The office - and particularly Sheila Nielsen-Preiss, the woman who directs it - shared a checklist of important deadlines with Johnson, who was then an MSU student. Office staff helped Johnson prepare for interviews and reviewed her personal statement. And they had numerous tips that Johnson said she wouldn't have been able to get anywhere else.
"The biggest help was that they know all the little things that you're not going to find on a website," Johnson said. "Things like how many schools to apply to, and that I should apply to at least one private school...they just know all these little tricks to increase your chances of success."
Since the MSU office was created in 2004, it has helped approximately 500 students like Johnson apply to health professional schools. (MSU has offered students a health professions adviser since 1946).
And, students helped by the office have a significantly higher success rate in their health professional school applications than the national average. In 2009 and 2010, the first years for which data is readily available, 64 percent of MSU students helped by the office were accepted to health professional schools, which include medical, dental, pharmacy, optometry and physician assistant schools. In 2011, that percentage rose to a cumulative 68 percent, or a 60 percent acceptance rate to medical school, 75 percent acceptance rate to dental school, and 89 percent acceptance rate to physician assistant school, according to Nielsen-Preiss. Depending on the profession, national acceptance rates range from 36 percent to 46 percent.
Nielsen-Preiss attributes the MSU students' high success rate to the students themselves and to an infrastructure that helps them succeed.
"MSU has great students who come ready to work hard," she said. "We also have a strong support structure in place with this office. It lets students know what to expect, and so they enter the application cycle pretty well prepared."
To help students succeed, Nielsen-Preiss, who has worked at several medical schools and has a doctorate in molecular microbiology, advises students on the courses they will need to meet admissions requirements for medical school and other health professional programs. She also arranges for students to shadow physicians and other professionals and encourages them to pursue outside passions and community service.
Most MSU applicants to health professional schools earn degrees from the College of Letters and Science, according to data from the Health Professions Advising Office. Still, student applicants represent nearly every college at MSU, including the colleges of engineering, business, agriculture, education and health and human development. And, the number of applicants from MSU has doubled since the mid-2000s.
Data from the office also shows that 70 percent of applicants in 2011 were Montana residents. Having in-state applicants who are likely to work in Montana after graduation helps address health care workforce shortages in Montana, Nielsen-Preiss said.
And, from 2009 through 2011, MSU students, including those in the university's post-baccalaureate, pre-medical certificate program, have secured at least a third of the 20 medical school seats available for all Montana residents in the WWAMI program.
WWAMI is a highly competitive, cooperative program of the University of Washington School of Medicine and the states of Washington, Wyoming, Alaska, Montana and Idaho. Students who participate in WWAMI through Montana receive their medical doctor degrees from the University of Washington School of Medicine, but the Montana students attend classes at MSU for their first year of medical school before moving to the Seattle campus for the second year. For the third and fourth years, the students may complete their clinical trainings, or clerkships, throughout the WWAMI region.
Johnson is one of those students who was accepted into the WWAMI program. The 22-year-old, who graduated from high school in Conrad, was interested in medicine when she began as a freshman at MSU. Her interest propelled her to start in pre-med, and she loved it enough that she continued, she said.
Johnson first visited Nielsen-Preiss and the Health Professions Advising Office as a sophomore. Nielsen-Preiss's tips were invaluable, Johnson said.
"She talked to me about how it's important to show continuity between work, volunteer work, school and hobbies, which influenced how I decided to divide my time," Johnson said. "I'm interested in women's health, so I ended up volunteering long-term at (what is now Bridgercare)."
Nielsen-Preiss also encouraged Johnson to enroll in a course offered through MSU's Extended University, where participants shadowed different health care professionals in Bozeman throughout the semester.
"It was a great suggestion, because one of the things you need on your (medical school) applications is shadowing experience," Johnson said. "I did the course for a semester, and I ended up really hitting it off with an orthopedic surgeon in town, so I continued to shadow her for another year or so. That was all by (Nielsen-Preiss's) recommendation."
When combined, Johnson's efforts and the recommendations of the Health Professions Advising Office clearly paid off. Johnson applied to 11 schools, made it to the second round at eight, was invited to interview at seven, chose to interview at five, and was accepted to four, she said.
She chose to attend WWAMI because it has a strong national reputation in primary care medicine, is less expensive than other schools to which she was accepted and is located close to family.
When she graduates, she hopes to become a primary care physician somewhere in Montana.
And, to others at MSU who are interested in applying to schools in the health professions, Johnson's advice is simple.
"Schedule a meeting with (Nielsen-Preiss) soon, even as early as your freshman year," she said. "For students interested in medicine, getting involved with (the Health Professions Advising Office) as soon as you can will really pay off."
Contact: Sheila Nielsen-Preiss, (406) 994-1670 or firstname.lastname@example.org