Selecting Students for Admission

December 27, 2016

CVM's Unique Process Goes Beyond Academics

By Greg Breining

Elise Sanchez had graduated from California State University, Long Beach, with a degree in business and finance and the intention of going to law school. But a stint in the district attorney’s office and at the local courthouse convinced her law wasn’t for her. “I really hated it,” she says.

She had spent much of her time caring for dogs at a local animal shelter, and she realized she wanted to become a veterinarian, not a lawyer. So after graduation, she began working on prerequisites to enter veterinary school. “I had to create my own curriculum by driving around to all the community colleges taking classes,” she says. “It was expensive that way. I wouldn’t recommend it.” But she was invited to interview at four schools, including the University of Minnesota College of Veterinary Medicine. She prepared by combing through her life for stories that would illustrate communication skills, leadership abilities, and professional interests. “I kind of already knew what they were looking for,” she says.

On the St. Paul campus, she sat in the office with two interviewers—one a veterinarian in the field, the other, an administrator from the college. For nearly an hour, they asked her to draw from her past experiences to demonstrate how she had resolved a disagreement, or demonstrated initiative to meet an important goal.

“They provide questions that are somewhat open-ended and that require the student to come up with a story or some kind of an example that exemplifies what they’re asking,” Sanchez says. The process of drawing on examples from her own experience was unlike most of her other interviews. “I do think it made it more conversational than robotic, as some of the other interviews,” she says. “I did feel really good about the interview, just based on their demeanor, their posture. I felt like it was a good vibe. They were very nice and very positive people.”

A week later, Sanchez got the phone call that she was accepted. She’s now starting her third year at Minnesota. She was one of the lucky ones—one of 104 students accepted each year from 900 applicants. The process Minnesota uses to winnow applications evaluates academics, professional experience, and—very importantly—the “behavioral interview” that requires applicants such as Sanchez to draw upon real-life experiences to reflect on character and decisions.

“What we’re hoping to do is recruit and admit students who are going to succeed in the profession—the breadth of the profession, not just academics,” says Laura Molgaard, associate dean of academic and student affairs. “We are looking for people who have those attributes that are going to help them really advance the profession.” The behavioral interview, which Molgaard has written about for an academic journal, is one of the most distinctive aspects of Minnesota’s selection process. “Other veterinary schools have expressed much interest over the years in our admissions process and the behavioral interview,” Molgaard says. “To my knowledge, there is no other school that does things exactly the way we do.”

What we’re hoping to do is recruit and admit students who are going to succeed in the profession—the breadth of the profession, not just academics. —Dr. Laura Molgaard, associate dean of academic and student affairs

The challenge begins with the numbers. Minnesota has a popular and renowned veterinary college with a broad range of fields, including production animals, exotic animals such as wildlife, and public health. It attracts far more applicants than the school can accommodate.

“It’s a big logistical process to work through,” says Karen Nelson, director of admissions for the doctor of veterinary medicine program. “We have applicants from all across the country and international applicants as well.” “We’d love to admit everybody, but we have standards to uphold,” says Dr. Michelle Ritt, associate professor and former chair of the Admissions Committee.

“We want to select people who are going to have a good chance at being successful. It’s a very rigorous program. It’s four years where people pretty much have to put their regular life on hold and commit themselves 100 percent to the program—not only the commitment to vet school, but the commitment to the career beyond that. We continually reevaluate the process so we can continue to create a very strong group of people to take up the torch for the profession here. It’s a great responsibility that we all take very seriously.” The selection process consists of three steps.

The first is an academic hurdle based on grade point average and Graduate Record Examination scores. Last year, about 500 candidates met the academic requirements and moved on to a more in-depth review. The second step is a review of applications by the Admissions Committee for everything that isn’t academics— employment, extracurricular activities, community involvement, volunteer work, experience with animals. “We’re looking for leadership experience, community involvement, and public service,” Molgaard explains.

Third is the behavioral interview, which sets Minnesota apart from most other veterinary schools. Two trained interviewers ask the applicant a series of questions that require concrete examples of the student’s past experience. “The interviews dig deep and allow us to gain a better understanding of who the applicants really are and how they solve problems,” says Nelson.

“We’re not looking for a broad answer of what candidates think we want to hear or what they think they might do,” says Molgaard. “Rather, we ask them to tell us about a specific example from their past and then ask what we call the follow-up probes to really get at the situation, their behavior, and the outcome. ‘So, tell us what did you do next? What did you say? How did they respond?’ We’re really probing to get them to tell the full story of that event and how they handled that event.”

Veterinary students with Dr. Laura Molgaard.Veterinary students Sarii "Sally" Yamashita, Lara Stephens-Brown, and Elise Sanchez meet with Dr. Laura Molgaard, associate dean of academic and student affairs.

Once upon a time—before 1975—the College of Veterinary Medicine used unstructured interviews, but abandoned them as unreliable, subjective, and a waste of time. In the early 2000s, the college led a consortium of other veterinary schools who worked with a human resources consulting firm “to identify the characteristics of successful veterinarians.

The behavioral event interview was built by the consultants in response to that, to select people who have the behavioral competencies to succeed,” says Molgaard. Every year, the college trains interviewers drawn from the profession inside and outside the university to conduct the interviews and score the responses consistently and impartially using a set of written criteria. “We train the interviewers to use the standardized scoring guidelines to evaluate the applicants’ responses,” says Molgaard. “We don’t want the interviewer’s feelings or biases to influence the score, but rather, reflect how the candidate handled that situation and how it lined up with the guidelines for a really strong answer or a really weak answer.”

The interview process was put to work in 2004. It has continued since with little modification. As Molgaard wrote in a 2008 article, “The admissions committee determined that the structured interview should be weighted heavily, in order to justify the faculty time required to conduct and score it. The committee believed that the interview would be seen as ineffective if applicants with very high academic scores were admitted despite low interview scores.”

Dr. Kelly Tart, associate professor and a former Admissions Committee chair, explains, “You may review someone’s application and think, wow, this looks great—as they have had all this experience and fantastic grades. But then you meet them and they seem not real confident in themselves, not willing to stick up for their values, or unable to problem-solve. These are all important qualities for being successful as a veterinarian. On the other hand, we find students whose grades may not be stellar, but they get in front of you during the interview and you see them reveal confidence and a sense of accomplishment in so many other areas—which gives us greater insight.”

“Not being Dr. Dolittles, we can’t talk to animals directly. We do have humans to go through all the time,” adds Ritt. “So communication with other people is an extremely important skill or foundation to have. We look for communication styles. We look for sound judgment, going on facts, and problem-solving ability.” Sarii “Sally” Yamashita, a fourth year student in the College of Veterinary Medicine, interviewed at both Minnesota and another vet school.

The other school’s interview consisted of “multiple mini interviews”—an application process of “speed dating” with short sessions with several interviewers that several schools use. “I didn’t like the process,” she says. “When I answered the scenario that they gave me, I didn’t really get any feedback. I wasn’t sure if I was answering it right. They don’t even give you a facial expression or anything. So it was hard for me to get ahold of what they wanted. I couldn’t even express myself because I was trying to answer the question.” She found the Minnesota interview more satisfying, a more relaxing way to express her own story.

“It didn’t feel like an interview,” she says. “It felt like I was just having a conversation with a friend or a colleague. I really liked it. The questions were like what you face in daily life. I wouldn’t say it was easy, but it was easier to answer the questions because it’s based on me.” From the performance perspective, says Molgaard, the behavioral interview adds value beyond just considering grades or extracurricular activities in predicting success. “We have done extensive research to look at the outcomes of this process—looking at what predicts student performance throughout school, and what predicts performance on the North American Veterinary Licensing Exam,” she says.

“In the clinical year, we assess their ability to communicate verbally and through writing, we look at their ability to make clinical decisions, and we look for some other kinds of professional behaviors. The interview score adds a small but statistically significant value in predicting some of these more professional behaviors. That reinforced our commitment to using this process.” But that’s not the only reason to invest in the interviewing process. “It’s just a tremendous recruiting tool,” says Molgaard. “Applicants come to campus and they have this one-hour experience with trained interviewers. They have a chance to tell their story and we have a chance to hear that story. We also welcome both applicants and their friends and family for all kinds of other recruitment opportunities while they’re with us.

They have tours and panel discussions with students and faculty, and all kinds of other great things, but together, that process is a strong recruiting tool.” On that, the students concur. “The first time I set foot on the Minnesota campus, it was like there’s a huge sense of community here that I did not get in other places,” says Lara Stephens-Brown, now a third-year student in the college. “I think everything from the admissions down to the individual students and classes—they really are focused on trying to make us succeed and be there if we need support. Since I had four schools to pick from, it was a really hard choice. But I picked Minnesota for the community and opportunities that I know I’d get here. In the end, it was the best choice.”


This article originally appeared in the Fall 2016/Winter 2017 issue of Profiles magazine, the College of Veterinary Medicine's bi-annual publication for alumni, donors, and other friends of the college.