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
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
Applying to Med School
November 7, 2011

The Hardest Med School Interview Question

“So tell me about yourself.”

It’s not even a question.  It’s a request, and in the opening moments of your medical school interview, it may sound more like a hostile command.   But it is perhaps one of the most common ways in which your med school interviewers may invite you to join in conversation with them.  How would you respond to this non-question question?  It doesn’t seem easy, as I’m sure you’re well aware.  Because it’s so open-ended, we tend to hem-and-haw and sputter out the first thing that comes to mind, and our response usually starts with, “Well, I was born in…”  Ugh!  No!  You’re missing the point of the interviewers’ request.  They don’t care where, when, or how you were born; or where you lived until you were seven; or that you currently own a hamster.   (On the other hand, if you and your hamster have achieved world fame as a banjo duo, then you might want to mention that.)

What is the point, then, of this non-question question that so often gets us out of sorts? Well, that’s actually sort of the point:  they want to see how you respond to an unstructured situation.  Rambling on, creating one big messy non sequitur, or – worst of all – asking of your interviewers, “What do you want to know?” all point to the same problem:  a lack of both forethought and reflection.  Both are essential for being prepared to effectively manage unstructured or ambiguous situations.   You mistake their intention if you believe that they really only want to get to know you personally.  Sure, this is an opportunity to share personal information (more in a moment on what that means); but what you opt to share in response to the invitation reveals as much – if not more – about you as the actual details of your response.  Let me provide an example, but one that is so extreme, I’m guaranteeing you’ll get my point.  Saying, “Well, I love to get raging drunk every night.” reveals something about you.  And actually deciding that it would be appropriate to say, “Well, I love to get raging drunk every night.” as your opening line in a med school interview also says something – far worse – about you.

Med school interviewers rely on “So tell me about yourself.” because it is unstructured and open ended, and they know that how you respond will reveal not just some of your life details (no matter how banal or interesting) but also some of your character and values.   So give some forethought to your response by reflecting on the personal qualities you possess that are most appropriate to share with your med school interviewers.  Keep the following in mind:

1.  Your med school interview is a job interview; it’s not a first date.  Make sure the information you share is relevant to the primary goal of the interview:  to determine whether you and that medical school are a good fit.

2.  This is only the opening moment of the interview.  Keep your response short and to the point.  It should only take a minute or so to answer this question.  Like a good movie preview or a well written prologue, your response should capture your interviewers’ attention, draw them in, and get them excited to hear more from you.

3.  You can take control of the interview conversation by sharing information relevant to topics that your interviewers will be compelled to return to later (because you’ve given them a hint of something interesting about you that they just can’t wait to know more about).

4.  Remember that the interview is a continuation of a conversation that began months earlier with the AMCAS primary application, the personal statement, the secondary application essays, and the letters of recommendation.  Of course depending on whether your interview is based on an “open” or “closed” file, your interviewers will already know a lot , very little, or nothing at all about you.  Regardless, highlight a few accomplishments or qualities and illustrate them with a couple of short memorable stories.  People love stories, but only if they’re told well, so practice telling your stories before your interviews.

You’re going to be faced with this question.  Don’t fear it!  Look forward to it, and be prepared.

So, now that you know more about this question, tell me about yourself. more
Applying to Med School
March 22, 2010

Reapplying for Medical School

By Carleen Eaton, M.D. If the 2010 cycle will be your second (or third) application to med school, then you need to take a different approach than a first time applicant. Your goal is to differentiate your current application from the last one as much as possible, and to convince the committee that you are now deserving of a spot in the class. This means scrutinizing each section of the application and determining what is new or improved and making sure that those features stand out. In terms of timing, applying for back-to-back cycles may not be the best strategy if you have a major deficiency in your application, such as a very low GPA. Before you reapply, you need to determine the reasons for the unsuccessful application and then address them. Otherwise, you are likely to “use up” an application cycle without any real chance of admission. The result will be that you may end up applying a third time, which is less than ideal since some schools discourage a third application. This is not to say that a third time applicant will never be admitted, but it is more difficult. Instead, position yourself as strongly as possible before you reapply. Check out my November blog for ideas about how to use a year between applications most effectively. Once you have bumped up your MCAT score, improved your GPA or gained the clinical or research experiences lacking from your application, you will be ready to go forward. Here are some points to focus on as you fill out your application: 1. Personal Statement – Do not submit exactly the same personal statement as last time, especially if you are applying to some of the same schools again. Certain elements of the personal statement may remain the same, since, after all, your initial reasons for choosing medicine as a career have not changed. However, incorporate new elements such as achievements, adventures and activities from the past year and reword topics that you are retaining from the previous personal statement. Make sure that the opening and closing are new since these sections are essential in defining a piece of writing. Starting out with the same sentence or paragraph sets up the expectation that what follows will also be the same as last year. The personal statement needs to be well written, engaging and focused. Read your previous personal statement critically, or better yet, have an advisor or friend do so and get an honest assessment about the impact it made so that you can submit your best work this time around. 2. Work/Activities section – Adding clinical experiences and/or research to your list will enhance your application. Swap out less relevant activities to make room for at least a few activities that were not on your last application. 3.  Letters of Recommendation – Include at least one or two new letters that reflect your achievements since the last time you applied.  If you received a letter previously from someone with whom you still interact, such as a researcher whose lab you work in, then ask for an updated letter. 4.  List of Schools – Your application last time may have been competitive enough to get you into a med school, but just not competitive enough for the ones you had on your list. Reapplicants should have plenty of safety schools on their list (actually, all applicants should have plenty of safety schools on their lists). Use the MSAR (published by AMCAS)  to check out the schools’ statistics to formulate a list that will give you the best chance of admission somewhere. Applicants who succeed on a second or subsequent application are those who take the time to find the weaknesses in their application, fix them, and make sure that the application reflects this.  There are many med students and doctors who didn’t get in the first time around, so remember, an unsuccessful first (or even second) try, doesn’t mean that you have to change your career plans - just delay them a bit. more
Applying to Med School
March 15, 2010

Letters of Recommendation for Medical School

By Carleen Eaton, M.D. Determined to get your application in early, you take the MCAT in April, then immediately start work on your personal statement. You hit the “submit” button the day the admissions cycle opens and then figure you are set. Then comes a realization: one of your letters of recommendation is still not in. You try to contact your professor without success and eventually find out from the department secretary that she is doing fieldwork in Tibet for the entire summer. So much for being early. Unlike the rest of the application, the letters of recommendation are not fully in your control. You are depending on professors, physicians and researchers who are often very busy and not amenable to a short deadline.  Putting together a strong set of letters and having them ready to go early should be a high priority.  To achieve this, you need to know who to ask for letter, and when, and how. If your school offers a pre-health committee letter, then the process will be structured by your school and you need only to follow their requirements and deadlines.  Med schools often require that you obtain a committee letter if your school offers one.  If your school does not have a pre-health committee, you will need to obtain individual letters of recommendation. This is a frequent occurrence and will not put you at a disadvantage in terms of chances of admission. However, it means that you will have to manage the process yourself, making sure that you obtain the right mix of letters and get them submitted on time. The letter requirements differ by school, so check with the schools you intend to apply to. AMCAS allows you to submit up to 10 letters to their letter service, and then to specify which letters you want sent to specific schools.  This way, you can send tailor the combination of letters to the requirements of the school. You will need to obtain, at a minimum, letters from two science professors and one non-science professor to cover the requirements for a broad range of schools. You may also want to include letters from clinical or research experiences as well as letters from volunteer and paid work that are not directly related to medicine. If you are in a graduate program, obtain a letter from the program as well. Do not submit more than 6 to 7 letters to a single school, even if they don’t have an upper limit on letters. Once you have decided on whom to ask, you need to actually do the asking. If possible, ask the potential letter writer in person. If the person you are asking seems at all hesitant about writing the letter – do not get a letter from that person. A letter that is unenthusiastic, or outright negative, will reflect poorly on you. Once someone agrees to write a letter on your behalf, follow up by providing him or her with a packet of information about you. This should include copies of your resume and personal statement (a draft is fine); a summary of your accomplishments in the relevant class, lab or other setting; and instructions for submitting the letter. The summary of your accomplishments will provide the writer with easy access to details they can use in the letter. For example, if you took a course with the letter writer, state your grade in the course; list any projects or papers that you did well on; and remind the writer that you were a frequent visitor to office hours or the leader of a group project. The instructions you supply to the writers about submitting the letters depend on the method you are using to submit the letters. AMCAS accepts letters from college pre-health offices or career center letter services as well as from Interfolio and Virtual Evals. Letter writers can also directly upload letters to AMCAS or send them via regular mail. Asking for your letters early and following up with the writers to make sure that they have the information they need means that you can spend your spare time over summer break on the beach instead of scrambling to reach your professor in Peru.  Even better, you get to keep your “applying early” advantage and may end up finishing out the summer with an interview offer in hand. more
Applying to Med School
December 14, 2009

Medical School Rolling Admissions -Timing Matters (A Lot)

By Carleen Eaton, M.D. You thrive on deadlines. Fueled by coffee, with just hours remaining until your 20 page paper on “Medieval Jousts as a Foreshadowing Device in Early 17th Century French Literature” is due, you are intensely focused, pounding away full speed at the keyboard. While you can pull this off with a paper in school, this last minute approach is definitely not recommended for med school applications. The reason: rolling admissions. With rolling admissions, the schools do not wait until all of the applications are in to review them; they review them as they come in. Following committee review, competitive applicants are offered interviews. Acceptances are offered as early as October 15. As slots fill up in the class, the process becomes increasingly competitive for the remaining applicants. By spring, some schools are interviewing for the wait list only. Therefore, applying late in the cycle can have a detrimental effect on your chances of admission. So how early is early enough?  AAMCAS begins accepting applications on, or very close to, June 1. Ideally, you will have your primary application submitted by July 1.  Once it gets to late August, or especially September, some schools are already interviewing. Now that you know when to apply, the question is how do you get your application submitted early? With some organization and discipline, you can get this done while still maintaining your grades and an outside life. Just watch out for these pitfalls: 1. Waiting too long to ask for letters of recommendation - LOR are the part of the process over which you have the least amount of control. You can volunteer in five hospitals, study non-stop for the MCAT and achieve a GPA worthy of summa cum laude, all through your own initiative and effort, but you can’t make a very busy professor write a LOR at the last minute. To avoid being stuck waiting for a needed letter, request your letters at least four weeks in advance. 2. Not reviewing copies of your transcripts – Request a copy of your transcript from your each college you have attended and read every word of them. I have encountered situations where applicants found errors on their transcripts that needed to be corrected before they could submit them. This can cause a delay of weeks or longer, depending on the error and the school. 3. Giving yourself too little time to write the personal statement – Writing about oneself is hard. It is even harder when you only have 5300 characters in which to do so, while also trying to explain exactly why you want to be a doctor. Plan to spend a month on this. That way, you can work on it, and then set it aside for a few days between drafts in order to generate ideas. 4. Not realizing that it takes many hours to fill out the application – The fact that the instruction book for the AMCAS application is over 100 pages says it all. So, while getting into the flow state with your espresso and your laptop might work to crank out that history paper, don’t try it with the application. Start early, finish early and leave the adrenaline rush of hitting “submit” one minute before the deadline to someone else. more

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