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College Admissions: Finding the Right Fit

FILE - Fourth-year medical students at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine react as they learn of residency selection on Match Day in 2015. (Photo courtesy of Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine)
College Admissions: Finding the Right Fit
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The United States has more than 4,000 colleges and universities. It is not easy to decide which schools might be best for you.

At the end of high school, many young people in the United States apply for admission to several different schools.

The College Board is a non-profit organization working to expand access to higher education in the U.S. It recommends that students apply to between five and eight schools. This gives them options if their first- or second-choice schools do not accept them.

Paul White, assistant dean of admissions at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine
Paul White, assistant dean of admissions at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine

Paul White, an assistant dean of college admissions, agrees. White works at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore, Maryland. He has worked in university admissions for 38 years.White says that he applied to just three colleges when he was a high school student in 1974. If he were a student applying today, however, White says he would apply to four times as many schools.

The reason? The number of students attending college in the U.S. has more than doubled since he was a college student.

The schools make it easier for students to apply, White says. And the competition for admission has gotten more intense.

"Colleges and universities have…become much more public-oriented …going after…not just the best students, but students in general, to try to attract students from different parts of the country, different parts of the world."

But White says there are major differences between applying to an undergraduate program and applying to a graduate degree program.

Most graduate degree programs are smaller than undergraduate programs. They can only accept a limited number of students. For example, more than 3,000 students applied to admissions to Johns Hopkins’ medical doctorate program for the 2018 school year. The program accepted only 120 of them.

The Charlotte R. Bloomberg Children’s Center and the Sheikh Zayed Tower at Johns Hopkins Hospital
The Charlotte R. Bloomberg Children’s Center and the Sheikh Zayed Tower at Johns Hopkins Hospital

How does the school choose some students over others? White says he feels that many students are concerned about just meeting the requirements to get into the school rather than getting to know the qualities of the program and school.

It is easy to see which students have not thought about whether Johns Hopkins is necessarily a good fit for them, he adds.

Every school has different goals, White notes. Some are more focused on research than others. Around 95 percent of new medical students at Johns Hopkins have some research experience. But that is not the only thing Johns Hopkins is looking for, he says.

Johns Hopkins is in Baltimore, Maryland. Its location has an effect on its medical program – and the students it accepts, White says. In 2016, the Maryland Alliance for the Poor reported that about 45 percent of Baltimore’s population was living in poverty.

The hospital where Johns Hopkins’ medical students get training works to treat health issues connected to poverty. A student interested in studying at the medical school, therefore, should show an interest in helping a poor, underserved community, White explains.

"We want people … who want to care for patients. There’s no question about that. But you have to look at … what are they doing, not just on campus, but off-campus.… And if someone is interested in working with underserved communities, this a great place for them."

White says applicants should spend time researching what kind of students a school looks for. They can start by visiting the school’s website, which will usually describe the programs the school is involved with. The website might also list its students with special achievements.

White also suggests finding out what kind of research the school is doing and what former students are doing after graduation.

Having experience that is connected to a school’s goals is important, he adds. For example, volunteer work can show that a medical school candidate does not just care about their career; the applicant also cares about helping a community.

Denise Montell, biological chemistry professor, with medical students Holly Tang (L) and Hogan Tang in the lab.
Denise Montell, biological chemistry professor, with medical students Holly Tang (L) and Hogan Tang in the lab.

Even if a student does not have volunteer experience when they are applying, White says it is not too late for a student to show the admissions officers what kind of person they are. That can come during the interview process.

Interviews are a big part of the selection process at Johns Hopkins and most other medical schools. Candidates must answer questions about themselves and why they want to attend the school. For example, at Johns Hopkins, interviewers often ask candidates to talk about a time they were not in the majority.

Thoughtful answers can help interviewers better understand what kind of person a candidate is, White says. A student who may not have volunteer experience but gives thoughtful answers can show the interviewers they have an interest in gaining the understanding that such experience brings. That helps demonstrate that, with guidance, this person can become the kind of doctor the school hopes to produce, White says.

Although undergraduate and graduate programs differ in many ways, trying to find the right fit can help undergraduate applicants, too. If a student knows the kind of school they are looking for, and can thoughtfully express why they want to attend, that makes them more appealing.

"I don’t care what … institution you’re going to -- they’re all trying to shape a community. They’re trying to attract people who will add to that community."

I’m Pete Musto. And I'm Caty Weaver.

Pete Musto reported this for VOA Learning English. Ashley Thompson was the editor.

We want to hear from you. How do you learn more about the schools you are interested in? What other kinds of advice for applying to college would you like to have? Write to us in the Comments Section or on our Facebook page.


Words in This Story

apply v. to ask formally for something, such as a job, admission to a school, or a loan, usually in writing

admissionn. the act or process of accepting someone as a student at a school

option(s) – n. a choice or possibility

deann. a person who is in charge of one of the parts of a university

undergraduateadj. used to describe a student at a college or university who has not yet earned a degree

graduateadj. of or relating to a course of studies taken at a college or university after earning a bachelor's degree or other first degree


focus(ed) - v. to direct your attention or effort at something specific

campusn. the area and buildings around a university, college, or school

achievement(s) – n. a result of hard work

interviewn. a meeting at which people talk to each other in order to ask questions and get information

guidancen. help or advice that tells you what to do

institutionn. an established organization

attractv. to cause someone to choose to do or be involved in something