Behind the Scenes with Deans

Admissions Tips for the University of North Carolina School of Medicine

Get an insider’s perspective on the admissions process as Dr. Lisa Rahangdale talks about the admissions process at the UNC School of Medicine. Below is a transcript of the conversation.

An Introduction to Dr. Rahangdale

My name is Dr. Lisa Rahangdale. I’m a professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the UNC School of Medicine, and I’m also Associate Dean for Admissions. I’ve been at UNC as faculty since 2009 and but I’ve been at UNC for a long time. I went to undergrad here and I also went to medical school here.

And then I went away for nine years for my training all across the country before I came back to join the faculty. I was so glad to come back and see that it was the same welcoming community that really supported junior people in achieving their goals, whether you were a medical student when I started or as a junior faculty member. So that is why I love UNC School of Medicine. I think it makes it really special. The path for my career was not necessarily that I knew that I wanted to do medical education.

I was very interested in public health, and I was involved in research in global health. I had a fellowship in reproductive infectious disease, and I still do that work colposcopy clinic, taking care of women who have abnormal PAP smears and doing research on cervical cancer prevention and HPV, and also taking care of women who have HIV and taking care of their gynecologic and obstetric needs. So that’s what my initial academic interest was. But when I came back to UNC, it was the school that helped me get started and I wanted to give back and be engaged with our student body. And so I started with running our reproductive medicine course for our second-year medical students, and then from there being involved in the admissions committee and am now Associate Dean for Admissions.

So that’s my path to where I am today.

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What Makes A Pre-Med Applicant Stand Out? 

When we think about the applicants that we’re looking for, we always say that we’re looking for a diverse group of individuals who are on a genuine journey to make an impact in society through medicine. And so there are so many ways that you can do that. But I think that the genuine journey part is really important. Everybody has their own path to medicine, and there’s not just one way that you get here or one way that you’re inspired. And so I always encourage people to do what makes them excited about medicine.

There are no checkboxes that you have to check all these boxes and that’s what’s going to get you in. Obviously, it needs to be related to medicine, but when you do those things that are really genuinely of interest, that shows in your writing, it shows when you’re being interviewed and we can tell that you have passion about what you have done and what you are looking forward to. The other thing that I encourage is to do something that pushes you outside your comfort zone. So if you’ve done all of your activities and you’ve had great experiences, but they’ve all been on your university campus or within a group that you’ve always done work with. Try something different.

Try to go work outside of your community or with individuals that are different from you in some way. Because the truth is that whenever we work as physicians and we step into that room, we have to step out of our comfort zone and go into our patient’s comfort zone. And if you have no experience with that, that’s going to make it more challenging for you to really be able to show that you’re ready to join the profession. And it’s not about just making people do hard things. It’s about growth and being ready to meet patients where they are once you’re in medical school.

What Are Some Recent Changes to the Medical School Admissions Process?

I think over time, I have seen that our applicants are really just really special individuals. I mean, I see people doing all sorts of things that amaze me, and it makes me excited about our field moving forward. I don’t know that the heart of our applicants has changed. People are still going into medicine for the right reasons. But I do think that because our applicants are choosing to take time after undergrad in order to apply to medical school, they’re able to engage in things that people in the past have not been able to when they’ve gone straight to medical school.

And it really shows in terms of their preparation, how they perform on the interview day. And then I think the satisfaction you feel with being in medical school because you’ve been able to explore other things. And so that’s what I’ve seen the most, is the change in who decides to go to medical school, at what point, and from what backgrounds, because we need people from all sorts of backgrounds because our patients are from all sorts of backgrounds. Right now, our average, I think, percentage of people that come straight out of undergrad is about 10% in our class. And so I tell you that because I don’t want people to feel discouraged because they’re getting advice that you’re a senior and you have to apply right now.

That’s not the majority of people in our medical school. And I think if you looked at other medical schools, you would see that too. There have been so many changes in the admissions process. First of all, even pre-pandemic, there were different ways that schools were interviewing. So there are situational judgment tests that some schools require, where you go online and record something or do a test where you’re kind of assessing what choices you would make about a certain situation.

The interview day is not just you and me talking one on one. Many times it can be group interviews. We do a blinded interview where one person hasn’t even looked at your application in order to limit bias. We also at UNC do MMIS, which are short interviews that are six to eight minutes long. We also do a group activity, and so that’s all things that are happening all over the country, but definitely here at UNC, but then the pandemic happened and we had to adjust to doing all of that on Zoom.

So we have found a way to be able to still do those things on Zoom, but it’s not the same. And so that’s the other major change, is that for the last three cycles, we’ve been doing interviews on Zoom, and I don’t know what’s going to happen in the future.

What Makes the University of North Carolina School of Medicine Special?

Our medical school is unique because it basically has this bimodal mission where we are here to serve the people of North Carolina and others whom we also engage within the country and globally and be excellent in education, research, and clinical care. So we have a very strong mission for our state in order to develop primary care doctors and individuals interested in working in rural areas. And so we are known to be in the top schools as a primary care school. On the other hand, we also are a very highly funded research university. We’re ranked number five in the country amongst public schools with NIH funding, and we have a very robust MD Ph.D. program and research ongoing throughout the medical school and the school public health, which is very highly ranked at UNC as well.

And so those are very bimodal missions. But I would say that that is what makes our school really neat because the students all are in the same class, and so you’re getting to engage with individuals who have very different interests from you. But I can bet you there’s something that somebody who wants to go work in the community can learn from a future researcher and vice versa. So I think that makes what you’re able to access at UNC really unique. The thing that I mentioned already that I think is really special about UNC is that we are just a really great community, and that’s what makes me sad about virtual interviews, is that our applicants aren’t able to come and see how we all interact and sort of what the feeling is on our campus.

But we’ve been known to be the university with low stone walls, which means that we have a lot of accolades and prestige and excellence, but the walls are low, so they can easily be crossed. And there’s so much support, and the diversity allows our students to be able to get to know people that are different from them so that they’re learning from them, but also being prepared for how they’re going to take care of patients. We’re, I think, number six in the country in terms of the total number of African American graduates from our school. And we’re really proud of that through programming that we’ve had since the 1980s. And so it’s just this great community that there’s a lot of really excellent people, but we’re all in it together and we’ll rise together.

What is Your Biggest Piece of advice for Medical School Applicants?

Well, I think the first thing is that I know that applying to medical school is hard and it can be discouraging. And I think that I want to encourage people to if this is what they want to do, seek out the resources and keep at it. Because there are resources out there. There are a lot of things online. There are test questions online.

Go to the AAMC website, call this school that you’re interested in going to, and you might be able to have a meeting with somebody there. So don’t think that you’re in it alone. There are a lot of resources out there to help support us through this difficult process. Many students have to reapply to medical school, and that is okay. It’s just maybe not your time yet.

And so I just want to be encouraging and say it’s a hard process, there are resources for you, and keep at it, and I wish you success. The second thing I will say is that having said all of that, it’s a real commitment. And it’s not just a commitment of like, I got into med school, right? It’s a commitment for the rest of your life. When you join the medical profession, you add another identity to who you are and you become a student doctor and then a doctor, and that’s going to be with you.

It’s going to impact the way your work-life balance goes, which of course we encourage everybody to have. But work is going to be a big part of your life. So the things that you have to sacrifice in terms of family functions, you might not be able to go to, or a wedding that you might have to miss or something like that. And that’s all a part of medicine. And I’m not saying that to be discouraging.

I’m saying it because our field is wonderful, but there are sacrifices involved. So just make sure that you know that you’re not just looking at I got that acceptance letter. You’re looking at this as a lifetime commitment. And I guarantee you it’s worth it if you are in it for the right reasons. It’s a wonderful profession and just go into it with your eyes open.

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