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Health & wellness

BU Medical School selects students based on “holistic review,’’ not just test scores and grades

Medical schools traditionally have accepted students with the highest test scores and best science grades. But in an article published online Wednesday by the New England Journal of Medicine, Dr. Robert Witzburg of Boston University School of Medicine writes about what he considers a better approach to choosing future physicians: holistic review.

Medical schools that use this method give potential students points for overcoming adversity, showing resilience, and being empathetic -- as well as for academic achievement. Admissions officers consider letters of reference, interviews, and community service experience to evaluate these qualities.

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Since BU medical school adopted this approach in 2003, the profile of its entering class has changed dramatically, Witzburg writes. Students from groups under-represented in medicine -- African Americans, Native Americans, Pacific Islanders, and Hispanics -- make up 20 percent of the class now, up from 11 to 12 percent. Faculty also believe students are more supportive of one another, he said.

The school has not sacrificed academics. Students’ grade point averages and Medical College Admission Test scores have increased slightly over the past five years, which could in part reflect the college’s ability to recruit stronger students.

“No one thinks we should be looking for medical students who aren’t good in science,’’ Witzburg said in an interview in February. But he said that is not the only indicator of future success.

Witzburg compared a high school student who grows up “with a silver spoon’’ and
“goes to science camp’’ and has “every possible advantage’’ to a student who grows up in a single parent family in a crime-ridden neighborhood. They both apply with 3.5 grade point averages.

“Are those the same 3.5? No,’’ he said.

Boston University also has an initiative to try to boost empathy of current medical students through “reflection groups,” during which students talk about difficult experiences, such as a patient dying and coping with conflicting feelings of wanting to both talk to and avoid the family, or feeling nothing at all.

Liz Kowalczyk can be reached at kowalczyk@globe.com.

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