Planning a Student Symposium

Author: Bill Burns
Stritch School of Medicine, Loyola University 
The following details the experience of the 2012 AAEM Midwest Medical Student Symposium
planning team. The 2012 event was the 6th Midwest Symposium held at Loyola University Stritch School of Medicine and we owe a debt to all those student leaders who preceded us and whose great work, in developing strong relationships with the
Midwest residency programs and medical schools, we were privileged to continue.

Step 1: Assembling Your Team

Core Team
Your team should be composed of 5-7 core members who will assume concept to event
day responsibility for the symposium. Given that different class years have different
major events throughout the academic year (M2 – Step 1, M3 – surgery rotations, and M4
– away rotations) we have found it beneficial to include team members representing all
three class years. Given that symposiums usually occur in the Fall semester that entails
recruiting rising M4, M3, and M2 students.
Event Team
The symposium itself requires considerably more volunteers than the planning given that
many different activities need to be going on in parallel. Specific event day tasks will be
detailed in the Symposium Day section but you should expect to need an additional 10-15
student volunteers. Particular skill sets that you should consider are photography and IT.
Step 2: Picking the Date
There are many conflicting interests to consider when picking the date for your event.
Listed below are a set of criteria that we recommend you use to determine your date to
reduce frustration.

  1. When will residency programs begin applicant review and interviews? One of your primary symposium constituencies are the residency programs and program directors that will attend. You can maximize their likelihood of participation if you schedule in their “off-season” – before October 1st or after February 15th.
  2. When are the national emergency medicine events going to be held (AAEM Scientific Assembly, ACEP, SAEM)? These events draw a significant number of your potential residency participants.
  3. Will the majority of your regional schools be in session? Some Midwest region schools do not have their M2 students starting until August.

Step 3: Developing Your Event Schedule
When creating your event schedule your first priority is to consider your audience. If you
will have M1-M4 participants your event schedule should be considerate of the great differences between the priorities of the class years represented:

  • M1 – exploring and gathering information on the specialty
  • M2 – gathering information and learning how to succeed in clinical rotations
  • M3 – deciding on M4 rotations and learning application specifics
  • M4 – applying in EM and networking with participating programs

Below are some example schedule components:

  • Lectures – When planning lectures consider topics that are relevant for large numbers of your participants e.g. Why EM?, How to succeed on your EM Clerkship, Where is EM going in the future?, or How to match in EM. Such broad topics are excellent to start your symposium day.
  • Program Director Panel(s) – This is an excellent opportunity to involve all of your residency program volunteers. If you are fortunate enough to have 6 or more residency participants consider splitting them into two panels and divide your student participants by class year. Our most successful formula was to run 3 panels – M1/2, M3, and M4 – with our 16 residency participants divided among the 3 panels. Our strategy was to place all of the program directors with M3s and M4s unless a program sent both a PD and an APD at which point we placed the APD in the M1/2 panel. When dividing PDs between the M3 and M4 panel were placed any PDs with other formal speaking opportunities in the M3 panel.

  • Lunch with Leaders – The lunch is an excellent networking opportunity for students and gives residency program leaders time to talk about their programs. Our strategy to minimize logistical challenges is to assign tables to each residency volunteer and allow them to get their food and get seated before the onslaught of students begins. Also, your residency volunteers will greatly appreciate it if you create placards with their program name/logo as well as some general information about their program (location, 3 or 4, fellowships, etc) and place them on their tables.
  • Focused Sessions – Airway, ultrasound, simulation, suture, cardiographics, EM subspecialties, and toxicology all make for great small-group sessions to allow participants to explore areas of interest or practice skills. 

Timing is critical when planning your schedule. Be careful about scheduling lectures for the entire symposium in the afternoon because it may be difficult to get everyone back together again. Your symposium will be much easier to keep on time if you start with easy to control events, whole group lectures/panels and sub-group lectures/panels, and later progress into ones that are more difficult to manage like hands-on sessions or subspecialty talks.

Step 4: Finding Your Speakers
One of the first things that your prospective student participants will look to when deciding whether or not to attend is your speaker list. In a perfect world your list of speakers would have strong name recognition, be geographically representative of your region, and provide a benefit to your host institution. It is also important to consider that speaking slots may make it easier for speakers from more distant residency programs to justify travel expenses.
Given that this is a student symposium, your best targets are residency program leadership (program directors or assistant program directors) or medical student clerkship directors because those are the people your medical student participants will be most interested and vice versa.
Another excellent resource to find speakers on particular topics is to review the event schedules for recent regional and national conferences to find, for example, someone who spoke on the residency interview process.
One final word of caution is to avoid offering more speakerships than you have space for – plan on waiting for a firm yes or no for a slot until you make a second offer.
Step 5: Funding
AAEM/RSA supports student symposiums financially but often you will need to identify additional funding sources. In the past at Loyola we have sought funds from the Dean’s Office, Student Government, and EMIG in addition to defraying costs with a registration fee. If you will be requesting funds from AAEM/RSA you will need to submit a tentative budget, symposium schedule, and a list of proposed speakers along with your grant request – you should aim to send this in months before your event date.
Step 6: Getting the Word out to Schools
Your first source of information in your region should be your AAEM Regional Representative who maintains the list of your region’s AAEM Site Coordinators. From that list you should reach out to make sure the Site Coordinators listed are still active and willing to spread the word about your symposium at their respective schools.
Some schools may not have listed Site Coordinators so other options to find contacts include checking the school’s EMIG website or contacting their student affairs office. You should plan on opening registration for your event at least 6 weeks in advance of your event date to give your students participants time to get time off from school and make travel plans if necessary.
Make sure to include detailed information on parking and hotel options and it always helps to include a map and at least one cell phone number of a planning team member for participants to call in case they have questions or get lost.
Step 7: Getting the Word out to Residency Programs
Together with a list of states in your AAEM region and the SAEM residency directory ( you can compile a complete list of programs to contact. Using your list you can visit program websites to find email address or phone numbers. Unless you have a prior relationship with a specific program director, our recommendation is that you make initial contact with the residency coordinator. Although it is nearly impossible to include representatives from all programs in a given region, we recommend including as many as possible.
Step 8: Event Details
The following is an exhaustive, but likely incomplete list of items that should be considered to avoid day-of problems.

  1. Registration Limits – It is important to determine the maximum number of participants you can accommodate.
  2. Food – Tell your food vendor you need your food ready at least 30 minutes before the actual time you are going to need it by.
  3. Photography – If you don’t identify and assign a photographer you will not have any pictures of your event.
  4. Reminder Emails – If you don’t remind your speakers / residency volunteers / day-of staff about their commitment they may not remember to let you know when something comes up.
  5. Symposium Registration Fee – Free registration will lead to increased numbers of registered students but a higher percent of them will no-show. The decision to add even a small fee should be carefully evaluated based on the popularity and name recognition of your specific symposium. New symposiums may be wise to start free and add a fee after they have built a following.
  6. Audiovisual Equipment – Consider asking your speakers what equipment they need (wireless mic, wireless slide advancer, laser pointer, etc). Get in contact with your event site AV staff to make sure you will have all the equipment necessary.
  7. Parking – Don’t forget to negotiate with the parking service at your event site for the lowest possible rates.
  8. Hotels – Identify a local hotel or two and ask for a reduced rate for your event.
  9. Registration Strategy – Registering 50-150 students and 5-20 residency volunteers in the 30-40 minutes before the symposium starts is a logistical nightmare. Decide on a strategy before the event and consider using 2 tables to double your flow. Alphabetize your participants name tags in advance. Also consider stationing some event day volunteers to help participants find their parking area and their way to the event site.