When preparing your medical school application, you can obtain either a premedical committee or individual letters for your letters of recommendation (also known as letters of evaluation). A premedical committee letter is obtained from your academic institution’s premedical committee, while individual letters are obtained from individuals you can speak about you personally.
If your school provides a committee letter, you should take that option; medical schools prefer, and sometimes even require, that you use a committee letter when it’s available.
However, if your school doesn’t have a premedical committee, don’t worry; individual letters work very well as long as you follow the requirements medical schools set regarding the number and type of letters to be submitted.
What a premedical committee letter tells a medical school about you
Many undergraduate schools have a premedical advisory committee or Health Professions Advisory Committee (HPAC) typically composed of a school’s prehealth advisor and one or more faculty members who oversee the premedical advising process. The school’s premed committee usually has an established process in which it evaluates a med school applicant and then produces a letter of evaluation known as a premedical committee letter or HPAC letter.
Although the details vary by school, a committee letter often contains information about an applicant’s academic achievements; clinical, research, leadership, and community service experiences; and other activities. Quotations from letters submitted on the applicant’s behalf by professors, physicians, or other evaluators are included in some committee letters, and/or entire letters from individual evaluators are added to the committee letter.
In addition, the letter usually provides an overall assessment of the strength of the applicant’s candidacy for medical school, and some schools even rank applicants in comparison to each other.
The committee may ask you to submit some or all of the following to help the members prepare the letter:
A curriculum vitae (cv) or resume
A draft of your personal statement
Letters of recommendation from faculty and others who have supervised you in academic, clinical, research, or other professional-type settings
Responses to a committee-provided questionnaire where you describe applicable activities and discuss your reason for pursuing a career in medicine, your strengths and weakness, and other relevant information
After the committee collects and reviews the information, you usually undergo an interview with one or more committee members. The process culminates with the committee writing a letter of evaluation on your behalf and submitting it to application services or medical schools.
At some institutions, the prehealth advising office doesn’t provide a true committee letter; however, the advisor may still coordinate individual letters of recommendation. In this case, faculty, physicians, and other evaluators send letters to the premedical advisor, who usually writes a cover letter and sends it plus the individual letters as a single packet to the application service or medical schools.
Applicants using this kind of letter packet need to follow the guidelines medial schools set for individual letters when selecting evaluators.
If your college offers a committee letter and you submit individual letters instead, medical schools may request a written explanation about why you haven’t submitted a committee letter.
Excuses such as missing the deadline for obtaining a letter or believing that individual letter writers can do a better job than your committee aren’t valid reasons for circumventing a committee and may hurt your application.
Check with your premedical advisor about the process of obtaining a committee letter at the beginning of the academic year in which you plan to apply. Schools start the committee letter process as early as fall, and you don’t want to be stuck scrambling at the last minute to obtain needed documents or worse, to lose out on the opportunity to obtain a letter at all.
Conscientiously follow whatever procedures the premedical committee sets for obtaining a letter because committee letters sometimes mention when a student has demonstrated poor planning or an unprofessional attitude during the committee letter process.
What individual letters tell a medical school about you
Applicants who attend schools that don’t offer a committee letter needn’t worry that they’re at a disadvantage in the application process. If the option for a committee letter isn’t open to you, using individual letters doesn’t reflect negatively on your application.
Check with each school you plan to apply to about its letter requirements. Med schools usually require a minimum of two to four letters and may or may not have a maximum. Some schools require that one or two of the letters be from science faculty but don’t put any restrictions on letters beyond that.
Others may stipulate that one or more evaluators must be individuals with whom you’ve taken a class (versus faculty with whom you’ve only done research) or that at least one letter be from a faculty member from the same department as your major. A small number of schools ask for a nonscience faculty letter, which can be a challenge to obtain for science majors who have taken few nonscience courses.
In addition to the required letters, you can choose to send extra letters to the schools as long as you don’t go above any maximum number allowed. Even if a school doesn’t have a max guideline, consider limiting the number you send to no more than five or six. Extra letters may come from the following sources:
Additional science or nonscience faculty
Researchers who have supervised your work in basic or clinical research
Physicians with whom you’ve shadowed or volunteered
Supervisors from paid employment or volunteer positions
Advisors for clubs or other organizations with which you’re involved
Don’t get letters from teaching assistants; academic letters should be written by faculty. If the TA for the course knows you well, he or she can provide input for the professor to include in the letter, but the evaluator must be a faculty member, not a graduate student or even a post-doctoral fellow, for the letter to hold weight.