While You Are Waiting: Processing Health Professions Applications

Last Updated on September 8, 2022 by Laura Turner

I often use the “marathon” metaphor when it comes to the timeline from preparing your application to stepping on-campus as a newly enrolled student, but the race is not continuous.  Between the exciting moments of high intensity and anxiety are the days, weeks, and months where nothing happens as you wait for a sign of progress. What is happening with your application during this time? In this article, I detail what admissions professionals are doing with your application while you are waiting.

Let’s say you just submitted your application to the “Interprofessional Health Opportunities Program (IHOP)” to pursue your desired degree and career.  The IHOP admissions team is ready.  Don’t be mistaken: being part of the admissions staff has perks.  We enjoy meeting excited, engaged students who show interest in their futures and how our programs can help with that marathon.  We enjoy envisioning you as a future IHOP student, so many of us will not mind sharing our contact information, web links, or professional social media accounts so that you can know our students and faculty better.  Besides greeting incoming students at orientation, recruitment is one of the more energizing things we do.  Handling and processing your application with the admissions committees and faculty leaders is where we work for you in the background.

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Before Applications Open

Configuring the Applications Portals

Applicants are anxious about the first moments an application can be worked on and submitted through the various portals set up for them.  Anyone who has done any coding or programming knows it takes a lot of time to ensure all the bugs are worked out.  The portal developers for the prominent central application services (CAS) are constantly working on fixes and improvements to enhance the applicant experience and ensure everything is as smooth as possible with delivering the application to the programs.  While they are on high alert during a cycle while applications are active, most of their work is to improve the portal for the next cycle.

Admissions offices also manage portals for their own school-specific applications (IHOPortal), and a similar process is happening concurrently.  Applicants must re-verify their personal information and answer supplemental questions in the IHOPortal. The admissions team with our institution’s information technology department must ensure the data collection is working correctly.  The testing process includes ensuring that the supplemental payment portal is synchronized with the IHOPortal so that the admissions office knows you have paid your fee or have been granted a discount or waiver.

Sometimes our admissions committee asks for changes to IHOProgram. New essay prompts are written and edited as early as the previous fall term.  As soon as those changes are approved (preferably before winter break), we configure those changes.  We usually impose an end-of-February (or so) deadline to make changes to the school-specific area of CAS.

The final configuration of these portals happens months before the start of the application cycle.  Many applicants have to wait for the program portals to open up because our program may have to adhere to our university’s timelines to complete the configuration process.  So we ask that you be patient if you receive your link to IHOPortal a few weeks after you submit your initial application to CAS.

Training New Faculty

The length of the application cycle is the most inconvenient aspect that admissions professionals must cope with.  We must coordinate our admissions process with the routines of faculty governance.  By May of every application cycle (usually before commencement), a new group of faculty members is nominated and approved to sit on the admissions committee, among many other committees that exist in the program (such as student advancement and promotion). Terms usually begin on July 1.  Transitions within the admissions committee may include the assignment of a new chair for the cycle if the program by-laws require it. Orienting new faculty members to the inner workings of the admissions committee is a shared responsibility with the designated faculty admissions deans. The training process begins as soon as possible so that new members can be ready to review applications and interview candidates when the application season starts.  Usually, one-third to one-quarter of the voting faculty roster changes every year.

All faculty members on the admissions committee need access to IHOPortal as reviewers, which involves configuration meetings with the admissions team.  The leadership sets committee meeting schedules for the entire cycle well ahead of time. Still, the unanticipated challenges of grant deadlines, teaching schedules, and clinic responsibilities can conflict with a member’s ability to be timely in their application reviews.  Annual training must also be scheduled before faculty can screen applications; arguably, any admissions staff who reviews applications should be part of the training.  If new terms begin in July, our program is in an excellent position if the faculty begin reviewing completed applications by August, assuming they are not distracted preparing for the new class.

The New Cycle Begins

But the Old Cycle Has Not Ended!

Oh yes, the new class is coming too!  It doesn’t help us that our staff must begin to manage the tsunami of new applications while also checking on the status of those vying to be part of the incoming class and those that decide they will go elsewhere at the very last minute.  Most of the admissions staff are pre-screening applications with our checklist: Have they paid and submitted the program-specific portal application?  Are their test scores in and within the valid period for consideration?  How many prerequisites are pending (summer transcripts or taking over the next year)? Are required letters of recommendation received, or are the “committee letters” from our favorite feeder schools going to be late this cycle?  Unsolicited application updates are inconvenient interruptions like the untimely spam calls on our phones; they better be significant. 

Planning for new student orientation is underway, and scheduling upcoming recruitment events such as campus open-houses and webinars is looming.  We begin to recruit internally for and subsequently train new admissions ambassadors for campus tours and how they are included in any “social media takeovers” that we plan on Instagram, TikTok, or other social media.  In the meantime, we monitor the class Group Chats and pre-orientation pages to anticipate questions for orientation.  And we worry a LOT about those who aren’t engaged with these pages; where was the enthusiasm we saw during their interviews and second-look days?  Are they going to show up to class?  We are always ready to pull the trigger to admit the next student off the waitlist.  

A preliminary profile of the incoming class is created right before orientation: demographic gender/race-ethnicity/disadvantaged/age breakdown, geographic representation, undergraduate or postbac programs represented, and other “cool facts” and hobbies (once we get permission from the incoming student). On the horizon is getting these data and insights verified by our institutional reporting office, developing a slide presentation or video for Orientation, and designing aesthetically engaging graphics for our website and recruitment marketing flyers.   Once the dean and administrators sign off, printing our recruitment materials takes about a month.  Any late addition or drop from the class after our commitment deadline affects our final results.

Organizing Interview Days

The admissions committee sets or approves the schedule of interviews by July in the first or second major meeting of the admissions committee.  Past cycles usually inform the plan with little change: we interview on Fridays and Mondays so applicants, our students, and our faculty interviewers can avoid conflicts with work or classes.  We also like to have the additional weekend day to plan fun “meet the student organization” sessions and perfunctory “meet the dean, admissions committee, and faculty” presentations.   We need to check on room reservations (is the anatomy lab open?), security (can someone open the building for visitors?), catering (vegan/vegetarian/allergies), and parking (is there an IHOP football game and a tailgate that weekend?).  The interviewing faculty and students should be trained on the evaluation rubrics/forms and calibrated; any biasing information about candidates needs to be blinded before the interviewer sees the file unless it is a closed file format.

On-campus interviews require rooms.  Weekends work better to get a lot of classrooms without conflicting with ongoing classes unless there’s the surprise weekend class or a student Saturday study group meeting.  Interviewing during weekdays means we may have to use faculty offices or conference rooms, but clinical faculty who rarely come to campus usually have a shared office space.  We follow schedule templates so that one group interviews while another group does tours or hears a student panel, so we need to train and schedule teams of student ambassadors.  MMI training should also be planned, with designated admissions team members being timers and setting up stations in the simulation lab or – if worse comes to worst – the library, large cafeteria, or lounge space.  The questions used for each MMI round and day should have been approved in advance by the admissions committee or a leadership team focused on interviews.  And we need contingency plans in case someone (candidate, interviewer, student guides, or other team members) doesn’t show up for interviews.

Virtual interviews are no less stressful. Our team must get trained on the online platforms, including creating breakout rooms, setting timers, and troubleshooting unexpected connection problems that faculty, students, or candidates may encounter.  We ensure there is always an IT help team on high alert, and one should hope a weather-related massive network failure that impacts multiple states doesn’t occur.  Online MMI’s should also follow a specific scheduling template, with additional contingency plans for anticipated problems.  Is that Zoom background done yet?

There is also the issue of ensuring all of our interview day experiences comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act (handling candidate requests sent to our institutional ADA office for extra time on MMI stations).  We ensure desired pronouns, names, and pronunciations are visible on alphabetically-organized nametags and folders.  We confirm that our diverse, inclusive community members and champions are available and accessible, or a video that includes them is ready to share by the first interview day.

After every interview day, we collect all the evaluations and prep the results for deliberations.  As this happens, we eat the leftover vegetarian lunches or catering platters from the receptions.

As for deciding who gets an interview invitation, the admissions committee follows its own processes and policies to make that selection, so what happens here is highly program-specific.  They generally take the admissions data curated by the staff professionals and screener evaluations (faculty, staff, or sometimes even external evaluators such as retired faculty or admissions professionals) to make decisions. Often they have a rubric for assigning a holistic priority status to applicants for an invitation to interview, and those with the highest priority scores get invited.  Those with the lowest scores are not always automatically sent a denial letter. At some programs, these relegated files get an additional holistic review to look for any desirable attributes as a potential student that screeners could have overlooked, and their files can be reconsidered.  Relegated applicant “letters of interest” or letters of recommendation don’t always make an impact unless you have previously undisclosed extenuating circumstances that could make a difference.

Offers and Waitlists

We hope you felt terrific about your interview day because we put a lot of effort into making sure we gave you the best possible experience for you to shine.  The IHOP admissions professionals appreciate all the thank-you notes to us, whether you hand-write or email them.  For small health professions programs, follow-up communications to faculty interviewers and leadership are welcome as many of these faculty will advocate for you in file deliberations.

Every committee will deliberate on applicant files as its leadership sees fit.  An admissions vision statement that describes the desired characteristics, attributes, and mission toward health professional service defines the deliberations and rubrics.  Often the committee will affirm that candidates should be eligible for an offer, but the priority of distributing offers may reflect the vision statement and the program’s mission.

If you receive an early offer (before January), cherish it.  You’re going to become a healthcare professional.  But as admissions professionals know, you have not finished OUR marathon.

Navigating the “Traffic Rules” to Fill the Class

While there is a desire to admit everyone we interviewed (or almost everyone), the CAS “traffic rules” and historical lessons learned from previous cycles force us to prioritize how we distribute offers of admission.  In many cases, the guidelines dictate that admissions committees can only make offers for the number of available seats in the class and waitlist other desirable candidates once we’ve extended the appropriate number of offers.  So for a class of 100, we can only extend offers to 100 students and must waitlist (or reject) everyone else; if an accepted applicant declines their seat, we can extend that seat to someone on the waitlist.  Because the time between interviews and matriculation is so long, admissions committees must be very selective with not overextending offers too early.  Sometimes the candidates with the highest metrics or interview scores are waitlisted while others that better fit our profile and vision receive offer letters and maybe scholarships.  We keep an eye on filled seats and committed scholarship dollars through orientation.

Before “traffic rule” guidance informed applicants about timelines to respond to offers, admissions offices would impose very short deadlines (for example, within 24 hours) under the threat that the offer would be rescinded. Other offices could extend an offer with a significant cost-of-attendance scholarship but improperly require a rapid response on the scholarship offer, or the scholarship would be rescinded.  Some older health professionals may remember offers made on interview day with a desired immediate response.  Be prepared to anticipate such situations, especially if you wind up getting an early offer with a scholarship.

Some programs don’t have CAS “traffic rules”, so a candidate for a graduate program should have at least one week to respond to an offer of admission extended early in the application cycle, though the response time decreases as new student orientation approaches.  Within the month before orientation, waitlisted applicants should be ready to accept an offer and pay all commitment deposits within 24 hours.  SDN Experts (LINK) recommend that you should accept offers at this late stage instead of going through a reapplication unless there is something truly problematic about the program extending the offer.

Many enrollment deposits are refundable up to a certain stage. IHOP likes to split a $2500 enrollment deposit into three parts: first, a refundable $500 (offers before March); second, an additional non-refundable $500 before April 1 (or $1000 nonrefundable for all offers after March 1 as the previous $500 paid deposit is now nonrefundable); and a final nonrefundable $1500 before May 1 ($2500 nonrefundable for all offers after April 1). Pay attention to the deadlines and our reminders or we will consider you to have forfeited your seat.  If you are dropping by, email us, and call us to confirm your email was received.  If you are accepting IHOP, email and call the other programs to confirm that you are dropping from their lists.

Half of your first-year tuition needs to be secured with the IHOP Financial Aid team a month before Orientation if you got an offer by June 1. We will work with any late additions from the waitlist. The IHOP office does not consider requests for deferral after May 1.

As governed by the CAS traffic rules, information about extended and accepted offers is not shared with other programs in the CASProgram until about three or so months before orientation to help admissions teams manage to fill the number of seats in the incoming class.  Usually, beginning in March, rosters of candidates with multiple accepted offers will be available with the identities of the schools where offers were made or accepted redacted. This timeline aligns with the deposit deadlines. An admissions staff member checks every few days to know which accepted students to follow up with, including those who they most recently interviewed and extended offers.  Inclusion on this list triggers waitlist management processes, and eventually, more waitlisted candidates are extended offers according to the priority rating received in file deliberation.  Admissions professionals follow up with each person on the list, and we want that decision to be made very quickly as we have a responsibility to fill the class and extend offers to people who wish to join us.  So when we leave you a voicemail asking you to contact us immediately, many people’s lives are waiting for your timely response.  During the waitlist management process, those thank-you notes and “letters of intent” matter: were you only being courteous, or were you sincere? Once we call you, you need to be ready to pay the deposits quickly. 

AMCAS applicants should be aware of the “Choose Your Medical School tool” [https://students-residents.aamc.org/applying-medical-school-amcas/amcas-choose-your-medical-school-tool] guidance from each of the schools that have extended offers to you and participate promptly in disclosing intentions on planning vs. committing to enroll.

We update the Admissions Committee weekly on filling the incoming class after spring break as we gear up for Commencement and the next application cycle. 

Final Thoughts: Worth the Wait

Admissions professionals do the unsung work connecting applicants with the program’s community, and the most hectic time of our work occurs between Commencement and Orientation.  Most of us at IHOP don’t like to keep applicants in the dark about their applications. Still, it is usually in the Admissions Committees’ hands or their policies in how we engage with current applicants.

For those planning your applications, it is never too early to network and talk with us before applying to our programs. Recruitment events are always the best opportunities to clarify confusing information on our websites, find out about strict secondary application deadlines, pipeline programs you can participate in, or new opportunities on community advocacy that are still being discussed but not ready for a public announcement.  We want our work to impact you and feed your passion for joining us as a future health professional.

And for those of you in the current application pool, we know you are waiting.  Good luck, stay calm, and we hope we can give you the good news you are waiting to hear from us.

Note: All situations described are purely hypothetical and represent an amalgamation of different processes across multiple programs and professions.  Any resemblance to a specific program’s admissions process is coincidental.  Dr. Chuck dedicates this article to the admissions professionals he has supervised or collaborated with.

Waiting” image originally created by DALL-E.