Behind the Scenes with Deans

Admissions Tips for the A.T. Still University Kirksville College of Osteopathic Medicine

Get an insider’s perspective on the admissions process as Andrea O’Brien talks about the admissions process at the AT Still University School of Medicine. Below is a transcript of the conversation.

An Introduction to Andrea O’Brien, MS

My name is Andrea O’Brien. I’m the Director of Admissions at A.T. Still University. I’m based in Kirksville, Missouri. I work significantly with the Kirksville College of Osteopathic Medicine within our university. We do have a second medical school in Arizona, the School of Osteopathic Medicine in Arizona, but primarily I work with KCOM up here in Missouri.

In terms of how I got into medical school admissions, it wasn’t like I woke up one day when I was a freshman in high school and said, I want to do this for the rest of my life. I kind of accidentally got into it. So after college, I ended up going into student affairs and worked in residence life for a very long time.

And then an opportunity came up to switch over to medical school admissions. It was a great opportunity, and I came over and started doing that about 13 years ago. And it’s been an absolutely wonderful career. We work with premed students and we have other programs as well. So premed, predental, and other allied health professions programs within our university.

It’s just been a really great fit.

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What Makes A Pre-Med Applicant Stand Out? 

So a premed applicant that really stands out to us is going to be pretty multi-dimensional. We want to see that they have gotten a really good range of experiences. We want to see that they have gotten a significant amount of clinical experiences so that they know what they’re getting into when they go into the medical field. They need to be academically solid. And so it doesn’t mean that they can’t have a couple of bumps or bruises along the way when it comes to some of their coursework, but we want to see that they finish strong – whether that means that they finished strong during their junior and senior years of college, or whether that means that they had to go through and take a master’s or a post-baccalaureate program to build up that foundation prior to coming. The other area is a real service to the community and leadership positions, so really giving of yourself to the people around you. Medicine is not a self-serving profession, so we want to make sure that you’ve interacted with people that are from various walks of life and that you have a wide experience of interacting communication-wise with people, being able to talk to people from different backgrounds as well as deal with confrontation, time management, or anything that comes with being in a professional position. Those types of things are areas that are really going to stand out when people are very multi-dimensional.

The other aspect is just their passion. We want to see that a student going into this field has a real strong personal drive to succeed in this field, not at the expense of their neighbor, but more in an altruistic fashion. So we want to make sure that the students are in it for the right reasons, that they’re in it to serve other people, and that they have that motivation because medicine can be very hard. Medical school is very hard. Residency is very hard.

We want to see that they have that strong perseverance and resilience in themselves so that when they hit a roadblock along the way, it’s not something that they’re going to give up on. They’re going to continue to move forward and find a way to succeed at their goals.

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

Over the last 13 years that I’ve been in medical school admissions, students have changed significantly. I have seen a difference in students being more attuned to serving other people and getting involved in service-related activities. They’ve always been very driven. But I think the competitiveness of the application process has really upped the ante a little bit to make sure that students are looking out for those different types of activities. The students that are really motivated are really beating the pavement to try to find those opportunities that do not just check the boxes.

We don’t want to see people just going into activities to check boxes, but they’re really finding activities that really speak to their souls. And that is something that is a very important thing. Kind of going back to what we look for is getting involved with things that really speak to your soul, not just to check a box. But the other thing that we’ve noticed with students in the application process is they do seem to be a little bit more knowledgeable as to what they want to go into and why they want to go into it. Again, I think we’ve seen that all along, but I think there’s been a little bit more specificity, especially post-COVID.

There have been a lot more people that have been really expressing what they saw during COVID in their own families and their own personal lives, and they want to help. Kind of going back to 9/11, a lot of people joined the military because they wanted to help the world and protect our country. And I think this kind of came out a little bit with COVID where they saw a lot of people really struggling and they wanted to be part of the solution. So I’ve seen a little bit more of a change, I think.

In terms of my school being an osteopathic school, we’re the founding school of osteopathic medicine. I have seen a change over the last several years of students going into osteopathic medicine exclusively and not putting applications both in the allopathic and osteopathic application pools. They’ve just decided osteopathic medicine is what speaks to my personal philosophy, and that’s what I want to apply to. So in the past, I would say at the beginning of when I started doing this over a decade ago, I would say that more applicants were spreading their applications among both types of medicine. And now I’m seeing a lot more people understanding what osteopathic medicine is and realizing that there’s a different philosophy about why people might go into this type of medicine and they are specifically applying to our school.

In terms of the application process or the interview process or how we’re selecting applicants, I’ve also seen some very significant changes in that. When I first started in this field, I would say that most applicants came for interviews at the majority of schools, and it’s more of just one on one, or maybe a small group panel with faculty, but it’s more of just that straight Q and A. Over the years, I’ve seen a lot more intentionality of schools trying to dig a lot deeper to find out what the decision-making processes of people are, trying to find what drives people a little bit more, and what are their personal motivations. And I think we’ve always tried to do that through the traditional interview process. But now you’re starting to see a lot more subjective judgment testing, SJTs, you’re seeing some CASPer, you’re seeing Kira Talent, you’re seeing all these different tools that are now on the market that many schools are engaging their applicants in prior to the interview. And so whether it’s all the students that apply, usually not. It depends on the tool. Sometimes it’s only the people that may be invited for the interview that have to do those extra steps. But I have seen a significant change in those types of tools being introduced into the admissions process.

The other thing that has probably not been quite so recent, but it’s been since I started in this field, is using the multiple mini-interviews as part of the admissions process. Again, it’s not a brand new type of interview style or interview type, but most of the schools that are engaging students in multiple mini-interviews are also using the one on one interviews, or they’re using some sort of a group project, or they’re using one of those other SJT type tools.

And so they’re not just having a conversation with the applicant to decide whether or not they come to their school. They’re looking at them from all different angles to see how those students do not just engage with me one on one. But also engage with a standardized patient or somebody from a different background and kind of reason through some of that ethical decision-making that they may have to do as a physician. So that’s a huge change that I’ve been seeing over the last several years, really specifically over the last two to three years with those new SJT tests.

What Makes the Kirksville College of Osteopathic Medicine Special?

So our medical school in Missouri, we’re the Kirksville College of Osteopathic Medicine. We are the founding school of Osteopathic Medicine. So we’ve been around since 1892. I will say that even though we’re the oldest, that doesn’t mean we’ve been left behind when it comes to technology.

We definitely have some very innovative processes that we have within our school to make sure that our students are educated in a way that produces fantastic results. So our students are ahead of the game when it comes to their board scores, getting residency placements, getting into top residencies around the country, and very, very well-prepared students. One of the things that I would say our Dean always talks about of kind of our points of pride within our university and within our school is the ultrasound curriculum. So I would say that our school has probably one of the most robust ultrasound curriculums in the country. So our ultrasound curriculum is tied very closely to our anatomy curriculum.

So when students are doing different activities in the cavalry lab, they’re then going and looking at what that part of the body looks like underneath the ultrasound. And so our students are getting to be experts with ultrasound technology prior to going out to their third-year rotations. We also have a very strong osteopathic manipulative medicine curriculum, or OMT or OPT, depending on what school you’re from and what they’re going to call it, but it’s all the same thing. With our founding school status, our faculty are very proud of that curriculum. And I would say that our students are probably getting more hours in that type of educational setting than maybe some of the other schools.

And so they definitely have a lot of hands-on time, perfecting those skills, getting a lot of those palpatory skill development out of the way, and being able to use those skills in a variety of different patient settings. We also have just a tremendous amount of research that happens on this campus by our faculty, clinical faculty, and our basic science faculty. We have an A.T. Still Research Institute that is one of the leading sites internationally for osteopathic manipulative medicine research, and the efficacy of that. We have the Osteopathic Museum, which is the one and only main one in the entire world. So it’s accredited and it’s a fantastic museum showing a nerve structure that was dissected in the 1930s by our students, and it’s a completely intact nerve structure.

I want to probably leave on that question, was just the innovation that our technology of what our faculty bring to the table. So one of our faculty in our human patient simulation labs comes from the medical profession. And she was noticing that overall, over the years, when she was more in the hospital setting prior to coming on as faculty, a lot of students when they get into the clinical practice area came into a rather chaotic situation. They were having a hard time tuning out the extraneous information coming to them.

Whether it’s noise or the patient in discomfort or other people telling what to do, they would kind of forget as we all do when we kind of panic. And so she created in our human patient simulation lab an immersion room. And that immersion room is basically, again, it’s a simulated activity that students will do to assess a patient and take care of a patient. But there are all kinds of stimuli coming at that patient or at the students when they’re practicing those scenarios.

And so it helps the students to learn how to filter through the extra noise and all the extra commotion that might be going on. They often have worked to film some of the different 3D imaging that happens around the room with some of our local emergency professionals. So they can kind of stage some of those things in a way that is as realistic as possible to the type of distractions that you’re going to have in an actual emergency situation. So there are a lot of things I’m very proud of with our school and just the support and the wellness activities that our students also receive is a very big part of what they get here. So again, I could talk forever on this subject because I’m very proud of our school.

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

The biggest piece of advice that I would give to premed students is to research the schools that they’re applying to. There are a lot of schools out there and it is a very expensive process to go through the application process. And so look at the schools around the area. If you want to stick to a regional area or if it’s wide open, look at the schools and look at their mission statements, look at their curriculum, look at just the aspects of the school that matter to you. Figure out what your must-haves are and then look for schools that provide that. There are a lot of students, I believe, that just apply to a lot of schools in hope that they will get in somewhere.

And I understand that you want to become a physician and you just want to get into some school, right? But you want to be happy at that school and you want to have an experience that is comfortable and you feel supported and you feel that the education that you’re being provided resonates with how you learn. And so how you’re being taught will vary depending on what school you go to. Some will have more independent learning, some will have very structured learning, some will have required classes, and some of them it’s going to be a little bit more on your own. Some will have problem-based learning, some will have more team-based facilitated experiences.

Look at those types of things and see what things work for you. Now do realize though, that whatever school you go to, you will have to adapt your learning style to fit and to be successful. Because there is absolutely no way that you can take your undergraduate learning style and your study skills and just use those exactly and be successful in medical school. There’s way too much curriculum, and way too much material, so you are going to have to adapt. But there are certain things that we do know about ourselves, and most schools will or should have some sort of way to have an assessment of your learning style and figure out whether you’re an auditory learner, a kinesthetic learner, hands-on, a visual learner, or whatever it might be.

And so look for those types of resources and know that whatever your personal situation is, make sure that you have the support that you need for that. But again, go back to their philosophy. What are they about as an institution? And does that fit you? So if it’s research institution that you hardly have done hardly any research in your undergrad, and really you’re not very excited about doing research, well, that’s probably not going to be a good fit for you. Honestly, even if you’re a strong student, they’re probably not going to give you an interview because they’re looking at all you bring, and you’re not a good fit for their mission either. So you’re kind of wasting your money on some of that.

But if you want to look at a school that has strong patient care and really strong development of those clinical skills, then you may want to look at an osteopathic school. Osteopathic schools do research as well. So if you like research, they want to really be that clinician that focuses on clinical care and that patient care, then that might be a better philosophy for you.

If you really want to be a researcher long-term and have certain ways of being taught, then again, that might be a better fit for you. But don’t just apply to all the schools in your area just in hopes that you get in, because again, we’re looking for the best match to our mission and how students are fitting, not just how we’re teaching, but what their personal philosophy and what their personal experiences look like and how that fits for what we’re looking for in our future physicians. And you need to do the same. It needs to not just be a match on our end, it needs to be a match on your end as well. You will be the most successful person you can be if you are going to an environment where you’re going to be challenged in a way that works for you and so find those schools that fit for you.

It does take research. You can’t just go into it the night before you fill out your application and figure out which schools there are. It will take some research and then reach out to those schools to ask those specific questions. Most of us are going to have Zoom meetings with prospective students to answer those questions. So you can either ask for a Zoom meeting. If you’re able to get a campus tour, that’s even better or even just a phone call or email to answer your questions.

And then also pay attention to how you’re being treated on those different interactions. If you’re being ghosted, that’s kind of telling. If you’re being treated very professionally and very respectfully and people get back to you right away, that’s probably telling of the culture of that school. And so again, look for the schools that fit for you, fit your personal philosophy and then also fit your profile. So you need to look at your MCAT, your GPA, and all the different kinds of experiences that the schools have for their average incoming student and try to match that as close as you can.

Again, if you’re looking at schools where most of our students are 3.98 students and you’re a 3.5 student, it’s not saying you won’t get an interview. But if nothing else really matches up for them, your chances are probably pretty slim. So again, look for the ways that you can be successful and go to a school that’s going to be the best match for you personally. And there are plenty of them out there, so don’t feel like you’re going to be limited to just one or two. There will be plenty of options for you to choose from.

Additional Tips and Information for Applicants

I would say kind of going along with choosing your school, don’t be afraid to try out a new kind of environment. So if you’re not tied specifically to a certain regional area, spread your wings a little bit, try something new. It doesn’t mean that you have to practice medicine there. Later on, your residency options are going to be all over the country.

See how other people live for a little while. You may eventually decide you want to go back and practice medicine back near your hometown or near your home community and you can do that later on. But in the meantime, learn a little bit and grow a little bit within yourself. And don’t be afraid to go to a community that’s different than yours. If you’ve grown up in a very large city, don’t be afraid to explore those small communities.

I say that because we are a small community, but a lot of students that come to the small communities are very happily surprised by how close-knit the community is and how people really take care of each other in these small communities. People that go to a large city don’t always experience that, but if that’s what you’re comfortable with, you know, go there. The other thing is just, again, kind of going back to knowing yourself as a person, so present your best self when you’re applying to medical school. When you are filling out the application, make sure that you’re thorough in your descriptions and use powerful words, don’t use a lot of filler words.

Get rid of those prepositional phrases. Make sure that the space that you have to represent yourself in the description is basically built with powerful words. So use great adjectives, strong adjectives. Tell us exactly what you did and what kind of patient base that you worked with if it’s in a clinical setting. If you were employed, tell us what kind of responsibilities you had, what kind of leadership roles you had, or if you trained other people. Or if you weren’t in a management position, we all step up, and we all may lead different projects or things like that. So tell us about those kinds of things.

Don’t leave anything off of your application. I hear a lot of times that students will call in. They didn’t get accepted for some reason, or they have a question and want some feedback, and they tell us about some experiences that they didn’t list on their application, and I ask them why. It’s usually nonmedical, and they say, well, they didn’t think that it mattered. But the fact of the matter is, again, we’re looking for multidimensional people. We don’t want to look for people that have just pigeonholed themselves down one path and they’ve not explored anything else. We want people that are interesting and whom we can talk to about multiple topics. And so when you’re presenting yourself, put your work experiences, whether they’re medical or not, any kind of volunteer experiences, medical or not, it doesn’t matter. We want to see it all and then just be very descriptive in that. So that’s probably another area of advice that I would definitely want to include. And check out our school, and check out Kirksville College of Osteopathic Medicine. We have a fantastic curriculum.

One other area that I would say is really creative with our faculty is our ultrasound lab. One of the things that they’ve done is it was a research project that our students and faculty did. And they realized that when students were learning how to do epidurals or any kind of really deep injections, some students were having a hard some students were having a hard time visualizing where to go with that needle. How deep to go, where it was located, etcetera, especially in the spinal column. It’s a pretty delicate area. And so they created basically a structure of the spine with 3D printing, and then they cast it in ballistics gel that was clear. And so then the students were able to use that as their model to do the injections or to do the epidural until they felt confident, and then they would move them over to a regular mannequin.

There’s just a lot of different creativity that our faculty have done here. They recognize what they need, and they figure out a way to make students learn what they need to learn in a safe and very supportive manner. We have a lot of simulations sometimes with the emergency professionals in our community. We go out to our regional state park here, just a few miles off campus, and simulate some disasters and have professionally made up people that look like they’ve been either injured, have a fracture, were stabbed, or maybe mauled by a bear or whatever it might be. Students will have to hike back in the woods and they come across these and figure out how to handle the situation when they don’t have an ambulance nearby.

So lots of ways that our students are being able to put the skills that they’re learning into practice. So those are probably a few things I would leave on.

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