Advisor Corner: Preparing for Committee Letter Process

Students are often strongly encouraged to obtain a committee letter of evaluation to support their medical school application if it is available through their undergraduate or post-bacc program. We asked four pre-health advisors to give their best advice to students who are seeking a committee letter.
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A committee letter is a letter authored by a pre-health committee or pre-health advisor and offers evaluation and advocacy on your behalf by highlighting your background and accomplishments, contextualizing challenges, and outlining your overall preparation and motivation for pursuing a career in medicine. A committee letter is often sent with additional letters of recommendation that you solicit from your faculty and others in support of your candidacy. Since students are often strongly encouraged to obtain a committee letter, if available through their undergraduate or post-bacc program, we asked four pre-health advisors what advice they have for students who are seeking a committee letter.

Ann Trail, MEd, health professions advisor at Villanova University:

Procedures for obtaining committee letters vary widely among institutions, so you will need to make sure you understand your institution’s process. You may need to attend information sessions, submit self-reflective essays, participate in interviews, and meet GPA and/or course requirements. With all this ahead of you, it is best to gain an understanding of the process early.

Often the committee letter includes an effort to add depth to your metrics. The writer will point out your strengths, areas for growth, and contextualize your journey. While any required interviews or essay packets can help, your writer will do a better job if they know you well. Be sure you are checking in early and regularly with them (at least once per semester).

In preparation for the committee letter process (and the application process), reflect on your experiences throughout your college career. I encourage students to keep a journal beginning with their freshman year. You obtained a position in a lab? What has surprised you? You volunteer in a public health clinic? What has challenged you? You tutor high school students? What has impressed you? What does your learning tell you about whether your intended profession is a good fit? It will be important for you to be able to talk not just about what you did, but what you have learned from your various experiences.

Finally, consider consulting with students who have already been through the letter process to gather tips for preparation at your institution.

Elisa Cripps, PhD, senior pre-health advisor, Division of Continuing Education, University of Colorado Boulder:

The preparation involved in receiving a committee letter will help you get started on application materials early and provide you with an honest, comprehensive evaluation of your current areas of strength as an applicant, as well as any areas still needing improvement. Armed with this feedback, you can make an educated decision about whether to go ahead with this year’s application process or to consider the possibility of taking an extra year to shore up on your preparation. Our goal is to help our advisees get into medical school the first time they apply in order to help them avoid the extra time, effort, expense, and mental anguish of having to reapply.

The first thing to do when you begin the committee letter process is to enter all of the deadlines into your calendar and set up automatic reminders. You do not want to be the one who is withdrawn from your committee letter process because you missed a deadline, nor do you want to make a poor impression because you rushed a step.

After you’ve marked your deadlines, treat your written materials as a draft of your medical school application. Be specific in conveying your experiences: insights you gained from them, how they shaped your motivations, and how they allowed you to develop personal skills and competencies that you will bring to the table as a future clinician. Sharing specific anecdotes can be an effective way to convey your personal characteristics, values, and motivations. If you are required to participate in an interview, complete at least one practice interview with a career counselor or mentor in advance. Well-prepared interviewees not only make a great impression, but also tend to provide us with more organized, thoughtful, articulate responses, which, in turn, allow us to write a strong letter for you.

Although medical schools value committee letters because they provide a distillation of who you are as an applicant, your participation in the process can actually make you a stronger applicant overall. You not only stand to benefit from the advocacy of your advisors, but also from the way in which the process compels you to review your accomplishments, reflect upon your experiences, organize your thoughts, prepare compelling application materials, and polish your approach to interviewing.

George Vassilev, MA, director of the Pre-Professional Advising Center at Brown University:

The committee letter is provided by some schools and programs as part of their support as you prepare to apply to medical school. Extraordinary attention and care is dedicated to writing such highly-personalized letters on your behalf. Since advisors may work with hundreds of students leading up to and during the application process, it is important that you do your part to make the process smoother and to assist your advisors with the important task to guide and support you. Follow advice, use credible resources from your college, the AAMC, or the American Association of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine (AACOM), and be judicious about opinions posted online or rumors—they can mislead you and make you anxious. At the same time, embrace your agency and responsibilities, take your time to prepare all materials thoughtfully, make sure you meet all deadlines, and be patient. Be kind to yourselves and empathetic to those who guide and support you, including advisors, mentors, peers, and family alike. Treat your advisors as co-pilots on your journey: they have your interests at heart, understand challenges, offer you privacy, help you assess your preparation, and advise you about the many aspects of the application process. Connect with them early and often and use all resources they provide, and you will be well informed about the application process and will help your advisors guide and support you in your journey.

Glenn Cummings, PhD, postbac program director, Bryn Mawr College:

Committee letters tell your story—your whole story, including your most significant experiences, but more importantly the evolution of your interest in medicine. You tell that story as well, of course, on your application, but the author of your committee letter reinforces the main themes in your journey through your upbringing, academic choices and achievements, activities, work, and volunteering—the steps along the way that led you to the moment of applying. Do not be shy about sharing this story with your advisor; supply them with whatever they ask to help them write the document, and spend some time really working on these materials. Also, as you meet with your advisor over the years of your undergrad or post-bacc education, and as you write about yourself, reflect on what is unique about your life. The author of your committee letter will want to highlight whatever distinguishes you, personally as well as professionally, from other applicants.

The committee letter can be particularly important to career-changer post-bacc students, given that they have often been out of college for a number of years. In such cases, the committee letter can fill in gaps, voice support for periods in the applicant’s life when no letter of evaluation can be secured, and clarify the how and why of that student’s decision to change paths. It is quite a risk to leave one’s current profession and redirect the course of one’s life toward medicine. Your advisor can help you explain how mindful you have been in the decision-making process.

Lastly, it’s important to remember that not all medical schools have a strong preference for a committee letter from each of its applicants—many do, but not all. If your undergrad institution or post-bacc program does not offer a committee letter to its students and alumni for medical school, please remember that applicants are accepted to medical school every year without such a document. Medical schools say frequently that applicants whose programs do not provide a committee letter are not penalized.

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