“Tell us something you are passionate about.”
Since 2008, candidates to the University of Waterloo School of Pharmacy have responded to this prompt.
It’s the first instruction given in the admissions interview for the competitive Doctor of Pharmacy (PharmD) program, and candidates have always responded creatively. Some showcase musical talent while others share personal stories or accomplishments in sports, dance and more.
It’s one of many questions that had to be translated to a digital format when the coronavirus struck and the School switched from in-person interviews at the pharmacy building in Kitchener to online interviews.
In February and March, many professional schools across the country made the call to remove the interview portion from their admissions process. Interviews for Waterloo’s PharmD program take place in May, and when it became clear that in-person interviews were not a safe option, Kaitlin Bynkoski, Director of Admissions and Undergraduate Affairs, and Becky Ewan, Undergraduate Administrative Coordinator, knew they had to make a decision.
“We did not for a moment consider removing interviews from our admissions process,” Ewan says. “Instead, through collaboration with our admissions committee members, we started to assess our process and determine what steps were necessary to be able to run our interviews virtually.”
Waterloo Pharmacy has always had in-person interviews as part of the admissions process.
“Interviews allow us to get to know our unique and diverse pool of candidates,” Bynkoski says. “We tell our candidates that they are more than just their grades. That philosophy is communicated from their first interaction with us, at the interview panel, where we ask them a series of questions intended to demonstrate if they are well-rounded individuals with an intrinsic motivation and passion for pharmacy.”
To ensure that candidates could still demonstrate this passion, Bynkoski and Ewan identified an online technology product for use. The product was a motivation-based admissions screening tool designed to assess candidate suitably to PharmD program. The platform mimics an in-person interview process and with special customization features allowed staff to uphold the integrity of the traditional in-person interview.
An integral part of the School’s interview process is the involvement of practicing pharmacists and current PharmD students who make up the interview panels. This year, Bynkoski and Ewan recruited 43 pharmacists and pharmacy students as admissions interviewers.
“We were unsure how many interviewers would be able to participate this year,” Ewan says. “Firstly, we were running a completely different kind of interview process. Secondly, with the coronavirus impacting health-care providers, we knew many of our interviewers were working long hours and under lots of stress. Despite that, everyone was very supportive, and we had no trouble recruiting enough interviewers.”
The experience was different, but rewarding for interviewers as well.
“I thrive on change and new experiences, so this new way of doing interviews was a welcomed challenge,” says Johanne Fortier, a pharmacist interviewer who has supported Waterloo Pharmacy admissions for many years. “All in all, the online interviews were a great experience that gave me more freedom to assess on my own time, although I missed our ‘question period’ with the interviewees at the end.”
The interview day took place in early May with Ewan and Bynkoski on call during the virtual interview window to provide support to candidates. In general, they received more thank you messages than requests for help – candidates who were grateful that they still had an opportunity to showcase their skills and passion in an interview format. Since the success of that initial PharmD interview day, the team has run more interviews, this time for Conditional Admission to Pharmacy (CAP) status. CAP status is a unique pre-admission stream for the PharmD program for high school students.
Throughout it all, the team at the School of Pharmacy worked with support from the University of Waterloo’s Registrar’s Office and in particular, Andre Jardin, Associate Registrar of Admissions, and Julie Pocock and Dan Rodgers, Admissions Officers.
“During these unprecedented times, Kaitlin and her team did an incredible job of ensuring that prospective students received clear information, and that the application and admission process remained student-friendly,” Jardin says. “The team quickly adapted the admissions process to include a new platform that enabled interviews and assessments to be conducted in a digital environment. They refreshed and updated their web content, and communicated proactively with students and campus partners. The result was a positive student experience and great lessons learned for the next cycle.”
Some of these lessons were unexpected. Bynkoski and Ewan realized, for example, how a digital format leads to significant sustainability gains. Where Ewan would previously print and compile extensive paper forms for each candidate, they now had the records digitally. Seeing the positive environmental benefits has inspired the team to transition to using technology in the place of paper-based documentation whenever possible.
“Transitioning our interview process online was a taxing process and Becky and I worked many long days,” Bynkoski reflects. “But I’m an alumnus of this program myself, and when I think about the quality of students we’ve had, the quality of my peers and fellow graduates, I know that the interview plays an important role in ensuring we admit motivated, passionate future pharmacists.”
Through all the changes, that first question – tell us something you’re passionate about – remains the same. This year, candidates from across the country, and even outside of Canada, responded with creativity, recording themselves performing and sharing all kinds of unique passions.