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Does It Make the Boat Go Faster? Tips on Winning the Admissions Race

One of the guest speakers at the 2019 Liaison User Conference in Boston was Tony Wynne, who at the time served as director of the Veterinary Medical College Application Service (VMCAS™) and director of admissions and recruitment affairs at the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges (AAVMC). One of his sessions — called “Does It Make the Boat Go Faster?” — was inspired by the motto of the British rowing team that won Olympic gold in 2000 for the first time in decades. It referred to the team members’ decision to focus exclusively on initiatives that would help achieve their ultimate goal.

Wynne, in turn, applied that concept to his admissions processing and applicant development at AAVMC.

According to Wynne, the landscape of admissions is shifting from traditional to holistic, yet in some cases, these changes can create new obstacles for admissions offices — i.e., they can make the boat go slower, so to speak.

While Wynne believes holistic reviews can help students “present who they are as people” and allow schools “to look deeper into their soft skills,” he challenged attendees to consider whether they are doing the best possible job of instructing students on how to present information about themselves — and whether reviewers are truly grasping that information in a way that allows them to make the best possible admissions decisions.

Wynne, who is now executive director of the National Association of Advisors for the Health Professions, Inc., recently spoke with Liaison about his views on identifying and implementing more fair and equitable admissions strategies.

Liaison: What made you question why new and seemingly better admissions strategies sometimes have the potential to produce unforeseen and potentially counterproductive results?

Tony Wynne (TW): At the time I came up with the idea for that talk, I had been wondering quite a bit about why our program was not getting some of the people we wanted in terms of diversity and gender. It occurred to me that perhaps our application was actually presenting obstacles rather than creating opportunities. I thought, “Are we providing a service that creates an optimal opportunity for anybody who wants to take part? Are we equitable across the board for those who may not have the same opportunities as others?”

Liaison: How should holistic-minded admissions professionals ask students to present information about themselves, and how should reviewers try to understand it?

TW: Clearly, we don’t know enough about implementing holistic or competency-based admissions yet for us to be able to tell anybody what’s working and what’s not. This is all so fresh.

So my concerns are if we are going to implement holistic or competency-based admissions, are we looking at it from all angles? Not just from the admissions committee point of view or from the institutional point of view, but from the perspective of the individuals who are applying, who we say we are supposed to be helping. I suspect that many programs are going to approach it solely from the institution’s perspective. In other words, they’ll be asking, “How do we manage the holistic process?” instead of, “Is this process really helping those who are applying?” So that’s where I see this entire process potentially making the boat slow down.

In veterinary medicine, for example, some schools still have a GPA cutoff. So if you don’t have the right GPA, you’re never going to be seen by the committee. But there are plenty of really good folks who don’t do well academically for one reason or another who would make excellent practitioners. How do we use holistic or competency-based admissions to figure out who those people are?

Another good example of it is the GRE syndrome, as I call it. If you can afford to take the GRE, and you can afford to take it multiple times, you basically have an advantage over those who can’t afford it or who can only afford to take it once. So, in my opinion, those schools that are getting rid of the GRE are making the boat go faster. I am really passionate when I feel that the processes that are in place are impeding progress rather than making it possible.

Liaison: What changes should programs make to their admissions processes in order “to make the boat go faster?”

TW: I don’t have a universal answer for every program out there, but generally speaking, I think we need to do a better job of explaining our expectations. That involves not just asking for certain types of information, but also letting applicants know why we want it and how programs will use that information in their decision-making process. I also think providing exceptional customer service is important for this generation’s applicants. Be available. Answer their questions. Don’t beat around the bush. Be clear about what you’re looking for and why.

For example, what if a veterinary medicine program only tells applicants they need 500 hours of shadowing experience with a veterinarian? Two students could spend the same amount of time with the same veterinarian and have very different learning outcomes. If the application isn’t very clear about why a school is requesting information and how it’s going to be evaluated, then applicants are left in the dark trying to understand how to make themselves stand out.

Another way we made changes in the application service at AAVMC was to provide better instructions regarding letters of recommendation. We made sure to be very specific about what we were looking for and provided guidelines on how to ask somebody to write one.

Liaison: What other trends have you noticed regarding the ability of programs to implement better admissions processes?

TW: It seems to me that applicants’ anxiety about their academic records has increased in recent years. In many cases, they’re losing sight of who they are as people, and they’re starting to see themselves only as their academic record. They say, “How can I be denied? I have a great GPA.” That’s only one factor, but they think it’s the most important thing.

So how should admissions professionals ask applicants to present soft-skill data about themselves as people? That’s a burning question. And I don’t have a definitive answer.

However, I do think it’s very important to make admissions professionals and recruiters understand that change is okay. We hear over and over again that, “Yeah, this is all wonderful, but we’re not going to change anything because this is the way we’ve always done it.” That just kills me because every few years, with generational changes, you’re going to have a new breed of individuals coming in with new expectations. If you’re not changing your process to address the significance of that, then you’re going to have fewer applicants.

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