Behind the Scenes with Deans

Admissions Tips for the Boston University School of Medicine

Get an insider’s perspective on the admissions process as Kristen Goodell, MD talks about the admissions process at the Boston University School of Medicine. Below is a transcript of the conversation.

An Introduction to Dr. Kristen Goodell

My name is Kristen Goodell and I am the Associate Dean of Admissions at Boston University School of Medicine. I’m also a family physician and I see patients at Boston Medical Center and also I am what’s called an academy medical educator, which means that each doctoring, which is interviewing physical diagnosis and clinical reasoning and I teach that course and advise students all the way from the first year of medical school through graduation.

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What Makes A Pre-Med Applicant Stand Out? 

So this is different for different schools, of course. And I will talk a little bit about what makes Boston University School of Medicine stand out. But the key thing is that we are a social justice medical school and we take care of a mostly underserved, poor, and extraordinarily diverse patient population. And so when we’re reviewing applications, one of the key things that we’re looking for is applicants who we think are kind of aligned with that mission. So we are looking for applicants who say things like, the reason that I’m going to medical school is that I really want to help marginalized populations and could be any kind of marginalized population, really.

And these are the things that I’ve done in the past because I really care about that.

We think that folks like that, we are going to be able to help them get to reach their goals, and also they are going to help us get even better at what we do because they will bring their experience and expertise into our setting. They’ll be kind of comfortable already with the idea of taking care of really complicated patients with lots of social determinants of health and then we’ll sort of all be able to move forward together in like a nice happy synergy.

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

Clearly, since COVID, we’ve had a lot of changes and this is probably on people’s minds, but I hope that people find a medical school has gotten the message about this. Applicants simply have had fewer opportunities to do things than they did in the past. And I think people are really worried about that. They had lots of plans that got canceled. They were going to do research and it went virtual.

They were going to do some volunteer work in the hospital. The hospital said no outside people. But the thing that people should know is that we know that and we understand that. And actually, if you zip back in time all the way to the years that started with 19, which is when I went to medical school, none of that stuff was required, right? It was like I had done some volunteer work and it was like a bonus gold star for you.

So for those of us that are like, honestly the faculty of the admissions committees that are making these decisions, the idea that people don’t have as many experiences as they used to four or five years ago, all of us think to ourselves, well, we didn’t really do that and we’re fine. So it really is okay and besides that, everybody else is in the exact same pool as you, with the same opportunities as you. So we really are able to kind of evaluate that carefully. So that’s one big change. Another big change, of course, is the shift to doing things virtually.

And even I am forced to admit that I think that doing interviews virtually is probably the right thing to do. I say forced to admit it because I don’t like it. I’m a huge extrovert. I really loved it when I had 25 people coming here three days a week from September through the end of January. That was pretty fun for me.

I love talking to people in person. However, it is much better and nicer for applicants to not have to spend thousands and thousands of dollars going to medical school interviews. It’s especially true for Boston University. Our applicant pool is national. People were getting on a plane flying out here from California.

And so I think that that shift has been a little bit of a bummer, personally. However, we did not find that it actually impaired our ability to evaluate applicants. It didn’t seem to impact our ability to recruit people. And I’m very happy to report that last year we were able to do some post-acceptance visits. These are totally optional, so if people don’t have the money or don’t want to come or they already know that they’re coming, they don’t have to come to visit.

But now, if you are accepted, you’ll have the opportunity to come and visit in spring and just learn what we’re all about and either see if you want to come to us or to a different school, or you can come and meet your future classmates and just get a look at the place. And I think that that’s really I don’t know, it would be important for me if I were in that position. I want to have the option to do that. So that’s another kind of recent change.

What Makes the Boston University School of Medicine Special?

So as I said before, the big thing to know is that we’re a social justice medical school. I mentioned about our population being it’s 79% uninsured or publicly insured, 77% black and Latinx patients. 32% of our population of our patients don’t speak English as their primary language. And what’s really interesting about that is the huge variety of places that people come from. The thing to know about our diversity is that we really have people coming from all over the world.

We have a center for refugee health, for example, when you look at the interpreter services report because again, 32% of patients use an interpreter because they don’t speak English as their primary language. The average number of languages they provide services in per week is 72 different languages, which is like, huge. So it’s so amazing to have the opportunity to get to connect with and try to understand people from all different places who have different ideas about health and illness and wellness. They’ve had different medical treatments in the past, all sorts of things that make the medicine really interesting. But also for somebody like me who went into medicine because I like people, it just adds a layer of fascinating and challenging and interesting.

That’s really cool. And the other thing I would say is because of our patient population is so diverse and underserved, we have gotten really good at paying attention to people’s context and their social determinants of health. Because we know that we can have the fanciest DaVinci surgery robots and the cutting-edge chemotherapy regimens and it will amount to nothing if our patients don’t have food to have for dinner or they don’t have a place to go after their surgery, after their treatment, where they can lie down and maybe have somebody help them and have a safe place to keep their medication. So we’ve become really attentive to that. And you also see the social justice mission just in terms of the expertise of our faculty, a lot of the areas that we do research in, it’s really woven throughout the curriculum.

It’s what our students do for fun. We don’t have a service requirement. People just do it because they care about it. So that’s the biggest thing to know about us.

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

The biggest piece of advice for people that want to apply to medical school is that you should do what you love and are excited about and passionate about. And I mean, I am talking at every stage of the game. One of the most common questions I get is what do you think I should do for my gap year? Or how do you think I should spend my summers? And what I would say that is you should do whatever the thing is that you’re the most excited about.

You’ll be the best at it, you’ll work hardest at it. It hopefully will be like it gives you energy when you do things you’re excited about. So then you have like more energy to do even more. That’s what really is going to make you stand out. And I so even in the very beginning, like follow your passions in the beginning, you’re trying to figure out what it is that you want to do exactly.

You know, and side note, if you say, but my passion is really taking care of little children and I just love teaching them so much, then okay, maybe take a moment and pause and think about whether actually you want to be a teacher. So at that point, do that. The same is true when you are trying to figure out how to structure some of the aspects of your medical school experience to do the things that you’re excited about. If you love research, do research. But if your passion is advocacy, then join an advocacy group and go talk to legislators about things that are important for you and then craft your 40-year impressive career around the things that you are excited about as opposed to this is the opposite way.

Like tipping something that you think sounds good and then trying to fit yourself into that specific pathway. Also in opposition, this is another thing you shouldn’t do, doing things because like, well, I can do this, so I think I should do this. Or even worse, if other people think you should do this. Like well, for example, I started off in general surgery, and then I switched to family medicine. And a lot of my decision-making about general surgery was because I thought it would look good.

Like I thought surgery would be kind of more impressive to people. And I was very ambitious and I wanted to be like an impressive ambitious person. And I was like, well, alright, I’ll go into surgery because I can get into surgery and that will be really impressive and it will just make me impressive. I thought like, my mom would be able to brag a little bit better. She could be like, well, my daughter is a surgeon.

And it turns out that’s why I end up leaving surgery after three years because those are not good reasons. It’s not a good platform on which to build a 40-year career. In contrast, once I got into a place where I was doing something that I loved was really family medicine, which for me is really all about the people and the relationships, everything sounded interesting and exciting to me. It’s really what led me to the academic part of my career. So once I was in family medicine and everything sounded interesting and I was kind of flourishing, I would like to overhear a conversation and think that’s cool, I’d like to do that.

How do I do that? That exact thing happened. That’s why I did this longitudinal teaching elective in residency. And I liked it so much that then I did it for a second year and I went to some conferences and I liked that so much that I decided to do a fellowship in academic medicine and then I got a faculty job and then, so when you’re doing things that you’re excited about, they really tend to lead to the next opportunity. And I guess I think that’s like a summary of important advice and also a little bit more about my trajectory.

But doing what you love is the most important thing as opposed to what you think you should do or someone else thinks you should do. Because based on an old idea that you have that doesn’t actually pan out once you test it. You know this is a little bit related to what I was saying before. But the other reason to do what you love is that first of all, there’s no such thing as a perfect medical school candidate for every medical school. Medical schools are a little bit different from each other.

Additional Tips and Information for Applicants

I think a lot of people are like, well, the most important thing is that I get into medical school. And believe me, I understand this because my path to medical school was not that smooth or easy. And so I understand just wanting to get in, and you’re trying to make yourself look as good to as many places as possible, but much better to try to be the person you are. Do the best you can in doing that, and then find the places that fit you.

I guess that’s the biggest thing I would say is that when people are thinking about, what should I do? Try to try to clear the decks of what our medical school is going to want, and what I have to do in order to do this. And think about what I want to do. And then, what’s the place that fits it? The little side note is that you don’t have to be a perfect person to get into medical school.

So I say this to a lot of people. I had a rocky academic start when I went to college. I went to, like, a very, very mediocre public high school. Did not study in high school, not at all. I did my homework, but, like, I got by on just, like, whatever I heard in class and picked up from Germany homework.

So went to college and had a really rough time. Had a terrible first semester. Got some really low grades, including a D in general chemistry. Folks, a D in general chemistry. Just want to point out, it all worked out okay.

So you can have some pretty big stumbles and recover from them, and it really is okay. Like, in my case, I just figured out what I needed to do and got much, much better. And then that was the story I told on my application. I just was honest about it. I was like, I didn’t know what I was doing.

I wasn’t prepared. And then it took my college to figure it out. And then I worked really hard to, like, get better and better. I worked really hard to do well on the MCAT so that I could convince people that I actually knew what I was doing. And it really did work out fine.

By the time I was in medical school, in fact, I was the leader. My medical school had a tutoring program for second-year of students to run review sessions for first-year students. And, like, I was the leader of the basic science part of that, so it all worked out okay.

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