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Common Questions about Preparing for a Pre-Health Career Path:

An Interview with Professor Brenda A. Wilson, Associate Director of Undergraduate Education in SMCB

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How would you define being a "competitive applicant" for health-related profession?

I would define a “competitive applicant” as not one who just meets the basic requirements in good standing, but rather is one who is an “outstanding applicant”. I say this particularly because some excellent students have the impression that because they can finish their undergraduate degree in 3 years with a strong academic record and still be competitive in applying to the health-related programs. This is in point rarely the case.

There are many ways to be an outstanding candidate. This usually involves excellent academic performance, but also additional academic activities that enhance the depth and breadth of one’s educational background and distinguish one’s self from a group of very qualified applicants. These activities can come in the form of adding a specialization or curricular emphasis outside of their primary program of study, undertaking the honors curriculum path, participating in one of our study abroad experiences, working in a research or clinical laboratory, undertaking an internship experience, engaging in academic outreach programs, or other academic enrichment activities. In addition, extracurricular activities that are often considered desirable are ones that demonstrate an applicant’s leadership capability, drive and motivation, devotion and diligence, passion for helping others or improving societal problems, and/or compassion for others.

What specific courses at the University would you recommend students take to boost their chance of doing well on MCAT exams? And what standard of GPA should students uphold?

The School of MCB has an outstanding track record of preparing students well for high performance on various professional and graduate entry examinations and for success in admittance into various health professions. The MCB courses that I strongly recommend are: MCB 150, MCB 250/251, MCB 252/253, and MCB 354. Additional courses that I think help are: MCB 244/246, MCB 300/301, and appropriate advanced courses in specialize topics (e.g., microbial pathogenesis, cancer biology, genetics, neuroscience, physiology, etc.).

Different professional programs have different requirements for GPA, MCAT scores and other criteria. The student should investigate the particular program they are interested in applying to and find out the range of scores and criteria that are normal for that particular program. I think it is good to bear in mind though that due to our outstanding reputation, a strong academic standing in MCB, and indeed from UIUC in general, places the student in an excellent overall position.

What characteristics do you think make students "ready" for medical school and its stressful journey?

I think the best prepared students are those who have learned to manage their time efficiently and effectively, and who can excel in a rigorous and challenging curriculum (perseverance and dedication are critical for this), while maintaining an active, healthy social life and participating in community-benefiting extracurricular activities.

Any personal advice that you would like to provide for your students who are going into the field?

I think students who are pre-health oriented often equate success as being solely focused on entry into medical school to become a doctor. This is not necessarily the ‘right’ path for everyone. There are many directions that someone with a pre-health background can take, and for which we have a tremendous societal need (e.g., nurses, physician assistants, medical technologists, therapists, medical clerks, first responders, genetic counselors, health inspectors, health policymakers, regulatory agents, etc.). I would encourage students to explore other options as well during their journey toward an undergraduate degree.

At what point should a student decide not to continue with premed?

I think it is very important for students to make this decision based on their commitment to the goal, along with their performance in supporting coursework. I strongly recommend that students consult with multiple sources, most notably their academic advisors, faculty mentors, and The Career Center for assistance in thinking through the issues and options. As I mentioned above, there are many career paths that can be taken, for which a pre-health background is not only required, but highly desirable. Choosing the right path is not easy, but advisors and mentors can really help with finding alternatives and providing the pros and cons of different options.

What extracurricular activities (RSO involvement, research, internship) would you recommend for students who wish to learn outside of school? Or would you urge them to focus on getting their GPA up instead?

I outlined a few activities that students might undertake above. But, I should point out that students often think that if they do LOTS of RSOs then other aspects of their profile do not have to be as strong. I think that is a misconception. For best success, the baseline by any measure is excellence in academic performance, and all of the other activities must be layered on top of that, while retaining the high academic performance. Another misconception is that students have to be involved in lots of academic enrichment and/or extracurricular activities. Hopping around frequently from one activity to another does not provide the continuity, commitment and steady progression that is most effective in demonstrating desirable traits for pre-health professions, such as perseverance, leadership, organizational and communication skills, problem-solving ability, compassion, and dedication. My strong recommendation is that students make sure that they first and foremost perform very well academically. Then, they can engage in: one or two academic enrichment activities, such as study abroad, honors curriculum or emphasis, internship, research; one extracurricular activity that involves something student-oriented such as an RSO or other student club/group/team, sport or dance; and one extracurricular activity that involves something external, societal or community-oriented, such as outreach programs, volunteering at nursing homes, soup kitchens, or clinics, or participating in EMT service or humanitarian missions. The key is to do these things well and with enthusiasm and to build a history of involvement and accomplishment.