a day for up to five Saturdays and write up their impressions for the 24-member Admissions Committee. The virtual interviewing process dictates that faculty volunteers work between six and eight weekends. Each interview is focused on evaluating attributes – interpersonal, intrapersonal, thinking and reasoning, and science – identified by the Association of American Medical Colleges as essential for medical students to be successful.
“Though I do miss the face-to-face interaction with all of the amazing students, the transition over to online interviews has been relatively seamless,” said Dr. Rebecca Rojas, an Associate Professor of Internal Medicine who has been interviewing candidates for five years. “Being surrounded by their own familiar environment during the interview, I am sure, also contributed to some degree of ease for the students.”
As hundreds of faculty-candidate interviews are reviewed, about 380 offers are incrementally sent out with the goal of filling a class of about 240 medical students.
In preparation for the interview cycle, UTSW had to plan and produce new processes and materials, select an interview platform, and prepare faculty members to conduct the meetings virtually. Transitioning to virtual interviews also required that the faculty had enough training and familiarization with technology beforehand to ensure a comfortable, fair interview experience for each candidate.
The 2020-2021 cycle was challenging and unfamiliar at first, Drs. Argenbright and Rojas agreed, but ultimately proved to be truly satisfying.
“I was pleasantly surprised to see individual applicants still so excited about the future and moving forward and getting a chance to come to UT Southwestern.” Dr. Rojas said. “We have had an amazing group of applicants come through. It has been a breath of fresh air to still see such enthusiasm, even in the hardest of times.”
Dr. Argenbright added, “With the interviews happening virtually, I am coming into their homes, their parents’ homes, dorm rooms, university libraries. It was a neat experience to see more of the applicants’ personal sides. You must be resilient to get to the medical school interview process. The candidates I spoke with are well-accomplished and they handled the new dynamic well.”
In the months leading up to the interviews, supporting material like a comprehensive virtual tour of the campus was produced by the Office of Communications, Marketing, and Public Affairs. Breakout sessions also were offered on topics ranging from financial aid and research at UTSW to student service opportunities.
“What’s more challenging this year is presenting the campus and the area’s culture,” said Leah Schouten, Director of Admissions and Recruitment. “How do you replicate walking around Clements University Hospital or experiencing Dallas? In the end, we put together a comprehensive and robust program that utilized many current students and faculty in different ways.”
Although successful, the virtual interview process can’t fully replace a firsthand experience, most would agree.
“While the virtual format does allow candidates to take several interviews without traveling, it doesn’t offer them the opportunity to see the campus, talk to current students, or go on rounds,” Dr. Argenbright said. “The great majority of our incoming freshman class will have never stepped foot on the UT Southwestern campus. It’s my duty and obligation to give back to the medical profession, to make sure we have people in the profession selecting the next generation to come into the profession. This is something I take extremely seriously, and my fellow faculty interviewers agree. We see this as a duty and a privilege to look into the face of the next generation of physicians.”
Dr. Rubin holds the Margaret and Trammell Crow Distinguished Chair in Alzheimer's and Geriatric Research; the Seymour Eisenberg Distinguished Professorship in Geriatric Medicine; the Sinor/Pritchard (Katy Sinor and Kay Pritchard) Professorship in Medical Education Honoring Donald W. Seldin, M.D.; and the Walsdorf Professorship in Geriatrics Research.