IAMSE Fall 2020 WAS Session 1 Highlights

Written by Mark Slivkoff, PhD

Medical School Admissions in the Time of COVID-19: Maintaining the Integrity of Holistic Review

Christina J. Grabowski, PhD, MSA
Associate Dean for Admissions and Enrollment Management
University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Medicine

Leila E. Harrison, PhD, MA, MED
Senior Associate Dean for Admissions and Student Affairs
Washington State University Elson L. Floyd College of Medicine

This presentation by Drs. Grabowski and Harrison was the first of three webinars in IAMSE’s abbreviated Fall webinar series on admissions during the COVID-19 pandemic.

They began by detailing the impact of COVID-19 on medical school applicants whose premedical experiences were altered when the pandemic began back in March 2020. Lectures and labs were transitioned from in-person to remote environments, access to medically-related experiences was restricted, and there were delays and cancellations of the Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT). In addition to its effects on academics, the pandemic also impacted the personal lives of applicants. Many suffered job (and health insurance) losses, decreased health and wellness, and forced moves and relocation due to university closures.

Schools had to consider these impacts when preparing for upcoming interviews. Similar to courses, interviews were also transitioned to virtual processes since students could not travel, and the health and safety of everyone involved took priority. Interview day events had to be restructured using new tools and technology, and virtual tours and videos had to be produced in order to showcase campuses. These changes required additional training of interviewers and everyone involved with the admissions process.

Every student has been impacted by the pandemic, but students from disadvantaged and marginalized populations have been subjected to additional challenges, as Dr. Grabowski explained. Many students do not have access to technology and fast internet connections, nor do they have access to a private space in their homes to study or interview. She also addressed concerns that the virtual environment has led to a loss of accommodations for disabilities. Masks, for example, make it impossible for the hearing impaired to read lips.

Mitigating these unintended consequences on applicants and school employees has involved changes to the application and screening processes, and committee and interview training. As Dr. Harrison explained, secondary applications now include a separate essay which addresses impacts of the pandemic which allows applicants to share their experiences, and further allows reviewers to gain further insight into applicants. She also delved a bit deeper into the training of interviewers and focused on the importance of not biasing applicants based on where they are interviewing (in their cars, for example) or what they are wearing during the interviews. Better communication with applicants and pre-health advisors has also been implemented with the goal of alleviating anxieties and remaining as transparent as possible during the admissions cycle.

Dr. Grawbowski continued the discussion by pointing out the importance of doing a more holistic review of applicants, of a more individualized consideration of experiences, attributes, and metrics in the context of the applicant’s lived experience. She emphasized the benefits of focussing more on competencies rather than on the time and duration of experiences.

She closed the session by pointing out the positive side, the opportunities which have been highlighted during the pandemic including:

  • Applicants may reveal attributes such as resilience and adaptability
  • Reduced expenses/burden for travel
  • Cost savings for schools (travel, events)
  • Heightened awareness of bias, impact on disadvantaged or marginalized populations
  • Use of new technologies
  • Engage stakeholders from remote campuses/locations in the process
  • Creative thinking on how we do what we do