In the competitive world of medical school admissions, only about 50 percent of students from U.S. universities are accepted into a school of their choice. At The University of Montana, that acceptance rate is 80 percent because the College of Health Professions and Biomedical Sciences has instituted a 10-person premedical sciences advising team that works to highlight the strengths of any and all interested students.
Of the 25 UM students who went through the premed advising program and applied to medical school this year, 20 have been accepted to schools of their choice, and several have been accepted to more than one school.
The key to this success is the commitment of advisers and the open nature the program takes toward working with students, said UM Director of Premedical Sciences Mark Pershouse. The advising program is in its fifth year of a new model, initially started in the office of Provost – now University president – Royce Engstrom in conjunction with the Dean’s Office of the College of Health Professions and Biomedical Sciences. Improvement in the overall results is evident.
UM doesn’t offer a premed major, but students in all disciplines are able to take part in the advising program, which can help them focus on their best areas of study to prepare for medical school admissions. Advisers from several departments serve students in many different majors, and students complete internships, shadowing and volunteering with local clinics and labs. They also perform community service and can participate in the UM Premed Club.
“The 25 students we helped are just 25 that sought out our help,” Pershouse said. “We don’t have strict minimum requirements. We’ll work with anybody and make the best case for them.”
Five years ago, UM’s rate of premed advising students accepted into medical schools was 47 percent – right in line with the national average. After instituting the new model, that rate dipped slightly, then took off exponentially.
Pershouse also monitors the medical-school acceptance rate of UM students who don’t go through the program. During the past five years, that number dropped, with only 10 percent of non-advising program students receiving an offer this year. However, as the premed advising program gains ground, more students interested in medical school likely are seeking assistance.
Aside from one-on-one work with an adviser, students also have access to a 14-page document compiled by previous premed students. The document, which also has been edited and updated by the program, basically is a manual on how to get into medical school.
“That model of giving back to fellow students is not common among premeds,” Pershouse said. “Those programs usually are pretty cut-throat. But we have students that come from all over the country, and they really enjoy being in Montana. They’re able to thrive here.”
Alec Sundet, a senior majoring in biochemistry and head resident in Craig Hall, recently was accepted into three medical schools after going through the premed advising program. He credits Pershouse and the other advisers for their hands-on role in getting students prepared to apply for schools.
“One of the features they offer is writing a committee letter,” Sundet said. “You can have up to 10 letters of reference, and Mark takes all those letters and compiles them into one committee letter.
“At most schools, only the top students get a committee letter written for them, but here everyone can get one written by Mark.”
He also took advantage of the mock interviews provided by the program. Advisers help students identify how they can make a strong impression with their credentials and communication skills.
Sundet came to UM from Sioux Falls, S.D., looking for an adventurous place. He hadn’t heard of the premed advising program before enrolling but learned about it through an orientation his freshman year. He plans to attend the University of Colorado Denver School of Medicine in the fall.
Ashlea Duke, a senior in human biology, also was accepted into multiple schools after going through the advising program. Though she wishes she’d started her first day of class, the Davidson Honors College student did learn about the program early in her education.
“When I was a sophomore, I took the pre-health professions class through the honors college and met Mark Pershouse,” she said. “The premed advising program guided me all the way through the MCAT (Medical College Admission Test), and I started my application process last year.”
Originally from Glendive, Duke also hadn’t heard of the advising program before choosing to attend UM.
“I chose UM because when I came here to tour I fell in love with Missoula, the campus and the Oval,” she said. “But the premed program has met and exceeded all my expectations.”
Duke plans to attend the Rocky Vista University College of Osteopathic Medicine in Colorado.
Pershouse stresses that the UM premedical advising program is open to all students. Though some may be discouraged by a low grade-point average or test score, those numbers can be outweighed by other accomplishments.
“Our advising corps is really positive,” he said. “We say, ‘Here are your strengths, here are some areas you can work on.’ We try to avoid judgments such as, ‘You’re never going to get into medical school.’”
Photo caption: Alec Sundet, a senior majoring in biochemistry, creates RNAs to study a virus in the lab of UM Division of Biological Sciences Professor Stephen Lodmell.