M.D. admissions: Q&A with Assistant Dean Cynthia Morris

September 9, 2014


MorrisC_2011aThere’s a lot happening in the School of Medicine M.D. program and, we all know, word travels fast among prospective students. How are the recent changes – from the launch of the new curriculum to the “bold move” three years ago of using multiple mini interview (MMI) techniques as part of our interview process – affecting our applications, admissions and acceptances? What are the trends in our class profile over the past few years? Are our diversity initiatives making progress? 

We sat down with Cynthia Morris, Ph.D., MPH, assistant dean for admissions, OHSU School of Medicine, to find out. Dr. Morris has been overseeing admissions for more than a decade.

School of Medicine (SoM): What trends have appeared when looking at applications to the M.D. program over the last few years? Are there aspects that stand out for this past year?

Cynthia Morris: We’re seeing more applications than ever. Nationally, applications to medical school reached an all-time high last year at about 48,000 individuals. At OHSU, we saw about 5,800 applications which was our largest number to date. From this, we had to select the best 139 applicants for the incoming class. You can see the problem we have in admissions – a mighty good problem to have! We interviewed 522 applicants in order to select the very best. The selection committee has a hard job.

We are extremely pleased with the diversity of our incoming class this year. Diversity means many things. Eleven percent of our incoming class comes from racial or ethnic groups that are under-represented in medicine. Twenty-one percent of the class grew up in rural areas. These are important considerations that we would like to see grow even more.  We are always looking to increase the proportion of the class that has not had an easy path to medical school – for example, students who may be the first generation in their family to attend medical school, who may have encountered significant adversity, or whose family may have struggled financially.

SoM: Why are the various diversity factors going up? 

CM: I think we are seeing a payoff from a concerted effort from many people to enact the Diversity Action Plan at OHSU. The Center for Diversity and Inclusion has worked hard to expand their outreach to colleges and universities both locally and nationally, and to work individually with students to help them envision medicine and health care as a career. All of us on the medical school admissions committee work with them on this mission. And finally, we had more scholarships available to help us increase diversity in the incoming class this year through financial support. We have five full presidential and executive-supported scholarships to promote diversity; six scholarships from the Scholars for a Healthy Oregon Initiative provided by the Oregon Legislature; and other significant scholarship funding from the School of Medicine Dean’s office and the Center for Diversity and Inclusion. This has had a tremendous impact on our ability to recruit a diverse class of medical students.

SoM: This year, the SoM started a new curriculum. What effect did this have on acceptance rates? Did this cause the demographics or attributes of the incoming class to change? 

CM: We haven’t seen a noticeable difference in acceptance rates nor in the applicant pool as a result of the new curriculum. There was a lot of speculation on the effect a new curriculum might have on the class. Would we only recruit risk-takers or those who were very comfortable with the uncertainties of a new curriculum? In the end, the academic and demographic profile of the class was virtually identical to previous years. We always look at the number of students we offered acceptance to in order to matriculate the class. In 2014, we offered acceptance to 240 students to matriculate 139; in 2013, we accepted 208 students to matriculate 132.

SoM: What’s been the reaction from applicants regarding the new curriculum?

CM: Applicants were excited to hear about the new curriculum. Drs. Mejicano, Bumsted, and Kahl* attended all of our admissions orientations to discuss the principles that were guiding curriculum design. Their enthusiasm was palpable. When we surveyed our applicant pool at the end of the year, there were students who chose to go elsewhere with a more traditional curriculum but this number was no more than we expect every year.

SoM: The percentage of Oregonians in this incoming M.D. class is about 80 percent. How does that compare to prior years? Is that expected to remain constant? 

CM: It’s higher than average and is expected to remain constant. Over the last five years, our average class composition is more than 75 percent Oregonians. As the only publicly-funded medical school in Oregon, OHSU has a commitment to educate and graduate the types of physicians needed by Oregon. When considering this, we need to look across discipline, geography, patient population, cultural competency, and attributes linked to an ability to provide high quality health care and community leadership in the evolving health care landscape. This tactic remains important in the context of M.D. Curriculum Transformation and it will continue to translate to a high percentage of Oregonian students in the M.D. program.

SoM: Three years ago the school started a new process for interviewing applicants. What has been the effect of MMI so far? How do prospective students rate this experience?

CM: Overall, it’s been positive and is helping us select the very best class possible. The first class that we recruited using this new method is just starting their third year as medical students, which means they’re beginning their clinical clerkships. I’m very interested in correlating how these students fare during this year compared with their performance during the MMI. The admissions committee and our dedicated group of MMI raters believe that this method helps us hone in on those characteristics that will make the most effective physician, who will work as a member of a health care team, and communicate well with his or her patients. 

An increasing proportion of our applicants have experience with the MMI. The number of medical schools adopting this method is definitely increasing and is approaching one-quarter of schools. OHSU was just ahead of the pack. 

I’d like to give a big thank you to our dedicated group of volunteers who serve as MMI raters. These people are alumni and community physicians, and members of the larger health care community including nurses, social workers, child health workers, department managers, as well as OHSU faculty, residents and fellows, and students. We have a pool of about 100 that we draw upon – we could not accomplish our task without them and are so grateful for their help.


  • George Mejicano, M.D., senior associate dean for education
  • Tracy Bumsted, M.D., MPH, associate dean for undergraduate medical education
  • Leslie Kahl, M.D., associate dean for strategic initiatives

Learn more about the Class of 2018. Read their stories here.