Behind the Scenes with Deans

Admissions Tips for the Lerner M.D. College of Medicine at the University of Vermont

Get an insider’s perspective on the admissions process as Leila Amiri, Ph.D. talks about the admissions process at Robert Lerner M.D. College of Medicine at the University of Vermont. Below is a transcript of the conversation.

An Introduction Of Dr. Amiri

I’m Leila Amiri. I am the associate dean for admissions at Robert Lerner M.D. College of Medicine at the University of Vermont. And this is a relatively new position for me.

I started here actually at the end of June.

But I’m no stranger to medical school admissions. This is actually the fifth medical school where I’m serving in an admissions capacity. Prior to this, I was at the University of Illinois College of Medicine. And prior to that, I was at the University of Chicago previous to that, the University of Florida, and prior to that at the University of South Florida – Morsani College Medicine. And so I share that with you to give you a sense of the broad range of experiences that I’ve had.

How I got into medical education and med school admissions in particular. I’ll tell you that nobody starts out with this career trajectory in mind. I think any — most of the people that you talk with will share that. They kind of fell into it and they fell in love with the process. And so it’s a similar type of story for me.

My story began when I was an undergraduate, and so they were advertising a post for a peer advisor. And so I was a bio major and I applied to be a peer advisor In the bio department.

And fortunately, I was approved for that and really that began this career for me. I really enjoy talking to the students and helping advise them and figuring out their career pathways. And so one thing led to another when I started my graduate program because I had had this undergraduate good experience, they invited me to be the Graduate student who led the advising efforts at that time.

And then that led to these other positions with progressively becoming Director of advising at this large undergraduate institution. And really, that was where I had my first taste of pre-med advising. And the pre-med students were fantastic. They were goal driven, they were conscientious. Everyone had this heart of gold. They wanted to serve others. And it was really fun talking to them and helping them navigate, you know, how are they going to get to that school that meets their desired mission however they wanted it to be. 

And so when an opportunity opened up at the medical school at USF, that’s where I took that job, and really that then led to all of these other positions. So I never looked back. This was not my career path. The pathway was supposed to get a Ph.D. in neuroscience and be a neuro faculty member. And so. You know.

Life through this other opportunity my way and I really I’ve truly enjoyed all parts of it. And so now it’s over ten years that I’ve been doing this kind of work.

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What Makes a Medical School Applicant Stand Out?

To me, an applicant stands out who has an application that makes sense.

And what I mean by that is all parts of the application work towards the common understanding of why this individual is driven for this career pathway.

And really this life profession. I say that because, you know, we get a lot of personal statements, particularly at my current institution where individuals are talking about social justice and those types of things.

And, you know, I would like that to be supported by the activities that the individual has engaged in. And so when the activities are supportive of what the individual supports in their personal statement, that’s an application that stands out.

You know most people that are applying to medical school that should be applying to medical school have decent grace. They’ve got a decent kid and they’ve checked off the boxes. We’re not shy about telling students applicants what we want, and applicants are gracious and considered enough to give us what we’re asking for. So the applications are going to be similar in terms of everybody knowing you’ve got to have some clinical stuff. You have to have some leadership, you have to have some volunteering. And so everyone’s got that stuff. 

And so outside of an individual is limited because of their life circumstance and that could be where they are or what else they have to do with their life. The other things should really feed into what motivates this passion. And so that’s the application that really stands out to me from a holistic perspective, not necessarily, you know, the 526 and the 4.0, which is a small portion of what the individual brings to the table. 

What Have Been Some Recent Changes in Medical School Admissions?

You know, there’s been a lot we’ve moved away from having – Well, we have attempted to move away from having a completely metrics-driven admissions process. And so this model of holistic review in admissions has been going on for about ten years. I came into the world of med school admissions with a holistic review of that framework from the AAMC. 

And so I basically grew up in the world of admissions. You know, being a practitioner of holistic review and really being a facilitator for the AAMC, going to other medical schools. And so one of the things that we’ve seen is more schools moving towards looking at the applicant in a more holistic manner. So grades and MCAT are important, establishing a threshold below which the school really doesn’t have the capacity to train this individual.

And it may be a number of reasons, you know, the individual applicants may not agree with those reasons, but it may be that you know, we’re research-driven. And so you need to know how to take a test because I’m not going to spend time teaching you how to take a test – and so high MCT test scores are important to me. Now, is that what everyone’s understanding of holistic review is? No, it’s not. And is that the spirit of the effort? No, it’s not.

However, you know, a medical school will, you know, because, of ethical reasons, admit the students that they can actually train. So that language has been changed and not being completely metrics driven has been changed. And so we have seen an increase in the range of students that medical schools admit and that’s now bleeding into GME as well because when you bring in students that are diverse at the UME level, well, then you have to necessarily address that at the GME level as well, otherwise, the students may not be successful, and so that’s a piece of it. 

The other part of it is in medical education itself. Which I feel is becoming more inclusive. And so, we are having lots of discussions on how can we have a medical school environment that’s inclusive of all the different types of learners that we have. And what is the value of the different types of learners being at the table? And clearly different types of learners translate into different types of physicians – And how can they better address that? 

I feel that we’re seeing a lot more students who are social justice is driven, and who have a social and equity mission in their goals for going into medicine. And so I see I see some of those shifts there, particularly with students wanting to be more inclusive in the type of care that’s available and a better understanding of the general applicant that comes to us for medical school.

And I think, you know, in there in the admissions process, I mean, everybody makes mistakes and, you know, will admit about 2 to 5% that maybe are not in alignment with the mission that we have. And everywhere that I’ve been the students have been very vocal, and very active in ensuring that the culture that they want happens. And I really like that the students are very active.

And again, everywhere that I’ve been, they’ve been on curricular committees, you know, they’ve been on promotion committee. So they have a very active role in that, which makes me very excited about those of them that choose to go on to careers in academic medicine as they shape the future of healthcare here.

What Makes the Robert Lerner M.D. College of Medicine at the University of Vermont Stand Out?

So my current medical school and you see the professionalism statement that I have on my slide here. We have these very specific tenants. And professionalism is a core tenant of our institution, which includes cultural humanity, respect, kindness, respecting the dignity of others. And this really stood out to me from the very beginning when I came in even to interview. 

Everywhere on our campus, this professionalism statement is there reminding us that this is the patients are entrusting their care to us, and even though I’m not an MD, and I’m not a health care provider, by extension, it is to me because as I think about the individuals that we admit to our programs, right. And so, we bring in 124 students, and I have never seen a faculty that is so committed to every aspect of the student’s lives. Now, what do I mean by this? And this is no respect to my colleagues who are my friends now from my other institutions. Burlington is a hard place to find housing, and I found that the hard way as I was trying to move here, I was in a panic. I couldn’t find a place to live.

And so some of our students have sometimes difficulty finding places. And I learned today that some faculty opened up their homes to incoming students as they’re waiting to find a place. And I don’t know how much more of a commitment to individual student success there could be than a faculty opening up their doors to the incoming students. 

So that’s been fun to learn from my colleagues. The other thing that I want to share with you is, you know, all medical schools do this. We have a way for students to provide comments.

And feedback at the end of the year. And so one of the things that our director of the medical school learning environment, Dr. Feldman, has done is she has also solicited accolades from our students. And so just for this past year of the students that we have, there were 1,397 accolades that were submitted. And so I bring this up because 666 of them go to the faculty with narratives on how this faculty member went above and beyond – and how they were supportive and how they helped me understand this. And it also bleeds into our students our fellows our nurses our staff – you know, are technicians, social workers, sometimes they’re even unnamed individuals. And just today, we got a letter from the medical center about a student, and they told us how important the student was in their healing because they were so scared. They were struggling. They felt so vulnerable and having the student there was so helpful to them. 

And so I think this capture completely the environment that we have here. One that is completely supportive, one that is complete adherence to the respect and dignity of all the members of our community, most importantly, those who are most vulnerable.

And when you think about it, that begins with the patient, then obviously our students, and coming up through the ranks and our fellows, you know, then then we go up the chain of command, I guess, for lack of a better word. 

You know, the curriculum has been in place for quite some time. Our students are very skilled clinically as they are and as they leave our institution. And the feedback that we get from residency program directors, from our students has been very strong.

What is Your Best Advice for Pre-Meds?

So the first one is, you know, really be sure that this is absolutely what you want to do. And I would say there’s nothing else that will satisfy you as a professional and as a human except if it’s medicine. So that’s the first thing. 

The second piece will be, you know, be prepared. And so I think be prepared to have to fight through some disappointing things. And, you know, the hardest conversation to have is with the applicant who says, you know, if you just give me a chance, this MCAT score is not really reflective of my aptitude or my GPA, is not really reflective of my aptitude and they have to understand that, you know, my moral commitment to the student is “I’m telling you that you’re going to make it in my Med school if I accept you with what you’ve got.” Right. And it’s hard for a student, for an applicant to accept that perhaps they are not where they need to be.

So that’s the second one for students and applicants to be very realistic about what they’re presenting to the admissions committee. As much as they want to be admitted and we want them to be in as well. Right. I mean, my job is to bring students into medical school. 

So I’m not going to not let people in, right? I want people to come into the med school that is going to make it. So preparation is important and there’s so much material out there. I think it’s important for students to be realistic and not be shy about asking questions. You know, stay in contact with the medical schools, reach out, ask questions if they are ugly in responding back, that’s probably a place you don’t want to be. 

I mean, the truth of the matter is that we all have a public way and a private way of being. When you’re interacting with me as an applicant, I’m on my best behavior. And if I am not kind and gracious, if I don’t have time to answer your questions, if I can’t be bothered with that, probably not a place you want to go at the time that you’re going to be in a program that’s going to be challenging regardless of how bright you are coming in. I mean, every medical school student still needs support at some point, it’ll be for a variety of things. 

And then don’t sell yourself short. I mean, this is your dream. No one is allowed to take this dream away from you. And there isn’t only one way to do this. So there’s one way that everyone knows about it. You go to college, you apply as a junior, you get in after your senior year, and you’re done. And not everyone does that. The average age of a student coming to my program is 25, so they’re not directly coming to me after completing a bachelor’s degree unless they have this extended undergraduate experience.

So there are a lot of ways to do this. the one way that one person did, may not work for you. So you have to figure out what works for you and you apply that way. it may be you know you do a Post-Bacc, or it may be that you get a master’s degree. It may be that you work a couple of years as a CNA, an NA, or a PA.

And not everyone who goes to med school goes through the same route. I mean, again, there are general guidelines, but I wouldn’t worry about that, trust yourself and know that this is your dream to realize and no one is allowed to take it away from you, Because there’s the U.S., there are D.O. schools, there’s the Caribbean. There are so many options for a student to get that medical training that they want if and that’s why I said the first thing is to make sure this is absolutely what you want to do because it’s not going to be easy.

It’s going to be difficult getting in, it’s going to be difficult getting out too. You’ll be very supported to get out, but it’s a lot of hard work. 

Additional Tips to Get into Medical School

In my medical school, in particular, I will say that we work hard and we’re very diligent about having a holistic admissions process. I’m happy that I don’t have stipulations from my dean letting me know that this is an MCAT that I have to admit or this GPA I have to admit. We are truly allowed to review the individual based on what they have done and what they bring to the table.

And I shared the accolades with you intentionally because I know it’s hard to believe in holistic admissions, and we hear all the time that it’s holistic after 3.5 and a 513 or a 511. There are schools out there that engage with this, so you just have to find them. There are lots of resources out there, there are free resources, and there are also resources, obviously, that individuals have to pay for. But we’re fortunate to be at a place where a lot of information is available. And so, I really encourage applicants, not to sell themselves short, to do a lot of research, and don’t submit to places that just make them a student.

Regardless of how many years I’m doing working as an admissions Dean, I’m still going to be a

Pre-Med advisor at heart. And so that’s why I can say that the school has to deserve you as a student in order for you to go there. Otherwise, it’s not going to be a good experience for you. And this is about you.

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