Dell Medical School accepts first round of students using unprecedented application process

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Photo Credit: Virginia Scherer | Daily Texan Staff

Joel Daboub arrived at his new job this spring facing a unique challenge — finding the ideal group of students for a school that had no building, academic records or classes in sight.

About half a year later, the Dell Medical School has started sending out its tentative offers of acceptance, trying to finalize its inaugural class of 50 students who will likely shape the school moving forward. These students, offered admission beginning early last week, were selected as the result of a rigorous application process unlike any other one in the state.

Lacking data from past years, Daboub, the first director of admissions at Dell, sought to create a new application process that would reveal the right set of students for the highly anticipated first class.

“We’re kind of an incubator of ideas in relation to the admissions process,” Daboub said of his office. “Many of the talented people here at Dell Medical School are attracted because we’re starting something from scratch. That really is an opportunity to be creative, an opportunity to try and to fail and try again.”

Rather than submit one or two essays specific to the school — the norm – applicants submitted four. Instead of the customary two on-campus interviews, Dell hopefuls completed a series of eight activities; six of those were in non-traditional formats geared toward problem solving. And scores on the MCAT — the SAT for pre-meds — weighed less heavily than elsewhere.

Even the way students have found out they were accepted — a phone call from the medical school’s dean, Clay Johnston — was unconventional.

“Not a single student expected my call, and one was in the midst of interviewing at another med school,” Johnston said in a statement released Monday. “There were a few gasps, some happy tears — not just my own — and a couple of muted screams. Frankly, it made some people’s days, especially my own.”

Clay Johnston is the inaugural dean of Dell Medical School. The highly anticipated first class of medical students to be admitted to Dell is being selected based on a unique process that differs from that of other medical schools. Shelby Tauber | Daily Texan file photo

Administrators at Dell, trying to find students in line with the school’s mission to reform health care, said they purposefully designed the application process to reflect those values and also work around their lack of former or current students.

Unlike existing medical schools, Dell has not been able to draw on extensive catalogs of numbers about median scores on the MCAT and GPAs of past applicants. For Daboub, who has been in admissions for 26 years, this was new.

“You’re always looking at your data from previous years,” Daboub said of admissions at established schools. “We have no history, so we don’t know.”

This new approach to admissions relies less on raw data and test scores and more on a holistic review of students as individuals.

“We will be [emphasizing MCAT scores less],” Johnston said. “When you look at our average MCAT scores, they will probably be lower than some other institutions in Texas. That’s because we don’t think the MCAT’s that important. We’d rather get the people who are more well rounded and have proven themselves in other ways.”

The school has emphasized leadership qualities, a desire to innovate, good people skills and the ability to work in teams. Daboub said he hopes this will enable students to succeed in the school’s curriculum, an accelerated version of what medical school students usually expect.

To help find students who meet this profile, Dell made MMIs — Multiple Mini Interviews — a large part of the interview day. Students are handed a written medical scenario, and after a few minutes behind closed doors, they’re asked to tell how a Dell faculty member how they’d respond. Students also participate in a group problem solving exercise.

“If healthcare is truly broken, the people who are going to make the difference are going to be the people with new and fresh eyes and ideas,” Daboub said. “I think that’s going to be who we’re looking for.”

Dell uses the same application service as most of the other 10 medical schools in Texas, the Texas Medical and Dental Schools Application Service, which resembles ApplyTexas or the Common App for undergraduate programs. Through it, the school received 4,528 initial applications. They have invited about 1,127 pre-meds to fill out additional essays, and around 350 of those will go through the interview process, which is scheduled to wrap up by early January. Fifty students will ultimately enroll and start class June 27.

Construction of the Dell Medical School is in full swing just a few blocks south of UT-Austin’s campus. The new school is expected to be ready to host its first class on June 27, 2016. Rachel Zein | Daily Texan Staff

Although Dell does not have a track record of placing residents — helping land their students jobs in hospitals post-graduation, the final step before becoming a full attending physician — “students seem to be relying on UT-Austin’s established reputation” in their decision to apply and consider enrolling, Lesley Riley, the director of UT’s Health Professions Office, said.

Several students who made it to the interview stage with Dell spoke to the Texan, expressing mixed feelings: excitement over the chance of trying something new but also trepidation over the risk involved with attending an unproven school.

Biology senior Anish Patel applied to 11 schools and said Dell is near the top of his list.

“Dell specifically is so great, primarily because it’s a fresh slate,” Patel said. “The philosophy is something I’m very much in tune to as well.”

However, Patel, who is a first-generation college student, also alluded to the prestige of existing schools.

“Everything I’ve been doing up until now has been new to myself and my family,” Patel said. “If I had the chance to attend Dell, I’d be at the same level as other medical school candidates, … but at the same time, that’s also the virtue of being [an inaugural class]. We’ll get to set the traditions.”

Biology senior Cory Smith interviewed at Dell in addition to six other schools. He said that while he understands the attraction of Dell, many of his peers have aired concerns over attending a school with no history.

“They’re doing a lot of innovative things,” Smith said of Dell, “but that imposes some amount of risk. I’m not completely comfortable taking that risk, but I will say that during the presentation at interview day, I felt a lot better than before.”

Matthew Cochran, a pre-med senior at Baylor, praised the holistic admissions process and Dell’s mission.

“I was very excited, and when I was in there, I felt very inspired, and I felt I just wanted to go there, and I wanted to buy into the message and change America,” Cochran said. “But definitely, there is risk involved. You don’t have any track record to base it on.”

Daboub said while Dell has high expectations for the incoming class, they understand the school will likely make changes moving forward based on data collected during the application process and a review of student performance during the school’s first year.

“They’re really looking for a specific candidate,” Aaron Sahihi, a finance senior and Dell applicant, said. “[It] takes a real special person to be at Dell. Their student body will be their greatest asset.”