UM weighs behavior in admissions process

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Fall applicants to the University of Minnesota's (UM)College of Veterinary Medicine might want to brush up on their behavioral skills.

Fall applicants to the University of Minnesota's (UM)College of Veterinary Medicine might want to brush up on their behavioral skills.

Laura Molgaard

In what is being dubbed "a major shift" in traditional methods of evaluating prospective students, effective this fall, the school will employ a behavioral interview as part of its admissions process, which includes traditional academic measures, such as grade point average or standardized test scores.

"The primary difference will be that instead of just focusing on intellect, it will focus on other qualities that allow a person to be successful," says Laura Molgaard, associate dean for Academic and Student Affairs for the veterinary college.

The freshly inked behavioral interview guide- of which Minnesota's veterinary school is said to be first to adopt among schools of its kind - is based on results from a study published in the June 15, 2003 issue of JAVMA, which identified and analyzed traits of successful veterinarians.

UM, part of a consortium of nine veterinary schools, participated in the study. The study defined success competencies for veterinarians, such as an ability to communicate effectively or the capacity for adaptability and resilience.

"Our veterinary school, along with others, has long suspected that we could be doing a better job to identify successful applicants," says Molgaard, who contributed to the behavioral interview's development. "The interview targets are the competencies that came from the study, not something based on presumption."

On average, UM receives 600 applications for 90 available spots. With the revised process, school officials will combine traditional academic measures and the behavioral interview to trim the number of students.

Molgaard says the behavioral interview, an offshoot of the non-technical competencies developed by organizational consulting firm Personnel Decisions International (PDI), has been used in general industry for years.

Behavior's roots

This kind of interviewing has been adopted by myriad industries, including manufacturing, retail, professional services industry and high tech industry, experts say.

"The behavioral interview is, for all intents and purposes, the standard now in terms of how interviews are done in the private sector," says PDI's Bob Lewis, Ph.D., who helped develop the interviewing model.

By using behavioral questions, school officials can query applicants about details of specific experiences they've encountered in the past. A traditional question might ask how someone handles conflict. A behavioral question may read: discuss the last time you had a conflict with a customer or client.

"The difference forces people to think more carefully," says Lewis. "The behavioral interview (is) more job-related in the sense that it asks for very specific instances of things you're liable to encounter on the job."

Adds Molgaard, "In order for it to work well, you need to have a structured guide and trained interviewers, of which we have both."

School officials at UM vocalized concerns about potential legal issues.

Legally sound

"Our main concern that we expressed to PDI was, 'Is this legally defensible?' " Molgaard says.

Apparently, yes.

Any admissions-related court cases, according to Lewis of PDI, have generally centered on the interview not being related to what people were being selected for.

"The way one gets around that is to ensure that whatever interview questions you ask as well as the guidelines you use to evaluate the answers are rooted in what the position requires," Lewis advises.

The interview process is designed to be rigorous, scoreable and amenable to analysis, according to Lewis. It is standardized and based on competencies or characteristics found in successful performers.

Schools in the consortium appear to agree that the traditional interview -i.e. identifying strengths and weaknesses - is not always predictive of success and deserves some scrutiny.

Other views

The Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine (VMRCVM) recently hosted a regional conference where faculty from area veterinary colleges met to discuss admissions issues.

Dr. Grant Turnwald, of VMRCVM, says the concept of behavioral interviews isn't novel to veterinary schools, citing a 1984 study by Ontario Veterinary College of a structured interview with "high reliability that is capable of rigorous analysis." Although not labeled a behavior-based interview, Turnwald says it shared many components of the sample interview PDI produced for schools participating in the study.

"In all the hype with this latest study," Turnwald says, "We've tended to overlook this previous important work."

He adds, "In fairness, we're not recreating the wheel modeled by one veterinary school almost 20 years ago, but we're certainly fine-tuning the wheel."

At VMRCVM, the school moved earlier this year to review its admissions process.

Turnwald notes, "Clearly, we are very interested in enhancing the admissions interview."

A similar behavioral component was integrated into the admissions process for Western University of Health Sciences' College of Veterinary Medicine (Western U), in Pomona, Calif. In a written statement from Dr. Lara Rasmussen, chair of Western U's admissions committee, she says while the school did not base their interview on the PDI model, "we were surprised when their report came out and supported the concepts we used."

As for the behavioral interview guide adopted by UM, it is currently available to all veterinary schools in North America.

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