I have just finished evaluating 156 applications for the 4 available positions at the University of Maryland School of Dentistry 3-year orthodontic program. A total of 7497 pages of information were reviewed to choose about 30 candidates who would qualify for a live interview. The average number of application pages was about 48; the largest file had 118 pages, and the smallest had 24 pages. I had 3 weeks (21 days) to select my 30 candidates; thus, I needed to review 357 pages per day or 15 pages per hour.
The seriousness that this process requires must be understood not only by orthodontic program directors around the country but also by all personnel and human resource professionals involved in any selection committee for any vacant position anywhere in the world. Furthermore, because this responsibility is so serious, I granted the same task to 2 other full-time faculty members who would review the same application files independently and following their own criteria. Then we would combine our results to find our final 30 live interview candidates.
While reviewing the applications, I struggled with my selection criteria. What should be the primary information that might help me narrow the field? Should the candidates’ scores be the primary driver for this preliminary selection? I’m not at all sure they should be, but I knew I had to start somewhere. Therefore, my first conclusion, in the middle of this editorial, is that numbers matters.
However, if numbers matter, what about second chances? Ask yourself, what kind of life experience do candidates bring to the table if they have dedicated their lives to studying and getting good grades? They bring more applied knowledge for sure. However, if candidates had a major life event and lost focus of their career for a time, should they pay for the rest of their lives by not having the same chances? If candidates dedicated more time to excelling in sports, pushing studies slightly aside, should they be left behind? If candidates dedicated their lives to serving others and while doing so, saw their grades drop slightly, should they not be given a chance? If candidates served their country by fighting for freedom and defending the national flag, should they not be honored with an opportunity for an interview?
Thus, my second conclusion is that numbers do not tell the whole story. We require each applicant to submit a personal essay. They spend hours thinking and writing about themselves, and the least we must do is to read it. From this, I learn how unique they are; thus, my struggle to select my 30 candidates continues.
It is a part of the University of Maryland Baltimore’s core values to embrace diversity and to promote knowledge, excellence, and leadership. Thus, when asked if the students with the highest scores bring the same leadership, knowledge, and excellence that the captain of the volleyball team brings, I must answer that I do not know. They bring different values. Then, what am I influenced by? I know we must not base our selection on race, color, religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, or national origin because it is against the law. Thus, I must rely on something else more tangible.
Is class ranking a tangible resource? If the answer is yes, then schools not providing class ranking scores are hurting students’ chances to be selected for interviews. What made dental schools or other institutions decide not to release this information? Should we then rely on college scores? Or even high school scores? Is the student portfolio the new trend in dental schools? If it is, how do we deem one candidate better than another by reviewing their portfolio?
What about letters of recommendation? Should we rely on them? Should a recommendation from someone who practices the specialty be more valuable than someone who does not? What about faculty, associate deans, and deans who write similar recommendations for all students? One would be amazed to see 10 applicants from the same dental school, with 10 different recommendation letters from the same “nice” faculty, and all of them carrying the highest recommendation. However, I cannot offer 10 positions, and I certainly should not offer all positions to students from the same institution, or should I?
Then how to compare dental school programs in the United States, or better yet, how to match international dental programs to those given here in this country? Is the number one dental student from a school in the Middle East, South or Central America, Asia, or Africa equitable to the top-ranked student from the University of Maryland School of Dentistry? How will we ever know?
I could continue expressing my struggles to select the right candidates in the hope that light at the end of the tunnel will appear, and I will find the perfect criteria. Each one of us, when placed in a position to choose, might make the right or wrong decision while embracing our institution’s core values and attempting to do the best we can.
However, we are all responsible for the acceptance of future colleagues, faculty, and staff in every institution. If program directors could be considered the gatekeepers of our specialty, we must take this task seriously. Nonetheless, we struggle to find the right 30 applicants who will be granted a chance to appear for an interview. At least, the interview itself is held by 8 faculty members and all residents, spreading the responsibility among everyone. At the end of the day, maybe none of this really matters because all candidates are selected by the national matching program algorithm, at least for those Match participant institutions.
The truth is that I will never know how to prevent myself from “being influenced by who I am” to choose the right candidates, and just hope that I am doing the right thing.
The author wants to thank the American Association of Orthodontists and American Association of Orthodontists Foundation for the financial support for this and previous studies. Furthermore, the author recognizes the contribution of his wife Maria Marta S.F. Bosio for editing this text.