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When Med Students Become Admissions Counselors

March 19, 2008

Many medical schools involve their students in the admissions process for future classes. But the University of Chicago has discovered that doing so creates the possibility for an unusual revolving door situation.

Several of the university's medical students set up their own business -- with a Web site boasting about their experience interviewing applicants -- selling advice to medical school applicants. The university responded in recent weeks by telling the students that they could no longer participate in admissions activities, and cautioning against citing their Chicago connections in promoting the Web site. And the business has responded by changing the wording on some portions of its Web site -- including additional clarifications after being questioned for this article.

The situation at Chicago illustrates how unregulated and changing are the businesses that provide advice to college applicants. The booming "independent counselor" business has attracted the most attention with undergraduate admissions, where parents hire people to navigate the process for their children. More recently, the business has shown signs of growth in professional school admissions, and many educators have expressed concern over a situation in which an admissions official at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School was serving as a consultant to one admissions business and had started her own. The National Association for College Admission Counseling is currently reviewing its conflict of interest rules, and a new group of private counselors for graduate and professional school admissions is pointing to its ban on situations where a counselor has an ongoing relationship with a college or university.

The company that has attracted the attention of the University of Chicago is called Med School Coach and it offers services such as a review of a personal statement for $350, three hours of interview preparation for $400, up to a "gold package" of all services for $4,500. The founder of the company says that it helped dozens of applicants through medical school admissions this year, and online discussion boards about medical school admissions suggest that it is in the mix of those applicants consider.

The company's "Who We Are" section has evolved several times in recent weeks.

In describing how the company was created and its counselors' expertise, it used to say: "We also became involved in the admissions committee at a top-15 medical school," and that having seen "horrible applications" that could have been "superb," these medical students decided to help out. One of the descriptions of a counselor said: "He currently interviews many students for a top 15 medical school and is pursuing his M.D."

When the University of Chicago learned that its students were behind the site, officials approached the founders, and told them that they could no longer participate in any admissions activities or imply that they were involved in admissions. At this point, the company changed the Web site so that instead of claiming to be involved on an admissions committee (which the university says was never the case) the claim was changed to: "We also became involved in the admissions process...." In addition, a parenthetical was added saying (in contradiction to the previous version claiming current interviewing status): "none of our staff currently interviews applicants so as to protect the integrity of the system."

After being questioned for this article, the Web site was updated this week to highlight the parenthetical and to expand it to refer to no one doing interviewing for any medical school.

Sahil Mehta, the founder of Med School Coach, said that the company was based on the idea that "people who have just been through the process" are best able to help current applicants. Although the Web site originally said that it had a counselor who "currently" interviews, Mehta said that once clients started to buy services, he and his colleagues stopped doing interviews "for time constraints and ethical reasons."

Mehta strongly denied that the company had tried to project more of an inside role than it had or that it faced conflict of interest issues. Although the Web site once boasted of counselors who were "involved in the admissions committee," Mehta said in an interview that "we don't have any influence at all over the admissions committee." And Mehta said that when he and his colleagues did interviews as part of the application process at Chicago, "selling the information was never a part of the thought process." It was only after providing some informal and free advice to friends, he said, that he got the idea that this business "isn't a bad way to make some cash on the side."

He added that Chicago officials had encouraged him not to use his full name or Chicago student status on the site and he complied.

John Easton, a spokesman for the medical school, said that "once we understood that they had a business, we decided that they would not be involved in the admissions process." While students such as those who started this business do interview applicants and have access to parts of their applications, Easton stressed that they were not making admissions decisions.

"Our take is that these guys had very limited information and we don't think there was a real conflict of interest, but it could create the impression of a conflict, and for that reason we made it clear that they can't claim any particular expertise or to function in any way as part of the admissions team here," Easton said.

Henry Sondheimer, associate vice president for student affairs at the Association of American Medical Colleges, said that the Chicago situation pointed to a common dilemma for medical schools: how to involve students in the admissions process while not having students hurt the process. Sondheimer, previously an admissions dean at the University of Colorado medical school, said that he was a fan of involving students on admissions committees and that at Colorado, he believed students made valuable contributions to decisions. "They are very good interviewers, and also are very good at letting committee members know about applicants' concerns," he said.

But students and applicants are also increasingly creative about how to get an edge in admissions. Sondheimer said that he found out that applicants were reporting on Web sites what they were being asked in interviews by various admissions staffers, so that others preparing for interviews with the same staffer could prepare answers. Sondheimer said he responded by asking his admissions staff to be sure to mix up their questions.

He said that it would bother him to have current students who had been conducting interviews turn around immediately to coach others -- for fees -- about interviews. "This certainly raises a number of concerns," he said. "If this becomes a common practice, it would be a disincentive to have students conduct interviews."

 

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