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Saturday, September 20, 2008

SEO: Statements of Educational Opportunity

Being in the midst of the application season, our office is inundated with calls from applicants. Just last week, I had several questions regarding the Statements of Educational Opportunity section on the Supplemental Application.

According to our instructions: "We believe that students of diverse backgrounds will positively contribute to the intellectual, social, and cultural enrichment of the School's academic programs and student body. Although not required, this section provides you with the opportunity to tell us how you may have overcome economic, social, cultural, or educational barriers while pursuing your academic goals."

The 4 areas that are included on this section of the application are:

SOCIAL/CULTURAL FACTORS. Tell us about any unique circumstances involving your family and/or the community in which you were raised, and how these social and/or cultural factors might have adversely affected the pursuit of your education.

ECONOMIC FACTORS. Economic factors, such as the need to work, dependent care, family resources, etc., can often seriously impede an individual’s academic progress. Use the space below to elaborate on any economic issues that affected your schooling.

EDUCATIONAL DISADVANTAGES. The availability and types of schooling offered, as well as the history of education in one’s family and/or community might vary significantly. Comment below on any educational disadvantages you feel you might have had to overcome.

OTHER FACTORS/DISADVANTAGES. Are there now, or have there been in the past, any other factors or barriers that might have adversely affected your academic performance? If so, please feel free to elaborate.

So.... the questions we always seem to get (and my responses):
  • Do I have to fill this section out? No. It is totally optional!
  • Should I complete this section? Sure -- but only if you feel we should know about a particular situation or issue that fits into one of the four areas.
  • If I do not fill out this section, will my application be less competitive? Absolutely not. This section is optional!
  • Why do you include this section anyway? Well, we believe that it's important to provide applicants with the opportunity to comment or provide us with any information that puts their application into context. If we talk about a "holistic review" of an applicant, these areas are important for us to know about.
  • Do I have to complete all four categories of this section? No, it's all optional! If you think you may have something in one or two categories, then just complete those categories. If it's only one category that you feel is appropriate, then just complete that one category. Did I mention that this section is optional?
  • If I complete this section, will I be a more competitive applicant? No. But it could help explain a particular situation. Sometimes, an application may have a "red flag" somewhere. By explaining a situation on this part of the application, the "red flag" can be appropriately addressed.
So there you have it... everything you wanted to know about the Statements of Educational Opportunity (but were afraid to ask!)

We receive many applications with this section completed -- and many applications where this section is left blank.

We've admitted many applicants who completed it (or parts of it) -- and many applicants who did not.

We've denied many applicants who completed it (or parts of it) -- and denied many applicants who did not.

It's optional. Complete only the categories that are appropriate for you to do so. Don't include it if you don't feel compelled to address any issues in the four areas.

I did mention that this section is optional, right? I think I did. I hope I did.

(It's kind of like going to a "black-tie optional" party. If you feel compelled to wear a black tie, great! Rock it! If not, no big deal -- because it's optional!)

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Alternate/Wait List

We closed the Alternate List today (also known as the Wait List). I must admit, this is one of the hardest parts of this job. There will always be one person who is #1 on the wait list when the list eventually closes -- and it's usually the case that the individual held out hope that they'd get a last minute call inviting them to be a part of the incoming class.

We keep the wait list active until New Student Orientation begins. If an admitted student doesn't show up for the required Orientation, we contact the next person on the list. It doesn't happen often but there have been instances in the past where an Alternate was contacted the day before classes started.

As many of you know, UCSF does have a wait list that is developed during the final Admissions process in March. It always seems to generate lots of questions. Some of which are listed below:

How do spaces in the entering class become available?
Admitted applicants decline, usually for personal reasons; or, we withdraw the offer for not fulfilling all of the requirements for admission. For example: financial issues, personal issues, or medical issues sometimes prevent an applicant from accepting an offer. Every year some applicants are also administratively canceled. This could be for failing a prerequisite, not completing all the prerequisites, or not submitting documents or other verification materials required by us.

Is the list ranked? How/when are wait-listers notified?
The list is indeed ranked. We contact all alternates (by letter/email) on a regular basis to let them know their exact position on the list. We contact the next person on the list as soon as a place opens up in the entering class.

What are the chances of being admitted from the wait list?
Unfortunately, it is impossible to predict how many accepted applicants will decline their admission offer or be canceled each year.

How soon will wait-listed applicants know?
Unfortunately, it is impossible to predict when accepted applicants will decline our offer or be canceled. The waiting list remains open until the first day of Orientation.

How many alternates are accepted each year?
Since the reasons for declining an admission offer or for being canceled are often related to personal or unexpected situations, it is impossible to predict the number of alternates that will be offered admission in any given year. In the past, we have offered acceptance to as few as 3 and as many as 48 people on the waiting list.

Occasionally, we receive correspondence from wait-listed applicants in an attempt to move up on the wait list. Unfortunately, the only way to move up on the wait list is if another person (ranked higher) is admitted or decides to remove their name from the list. It's the fairest way to administer a wait list! And we always let wait-listed applicants know EXACTLY where they stand.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Are Letters of Recommendation really THAT important?

I hear this question a lot. And it still puzzles me.

I have heard prospective students say that some schools only look at letters of recommendation (let's call them LORs for short) if the applicant is "borderline". Huh? What? Borderline?

Let me put it clearly: LORs are critical in the UCSF PharmD application review process.

LORs are an extension of your application -- not an addition! They are used to evaluate your file, along with your essay answers and academic background/preparation. LORs can often "make or break" an application.

Letter writers are asked to assess many of the characteristics we look for in applicants themselves: written and oral communication skills; leadership; intellectual ability; critical thinking skills; your ability to get along with peers; adaptability; and motivation. Having at least three individuals comment on these areas helps us paint a better picture of you as an applicant. You bet we take LORs into consideration.

Lets consider a few scenarios:
  1. Jonathon Q. Applicant: Submits a very strong application. He didn't think the letters mattered much so he didn't care who wrote them. Three letters were submitted on his behalf but they weren't very insightful and the writers didn't really know him well. As a result, the letters were "very average."
  2. Maureen Q. Applicant: Submits an above average application that demonstrates strong potential to be a leader in the field of pharmacy. Four letters were submitted on her behalf. These letters were all consistent and detailed in the information they provided: the applicant has the skills necessary to be an outstanding pharmacy student. It was clear the writers knew the applicant extremely well and could provide detailed information about the applicant and her potential to succeed.
  3. Terrance Q. Applicant: Submits a strong application. Terrance knew that the LORs were a VERY IMPORTANT component to his application so he took this aspect of the application very seriously. He selected four individuals that knew him very well and could validate much of what he expressed himself in the application. It was important for Terrance to provide a diverse perspective to the Admissions Committee. He selected letter writers that could speak to many different areas (work, academics, personality, passion for the profession, etc.) He knew that he was limited in the amount of space he could write on the application himself -- so he considered the LORs as a way for others to speak about him, in hopes it would make him a more competitive applicant.
If you were on an Admissions Committee, how would you rank the above applicants? 1-2-3? 2-3-1? 3-1-2? Or.................3-2-1!

Consider your application to be like a job interview. Instead of us calling your "references", we ask for letters. Of course you want these letters to be insightful, detailed, specific, thorough, honest and supportive. The references should know you well! After all, if you were applying for a job, you wouldn't provide references who barely know you. So why would you do that with your LORs?

PharmCAS provides applicants with a general outline of what letter writers receive. Utilize the resources on the PharmCAS website to help you decide who should write your letters:
UCSF requires at least three LORs but will accept a fourth letter, if submitted. So that's four people speaking on your behalf!

Are you taking LORs as serious as we are? We hope so!

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Coming to a campus near you...

We're on the road again! The UCSF PharmD statewide tour kicks off on Monday, September 22nd! This year's touring company includes:
  • Joel - Admissions Director
  • Scott - Admissions Assistant
  • Cindy - Associate Dean
Our tour takes us to 24 universities throughout the state of California. For a complete list of tour dates/times/locations, please visit our website:

This is an excellent chance for you to stop by our table, pick up information and ask questions!

Most commonly asked questions:
  • What are the requirements to apply?
  • Can you tell me about your program?
  • When is the application deadline?
The best questions:
  • What are the most common errors you see on applications?
  • What does the term "detailed biographical statements" mean?
  • Are letters of recommendation really that important?
Taking advantage of your school's Graduate School Fair is a great time to ask questions of representatives closely associated with the admissions process.

Stop by and visit us!

Pre-Pharmacy Club: Join one (or start one!)

I always find it a bit curious when reading an application from a student -- who attends a college/university that has a strong pre-pharmacy organization -- and the applicant isn't a member or involved. I ask myself, "Why didn't they take advantage of that?" Being involved in a campus-based pre-pharmacy club can potentially provide applicants with many opportunities:
  • Networking with other students interested in applying to pharmacy school
  • Meeting representatives from PharmD programs, including admissions officers
  • Hearing from guest speakers like current PharmD students, local pharmacists and other health professionals
  • Participating in community outreach activities with other club members
  • Developing leadership skills and teamwork experience
I realize not everyone is the "get involved in school" type... but it really is a terrific opportunity to expose yourself to opportunities that could potentially make you a more competitive applicant. I mean, what applicant wouldn't want all those opportunities? Many pre-pharmacy organizations coordinate visits to the various pharmacy schools in their state. Developing a network of friends who are faced with the same challenges as you (applying to graduate schools) can also serve to help you navigate the application process.

It's for you! Join it!

Wait! But your campus doesn't have a pre-pharmacy club. Perfect! Start one. What a way to demonstrate your initiative and leadership! And it should be fairly easy to get it off the ground.
  • Visit your campus Student Activities or Associated Students office (ask if a pre-pharmacy club ever existed on your campus -- if so, they will likely have a file with helpful information to get you started)
  • Inquire about starting a new organization on campus (you'll likely have to complete paperwork, submit names of officers, and develop a constitution/bylaws)
  • Ask the Student Activities advisor for a sample constitution (or better yet, ask to see the constitution of a similar organization -- like pre-med or pre-dentistry)
  • Work with the activities office to reserve a room for your first/informational meeting; post announcements/posters in key areas that likely will draw prospective members (i.e. science department building) to the meeting; develop an agenda
  • Recruit your favorite professor to serve as the club's advisor
Well, maybe it's not THAT easy -- but it's certainly do-able! Think about the experience you would get, the challenges that you would face, the connections you would make (hmmm... letters of recommendation!), and the legacy that you would leave. Besides, all the opportunities that a pre-pharmacy club can provide are experiences that could potentially make you a stronger applicant.

Build it! They will come!

Sunday, September 7, 2008

The Seriousness of the Supplemental!

Our Supplemental Application is tough. Really tough. Really really tough. We know it. But how else would we really get to know applicants (via the written application) if we didn't ask so many questions or challenge applicants to really think?

I was at UCLA's Graduate School Fair last year on Halloween (which was the day before our November 1st deadline) and a gentleman stopped by our table to express his frustration at the complexity and length of our Supplemental Application. I could tell that he was panicked in an effort to finish the application by the deadline. (And who wants to be working on applications on Halloween?) I was quite taken aback as he began to create a scene at the table -- while other prospective students looked on. It was the first time that I had been faced with that type of explicit anger as it relates to our supplemental application -- but hey, it was Halloween so I wasn't about to let anything scare me. I challenged him to think about the alternative -- a PharmD application with NO supplemental application required. In that scenario, an invitation to interview would be based solely on 3 primary factors -- academic background, one essay, and letters of recommendation (assuming that the program takes those into consideration). These are the contents collected by PharmCAS. It just seems so limited, don't you think? While all aspects of the PharmCAS are critical to an applicants file, UCSF's supplemental application provides so much more. It provides the Admissions Committee with the ability to assess communication skills, passion for the profession, leadership experiences, commitment to serving underserved populations as a health care provider, intellectual ability, and maturity -- all important aspects in future pharmacists! As the discussion unfolded, a small group had gathered to hear me explain to the angry student why the supplemental application was so important and critical in getting to know applicants on paper. They needed to know, too. We take it seriously. They should, too.

We take it so serious that we actually offer free Supplemental Application workshops -- simply to help applicants navigate their way through the application itself:

Although I was never able to calm his nerves, I think he walked away with (I hope) a greater understanding of the importance of the supplemental application and how it's percieved on our end. I never asked for his name so I wasn't able to track his application/progress through the admissions process. But I'm willing to bet his approach to the supplemental application was reflected in the quality of materials he submitted. Perhaps he was admitted into a program that doesn't require a supplemental application.

The beginning...

So this is the beginning. A blog for UCSF's PharmD Admissions by the Admissions Director. Our Associate Dean came across an admissions blog for an undergraduate campus and we thought it would be a good idea -- well, at least an "interesting" idea -- to create a blog for our program. I'm not sure what I'll talk about or what type of information we'll include. But we'll see where it goes. The challenge will certainly be finding the time to post entries -- especially as the admission cycle rolls into high gear. It seems natural to begin an on-line conversation about our admissions process. We certainly have many formal outreach programs combined with the best pharmacy school website in the nation -- but we don't have an opportunity to share aspects about the process with the general public. Perhaps this will allow for that extension. We pride ourselves on the fact that prospective students can contact our office and get immediate answers. This blog may provide the insight that isn't readily available online or by attending one of our events. So here goes....
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