Applying to Med School
September 16, 2014

Med School Requirements: Letters of Recommendation, Part I

Identifying Your Recommenders

As an MCAT instructor, I routinely field questions about the med school application process, especially concerning credentials and Letters of Recommendation (LORs). Your med school application’s LORs carry the potential to pull admissions committees over to your side by showing them your many diverse attributes and personal qualities. To highlight these, you’ll want to submit excellent recommendations from professionals who can paint a flattering picture of you by way of vivid descriptions and sincere commendation. [embed][/embed]

Requirements for your Letters of Recommendation

Each medical school has its own set of standards and formats for the LOR, so you’ll want to do some research into the specific schools to which you’ll be applying. If you’re applying to US allopathic (MD) medical schools, visit the AMCAS website and check out the latest Medical School Admissions Requirements (MSAR) guide. If you’re applying to osteopathic (DO) medical programs, you should visit the AACOM website and check out the Osteopathic Medical College Information Book. Regardless, make sure you know the deadlines, number of letters required, and which recommenders you will need to approach for your varying types of recommendation letters.

Types of recommenders for your med school requirements:

  • Science Professors: You’ll want at least one recommender from a pre-med science, like biology or anatomy, to speak to your hard science credentials. The letter should not be written by a teaching assistant, though TAs are welcome to contribute their thoughts to the professor writing your letter. If you don’t have strong relationships with any of your professors, start visiting them during office hours to build a rapport.
  • Non-Science Professors: Reach out to a humanities or social sciences teacher (past or present) as well.
  • Physician: You want to find someone who knows you personally and If you’ve worked with or shadowed a physician during your pre-med extracurriculars, this is the perfect place to start.
  • Pre-Med Committee (only if your school performs this service): This is basically a cover letter that is written by your school’s pre-professional advising committee, pre-med office, or similar body at the institution.
In certain situations, it’s also recommended that you request letters from the following individuals:
  • Research Director or Principal Investigator, if you have research experience
  • Representative from Volunteer Programs, if you have medical-related volunteer experience
  • Graduate Program Director, if you are a graduate student or have completed your master’s degree
  • An Update…: A new letter accounting for your past year’s activities, credentials, and successes (if you are re-applying)

Characteristics too look for in med school recommenders:

When choosing the recommenders to help you meet your med school requirements, it’s important to note that the credentials of your letter writers do not carry more weight than what they write about you! In other words, just because someone is a well-respected authority in a specific field doesn’t necessarily make them the right person to pen one of your letters of recommendation—it’s far more important that they know you as an individual. Along the same lines, you want to avoid the dreaded form letter of recommendation because it says nothing unique about your personal attributes vs. those of any other applicant. Your goal is to identify writers who are knowledgeable about two things:
  1. Your unique characteristics and credentials
  2. The demands of medical school or the medical profession
Ideally, each letter will highlight just one or two of your many admirable qualities and specific experiences, so that when the letters are combined, the med school admissions committees at the schools you’re applying to can get a vivid and complete impression of your character. The AAMC & admissions committees have identified the following qualities as standards for people in the medical profession*:
  • adaptability
  • critical thinking
  • integrity
  • logical reasoning
  • oral communication skills
  • personal maturity
  • reliability
  • self-discipline
  • work habits
  • compassion
  • cultural competence
  • intellectual curiosity
  • motivation for medicine
  • persistence
  • professionalism
  • resilience
  • teamwork
Looking at the list above, which of these qualities do you possess? Who are the people in your life that can attest to this? Answering these questions will go a long way towards helping you identify and choose the people who will write your letters of recommendation. Check back next week for Part II of our discussion on letters of recommendation—requesting your letters!   *”Examples of attributes likely to be important to admissions committees,” 2011-2012 MSAR, p. 41, (c) 2010 by AAMC more
Applying to Med School
January 9, 2012

Medical School Applications: A Plan for Success

Many of you undoubtedly have high aspirations for the coming year, and if you’re reading this then it’s likely that “Get into medical school” is at the top of your list. However, just as with any other resolution, getting it done is going to take a fair amount of dedication, a lack of tolerance for excuses, and perhaps most importantly, a concrete plan to take you from today to your goal. Now is the time to create that plan and put it into action, before you get distracted by classes, research, and the myriad other diversions that the school year holds. The most successful med school applicants are the ones who are best prepared, and being prepared means knowing what lies ahead of you. You probably already know that you should be submitting your medical school application in June 2015 to start medical school in the fall of 2016; but do you know why? The rolling admissions cycle used by most medical schools means that your chances of getting to the all-important interview stage are better when you submit your application at the beginning of the cycle, rather than waiting until the application deadlines in the fall. Having a complete application ready for submission in June is harder than it sounds, and there are several pieces of the application that you’ll want to start working on now in order to be ready in time:
  • MCAT Scores: It goes without saying that your MCAT score is a critical part of your application; in fact, a recent Kaplan survey of medical school admissions officers found that it was rated as the most important admissions factor. The AAMC, along with most schools, recommend studying for at least 3 months prior to taking the exam, and many students with busy schedules find that they need even more time. Regardless of when you’re planning to take the MCAT this year, now is the time to think about how you’re going to prepare.
  • Personal Statement: A few weeks ago we published an article about the role of the Personal Statement in admissions and the importance of starting it early. After the MCAT, this crucial essay is the most time-consuming part of your application, so be sure to give yourself a head start to produce an excellent essay and to avoid additional stress in the spring.
  • Transcripts: While this may seem like the easiest item on the list, the procedures used by AMCAS to verify your transcripts can make it a lengthy process. Not only will you need to input each and every class you’ve taken at all of the colleges you’ve attended, you’ll also need request that an official copy of your transcripts be sent to the AAMC; the official versions will be used to verify the information you’ve submitted online, a process that can take several weeks at best.
  • Letters of Recommendation: While Letters of Recommendation typically don’t take as much effort on your part, they can still take a significant amount of time to collect. Not only do you need to decide who your letter-writers will be, you’ll also need to provide assistance and stay on top of them throughout the writing process to make sure that your letters aren’t neglected.
So there you have it! While there are certainly many other things you’ll need to do in the coming months to get ready for medical school, getting an early start on these key components of your application will make sure that you’re on the right path for the next medical school admissions cycle. 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
Pre-Med Life
October 3, 2011

Pre-Med Advisors: Your very best friends

The Most Important Pre-Med Resource

If you’re like most pre-medical students, you’ve felt lost at some point on your path towards becoming a physician. Whether it’s been when choosing your courses for the next two years, putting together a plan for the MCAT, or figuring out how to get letters of recommendation, the path to medical school is filled with twists and turns that can easily be frustrating if you don’t understand how the system works. In their frustration, many students turn to peers, to friends who have already been accepted, and to online forums like the Student Doctor Network to get their questions answered. While these resources can certainly produce some worthwhile information, there’s one person that you should turn to before any of the others: your pre-medical advisor!


I’m always amazed by the number of students I meet who under-utilize the knowledge and experience of their advisor – or who don’t use them at all. In some ways, it’s easy to see how this happens; as pre-med students, we’re used to going it alone and figuring things out for ourselves. It’s easy to assume that your advisor will be there for you if and when you have questions, but all too often by the time you realize you have a question you’ve already put yourself in an unfavorable position – and even then many students are still too embarrassed or proud to admit that they need help.

The Benefits of Working With Your Pre-Med Advisor

Years of Experience Helping Students Get Into Medical School

Rather than waiting until you find yourself in a hole, be proactive about meeting regularly with your pre-med advisor – starting from the moment that you decide to be a pre-med (or even before; if you’re not quite sure if it’s the path for you, your advisor may be able to help you figure that out!). A skilled advisor brings many benefits to the process. For example, while you may already have a good idea of the classes you need to take to prepare for medical school, your advisor will be able to help you choose the sections and faculty members who are best suited to your specific needs. Similarly, most will have the benefit of having worked with students for several years, and will have a good sense of what works and what doesn’t. That knowledge will pay off for you as they point you toward opportunities for clinical experience and research work.

Relationships with Medical School Admissions Committees

By far the greatest benefit of a strong relationship with your advisor comes during the admissions process itself. If your school is known to create a committee letter for applicants, it will raise questions about your application if you choose to go it alone instead. In addition to helping you collect the various elements of your application (transcripts, test scores, and letters of recommendation), your advisor is often your strongest advocate with the admissions committees. In some situations, a personal recommendation from an advisor can be enough to tip the scales from denial to acceptance, so it certainly benefits you to develop a strong relationship.

Finally, I know that not all applicants to medical school have a strong advising program that they can rely on; non-traditional students, as well as applicants from smaller schools, often don’t have a dedicated advising office to turn to in the same way that their counterparts at larger colleges and universities can. If that’s the case, make sure you reach out to the National Association of Advisors of the Health Professions (NAAHP), who can often help put you on the right track. more
Med School Experience
September 26, 2011

Topics in Medicine: Medical Resident Work Hour Regulations

The path to becoming a physician is, to say the least, quite long. Four years of medical school is followed immediately by a minimum of three years of residency - only once that’s completed can you start practice as an attending physician. It’s important, therefore, to know as much as possible about residency rules and regulations ahead of time so you don’t end up surprised by what’s awaiting you after medical school.

In 2003, the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education (ACGME) made substantial changes to medical resident work hour regulations. For the first time ever, a limit was placed on the number of hours residents could work per week – a change that was sparked by a link between medical errors and sleep deprivation. Now, this would normally be good news to residents, but the limit was nowhere near the 40-hour week that most employees in the United States are accustomed to working. Instead, the ACGME placed the limit at 80-hour weeks. It is important to note that this never became a law; however, if residency programs did not adhere to the restrictions they risked losing their accreditation.

On July 1, 2011, the ACGME once again changed the residency hour restriction. This time, they reasoned that it would be better to make medical interns (first-year residents beginning their training weeks after graduating from medical school) work fewer hours than more seasoned residents. As a result, interns’ maximum shift lengths were lowered from 30 hours to 16 hours straight, while residents in their second year and higher would continue to be restricted to a maximum of 28-hour shifts. Interns must now also have at least 10 hours off between shifts. The goal, once again, is to curb medical errors – especially by the most junior of medical residents. Considering that it takes the human body some time to adjust to being awake for long hours working in a hospital with limited access to food (the cafeteria closes, but the coffee maker seems to always stay on), this is quite reasonable. There are, however, some people who disagree with the new regulations.

Medical educators claim that these new restrictions prevent interns from learning as much as they need to in order to succeed later on in their careers. Whenever a new patient is admitted to a hospital, the first 24 hours are spent assessing, diagnosing, treating, and monitoring the patient. Interns will now have to excuse themselves partway through this process, and some physicians believe that this will limit the experience they could gain from staying in the hospital and continuing with the patient care process. Others suggest that the number of medical errors due to fatigue is similar to the number of errors due to the transfer of patient care, and that by limiting intern hours patients will be transferred more often between residents – thus producing an increase in errors.

The main issue that keeps coming to light is that once again demand is increased without a simultaneous increase in supply. By limiting the intern hours without creating more resident positions, senior residents and staff physicians are left to pick up the slack. The key here seems to be that the healthcare provider segment is not increasing its available student positions as quickly as people would like. More international medical graduates are coming to the United States to fulfill some of the demand, but there still continues to be a shortage of physicians throughout hospitals, further requiring long work hours in a 24-7 industry. For the time being though, at least the interns will be able to get some much needed shut-eye, and for that, you won’t hear much complaining from them or medical students! more

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