Case Study

Improving prehealth advising at a top-ranked university

Washington University in St. Louis

Two medical professionals reviewing a chart

Washington University in St. Louis is a private research university with students and faculty from all 50 states and more than 120 countries. It ranks 7th globally for most-cited researchers and experienced a 54% increase in its National Institutes of Health (NIH) funding from FY16 to FY21. As a result, it enjoys the status of one of the nation's top universities and medical schools.

One measure of success for the university is the percentage of students who are accepted into top medical, dental, physical therapy, and other healthcare professional schools. The university’s PreHealth Advising team aims to better prepare undergraduate students for the medical/professional school application process. This includes assisting students with onboarding, advising them on their prehealth academic career, and creating a complete letter packet for their chosen application service. Operationally, the team’s goal is to improve workflows that result in enhanced advising, reporting, and, ultimately, matriculation rates.

Services Involved
  • User Research
  • User Experience Design
  • Custom Drupal Development
  • Product Support

Identifying goals to improve the advising experience and replace a cumbersome system

Of the approximately 7,600 undergraduate students entering Washington University every Fall, approximately 450 students identify as prehealth. The PreHealth Advising team's first challenge is attracting prehealth students and onboarding them to the PreHealth Advising system.

The team targets new students during the orientation period, encouraging ones who identify as prehealth to join the PreHealth Advising ListServ. This email list was vital for staff since email was the primary method of sharing the information students need to navigate their prehealth careers and maximize their chances of getting accepted into their schools of choice. Unfortunately, details are often missed or disregarded in emails, which then led to the staff’s having to track down students to meet their requirements, a time-intensive endeavor.

Once students are onboarded, advisors assist them in building an undergraduate portfolio that includes volunteer and research positions, jobs and activities. These efforts require the PreHealth Advising team to collect and share information by managing several processes and workflows among staff, advisors, students and recommenders.

The student tasks of managing and sharing personal statements, test scores, jobs and activities required coordination and communication with their advisor or staff, often via email. In addition to self-reporting information, students are required to request – and waive their rights to review – at least three recommendation letters that staff members subsequently have to manage.

The culmination of all this work is a letter packet from the institution to the application system (or systems) of choice for each student.

This cycle of onboarding, advising, and reviewing submitted materials that lead up the creation of the letter packet occurs over multiple semesters of a student's undergraduate career. This time-intensive effort must be completed within the application-process window, creating a significant time crunch for the staff.

Furthermore, the legacy software used to track all advisement activities, which was maintained by university staff, was outdated, proved difficult for inputting and retrieving information, and limited the ability to enhance the system over time.

The goal was to create a platform that was a knowledge repository and a prehealth-management tool for students, a communication and workflow management application for stakeholders, and a reporting tool to improve the quality of advising, thus increasing matriculation rates.


Capturing the entire student advising experience from onboarding to matriculation to deliver a comprehensive solution

We began by conducting user research that included interviews and observation of students, advisors and staff to understand existing processes and tools. Part of our synthesis included creating epics that carved out desired functionality and an experience map of the entire PreHealth Advising process. This map was vital to understanding the touchpoints and workflows of the application process for students and advisors.

Drupal architecture benefits

Multiple factors were considered when defining the technical architecture. The solution needed to provide a diverse set of features for different roles, including:

  • Publish knowledge-base articles
  • Securely upload and share documents
  • Securely facilitate individual and group in-app communication
  • Define workflow management
  • Generate dynamic PDFs from uploaded materials
  • Access robust reporting

Our team contemplated the needs of a content management system (CMS) vs. other application frameworks. One non-negotiable requirement in the architecture definition was that the internal technical teams at Washington University needed to be able to maintain and support the application with minimal training.

The Drupal CMS was already familiar to the teams, so it was a frontrunner in our platform recommendations. As an experienced Drupal development agency, Spry knew that the CMS platform would excel at providing the desired features, either through configuration of available functionality or custom development to extend functionality to meet the unique needs of the platform.

Once the platform decision was made, we got to work identifying the data model and configurations needed to shape Drupal to the new PreHealth Advising solution, with the new name "My PreHealth."

Secure user authentication

Security was critical, given the platform would need to contain student information and serve communications between staff, advisors and students. With Drupal's robust publishing rules, we set up permissions that limited stakeholder cohorts' visibility of specific data. We also implemented the Washington University single sign-on (SSO) service with Drupal's authentication system to ensure those who need access to the solution can do so in a university-approved fashion.

Design system

To ensure we adhered to the Washington University brand, our design team developed a design system manager that would inform a standardized interface look and feel to be leveraged for future university product development.

UX Documentation: Information Architecture and Workflow Diagrams

User experience and interaction design

Our user experience team created the blueprint for the content architecture and functionality for the new solution. Working closely with the PreHealth Advising team, we built prototypes of the new interface, demonstrating how tasks can be completed with newly defined workflows. A set of new features would create a centralized platform for stakeholders to track a student’s progress through their undergraduate PreHealth journey, providing a checklist of important gates or milestones accomplished from which to take action.

A dashboard provides students an at-a-glance view of their progress via a dynamic checklist that indicates completion status based on milestones achieved and system updates. The student view of the application also included:

  • An in-application messaging center
  • A document repository for sharing versions of resumes, personal statements, and other relevant documents
  • A prehealth management area for students to track and report test scores, medical/professional schools of interest, jobs and activities
  • A knowledge base for easy access to important prehealth advising information

PreHealth student interacting with My PreHealth on a phone

Workflow automation

To allow mentors to upload recommendation letters directly to the platform, we devised a workflow that allows students to copy and share a unique url for each recommender that contains a secure upload form. When the recommendation letter is uploaded, the system associates the letter to the student record via the custom link, and staff is notified that a new letter is available for review. The student, who is required to waive rights to see the letter content, can view the status of their recommendation letter requests in the system.

The staff and advisor dashboard was designed to streamline their unique tasks, allowing them to quickly search by student or filter by groups of students based on multifaceted conditions and completed milestones. This tool allows staff and advisors to better “batch” manage students with group communications or actions based on conditions. At any point, staff can export a report of students' information to use in other reporting tools, which is particularly useful following matriculation to clean up data in the system.

My PreHealth Student Record View on a Laptop

Generating the application packet

Solving one of the biggest pain points identified by staff during our research, the My PreHealth system lets students and staff know when requirements for requesting a letter packet have been met. When the student requests a packet, the staff can access and review all the relevant materials and documents on the student record, and make any necessary edits. The staff then bundles the needed documents, and with the click of a button, auto-generates a PDF of the packet that is then sent to the desired medical/professional school application service.

Multiple views of the Washington University My PreHealth application

Facilitating student reporting and automating workflows to improve the quality of advising

With the new My PreHealth system, all prehealth activity can occur on the platform, giving students, advisors and staff a centralized location to manage tasks and documents. By moving information sharing from emails to the application, our solution has allowed students to take control of their prehealth reporting, while also improving the connection between students and the advising staff with centralized data and insights.


Students onboarded within the first six months of launching

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