NWHSU Helps Undergraduates Achieve Their Dreams of Going to Medical School

After Maxwell Oberlander graduated from Tulane University in 2015, he worked as a Teach For America corps member teaching in an under-resourced public school.

“While teaching, I noticed my students experiencing a big health gap,” said Oberlander. “I decided that I wanted to become a pediatrician.”

Oberlander’s undergraduate degree was in Political Science and Social Policy, so he needed to complete the necessary prerequisites before he started applying to medical school. Because he grew up in Minnesota, he decided that the Post-Baccalaureate Pre-Health (PBPH) program at Northwestern Health Sciences University was the best option for him to prepare for medical school.

Since completing the PBPH program at NWHSU, Oberlander has been accepted to several medical schools and decided to attend New York University (NYU) Medical School at the Long Island campus, with conditional acceptance into NYU-Winthrop Hospital’s residency in pediatrics.

A strong academic foundation

NWHSU PBPH students competing at Mayo Clinic’s IMPACT Awards.

Oberlander’s acceptance into a top-tier school of his choice is not uncommon among students who complete the PBPH program at NWHSU. Acceptance rates for students who completed the program in 2019 speak volumes: 100 percent of students who applied to Physical Therapy programs were accepted; 80 percent of NWHSU students were accepted into Physician’s Assistant programs; and 59 percent of students who applied to Medical School were accepted.

Jason Thoen, associate professor and chair of the basic sciences program at NWHSU, explains that the strength of the university’s Post-Baccalaureate Pre-Health program is found in the strength of its core curriculum.

“The most important preparation we provide to students is a strong background in physical and biological sciences,” says Thoen. “This not only fulfills requirements to apply to medical school, but provides them the tools they need to succeed on the MCAT and as a medical student.”

Faculty dedicated to student success

In addition to the strength of the core curriculum, students in the PBPH at NWHSU receive dedicated, one-on-one mentorship from a faculty member that ensures that each individual is prepared to not only complete their medical school applications, but also to succeed at the school of their choice.

“We provide guidance from faculty with years of experience advising pre-health students,” says Thoen. “Each student is paired with a faculty advisor who helps ensure that they complete the prerequisite and recommended coursework, provides guidance regarding the process of preparing for entrance exams like the MCAT as well as preparing for applications.

Abdiasis “Aziz” Abdilahi, who earned his undergraduate degree at Minnesota State – Mankato in 2017, planned to apply to a physician’s assistant program after graduation. Then he visited family in Somaliland, where he observed their healthcare system and became inspired to apply to medical school and become a doctor so that he could use his skills abroad.

Abdilahi applied to NWHSU’s Post-baccalaureate pre-health program and found that it was “designed for students like me.” In his first term in the program, he worked more than 40 hours a week in clinical research and in a hospital setting while taking courses at NWHSU.

“It was a grueling schedule, but I realized that I have what it takes to cut it in medical school,” says Abdilahi.

All of Abdilahi’s hard work paid off—he was accepted into his top medical school choices, and will attend medical school at the University of Minnesota this fall.

Strong connections between students and faculty

One very important aspect of the program was Abdilahi’s connection to Dr. Thoen, whose mentorship helped him identify every course that he would need to excel in both the medical school application process and the program itself.

“He was very honest with me, and recommended that I take an additional course to help me prepare for the MCATs and make my application stronger,” says Abdilahi. “His mentorship helped me through the stressful process of medical school applications. I knew the faculty always had my best interests in mind.”

While studying at NWHSU, Abdilahi served as a Cell Biology teaching assistant for Lisa Oppegard, Ph.D.—an experience that helped him find his passion for teaching and proved very valuable in his preparation for the MCAT examination.

Oberlander also found that his close connections to NWHSU faculty were incredibly helpful during his application and interview process.

“Honestly, the dedicated professors were the best resource,” says Oberlander. “They were available whenever I needed them. I had the opportunity to engage in research about essential oils with Drs. Lawrenz-Smith and Oppegard, and many medical schools where I interviewed thought that was really interesting.”

Personal connections help students excel

Perhaps the most distinctive feature of the PBPH program at NWHSU is the personalized focus on each student starting day one—from designing a course schedule that fits each student’s needs to one-on-one mentorship that helps students understand the unique value that they will bring to the profession.

Erika Steinbauer earned a bachelor’s degree in Psychology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2015, and later decided to pursue a career as a physician’s assistant. She enrolled at the PBPH program at NWHSU, and when she applied to physician’s assistant programs at Yale, Duke, UW-Madison, Carroll, Augsburg, and Downer’s Grove, and was accepted to all of them.

“I was able to take General Chemistry and Organic Chemistry in one trimester each instead of two. This saved me a lot of time, and allowed me to apply to school faster,” says Steinbauer. “During interviews, schools were very impressed that I had completed my prerequisites in such a short amount of time. They told me that it showed them I would be able to handle a fast-paced rigorous program like PA school.”

Steinbauer received not only dedicated, personal support from faculty when preparing for her applications, she also got guidance from graduates of the NWHSU Post-Baccalaureate Pre-Health program.

“Dr. Lawrenz-Smith was my mentor and she was fantastic,” says Steinbauer. “She looked over my application multiple times and gave me really great edits and advice. She and Dr. Thoen also put me in touch with other PBPH alumni that had interviewed at programs that I was interviewing at, and their advice was invaluable.”

Preparing students to excel together, as individuals

While people may assume that pre-med students are driven individuals focused on their own success, Dr. Thoen explains that recent alumni of the PBPH program at NWHSU place great value on their relationships with fellow students.

“In a recent survey, our most successful alumni strongly encouraged incoming students to develop a network within their cohort,” says Dr. Thoen. “One alumnus wrote: ‘These are the students taking classes with you and facing many of the same challenges at the same time as you. Help them when you can. Lean on them when you can. Have fun and make some lifelong friendships together as you help each other reach your goals.’”

In addition to strong building strong relationships, Post-Baccalaureate Pre-Health students also develop an understanding of themselves and the value that they will bring to the medical profession as individuals.

“Lean in to who you are as a person when applying,” says Oberlander. “Think about how your current career or situation will tie into medicine. Are you a parent? A teacher? A cop? A salesperson? Medical schools think that is ten times more interesting than anyone applying straight out of college. Own your uniqueness. There are as many paths to medical school as there are medical students.”

Steinbauer advises other students to start their personal statements as early as they can. “Your personal statement, along with your grades, is what’s going to get you an interview. Most importantly, breathe and try to enjoy the crazy process.”