Each year, staff at the seven UK veterinary schools face a huge challenge – how to whittle down hundreds of young, hopeful A-level students to just a few future vets. What’s more, the task is becoming more difficult each year. Data from the Royal Veterinary College show that total applications to undergraduate veterinary science courses rose by a quarter in the space of five years – from 6781 in 2007 to 9029 in 2012. This is compounded by the fact that the percentage of A-level students achieving top grades (A or A*) has increased from 21.6 to 26.3 in the past decade (according to stats from the Joint Council of Qualifications), making it more difficult to differentiate based on academic ability. On average, there are nine applicants for every place on veterinary degree courses in the UK.
To make sure they pick only the candidates most suited to the course and the profession, interviewers look for a wide range of qualities. Desirable traits may include critical thinking, mental ability, motivation, communication and empathy. However, gauging these characteristics using a personal statement and exam grades can be difficult, and in order to more accurately assess applicants, all seven of the UK schools use some form of interview in their admissions process, evaluating both academic and non-academic attributes.
In order to investigate the interview process for veterinary undergraduates, a team at the Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies and the Roslin Health Institute in Scotland, designed a study, recently published in Veterinary Record, which focused on one cycle of interviews of school-leaving applicants to the veterinary medicine course at Edinburgh university. The study had two main goals; first, to evaluate the influence of the interview on selection decisions and, secondly, to investigate the impact of discussion after the interview between interviewers on their decision-making.
All of the applicants in the 2008/2009 admissions cycle were first shortlisted based on their applications. Shortlisting criteria related to their references, academic history, personal statement and work experience. Following this, 181 students were invited for a 20-minute interview.
Before each set of interviews (usually comprising eight candidates), the interviewers were first asked to independently rank each candidate in descending order of merit based on their application and supporting material and also to make a provisional decision of ‘accept’, ‘reject’ or ‘hold’ for each candidate. Immediately following the interview, members of the selection panel were asked to repeat this process without discussing with their colleagues. Finally, after the selectors had discussed the candidates and reached a consensus, they were again asked to rank and make a decision on the candidates.
The authors used statistical analysis to investigate the levels of agreement among members of the selection panel during different stages of the interview process.
Before interview, members of the selection panel agreed only slightly about selection decisions (58 per cent agreement), but after interview they agreed significantly more (78 per cent agreement). The results also showed that interviewers’ perceptions of applicants often changed before and after interviews, as the level of agreement between each interviewer’s pre-interview and post-interview decisions was on average 67 per cent. In contrast to this, there were very high levels of agreement between the interviewers’ individual post-interview decisions and the consensus decisions achieved through discussion with their colleagues (84 to 90 per cent). The pattern described here also applied to the rankings the interviewers made before and after the interviews.
For most candidates (around 60 per cent), the selection decision did not change before and after the interview. However, many of the candidates had their provisional decisions changed for the better, for example, from hold to accept, after their interview. Of the candidates who were given a hold decision before interview, around half were moved to an accept decision afterwards. Inversely, some candidates’ provisional decisions were changed from accept or hold to reject after the interview.
The authors then further explored which attributes had the biggest impact upon interviewers’ decision-making and these were found to be: communication skills, overall knowledge gained from work experience and the ability to think on their feet. Candidates who performed well in these fields were more likely to have their selection decision changed to accept after interview, and vice versa for those who performed poorly.
The authors conclude that face-to-face interviews allow selection panels to achieve greater levels of agreement about who are the best candidates for the limited number of places. The results also showed that once the interviewers had formed their opinions during the interview, post-interview discussions with their fellow panel members tended to have little influence on those decisions.
In the medical and, more recently, veterinary professions, there has been a shift towards the use of multiple mini interviews rather than panel interviews. However, the authors state that their results show that there is still a place for the traditional panel interview in veterinary admissions procedures.
Neil Hudson, one of the authors of the paper, states:
‘Getting into Vet School is tough, with much competition for places. We wanted to make sure that the way we were selecting students was a good way of giving the students the best chance of showing that they are suited to our course, on top of what they have told us through their UCAS applications. It is a tough decision for selectors and what we wanted to do in this study was to try and ‘look at some science’ behind our decision making. What we found was that it was easier for selectors to agree on decisions made based on interview than on paper applications alone. Furthermore, it was good to be able to drill down and see what potential attributes had the most influence on decisions. No selection system is perfect and what we have done here is say that the interview can, and should, play some part in the process, but it is very much for each school to adopt the blend of approaches that suits the candidates for their respective courses.’