September 23, 2014

Med School Letters of Recommendation, Part 2

It’s a well known fact that med school letters of recommendation (LORs) are an important part of your application. In my last article, I provided some tips and guidelines to consider when choosing who to pick as your letter writers. Now that you know who you’ll be asking for letters, today we’ll pick things up by discussing how to request your letters and make sure you get them.  

Set Expectations for your Letter Writers

As soon as possible, and in person, ask each of your potential writers if they are willing to submit a great letter of recommendation on your behalf. Yes, you must say “great” in your request! If they aren’t excited to help, find someone else! To those that say yes, offer to meet with them for coffee or during office hours to give them additional information about your background and answer any questions they have about you. My organic chemistry professor and I met after class for this reason and ended up in a deep conversation about his recurring shin pain and how our fathers both have atrial fibrillation. Naturally, the discussion turned to my past professional medical experience and goals for the future – perfect fodder for a letter of recommendation!  

Give Useful Information About Yourself to Each Letter Writer

You need to make sure that your letter writers have enough information to write you a truly outstanding letter. While they should know a fair amount about you already, you need to provide them with the tools to complete the picture. In a big envelope, give each letter writer the following:
  • Cover letter: thank them for their help, share directions, deadlines, and contact info for you and your pre-med advisor, if applicable.
  • Directions for submitting their letter: Visit the AAMC website for complete instructions on submitting your med school letters of recommendation. Some letter writers know how to upload your letters themselves into the AMCAS system via Interfolio or other applications. Others will need an addressed, stamped envelope: the delivery address is either
    • your address
    • that of your pre-med advisor if he/she collects your letters on your behalf
    • AMCAS: Attn: AMCAS Letters, AAMC Medical School Application Services, P.O. Box 18958, Washington, DC 20036

Note: If you are collecting your own letters, keep them clearly sealed and mail them together to AMCAS. If the writer is sending the letter via USPS to AMCAS, you need to also include the official AMCAS Letter Request Form, downloaded from your AMCAS application.

  • Curriculum vitae: your “CV” is an expanded resume containing your educational background as well as work experience, extracurricular activities (non-medical and medical), leadership experience, teaching experience, awards and honors, and publications. Ask your mentor for a copy of their CV for a clear idea of what one looks like; for the rest of your professional career, you will add to this document!
  • Draft of your personal statement: invite them to respond with comments or suggestions for revision, if they wish, but mainly this is to give them a sense of what your application will look like.
  • Academic history: science & cumulative GPAs, undergraduate/graduate/post-bacc GPAs, explanations for poor performance, MCAT test score(s), and your short- and long-term goals for the future! If there’s a gap or flaw in your academic career, a strong letter may be able to help explain it.
  • Tentative list of medical schools to which you hope to apply: you never know who they might know! Plus, they may have insight into some of the schools or offer suggestions for ones you didn’t yet consider.

Be kind, but persistent about getting your letters returned on time!

Send brief, encouraging emails or phone calls well in advance of your deadline. In an email to your letter writer, carbon copy (cc) your letter writer’s secretary or assistant and your pre-med advisor if a deadline passes and you haven’t received confirmation that your letter is complete – this little trick has never failed me!

Submit your letters to AMCAS, and then write personal ‘Thank You’ notes to each writer.

A handwritten, simple, sincere message of thanks means more than you realize! You don’t have to go this far, but I was so thankful that so many busy people helped me with my application that I sent each of them a handwritten thank you note with some homemade cookies and a $5 coffee shop gift card. You don’t have to buy gifts or go overboard – just be thoughtful and communicate this in a timely, heartfelt manner.  

Keep your LOR writers updated with news of your application & acceptance(s)!

Some of these people will serve you well as mentors and friends throughout your medical career, so keep them in the loop! Nothing’s worse than for them to invest time and energy into making you look good for your application and never hearing what became of it. Typically, your letter writers will be overjoyed to hear about your med school acceptances! (At which point you can write them another thank you card.) more
Applying to Med School
April 29, 2013

Medical School Insider is here!

Kaplan Test Prep will host our fourth annual Medical School Insider tonight, Monday, April 29th at 8pm ET.  This is our biggest event of the year for pre-meds and you absolutely don’t want to miss it! The insights revealed at #medInsider are incredible, they’ll really change the way you look at the admissions process!  Be sure to mark your calendar now for this year’s live streaming event. Save your spot by clicking here now!  

Medical School Insider more
Applying to Med School
April 23, 2013

6 Days Until Med School Insider 2013!

Kaplan Test Prep will host our fourth annual Medical School Insider on Monday, April 29th at 8pm ET.  This is our biggest event of the year for pre-meds and you absolutely don’t want to miss it! The insights revealed at #medInsider are incredible, they’ll really change the way you look at the admissions process!  Be sure to mark your calendar now for this year’s live streaming event. Save your spot by clicking here now! A sneak peak from one of the questions last year:

What activities and extracurriculars should premed students get involved in? more
Applying to Med School
April 22, 2013

7 Days Until Med School Insider 2013!

Kaplan Test Prep will host our fourth annual Medical School Insider on Monday, April 29th at 8pm ET.  This is our biggest event of the year for pre-meds and you absolutely don’t want to miss it! The insights revealed at #medInsider are incredible, they’ll really change the way you look at the admissions process!  Be sure to mark your calendar now for this year’s live streaming event. Save your spot by clicking here now! A sneak peak from one of the questions last year:

Do medical schools have a cutoff for GPA and MCAT scores? more
Applying to Med School
April 20, 2013

9 Days Until Med School Insider 2013!

Kaplan Test Prep will host our fourth annual Medical School Insider on Monday, April 29th at 8pm ET.  This is our biggest event of the year for pre-meds and you absolutely don't want to miss it! The insights revealed at #medInsider are incredible, they'll really change the way you look at the admissions process!  Be sure to mark your calendar now for this year's live streaming event. Save your spot by clicking here now! A sneak peak from one of the questions last year:

What is holistic review in medical school admissions? more
March 4, 2013

The Pre-Medical Experience: A Critical Review

June 1st will be here before we know it.  Every year the opening day for submission of the AMCAS application comes and pre-meds apply to medical schools across the country in hopes of a coveted spot to continue the journey in their medical education. This past month the International Journal of Medical Education released a an article The undergraduate premedical experience in the United States: a critical review that raises some interesting points for pre-meds to consider as they begin to gear up for application season. Some important points to highlight from the journal shows empirical evidence insists that there is a strong correlation between pre-medical academic performance and pre-clinical academic performance. This just highlights how important your grades are.  Others argue that students enter medical school with values and ethical points that may be difficult to influence or alter with the current ethical curricula in medical schools. Recent studies on physician depression and burnout indicate that physician well-being is diminishing by the stress of pre-medical and medical education.  It is important to be well-rounded and find that ability to have life-work balance, to maintain happiness. Another interesting study cited in the article notes that the “pre-medical syndrome” perception of being cut-throat and competitive is actually just a stereotype and many pre-meds go above and beyond to diversify their courses and make it a point to work together in cooperative studying. The main conclusion from the article notes that while some more research is going to be needed to further expand the insight into what pre-medical education “is” and “what it needs”.  It might be interesting to conclude that while being “pre-med” correlates to formal curriculum requirements and strong social norms that influences the identity of the “ideal” and “successful” premed student, pre-meds as a whole are a unique and diverse set of individuals. This article provides a unique opportunity for you as a student to ask yourself a couple questions…
  • Why medicine? What draws you to it?
  • What are you doing to further your understanding of the medical community and things taking place in it?
  • How are classes going? Do you need to seek out help to improve grades in a particular area of study?
  • Have you established close relationships with professors that can attest to your character and provide a meaningful Letter of Recommendation?
  • What experiences help you standout that you could write about in your personal statement?
The important point I would like to convey to everyone is that there are certain requirements of the pre-medical track i.e. the MCAT, volunteering, coursework, etc. However, each of you has unique experiences that are forming your character and skill set that will be integral to your medical education and practice. Don’t lose sight of the big goal, the privilege and opportunity to be a physician. Find confidence in what makes you, and bring that into the upcoming applications! So I leave this post not only with thoughts of #MCATdomination, but more importantly a check to find that confidence that you can bring great things to medicine.  The stress and the long days can be hard, but the hard work pays off. more
January 11, 2013

Application Essentials VI: Letters of Recommendation

When you need advice on something, who do you turn to?  Your friends, of course! 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: more
January 3, 2013

Application Essentials V: Non-Medical Extracurriculars and Experience

There are many things to consider on your path to becoming an excellent physician: preparing for the MCAT (the current or the new MCAT 2015), nailing a 4.0 GPA both semesters, or writing a killer personal statement for that AMCAS application. And then there's the consideration of maintaining a personal and pre-med life balance: I'm planning on playing the piano more in this coming year.  Given the daily grind of medical school, it's gone on the wayside for some time, but it's always important to keep up with your life outside of medicine.  Which brings us to today's topic:  non-medical extracurriculars, and how they fit into your application. But aren't medical extracurriculars far more important? While medical schools do expect you to demonstrate your enthusiasm for medicine through research, shadowing and volunteerism, these are not the only activities that matter.  Non-medical extracurriculars help show who you are as a person outside the classroom, what kind of citizen you are within society, and what passions simply make you more human (and, thus, more relatable to patients).  They show your ability to balance myriad responsibilities, manage time, and hone multiple skills.  They allow schools to increase diversity of the candidates entering the medical school.  And, in the end, they often make you... you! What characteristics are schools looking for in these activities? There's no clear-cut answer, since every extracurricular is slightly different, but here are some themes you'd want to emphasize about these activities:
  • Leadership - taking an important position in the group (executive board, President of a Greek-letter organization, captain of a team, drum major of the band) demonstrates your ability to assume responsibility, be charismatic, and delegate activities efficiently.  A sustained leadership position significantly increases the relevance of an activity for the admissions committee.
  • Commitment - this may be in terms of time (the intense schedules of a college athletics team, hours upon hours of rehearsal for a theater show, diligent preparation for debate teams), duration (sticking with a particular activity during your college career), or even helping to found a group (granted, this also shows leadership).  In any case, the practice of medicine (and just practicing to practice!) requires commitment to your patients and to the delayed gratification of receiving that MD.
  • Well-roundedness - as mentioned before, these activities allow a school to create a more diverse class.  Which means that unique, unusual, or rare interests and skills are actually a great inclusion in your application.  Even if you feel that your extracurriculars are somewhat conventional, highlight something unusual about your experience in them; this is one of the few chances you have in your application to really stand out as a different personality from the other applicants.
What if I'm not in undergrad anymore? No worries!  If you're currently employed, your job acts as a non-medical extracurricular, and clearly a very strong one.  Strong personal interests can also act as non-medical extracurricular activities, whether it's yoga, running marathons, crafting, or anything else. There may be less that can be written about these non-medical activities, but that's simply because there's less of a clear-cut path than with medical extracurriculars.  Don't neglect them! As we move into 2013, what else are you focusing on to get you to medical school?  And how can we help you accomplish those goals? This article is Part V in a seven-part series on Holistic Admissions.  For more information, check out: more
November 13, 2012

The 2015 MCAT – Thoughts and Statistics

Last week Alex wrote about the The Big Buzz behind the 2015 MCAT changes.  Check out his post for more information on the new format and content which is also being highlighted in the Preview Guide for the 2015 MCAT Exam.
With all of this new information Kaplan surveyed medical school admissions officers to see what they thought about the revamped MCAT set to launch in 2015.  The new MCAT has the support of the medical education community.  Nearly 9 out of 10 (87%) medical school admissions officers support the changes to the MCAT, while only 1% don’t support the changes; 12% aren’t sure.   Similarly, 74% of admissions officers say the 2015 MCAT will better prepare aspiring doctors for medical school; just 5% say it won’t; and 21% aren’t sure of what its effects will mean. While the medical school admissions officers think the 2015 MCAT will produce stronger medical students, many also believe the road to medical school may become more intense for pre-meds.  40% say that pre-meds’ course loads will increase because of the additional content they will have to learn as undergrads; 46% say their course loads will stay at their current levels; and 15% aren’t sure.  No admissions officers say pre-meds’ course loads will become easier.  Many pre-med programs have already revised their curricula or are in the process of doing so to ensure that students – particularly freshmen and sophomores – are prepared to tackle the exam’s new content come 2015.
Other key results from Kaplan’s 2012 survey of medical school admissions officers:
  • MCAT’s Importance Increases: 51% of medical school admissions officers say an applicant’s MCAT score is the most important admissions factor – up from 43% in 2011’s survey; an applicant’s undergraduate GPA placed second at 23%, followed by relevant experience at 14%; the interview at 6%, letters of recommendation at 4%; and personal statement at 3%.
  • The Interview Process: 76% of medical schools say they use the traditional interview process – where applicants meet face-to-face with just a few officials for lengthier periods of time – down from 82% in Kaplan’s 2011 survey.  17% say they use the newer Multiple Mini Interview (MMI) process, where applicants are interviewed and assessed by many officials for shorter periods of time – only 6% said they used this process in Kaplan’s 2011 survey.
  In 2012, more than 45,000 aspiring doctors applied to medical school, a 3.1% increase over 2011. As always we will continue to preparing students for success.     * For the 2012 survey, 75 medical school admissions officers from the 141 Association of American Medical Colleges across the United States were polled by telephone between August and September 2012. more

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