ADEA CCI Liaison Ledger

Campus Spotlight: Herman Ostrow School of Dentistry of USC

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By Deb Werrlein

What can a winemaker contribute to dentistry? Sandra Bolivar, J.D., Assistant Dean of Admissions, Diversity and Student Life at the Herman Ostrow School of Dentistry of USC (Ostrow SOD), found herself considering this question as she interviewed a young biochemistry major who shared his love of winemaking in an interview. Ms. Bolivar embraces the way holistic review allows her to consider “life stories” like this one and the diversity of thought and opinion they reveal. She believes we need to hear these stories to see who might best excel in and contribute to the profession of dentistry.

Herman Ostrow Logo 300w

“At Ostrow, we have always enjoyed and celebrated pluralism,” says Ms. Bolivar, so when the practice of holistic review emerged, Ostrow SOD saw it as an opportunity to maintain and enhance the school’s mission to “celebrate diversity, demonstrate empathy and respect for others and adhere to the highest standards of the profession.”

Ostrow SOD defines diversity broadly. “It’s more than a question of color diversity,” says Ms. Bolivar, who emphasizes a range of human experiences when talking about the students at the dental school. “We want students from all walks of life.” Applicants with different majors, interests and life experiences, as well as those from various cultural, ethnic and geographic backgrounds, are all encouraged to apply.

Ostrow SOD first implemented holistic review in 2009. The current application window opens on June 1, 2016, and runs through February 1, 2017. During that time the school will receive approximately 3,000 applications for about 140 spots.

Files undergo a preliminary review to confirm that applicants have completed their prerequisites and received a minimum score of 15 on all Dental Admission Test categories. Then, a team of 18 faculty members conducts an in-depth review of every application. During this process, reviewers consider both the cognitive and noncognitive qualities of the applicants.

Noncognitive elements include factors that range from research experiences and familiarity with the dental profession to extracurricular and leadership activities. Committee members also consider extraordinary circumstances, employment during school and “distance traveled”—an expression that refers to unique experiences, such as languages spoken, a second career or travel that might bring a new perspective to dentistry.

“There is no defined ideal candidate,” says Ms. Bolivar. “Rather, the aim is to identify individuals who have a passion for the profession and who will bring their own unique mix of knowledge and experience to dentistry—individuals who we believe will make great scholars and clinicians.”

After reviewing a file, committee members make one of several recommendations: Invite for an interview, assign to another committee member for a second review, hold for additional information or deny the application.

This process narrows the pool to approximately 700 applicants who are invited for an onsite, in-person interview. Ostrow SOD interviews up to 60 applicants per week from October to April, with each candidate spending a full day on campus.

“This interview is critical to our holistic selection protocol,” says Ms. Bolivar, “and it supports our case-based, learner-centered pedagogy.” For the interview, candidates are divided into groups of 10 and asked to participate in a nonscience, case-based problem-solving session. A member of the admissions committee and an admissions staff member lead the exercise. The process allows facilitators to interact with the candidates and to observe as they work together to solve a problem. The session also exposes applicants to the kind of case-based, learner-centered experiences that await them if they are accepted and decide to attend Ostrow SOD.

During the interview, the facilitators evaluate applicants for their ability to identify the important facts of the case, generate relevant ideas, engage in problem solving, communicate effectively in English, demonstrate interpersonal skills and collaborate with a team. “Getting the answer is not important,” says Ms. Bolivar. “It’s how you get there.”

Final admissions decisions about individual candidates are made on a rolling basis after the interview is complete.

The greatest challenge to this process is time, says Ms. Bolivar. Each of the 18 faculty members on the admissions committee reviews between 100 and 200 applications in one cycle. It takes about 30 minutes to read through a file. However, despite the heavy workload, Ms. Bolivar reports nothing but enthusiasm. “Our process has been uniformly embraced and celebrated by our faculty,” she says, adding that faculty are “dedicated to identifying scholars who will ultimately become colleagues. I can’t say enough about their contribution of time and passion.”

When asked how the holistic review process has evolved over the years, Ms. Bolivar explained that the dental school used to require a minimum GPA of 3.2 in the sciences. The marker was eventually eliminated to allow committee members to consider factors—such as full-time work or parenting—that might have affected grades. GPAs of admitted candidates remain competitive.

Remembering one single parent who made her way from community college into Ostrow SOD and eventually into pediatric dentistry, Ms. Bolivar says, “I celebrate her all the time, and that’s the payoff: Knowing that the work we do changes the lives of those who change the lives of others.”


Thank you Deb Werrlein and ADEA for the nice article. I applied this 2015-16 cycle and am still waiting for the decisions by USC. The interview was structured well to allow every applicant to participate in discussion and create a friendly working environment reflective of real situations that will be encountered as a health professional. The students and faculty were nice and the facilities were clean and exceptional. I really admire how the admissions committee takes this diversity approach in their decision process. Seeing the faculty and student body during my interview, I witnessed the diversity that this article, as well as the dean of USC, praises. I have met many USC dentists, such as two pediatric dentists from Orange County, Dr. Anh and Trang Tran, as well as other USC dentists in passing, and they are some of the nicest people I have met. I hope I can attend USC but if not, I am glad to know such dental schools exist. You definitely get what you pay for!
Posted by: Edmund Celis( Visit ) at 6/4/2016 5:00 AM


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