- Admissions is an under-researched field, and Concordia was struggling to find evidence-based best practices and selection tools at a time when they were manually reviewing over 800 applications per year.
- The admissions committee increasingly found personal statements and reference letters to be of very little value as they’re much easier to “fake good”.
- The committee was inviting too many people to interview and noticed behavioral issues in a considerable number of them.
- The program also struggled with student attrition as the school hadn’t yet struck the right balance between academic rigor and personal character.
- Tightened admissions criteria to reduce the total number of applications while increasing the share of strong candidates for review.
- Implemented Casper test to assess non-cognitive skills and eliminate time spent reviewing personal statements and reference letters.
- Brought in stronger applicants to the interview stage.
- Using a cut-off score and examining outliers are helping to finalize selection of top and alternate candidates for admission offers.
- Reviewing the current cut-off score to target more diverse applicants and aid in the selection of candidates for potential blended PA programs.
When Tiffany Frazier first joined the faculty at Concordia University Wisconsin’s physician assistant (PA) program, she admitted that the admissions process needed an overhaul.
About the program
Concordia University Wisconsin’s physician assistant program is a 26-month, 117-credit full time Masters program that provides advanced training to students so they can collaborate with one or more physicians and be able to examine, diagnose, treat and counsel patients. Class sizes are small and students complete 11 months of clinicals in family medicine, internal medicine, general surgery, women’s health, behavioral medicine, pediatrics, emergency medicine as well as completing two elective rotations
No. of verified applicants per year
No. of matriculants per year
“It was clear from the get-go that something needed to be fixed, so I sort of self-appointed myself the Chair of Admissions,” Frazier shares. “We were losing students because we hadn’t found the right balance between personal character and academic rigor. We also wanted to attract a lot of applicants at the time and so our criteria were a bit too loose. It was just not working.”
But she quickly realized that finding a solution would not be as easy or as quick as she thought. She noted something that Altus Assessments hears all too frequently from programs; the field of admissions is extremely under-researched and there isn’t much information out there on what really works.
“That’s why each school does things differently,” explains Frazier. “Some PA programs run interviews while others don’t. Some rely a lot on GRE scores, while other schools like Concordia don’t even require the GRE. Some schools will take the time to actually grade personal statements, even though we’re starting to see that they’re really not all that helpful.”
Frazier also explained that Concordia’s PA program used to receive over 800 applications every year when admissions criteria weren’t as strict. “At that time, the school wanted to attract a lot of applicants, but it didn’t always bring us more good candidates, and the amount of time spent reviewing the applications was just not sustainable. Eventually, we realized it was better to see fewer applications if they were generally of higher quality.”
Since then, Concordia has implemented a 3.2 cumulative and prerequisite science GPA cut-off. Applicants are also required to have completed 500 hours of patient care experience, shadowed a physician assistant for a minimum of 24 hours, and they must provide at least three letters of reference. This has helped bring in a smaller, but stronger pool of applicants, but assessing applicants holistically takes more than this.
Once applicants are ranked according to these preliminary requirements, a select number are invited to a multi-stage interview. This entails interviews with the admissions committee, a panel of current students as well as a group activity to test collaboration and problem-solving skills. This multi-stage interview process helps gather multiple perspectives on the applicants and their skills. While COVID-19 has resulted in some temporary changes to requirements and interview processes (such as eliminating the group activity and the requirement for PA shadowing), the focus is still on assessing applicants holistically.
So where does Casper fit in? Frazier explains that with the lack of valuable information in personal statements and reference letters, Casper provides a data-driven method for understanding an applicant’s personal and professional characteristics. Initially used as an extra piece of information to help support candidate ranking, Concordia has since implemented a cut-off score to avoid bringing anyone to the interview stage – or even the program – with potentially problematic behavior. Casper scores are then also used at the end when selecting the top and alternate 30 for admissions.
“I’ve heard very odd and disappointing things from applicants in interviews,” says Frazier.
“To become a PA, you need good grades, grit and compassion. Finding people with all three of these things isn’t always easy. Casper has been a nice addition to our existing selection tools and processes because it helps us weed out individuals most likely to demonstrate unprofessional behavior. We’ve also found it useful in validating our assessment of candidates at the interview stage, helping us to more confidently select the best people for admission into our program.”
Concordia is also working to increase diversity in their program as part of the 5th edition of the Accreditation Standards for Physician Assistant Education, while also considering options to create blended programs for individuals such as former military medical personnel to support career transitions.
“Diversity is incredibly important,” says Frazier. “Research has shown that people feel more comfortable receiving treatment from people who look like them, understand their circumstances and are relatable. This is a growing priority especially for medically under-served communities.”
To support these goals for increased diversity in the current program – and potentially new programs, Concordia is looking to adjust its current cut-off score for Casper.
“We have noticed that some applicants, particularly those who are older and more experienced, tend to have scores that are close to our cut-off,” shares Frazier. “We just want to make sure we’re considering people from all walks of life equally.”
While Casper does have smaller demographic differences than many other types of assessments, they still exist. So while adjusting the cut-off score is a good solution for now, Altus Assessments is conducting research on ways to further minimize bias and demographic differences through improvements to Casper test design, delivery and rating.
Until then, Frazier says that the solution they have in place for now should work, because “as a whole, Casper is still helping us immensely when it comes to finding people with the right mix of strong academic skills and professionalism.”
Photo courtesy of Concordia University Wisconsin
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