Inside Med Admissions 2: Letters of Recommendation

The second episode of Inside Med Admissions focuses on letters of recommendation and is hosted by Dr. Scott Wright, the VP of Academic Advising for Mappd. The panelists for this episode are Dr. Leila Amiri, Assistant Dean for Admissions and Recruitment at the University of Illinois College of Medicine (UICOM); Kristen Anderson, Director of Admissions at Noorda College of Osteopathic Medicine; and Joel Daboub, Director of Admissions and Records at Dell Medical School.

How do medical schools use letters of recommendation?

At both Noorda and UICOM, recommendation letters are reviewed early in the process, along with the primary and secondary applications. The University of Illinois committee evaluates letters as part of the decision to offer an interview invitation or not.

A good letter can reveal “intangible aspects” of who the applicant is, augmenting the committee’s evaluation.

Interviewers at Noorda don’t have access to the letters of recommendation. They do have access to a video secondary that students submit to give a more complete sense of who the student is. Everything about the student is assembled into a packet when it comes time to make the final decision.

Dell Medical School reviews recommendation letters later in the process than most schools. Dell evaluates the rest of the application and extends interview invitations before reviewing letters of recommendation. The letters give context to the rest of the application and can highlight certain qualities or add things that would otherwise be missed.

What makes a good letter?

A good letter shows an understanding of the applicant and discusses personal interactions. These show that the writer knows the student well and can accurately comment on their pre-professional qualities and personality. Dr. Amiri wants evidence that the student can think critically and analyze complex information.

A good letter will also reinforce qualities you have already demonstrated in other application areas. An anecdote in a letter can show how you specifically live out that quality in a way that’s unique to you. A good letter may also address something you didn’t have room for in your application.

When getting a letter from a professor, remember how well they know you and not just how well you did in their class. A letter that only discusses your academic achievement doesn’t tell a committee anything that the rest of your application hasn’t already been made clear.

Apple Podcasts | Google Podcasts

How do I get to know my professors?

Students can be honest at the beginning of the class that they hope to ask this professor for a recommendation and ask what they can do to make that possible. Even without explicitly mentioning recommendation letters, it’s a good idea to start getting to know your professors early in the semester. This can be easier in upper-division classes where the population tends to be smaller.

Office hours are an excellent way for students to get time with the professor outside class, and you don’t have to be struggling to attend. You can talk to your professor about the subject matter or their research. It’s also helpful to show that you engage with your learning beyond going to class and then home.

Even if you have already graduated, you can get back in touch with professors. Many professors enjoy hearing how former students are doing. Each step of this process requires time, and creating and maintaining relationships with professors is no exception.

Is it okay to have someone other than your professor or PI write a letter?

It’s better to have an excellent letter from a TA or graduate student than a letter from the PI or professor that doesn’t reveal anything about the student. In this scenario, different schools may have other policies, so it’s always good to read the school’s website and understand their policies.

You may also be able to have a TA write a strong letter for you and then have the professor endorse it. There are also times when a composite letter might be written where the professor speaks to your academic achievements, the TA discusses personal qualities you possess, and both writers sign the letter.

What would make a bad letter?

It’s rare to see a letter actively recommending against accepting a student. It’s more common that the letter doesn’t have much substance. This doesn’t necessarily hurt the student, but it can show that they didn’t make the best choice in who to ask for a letter. If a committee does see what appears to be a negative comment in a letter, they may reach out to the writer for clarification. Ultimately, someone shouldn’t agree to write a letter for you if they can’t speak positively about you and in sufficient depth. It’s also good to consider whether this person is the best to ask.

Apple Podcasts | Google Podcasts

How are committee letters evaluated? What if I don’t have one?

When a student is seeking a committee letter, their school will have specific requirements, and this will vary between schools. Once the student has completed the requirements, the committee will collectively evaluate the student using set standards or a rubric. It will then submit that letter to schools on the student’s behalf.

While some schools may react poorly to a student who doesn’t have a committee letter, today’s panelists would not want this to damage an applicant’s chances. There are many reasons someone might not have a committee letter, including being a nontraditional student or failing to attend the required advising meetings. Many schools will ask why the student doesn’t have a committee letter, which can help ease any concern that the student or admissions committee may have.

Noorda does require a letter from a premed office, but that can be from an advisor or a committee. If neither of those is available or would be beneficial, an additional faculty or employer letter can be used. These can be especially helpful for students who have been in the workforce for a while and whose employers may know them better than their advisors. If you can’t meet some requirements, it’s good to reach out and see if a solution or compromise can be found.

Do you require physician letters, and if so, why?

Some osteopathic medical schools require a letter from a practicing osteopathic physician. Noorda does require a physician letter, but it can be from an MD or DO. They do like to see that students have had exposure to the osteopathic profession, but it’s entirely possible that they were just able to get to know an MD better.

Dell Medical School doesn’t require a physician letter, but reading a letter that speaks to your ability to care for patients or put people at ease can be helpful. This letter can come from a physician you worked with, an EMT supervisor, or an experienced nurse. It can be anyone who can speak with credibility to your bedside manner.

What can students do to ensure they have a good letter?

The AAMC publishes guidelines on how to write a good recommendation letter, and it can be good for students to give those to their writers so they have a clear sense of the expectations and goals.

Students need at least some faculty letters, but the key is that the writer can speak well about who you are and your value to the school’s community.

Don’t ask for a letter from an inappropriate source, like a patient.

Find out what formatting and logistical requirements schools may have for your letters. Do they need to be on letterhead or submitted with specific formatting? You don’t want your application to be held back due to formatting errors in your letter. If there’s an aspect you or the writer cannot fulfill, reach out to the school to find a solution.

More Links and Resources

The Premed Playbook Guide to The Medical School Application Process