An Education in Virtual Recruitment

With the pandemic forcing recruitment efforts online, medical schools and residency programs had to find creative solutions to communicate their culture and foster personal interactions.

February 19, 2021
Woman smiling facing a laptop

For better or worse, many people are watching more TV as a way to cope during the COVID-19 pandemic. One medical residency program found a healthy use for TV: inspiration for recruitment season.

The pandemic has limited residency and medical school student recruitment to video meetings, so medical schools and academic health centers across the country have had to find creative approaches. That includes the neurology residency program at Rush University.

Neurology at Rush knew it needed a novel way to connect with potential residents. The program created two videos to set itself apart and give students a better sense of its culture: one that gives a tour of the facilities in a style similar to the TV series Billy on the Street and a parody video of the TV show The Office.

“We have an excellent residency program, but we needed a way to showcase who we are better than a standard day-in-the-life video would,” says Rebecca O’Dwyer, MD, director of the neurology residency program at Rush. “Our video showed we can have fun together and enjoy our work.

“It also was a good filter — some candidates might not get the humor, so that person might not be high on our list. We thought our videos helped paint the picture of our program and culture for everyone.”

Real obstacles in a virtual world

Though a virtual recruitment season was not unexpected, it left residency programs and medical students wondering how exactly the 2021 Match season would play out.

“You can learn a lot by meeting with somebody in person that you wouldn't learn on a Zoom meeting,” says Joy Sclamberg, MD, senior associate dean of Graduate Medical Education at Rush University. “That made it tough for the faculty member doing the interview as well as the student.”

Sclamberg says one of the biggest indicators of whether a medical student will be a good fit within a program’s culture is how well they get along with the residents currently in the program. Through video, it can be difficult for residents and prospective residents to interact as much as they would like.

“On Zoom, it’s hard to take someone aside and talk to them one-on-one,” says Michael Williams, MD, a third-year resident in Rush’s general surgery program, who helped with recruiting. “And in a large video meeting, some people may not be as willing to speak up.”

Finding a way to have meaningful interactions with current residents is essential for medical students, who are trying to figure out if a program and city — sometimes one that a student has never been to before — is right for them.

“Getting a feel for different programs was tough,” says Aretha Boakye-Donkor, a fourth-year medical student at Rush who will be specializing in internal medicine-pediatrics as a resident later this year. “If you ask current residents, they’ll tell you that it was the gut feeling they had when they went to a location on interview day. We had to trust that it will all work out.”

And for Boakye-Donkor, who is Black, the potential racial implications of a virtual recruitment season were a concern as she went through the process.

“I was worried about the biases that exist. Are those going to be compounded in a virtual setting?” Boakye-Donkor says. “Without the advantage of body language, it’s so hard to tell over video how someone is perceiving you. You just have to trust the process.”

Overcoming hurdles

Rush started the new recruitment season with a virtual residency fair in September. The various residency programs worked with the marketing department at Rush to create virtual tours and other videos that would give students a sense of what the program and facilities are like.

Prior to COVID, a key part of the recruitment process was a social event the day before an interview when faculty, current residents and prospective residents are able to engage with one another in a more natural way. That, of course, was another virtual event this year, with people breaking into smaller groups to allow people to become more familiar with one another.

“Though challenging, we were able to get across to students the sense of camaraderie that residents at Rush have,” Williams said. “How the people and place make you feel is so important, and we were able to show what it’s like to be at Rush as best we could.”

Medical colleges across the country were facing many of the same barriers for various events, including the Second Look Day in the spring when students make a usually crucial follow-up visit to a school.

“That’s the day they often meet their future classmates, their future roommates, and realize they definitely want to come here,” says Alyssa Cannataro, MEd, assistant director of admissions and recruitment at Rush Medical College.

Cannataro and her colleagues not only overcame the challenge of not having an in-person Second Look Day but they took the experience to another level, holding an entire month for Second Look experiences. Throughout April 2020, they held events that included wellness challenges through social media. Students shared photos and thoughts about topics such as yoga, meditation and clean eating.

“It was a huge hit,” Cannataro says. “The students were excited and engaged. If COVID disappeared tomorrow, we would of course go back to having an in-person Second Look Day, but you can bet we would definitely incorporate some of these successful ideas we used virtually.”

Advantages, and the future

There was one massive benefit for both prospective medical students and residents: cost savings. In a normal year, the cost of travel for in-person and follow-up meetings is significant. Virtual meetings have also helped students save precious time that they need to devote to their current education.

And with travel logistics not a concern this year, students are considering programs they may not have put on their list. That has broadened the applicant pool for medical schools and residency programs.

“Every info session we do with potential students can now include several of our current medical students,” Cannataro says. “If I was traveling to, say, California, I couldn’t bring five medical students with me to talk to pre-med students. We can now reach more pre-med students who get to talk to more current students, and that helps both sides.”

There is still a lot to figure out for medical schools, residency programs and students alike in this virtual environment, but there is a general sense of encouragement as they look ahead.

“We’re learning and we’ll do better next year, because this is the reality we’ll still be looking at,” Sclamberg says. “Some of these virtual components may be the way of the future. It can be a lot easier to do some of these things over Zoom. We don’t have all the answers yet.”

Until the dust settles, programs and students are doing their best to connect in meaningful ways.

“Selecting a residency program is a huge decision for students. It can change the trajectory of their career,” says O’Dwyer, who sees more Office TV show parodies — or other creative tactics — continuing as a recruitment tool for her program. “All we can do is our best to make the process more personalized so they can get a sense of who we are. That’s what we’re all striving for: placing students in a place that feels like home.”

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