Application Essentials VI: Letters of Recommendation

January 11, 2013
Alex Macnow

When you need advice on something, who do you turn to?  Your friends, of course!MCAT Blog

Medical schools don’t have “friends,” per se, so the professional equivalent is the Letter of Recommendation.  In other words, the letters you aggregate become the medical school’s “squad,” each highlighting different attributes of what would make you a great candidate for their medical school.  Luckily, they’re actually serving as mutual friends:  since they know you, they can represent you honestly and in the best possible way.

Here are some of the commonly-asked questions about Letters of Recommendation:

What’s a committee letter?

While you’ll be collecting letters from a handful of different individuals, it’s the aggregate of these letters with a cover letter from your undergraduate or post-bacc institution that medical schools will be looking at.  The cover letter is written by your school’s pre-professional advising committee, premedical office, or similar body at the institution.  Essentially, these committees aim to weave a story about you:  they find themes that characterize you as an applicant and support them by through whole-block excerpts from the individual letters you’ve submitted.

What does that mean for me?

Well, since these advising committees need to find salient themes about you as an applicant, it behooves you to submit a wide variety of letters, from people who interact with you in highly differentiated settings.  Don’t be shy about requesting another letter; as long as it’s still supportive and provides a new insight into who you are as a person, a student, and a professional, add it in!

Do all schools create committee letters?

Not all schools have committees that serve the function of creating this cover letter that “weaves a story” about you.  In this case, your undergraduate or post-bacc institution will submit your letters as a packet to AMCAS.  It does not hurt your application if you do not have this committee letter (hey, if your school doesn’t offer it, they can’t penalize you for it!).  Also, you can always submit additional letters on your own alongside the rest of your application, or at a later time through AMCAS letter service.

How many letters do I need?

Schools generally require three letters, and one of them must be from a science professor (a “BPCM” professor in Biology, Chemistry, Physics or Math; the course you took with the professor does not have to be a premedical requirement).  But don’t limit yourself to three.  I advise at least five.  This means you’ll be the multifaceted, complex and interesting person on paper that you are in person.  And hey, even more is a good thing (to a point!).

Who should write my letters?

  • Science Professors – The only required one, as mentioned above.  Often, students are concerned that they won’t have a very strong letter from a science professor if their classes were all 200-person lecture-style courses.  Here’s my advice on that:  go to office hours!  That’s what they’re there for.  Office hours are designed to help you gain further understanding of the material (so make sure to come prepared with questions, as well), but also to be able to interface with people who share similar professional goals as you.  This latter role to office hours is often overlooked!  So, start showing up.  Not only will you help your grades in that challenging science class, but your dedication to the material will stand out to that professor so when you ask them for a letter down the line, they’re often happy to do so!
  • Non-Science Professor – Especially humanities!  Medicine requires strong critical thinking skills (what the MCAT tests), which requires the comprehension, construction, and dissection of arguments (read:  you’ve gotta be able to read between the lines!).  Doctors must be able to communicate clearly in both spoken and written language, and must be able to absorb vast amount of written material in a short time.  What classes teach this better than humanities courses (especially writing seminars)?
  • A Professor in Your Major – This may be a moot point, if you’ve already covered your major with a science or humanities professor.  But if your major falls outside those two realms, you certainly want to have a professor from the field you got your bachelors in.
  • Faculty Advisors to Clubs in Which You Had a Leadership Role, Bosses, Work-Study Programs – They can speak to special interests of yours, your assumption of and delegation of responsibility, and your time management skills.  These are all critical to your success (and sanity!) in medical school.
  • Principal Investigators, Physicians You’ve Shadowed, Representatives from Volunteer Programs – Whatever medical activities you’ve done in preparation for medical school need to be supported by someone in the world of science and medicine.  They show medical schools who you’ll be as a physician and scientist.
  • Anyone Who’d Be Notable by Their Absence – That’s sort of an odd way to word it, but you have to play a little defensive with the Letters of Recommendation.  Consider what you’ve highlighted in your application and what motifs appear throughout what you’ve written.  All of those highlights and motifs require support from a third-party candidate:  your letter-writer!

Who else have you been asking?  Is there anyone we’ve missed from our list?

Start the groundwork now:  create strong connections with professionals in all of your fields of interest.  And don’t forget to thank your letter-writers after!

This article is Part VI in a seven-part series on Holistic Admissions.  For more information, check out:

Alex Macnow

Alex Macnow I graduated from Boston University with a BA in Musicology and am currently a fourth year in medical school at the University of Pennsylvania. I took Kaplan to prep for my MCAT. After such a great experience with my course, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to teach and tutor hundreds of pre-health students for the MCAT, DAT, OAT and PCAT in both our Boston – Haymarket and Philadelphia Kaplan Centers. I am one of the Content Managers for Kaplan's new MCAT 2015 course. When I’m not preparing for residency or teaching MCAT, I enjoy playing classical piano, exploring new cuisines and traveling on road trips.

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