Behind the Scenes with Deans

Admissions Tips for the Uniformed Services University Herbert School of Medicine

Get an insider’s perspective on the admissions process as Robert Liotta, MD, CAPT, MC, USN talks about the admissions process at the Uniformed Services University F. Edward Herbert School of Medicine. Below is a transcript of the conversation.

An Introduction to Dr. Robert Liotta

My name is Dr. Robert Liotta and I am the associate Dean for admissions and recruitment at the Uniform Services University of the Health Sciences here in Bethesda, Maryland. And just to start, I just want to let everyone know that the views that I express today are my own views and not necessarily the views of the Department of Defense or the Uniform Services University in that regard with it. Well, I’m really excited to get to talk to you today because as the Associate Dean for Admissions here at our medical school or the F. Edward Aber School of Medicine, I have been in this position for the last five years, and it’s been just a great, great joy and honor to get to have this position.

Prior to this, I was serving as a cardiothoracic radiologist and actually very involved with graduate medical education at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, which is on our campus here for medical school. And really how I got involved with this really early on in my career as a resident in radiology and as a diagnostic radiologist. I really enjoyed giving lectures and teaching, teaching other residents, teaching other physicians, and really loved giving lectures as well, preparing those lectures and giving them, because even in preparing a lecture, you learn a ton and you’re going through the literature or showing interesting cases. And so I really just loved that. And so when I left, I went out and did a tour for two years as a general diagnostic radiologist, but I also had the opportunity to apply for a fellowship in the military.

And I remember distinctly the retailer who was actually my prior program director said, Rob, you got selected for the fellowship, and what do you want to do afterward? And I said, oh, you know what I want to do? I want to come back to Walter Reid, and I want to teach, and I want to be a part of that residency program. And that sort of is how it really happened. And I did my fellowship at the University of Michigan in cardiothoracic imaging and then came back to Walter Reed here.

And it’s just been I actually came back and got involved with our residency program, but over time started getting more opportunities to be the program director for the Navy interns that were arriving at Wall Street every year. And then I sort of went up to be the assistant Chief of graduate medical education and all the way up to the Director for Education, training, and Research at the hospital.

And this really happens in the military. Sometimes an email pops up, and there’s this job to be the Dean of Admissions at the Uniform Services University, which is my alma mater. I graduated from here in 2001. And I looked at that job, and I remember looking at the email, and I called home to my wife and I said, you won’t believe they just posted this job to be the Dean of Admissions. And I’m like that would be an amazing job if I could get it.

And it was really a dream job, but I put in my package and I applied for it and it was a nationwide search. They were going to pick a Navy, Army, or Air Force individual to take this job. And I was able to get through all the interviews and the whole selection process and got selected for this job. And really now as I’m on the verge of getting ready to retire, this has just been a wonderful last five years to end a great career that I’ve had here in the Navy and here as a radiologist and as an educator here at the Informed Services University.

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What Makes A Pre-Med Applicant Stand Out? 

Really good question. What makes a premed applicant stand out to me? And I would say there are three big things that we really like to look at. And I think the first one is that someone that shows passion or that they show they love what they’re doing, the stories all look different, but that passion is interwoven into every story that they’re doing what they like to do and that they really have a true motivation or whatever that is or whatever they’ve been doing. We like to see that involved with medicine somewhere.

So I think for a premed applicant having experienced either in allied health professions or scribing or doing clinical work, I think that we want to see that. We want to see why you like medicine. And so that is the first and foremost and I think it’s the most important thing that you convey. And you convey that in your personal statement. That’s what we’re looking for with that.

I think the second thing that I really like to see and that we really like to see at our university is someone who is service oriented and a good team player. And this is where it could be anything but the way that their recommendations are written, the way they talk about their activities, someone who’s a team player and always giving back or really and they’re passionate about something and they’re doing it to help or to make things better or to help the organization they’re a part of. We really like to see that and we know that transcends well into being a good officer in the military who not only works hard but also worries about the big institution or the big company. In fact, one of the mottos that I still remember when I first came to the Navy was that the idea was the ship, shipmate self. And so really that the mission is most important than taking care of your shipmates or your colleagues.

And then the third is yourself when you look at that. And I think that model or that ethos permeates our system and it makes it unique because people are here giving their part of something greater than themselves with that. And I think the third thing that really stands out with an applicant is leadership potential. And I think we especially like that because as a physician. You are going to be a leader and an officer in the military.

You’re going to be a leader and you’re going to be looked up to one to train those below you. To take care of those below you. And also at the same time take care of the medical system and lead that as well. And so those things that are woven in and it’s not that we’re looking for someone that’s the president of their group or the treasurer or named positions. I think what we really latch onto is how they describe what they’ve been doing.

And that could be because I’ve worked every summer as a waiter or a waitress. But when you describe that and say they trust me to train the new employees, they trust me to open up the restaurant, they trust me to clean up the restaurant or close it up, that’s leadership potential. And that isn’t a named position, but it’s just about who you are and your potential for being trusted with responsibility. And I think if you think about that in the way you’re weaving your application or talking about the things in your application, that will be powerful, that’s powerful to me when I read through an application, and I know our committee feels that way as well.

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

Regarding the admissions process and changes in the look of applicants and that process, I would say the one surprising thing is that the applicants don’t look a lot different. Despite being in COVID and the changes in things, I was actually very surprised that applicants are still able to get preclinical experiences. And I would argue we were really thinking we would see now there has been a decrease in that and a decrease in that, but I would argue that the applicants and the highest range applicants still look the same to me. They don’t look any different. They’ve had experiences that have been affected by COVID, but they still have either worked through those or found other ways to get preclinical experiences.

And so I think that actually was surprising to me because I thought, and even our committee thought, gosh, all of these experiences were going to decrease. But what we have seen is an increase in allied health professionals, and certified nursing assistants, working at hospice care centers with patients. The other things that were needed throughout the pandemic we’ve seen. We’ve also seen an increase in virtual shadowing and describing in the telehealth medicine environment. And these are all good experiences.

I mean, in fact, medicine has changed in the sense that there’s been a vast increase in telehealth medicine that is occurring now after the COVID pandemic hit us. And that’s new and we’re seeing students and applicants doing that. And so I would argue that those are all new things that I’m seeing on the applications that are more noteworthy or people being able to talk about the preclinical experience, in my opinion, is just as good if you’re taking care of a neighbor or a loved one. And so we’ve seen a lot of those stories and a lot of those activities throughout the pandemic as well. But overall I think still people were able to get, they were still getting activities in a free healthy environment.

I think the other change in applicants and I think this is probably to stay and we were actually on the verge of making this change before even the pandemic. I think applicants, we do look at online courses now and I don’t think there’s a derogatory feel for them in the sense that online versus face-to-face classes, I think the committee is very used to seeing online courses. And so I think that we had actually had an administrative subcommittee that looked at the power of online courses versus and that was actually done before the pandemic and we all voted we were going to accept online courses because of the state of things, I think. So we’re seeing more of that and I don’t think it’s a discriminator. I don’t think we use it as much of a discriminator meaning oh, they took online organic or they took face to face where I think a few years ago we may have used that as a discriminator or looked at what’s the power of that with that.

I think the other thing is too, during the pandemic accepted pass-fail courses without any derogatory feelings that we understood what people were going through and what was happening. And I think our committee continues, we continue to look at it that way because even though we are getting through this pandemic, it’s still here and it’s going to be with us indefinitely. Really. To be honest with that, I think the other changes in the admissions process were clearly and I think I bet all deans talk about this going to virtual interviews I would say that in my opinion, virtual interviews are going to stay here for the long haul. I think we have seen in the last few years that we have done this, that it has not degraded our class and that we still get to know applicants very well through the virtual interview process.

And I think when looking at the equity of doing it and the fact that we can get our needs in learning applicants through virtual interviews, that I think it’s going to stay. And actually, we’re very happy with our virtual interview cycle. I think the negative really, in my opinion, for virtual interviews are the only negative is that students don’t get to come to our campus and see it. It’s a negative for us as a loss of recruiting. And so really how we dealt with that is we offer post-interview day visits if they want to come, but it’s separate.

We actually make it very well known coming on that post-interview day visit has no bearing on your application. The committee doesn’t even know if you’ll come or not. And we really wanted to make it that way so that people don’t feel like they have to, but if they want to learn more about the school, they can come. And I think that was the one reason why we didn’t even go to Hybrid this year, which we could have easily done, but I didn’t want to put an implicit or an explicit bias with any interviewer saying why are you face to face and why are you virtual and having both positive and negative bias in that process. No, there’s no choice.

They’re all virtual. And that’s why I think for the foreseeable future we won’t change that. And I felt like we still get a great, great glimpse of applicants and make really good people who can have good and bad interviews both virtually and face to face. And so I think we do get a good look at our applicants with this new process.

What Makes the Herbert School of Medicine Special?

Right, so our medical school is clearly unique. Obviously, we are the nation’s only military medical school in that regard, and our main mission is to care for those who go in harm’s way. That being said, and no other medical school will have this, is that every graduate from our medical school goes to the same practice. And so think about that. I mean, I actually didn’t even really think about those ramifications, but in our school, 60% to 70% of every class stays in the military and does a 20-year career.

And that’s a staggering statistic. We graduate between 171 and 173 graduates every year. 60% to 70% of those individuals will do a 20-year career in the military upon graduation from medical school. It’s a staggering statistic, but it also talks about no. When you’re going to have friends in medical school and you’re going to run into them, you may take care of them, you may take care of their family members or they’re going to take care of you, or they’re going to be the consultant on the other line.

When you’re in an austere environment or you need help, they’re going to be a good friend or a good buddy from medical school that is going to be on the other line for you. And I don’t think any other medical school in the country can say that about their graduates that they work so closely in such a confined in the same healthcare system for such a long period of time as well. So I think that has been really unique. And if you end up coming to our school and doing a 20-year career. You will know it will be a great benefit to have all of those classmates and friends through the years because as you go up through the ranks.

You’ll have more and more responsibility and it’s always nice when you get a phone call from the Surgeon General’s office of the army or the Navy or the Air Force and they’re requiring information or the Surgeon General wants something and that person on the other line is actually your old classmate. And they’re like, oh, so and so is asking for this. And you look at the name and you’re like, wait, I know Anthony, or I know Mike, or I know Jill. And it’s so nice to be able to then work and pick up the phone and call and say, hey, what do you guys really need? How do we do this?

Oh, I’m more than happy to give you this information or get this stuff to you guys as quickly and it’s really nice to have and then catch up on the phone as well. You may not have even seen each other for the last ten years, but there’s a bond there that’s pretty special and unique to our school. With that, I think the last thing is purely our curriculum. It’s going to be like any other allopathic medical school in the nation. However, we’re different in the fact that you’re going to get more, you are going to get pushed on leadership skills and learning how to operate in austere environments.

Every graduate from our school does Operation Bushmaster. Which is a week-long exercise where you’re put into mass casualty scenarios. Where you get put in all kinds of different scenarios. That you are the doctor in charge of a medical unit or attached to either an infantry battalion or to an air wing and you are their doctor or you’re with medical assets that are assigned to one of those units. You simulate but really live it.

And we actually go out to the field and it’s a whole exercise where you will get so good at dealing with anything that can happen. Where you’re dealing with routine bread-and-butter care. With regular sick calls. To mass casualties. To incidents where there may be foreign nationals that are coming and you have to deal with civilians that are caught in the crossfire of a battle or a conflict.

You’re going to get all of these activities and also even deal with the mental health side of things and the things that can happen in a conflict or in a mission that you’re working with. And so, to be honest, that training is wonderful. And no other medical school in the country offers training like that to the level that we do. And it’s totally military specific where you’ll go out there and I can tell you when I first had my first mass casualty in a combat zone in Iraq, I remember being very scared, running up when the sirens are going off and hearing that a mass casualty was going on. And as soon as I walked into that tent hospital, all of those nerves went away because I felt like I had been there before because I had really done 50 to 60 mass casualties in my Bushmaster experience here.

And that was imprinted on me. It never left me. And I remember that first night we worked from 07:00 p.m. At night till six in the morning the next day. And I never remember being afraid that whole time.

And it was similar exactly what was simulated in my Bushmaster experience. And I was like, I couldn’t believe it. I was like, I need IVs or different things. And there was just an orchestra. It was an ordered chaos of orchestra where we actually dealt with 35 casualties and we’re able to save 33 of those 35, that’s significant casualties that came in after a bad, bad explosion.

So it was special. And those are just a few other things that are unique to us.

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

My biggest piece of advice would be to follow your passion and do what you love to do. And that passion and that story and those activities you’re doing will speak for themselves. And that passion will come through in your interviews and your letters of recommendation and what you write. And I think that in the end will be your true, authentic self and that you’re doing things not because you think you have to do them, but, oh no, I’m interested in this, this is what I want to do. And I think that will serve you well not only getting into medical school but also when I’m counseling and talking to our medical students, hey, what do I need to do?

Because there are so many pressures on you to do. You need to do this, you need to do this, you need to do this. And you can do all of those things, but do them in your own way and the things that interest you and the things that you enjoy doing. Because in the end, if you’re doing that from the very beginning, your career will naturally progress and you will end up doing the things that you love along that process with it. And I will tell you about that journey.

And you may think, oh, well, this isn’t a typical journey. No, that journey will be unique and precious to your life and the committee will like it. I mean, I will be honest, it makes sense because I often get, oh, what do I major? And I’m like Majoring. What interests you?

We have doctors in every major and you don’t necessarily need to be a biology major or science major. In fact, one of the neurosurgeons in my class is an English major. It’s like you do study the things that interest you and you know what will transcend. Because once you’re a doctor, life learning doesn’t end, it’s lifelong learning. And you’ll want to keep those things up.

And if there’s a genuine passion for what you’re doing, it will be easy not to get burned out. It will be easy to really look back and reflect on your career and say, man, I’ve been so blessed and that I’ve been so lucky to do this, and I love what I’m doing. Now, that doesn’t mean you love everything you’re always doing, but the overall general gestalt of that is, yes, sometimes you work hard. And I would even argue every specialty. There are parts of it that you just don’t love.

But on the whole, the bigger part, the bigger parts of that, maybe you will love all of it, but all of us will say, oh, this is difficult, or this is difficult, but the positives far outweigh the negatives in whatever specialty or a line of work that you’re doing with that.

Additional Tips and Information for Applicants

So here at the Uniform Services University, I think the key is to recognize that we’re in Bethesda, Maryland, but we’re only 10 miles outside of the District, and where we’re located in the healing waters of Bethesda, right across the street, is the National Institutes of Health. Surrounding us are major research institutions. Walter Reed Rare, which is the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research. We have the Naval Medical Research Labs, and we also have other military labs all around the area in addition to civilian research that’s just going on in the community as well. And so I think we have a lot of opportunities being in the DC and the Greater Maryland or the Greater Virginia and Maryland area with that, with a lot of opportunities for research.

And I’ll be honest with you, just living in Bethesda, if you haven’t been here, really just a beautiful city and very safe and very clean on that location. In fact, just to give you a little glimpse of that, usually, if you come here to use this, you’ll have like afternoons off, probably about three days a week, where you won’t have anything scheduled or mandatory. In the afternoons, you’ll be studying and you’ll be working hard, but you’ll have time to go study how you want to study. And I will tell you, there’s a ten-mile bike path. It’s the Crescent Trail.

And I would actually jump on my bike after school got out that afternoon and jump on my bike and ride down to the Library of Congress or ride down to the mall and be studying at the Lincoln Memorial, studying my medicine there, pitching myself, going, I can’t believe I’m right here doing this. And so that is very special and very nice. And not only do I get to enjoy that, but I also got good workouts in. It takes about an hour to get down there. An hour back, I just bike to 20 miles, feeling great stress relief and just being able to do that and really just being in the nation’s capital.

So I think that was pretty neat. Or even to watch things on the news and know, oh, my goodness, that’s happening here, or what’s happening at our hospital. And so I think those are things that are very unique to us. I think the last thing about our school is that because of the nature of who we are, you will have lots of opportunities for adventure. And I will tell you that will start from day one of arriving here.

And a little glimpse of that is we have human context in medicine as first-year medical students, I got paired up with a family who had triplets and that they also had cerebral palsy, but they were a military family. And in fact, I got to spend really the whole semester with that family, visiting with them, and meeting with them. And I remember, you know, one night, the father of that family called me, and he says he’s like, rob, hey, what are you doing on Saturday? And I said I don’t know, probably studying. And he’s like, well, do you want to go flying with me?

And I was like I was like, are you sure? And he’s like, yeah, get a buddy. And he actually was a VIP helicopter pilot, flew Congress and our government officials around. He’s like, I got special permission to do a low-level over, really, on the Potomac all throughout DC. And so we were flying over the Lincoln Memorial, the Jefferson Memorial, the White House had this perfect day, and we’re flying in the skiing, the, uh, one helicopter and the doors are wide open, and we’re flying low level, waving the boats on the river and things.

And that was my first time ever in a helicopter. And it was just one of those experiences that I’m, like, only the military would have to do with that. And that’s just one of the hundreds of amazing experiences and adventures that I’ve had. I think military medicine is just like civilian medicine, but then I also say then there’s a little bit of bonus sometimes when they give you some opportunities and adventures that aren’t the whole time that you’re in it. Most of the time your war zone or your battleground is the clinic or the hospital or the operating room.

But occasionally you get these opportunities then to go do things that you never thought, or do things that your country trusts you to do and to meet certain people and do take care of certain people. That really it’s so rewarding, I will tell you that for sure. Because you work so hard to get where you are, and then people need you. And when they need you, and when they’re at their worst, they will love you, and they will love having you a part of their unit, taking care of them with that.

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