If Jim Weiss — Associate Dean for Admissions, program director of the cardiology fellowship, accomplished oboist — applied to the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine these days, he’s not entirely convinced he’d get in…not because he’s unqualified or uncommitted, but because today’s applicants set the bar so high.
To be a good doctor, you have to be smart; that’s almost a given. But you also have to work well with people, and problem solve; to think creatively; and to have emotional fortitude. By the end of medical school, a student should be capable of naming virtually all the veins in the human body (right gastroepipeloic, left gastroepipeloic…), but also compassionately telling someone that their spouse has died. The people charged with selecting this rare breed are the Admissions Committee, and their task is a daunting one – whittling down an initial 5,000 applicants to the 750 or so who get interviewed, and then winnowing those down until they end up with the 120 students who make up the Medical School’s class each year.
Johns Hopkins is one of the most competitive medical schools in the country. In 2008, admitted students had an average undergrad GPA of 3.88, and an MCAT of 35 (in the top five percent of all test-takers). Frankly put, entering students have to have the cognitive capacity to process huge amounts of information – so much that it’s often compared to drinking water from a fire hose. And Hopkins’ newly-revamped Genes and Society curriculum is fast-paced and challenging. “When I was in medical school at Yale, we took a yearlong course in anatomy,” Weiss remembers. “We dissected the same cadaver throughout the whole year. Here [at Hopkins], it’s very accelerated – students learn the same information over a few months, and all the other courses are fully integrated.”
Which is enough to make any prospective applicant want to lock herself in her dorm room with her textbooks and come out only to go to class. But, according to both Weiss and assistant dean for diversity Daniel Teraguchi, it’s not academic robots they’re looking for. “We look for extra dimensions,” Weiss says. “Evidence of leadership, evidence of creativity. Someone who has done something worthwhile beyond academics. We’re very impressed with people who have served others.”
Proving this point is the current crop of medical students, whose backgrounds are as varied as they are impressive: Peace Corps volunteers, Rhodes Scholars, service veterans, LDS students who’ve gone on missions in very remote parts of the world, and even a former submarine commander. Weiss estimates that upwards of 45 percent of admitted students have taken a gap year between graduating from college and starting medical school, and have used that time to do something significant.
What’s not appealing to the committee, says Teraguchi, are students who tailor their application as though they’re checking off boxes (“if I just get 20 more hours of community service, they’ll know I’m compassionate”). The most appealing candidates can show that they’ve learned from their experiences, that they see the world in a new way. And while a large proportion of incoming students have some research or clinical experience, the committee also looks at “experience” more broadly. If a passion for medicine (or research, or helping people) is truly present (and not just a show put on for admissions officers), Teraguchi points out, it’ll appear in multiple ways in a candidate’s story, in multiple formats. “We’re looking for people who are absolutely committed to medicine,” Weiss adds. “Not just as an avocation, but as a lifetime commitment.”
The admission committee tries to get a holistic picture of the applicant through interviews, essays, and recommendation letters. (Interpreting recommendation letters turns out to be a subtle skill in itself. Many schools practice “letter inflation,” and lavish all students with extravagant praise. Others are more frank, and the committee needs to know which ones those are in order to interpret where the student stands. Some institutions are even known to use certain words or phrases to indicate their top students. “If they don’t use those,” Weiss says, “We know they feel that this is a good candidate, but not the best.”)
One struggle the school has faced in recent years has been its ability to attract students from underrepresented groups. Diversity is the buzz word around medical schools nationwide, with the Association of American Medical Colleges calling for institutions to make sure their student populations include a wide swath of human experience. Studies show that students attending diverse medical schools make better doctors. But creating a diverse class has proved to be tricky. In recent years, admitted students from minority groups tended to skip over Hopkins – despite its reputation – and enroll at other schools. In 2004, fewer than a third of admitted minority students ended up enrolling at Hopkins, down from more than fifty percent in previous years. One way to address the disparity is through financial aid, which nearly nine out of ten of the school’s students receive. Still, medical school is expensive: Students completing their medical studies at Hopkins carry an average debt of around $100,000 – a daunting amount, but one that’s actually lower than at many public schools. The efforts seem to be making a difference: Fifteen percent of last year’s entering class were members of underrepresented minority groups, an improvement on years past but still lagging comparable schools like Harvard.
Ultimately, the admissions committee is aware of the crucial role it plays in shaping the future landscape of medicine. “The pipeline for medical leadership in the school – and maybe even nationally – begins in the admissions committee,” Weiss notes. That’s one reason why many of the committee’s members (which include 40 faculty members and 8 current medical students) have asked to join, despite the extra work (and lack of compensation). Frankly put, “it’s an important job,” Weiss says.
To that end, the committee considers diversity in a, well, diverse way. Hopkins has accepted students as young as 20, others who started out in community college, and many who’ve grown up outside the U.S. Having classmates with differing backgrounds gives the student body, according to Weiss, “a cultural awareness that other people may have different backgrounds than they do, which helps them take care of patients from all walks of life.”
Once they’re here, students can enjoy the brand new Armstrong building (“I wish I had a building like that,” Weiss says half-wistfully), a revamped curriculum, and a four-college mentoring program that bears more than a passing resemblance to the four house system in the Harry Potter books (only without magic wands, and no one’s evil). But perhaps more than anything else, they’ll benefit from their classmates, who are certain to be an amazing bunch.