Inside VUSM Admissions
On a cold December Monday morning, six women and seven men, all smiling and similarly dressed in black or grey suits, chat quietly around a U-shaped conference table on the third floor of Annette and Irwin Eskind Family Biomedical Library and Learning Center, home to Vanderbilt University School of Medicine (VUSM).
Out of 6,000 applicants, they are among 550 invited to interview at VUSM on Fridays and Mondays from September through January. From this group around 80 MD students will eventually matriculate as the Class of 2024, joining several combined degree students in a total class size of around 96.
They look happy and relaxed, but there’s a lot riding on today. They will have their first look at deciding whether VUSM is the right place for them, and vice versa.
“From our viewpoint, at this first meeting, we are answering two questions,” said Jennifer Kimble, director of Admissions for VUSM. “Are you a good fit for our mission, someone our patients are going to be comfortable disclosing personal information to? And, are you somebody your classmates want to be around?”
Joining Kimble this morning is Catherine Fuchs, MD, co-chair of the Admissions Committee. Kimble is quick to put the interviewees at ease, telling them they’ll begin their day with an activity exclusive to VUSM, putting emphasis on the word “exclusive” — going around the table for introductions and telling a “fun fact” about themselves. The applicants, who know this is a given at any medical school interview day, laugh.
Today’s fun facts include someone who is a beat boxer, a man who played as a youth in the Little League World Series and a woman who visited 25 countries in six months. Today the group will hear about VUSM’s innovative Curriculum 2.0, the integration of research while obtaining their medical degree, the importance of diversity in both the class and in the patients they will treat at VUMC and much more.
On average, students apply to about 17 medical schools through the American Medical College Application Service (AMCAS) common application. “There are more than 153 medical schools, all with different curriculums,” said Kimble, who came to VUSM in 2013 after 13 years as a pre-med adviser at Emory and Georgia Tech universities.
VUSM’s curriculum, now in its seventh year, is innovative with its pass/fail system and promotes working as a team and lifelong learning, responding to a rapidly evolving health care system. It encourages both independent thinking and working closely in a team environment. “You have to rely on yourself for some things,” Kimble told the applicants. “We aren’t going to spoon-feed you medicine, but it’s also important for you to know that VUSM is a supportive place for students, and that our faculty and staff offer lots of support,” Kimble said. “The student is a trapeze artist, but the net is right there.”
A 14-month process begins
The application process itself is fairly standard across medical schools, and in most cases begins four years before the application is filled out. During those years the students must take the prerequisites needed for entry and it’s recommended that they have some sort of health care exposure — volunteering at a hospital, working in patient transport, in a research lab.
“At Vanderbilt we do not require shadowing hours,” Kimble explained on a day off from interviews. “In my opinion, it’s a barrier to entry into the profession. If you come from a social group where you don’t know physicians you can easily call on to shadow, you’re never going to be able to cold call a doctor and ask to watch them treat patients. But we always encourage applicants to think about seeking other medical exposures.”
Most medical schools expect the applicant to have some sort of community engagement. “You’re telling medical schools you want to treat all the people. We expect you to work with all the people. It’s helpful to work with a population different from your own,” Kimble said.
It’s also necessary to show leadership, and research-focused medical schools, like Vanderbilt, expect students to have exposure to some sort of research or scholarship, “where they dig deep into something they’re intellectually curious about,” she said.
The last piece is having a compelling story. “Are you the first person in your family to go to college, let alone medical school? That’s a compelling story. Some of our students have taken time off and gotten a second degree or done Teach for America or have had a different career. In medical school we are going to teach you a lot of amazing things, but what can you teach us and your peers? That’s where the ability to stand out is helpful,” Kimble said.
Some applicants get anxious about the last piece because they think they’re not unique, that there isn’t anything that stands out about them, Kimble said. “Maybe it’s a hobby, or you’re a musician or an athlete, or you’ve been in the military. All of those things add uniqueness and diversity.”
The AMCAS application opens in May. It consists of fill-in-the-blank and yes/no questions with a section for listing extracurricular activities and accomplishments since high school, which is limited to 15 entries. Applicants can choose three activities they believe are the most meaningful, and there’s additional space to expound on those.
There’s a place for writers to upload letters of evaluation that the candidate can’t access, and a section for personal comments (the admissions essay). “Tell us what you want us to know about you. If you’ve had another career, talk about your career journey. Some people choose to talk about things they’ve overcome in their past. Some talk about why they’re motivated for a career in medicine. There’s no right or wrong answer,” Kimble said.
The application can be submitted in early June and the AAMC forwards the applications to the medical schools around the end of June after the AAMC verifies the self-reported transcript.
Tell us more
At Vanderbilt, the admissions team doesn’t begin reviewing the applications until around the second week of July. At that point decisions are made as to which applicants will be asked to send a secondary application with two additional essay prompts: an autobiographical sketch and describing a challenging time in their lives.
“If you don’t get the request for the secondary application, you aren’t going forward,” Kimble said. “Vanderbilt is unique in that we do screen out who we give secondaries to. Our philosophy is it’s $85 to do a secondary application, in addition to the other application fees you’ve already paid the AAMC. If you’re somebody who at the end of the day isn’t going to be admitted, we don’t feel it’s right to take your $85.”
The secondary application should be sent to VUSM as soon as possible, and by mid-August at the latest, the applicants should be finished with the application process. After the secondary applications are received, the admissions team determines who will be asked to interview. Although the deadline to officially apply isn’t until the end of the calendar year, rolling admissions play a huge part in being competitive for medical school, Kimble said.
Time to meet
Interviews for the MD program take place from the beginning of September through January. On interview days at VUSM, the 12-15 applicants arrive before 8 a.m.
Mondays and Fridays are selected because applicants are encouraged to either arrive in Nashville early (for the Monday interviews) or stay after (for Friday interviews) to see what Nashville has to offer. Students who come in the night before are invited to a casual pizza dinner hosted by current students. “We want the interviewees to feel comfortable asking questions of current students, so faculty and staff do not attend this dinner,” Kimble said.
On interview mornings breakfast is provided, but few eat. “They’re all too nervous,” Kimble laughs.
After the welcome from Kimble and a faculty member, the students leave for their interviews — the first a “closed file” 20-30-minute interview where the interviewer only knows the applicant’s name and reads from a list of prepared questions. “This blinded interview minimizes any chances of a halo effect or possible biasing of the interviewer,” Kimble said. In the second one-hour “open file” interview the interviewer asks specific questions based on the applicant’s file.
“The candidates are usually wondering when they’re going to be asked about why they want to become a doctor or how they’ve prepared themselves for it. The interviewer already knows all of that. It’s in their file. This interview is more to see how the applicant connects with the interviewer, but they’re interviewing us too to see if this is the right place for them,” Kimble said, adding that it’s also a chance for the candidates to clarify anything from their files.
Joey Barnett, PhD, who co-chairs the Admissions Committee with Fuchs, said that he wants to see the “true person” in an interview with a prospective medical student. “We’re looking for a natural conversation and connection and hope to see an applicant’s passion and commitment come through,” said Barnett, professor of Pharmacology.
Fuchs said the faculty co-chairs represent the clinical and research opportunities at Vanderbilt. They work together with the Admissions Office to develop the class. She and Barnett review applications, meet applicants and coordinate the many faculty involved in the admissions review process, ensuring that faculty are engaged in all aspects of the admissions process.
“I have a unique opportunity to meet amazing individuals seeking a career in medicine while at the same time working with faculty who are passionate about the Vanderbilt teaching mission and represent a wide range of clinical and research faculty. Our review of applicants includes faculty input, ensuring that we consider class development through multiple lenses.”
After the interviews the applicants return for an overview of the curriculum, then have lunch with current VUSM students who have volunteered to eat with them, answer questions and give them a short tour of the medical school and Medical Center.
The applicants return for a session about the medical school’s emphasis on research and scholarship and hear about the medical school and Medical Center’s commitment to diversity and community health. Kimble delivers some final information – about financial aid and a little more about the application process — then answers questions. The day ends shortly before 4 p.m.
“I’m very transparent with the applicants about how the application process works,” Kimble said. “When I was an adviser it bothered me when students would interview at these great schools and there was a lot of ambiguity. I don’t want this to be a confusing process for applicants. I want them to know, as much as I can tell them, about their chances of getting accepted.”
Behind the scenes
Acceptances are sent in two waves — one in mid-December and another in late February. Candidates must reply to an offer of acceptance via an online process within two weeks of the invitation. VUSM hosts Second Look Weekend in April, designed to show accepted students what makes Vanderbilt unique.
“On interview day the applicants are trying to impress us,” Kimble said. “On Second Look Weekend, we are trying to impress them, because if you’re admitted to Vanderbilt University School of Medicine you’re admitted to other great medical schools. We highlight our faculty, our current students, Nashville and our strengths.”
Medical schools maintain an active wait list to complete the class. The VUSM Admissions Committee tends to under-offer in the two waves of admissions to make sure that there’s the opportunity to pull from the wait list. Students who remain on the wait list are in a holding pattern, waiting for a place to land in the class, Kimble said.
“We see the value in the wait list. It’s a way to enhance the class,” she said. “Students who enter from the wait list are not second-rate students,” she explained. “This is when we round out the softer edges of what this class is going to look like. I wish we had a better term for ‘wait list.’ It’s not a bad place to be. A lot of our leaders here are students who came to us from the wait list. There was nothing wrong with these students; we just had to find the right spot for them to land.”
Barnett likens the selection process to building a baseball team. “We aren’t filling the class with a bunch of solo athletes. We need people who can work together.”
During the nationwide selection process candidates are asked to withdraw from all but three medical schools to which they’ve applied by April 15; on April 30, they must withdraw from all but one, but can stay on other school’s wait lists. On May 1, schools will go to their wait lists to fill open spots.
“The great shuffle happens during this time. It’s a dance,” Kimble said. “The first year I did it here I survived on Tums and Pepto-Bismol because I didn’t realize how attached I would get to these candidates and trying to help them figure out where to go for medical school.”
Mason Alford, a Stanford University graduate and the current first-year class president, knew after his January 2019 interview that VUSM was the place for him.
From Malibu, California, Alford knew a few medical students at VUSM who were friends from Stanford. “I already knew that students here are so happy and balanced,” he said. Alford, who took three years off between Stanford and Vanderbilt, was also impressed with the diversity at VUSM.
“I was blown away by the sheer intelligence and warmth of the students. It was obvious that students here are qualified, competent, articulate, kind and generous.”
He left his day with admissions knowing that Vanderbilt would be the top choice of the 14 schools to which he applied. “I knew I’d be supported here by a very authentic community. I came here needing to know what I’d feel like if I was here, and I knew.”
So, weeks later, Alford, a teaching assistant at Stanford, was sitting in the second row of an auditorium among hundreds of students. His cellphone rang, and Kimble’s name appeared on the screen.
“I jumped up and jumped over the seat in front of me and ran out the door,” he recalls, laughing at what the students sitting around him must have been thinking. Kimble asked if he was still interested in enrolling at VUSM.
“I said yes, and she said I was a finalist in the admissions process and my heart sank. I thought ‘this is still not the call.’ He remembers Kimble pausing and he said, “I want to reiterate that I would love to be part of this community.” And Kimble offered him a spot in the class.
“I was so happy,” Alford recalls. “I was standing by myself in this forested area outside my building. After I got off the phone, I took a moment to myself, standing by a tree with this beautiful natural scenery around me. I meditated for a few minutes on all that was about to come, about this next chapter.”
Being part of the Class of 2023 has more than met his expectations, he said.
Attracting top applicants
VUSM attracts many of the top applicants in the country, Barnett said. “The joke among ourselves (faculty and alumni) is that none of us could get in now,” he laughs.
“VUSM has really arrived as a nationally recognized player in medical education and biomedical research,” he said. “We are leaders in a number of areas and students applying here know that. They’ve checked us out and they’re interviewing at the best medical schools in the country. We work hard to let them know that they can come here and be successful. These are exceptional individuals, every one of them, and it’s a privilege working with them and helping them navigate and get where they need to be.”
As co-chairs of the committee, Barnett represents the school’s research focus; Fuchs, the clinical experience. “Research and scholarship thread through the curriculum, allowing students to drill down and be engaged in discovery around something that interests them,” Barnett said. “It can be basic or clinical science, public policy or advocacy. It can be bioinformatics or global health, but they are able to really drill down in a way where it’s integrated into the rest of their curriculum — what they’re learning and the skills they’re trying to develop. I feel like I have the best job in the medical school because I love being able to engage bright, committed people and help them discover and be able to pursue a passion.”
Fuchs said she enjoys meeting the diverse group of applicants. “I learn new ideas and ways of thinking from every applicant I talk to,” she said, adding that she and Barnett meet weekly about the admissions process.
“We’re constantly thinking about what we’re doing and not assuming that just because it’s the way it’s always been done is the way we need to always do things,” she said.
Although she and Barnett don’t conduct one-on-one interviews with the students on a regular basis, they both are usually on hand on Mondays and Fridays to interact with the applicants in some capacity — greeting them, presenting information about the curriculum and research, talking with them and observing how they interact with one another and filling in when there’s a need for interviewers.
John Zic, MD, professor of Dermatology and former chair of admissions for VUSM, attended VUSM as a Canby Robinson Scholar, graduating in 1991. He remembers vividly his interview day and how it shaped his career. He was introduced to Lloyd King, MD, former chair of Dermatology, who had an aquarium of brown recluse spiders in his office. King’s research focus was on the brown recluse bite. “It was a memorable day for me, and I began to feel this was the place I wanted to be and where I would feel comfortable.”
He remembers talking to Claire Yang, a third-year VUSM student he met when he was an undergraduate at the University of Notre Dame. Yang is now a urologist in Seattle. “She encouraged me to apply. She’s the reason I’m here. She made sure Vanderbilt Medical School was on my radar screen and I think she was right. Twenty-four years later I’m still here and Claire’s daughter is now a first-year medical student at VUSM. It’s come full circle,” he said.
Zic believes that although VUSM has changed in many ways — namely the curriculum and the increasingly impressive accomplishments of the applicants it attracts — it has also remained the same. “It’s so collegial here and there’s a great family atmosphere.”
Barnett tells a story about Grant MacKinnon, a medical student he interviewed who had done research all through his undergraduate years. He had even been awarded a patent that was in production and going through clinical testing. Those accolades alone were probably enough to get him into VUSM, Barnett remembers. But it’s what he heard next that sealed the deal.
Barnett asked MacKinnon about one of the activities listed on his application — visiting a nursing home for Alzheimer’s patients.
MacKinnon, now a second-year VUSM student, told Barnett about one woman he worked with who mentioned that she loved birds. He knew nothing about birds except how to make an origami one, so he showed her how and placed the origami bird on her shelf before he left. He came in the next week, but the woman didn’t remember him or that they had made the bird. So, they made another.
“After a year, there were all these birds on her shelf because each week he’d go in there, she wouldn’t know him, and he’d have to reintroduce himself and re-establish the conversation, and they’d make birds,” Barnett said. “He said what it taught him was that there’s no excuse in getting frustrated. You just have to meet people where they are. So, patent aside, I wanted him in that class,” Barnett said. “He’s smart, but his engagement with people…I about cry every time I tell that story. I could picture my grandmother. We all have somebody we love.”