Questions About Committee Letters & Letters of Recommendation

Letters of Recommendation/Committee Letter
The Committee Letter
Securing Letters of Recommendation ‘Early’
Storing Recommendation Letters at HPA
Guidelines for Writing a Letter of Recommendation
Securing Recommendations from Professors Teaching Large Classes

Letters of Recommendation/Committee Letter

Question:  I am a sophomore hoping to apply to medical school starting a year from now (summer after junior year), to go straight into med school after graduation.  You request that we have 4-6 letters of recommendation submitted to your office.  I read that you forward all recommendations to medical schools.  Do these 4-6 recommendations take the place of us having professors send letters directly along with our applications over the summer?  Or do I need to ask professors to write two sets of recommendations?  My brother informed me that medical schools only want 3 letters of recommendation.  So how does HPA forward 4-6 to medical schools?  Will admissions committees read them, or does someone assign priority to them?

Answer:  Generally speaking, medical schools require at least three letters of recommendation.  We collect up to six for each applicant in this office, and forward them along with our evaluative letter, which is based on your pre-application interview. The entire packet of material is referred to most often as your "committee letter."  We forward these packets to medical schools for you in the summer of the year you're applying. Your recommenders do not send letters directly to medical schools, nor should you ask them to do so. All letters come directly from this office. We cannot know whether the schools read every letter or not. We hope that they do. But in case they don't, we do put the very best letters right behind our evaluative letter, so that your strongest are on top.  We limit everyone to six letters max, no more; most applicants gather four or five. 

The Committee Letter

Question: I hear my friends talking about a committee letter that they have to get when they apply to medical school. Could you tell me what this is and why it’s important? Is it something I should be thinking about as a freshman?

Answer: The committee letter, also called a composite letter, is a two-page summary of your candidacy to health professions school. It is written by HPA advisers, and incorporates information from your individual letters of recommendation, your academic history, your co-curricular activities, and additional information that we ask for when you’re applying. Simply put, the committee letter is a reflection of what you have done and who you are as a future health professional. You can read more about the logistics of it on the HPA Committee Letter Process page of our website. As a first-year student, you should be thinking about all of the points we summarize in our Preparing for a Career in the Health Professions guide regarding suitability for a career in the health professions and planning your premed/pre-health program, including co-curricular and academic planning. It doesn’t hurt to come by the office and begin to build a relationship with your advisers, since the better we know you, the easier it is to write the committee letter in the future, and the more we can act as a sounding board as you make your academic and co-curricular choices. 

Securing Letters of Recommendation ‘Early’

Question:  Hi, I have a question about recommendations.  If I am planning to apply to med school maybe a year or two out of college, should I still ask professors for letters of recommendation now?  Also, what if I plan to apply to other types of schools or grants or programs in the meantime that also need recommendations--can faculty write a general type recommendation letter?  Or is it OK to ask the same professor for multiple letters?  Presumably they wouldn't have to change much, but I would guess having them tailor made for what you are trying to do is best.  What is the protocol for this?

Answer: If you do not plan to go to med school until a year or two after college, then you will gather the bulk of your med school letters during your senior year when you’re nearing the culmination of your undergraduate career.  However, in certain cases you might ask for a letter early—anytime during college—if you are afraid that someone will forget you, or if the recommender is leaving Princeton and may be difficult to contact in the future.  Please refer to the Letters section of the website for materials to give to your writers. We will keep any letters that arrive in this office in your file at HPA to be used during the year you apply to health professions schools. As for your secondary question, an all-purpose letter is not generally helpful, especially for medical school; your recommenders will need to tailor letters for specific purposes, although you’re right, there usually isn't too much work involved in this 'tweaking' as long as the recommender remembers to keep a copy of their letter. 

Storing Recommendation Letters at HPA

Question: I had a great summer internship and my supervisor offered to write me a letter of recommendation. Can HPA store it for me until I apply?

Answer:  It’s helpful to ask for a letter from someone right away if you don’t think you’ll remain in contact in the future. Health professions schools prefer recent letters, so some students will ask for letters early, and then contact your recommenders again to ask them to update the letter once you’re actually applying. We are happy to keep letters of recommendation on file for you. Please follow the guidelines on our website when requesting letters of recommendation. Also note that we can only send letters to health professional programs, not to internships, employers, or other institutions.  

Guidelines for Writing a Letter of Recommendation

Question: I had a great relationship with my freshman seminar professor this semester, and I asked her for a letter of recommendation. She hasn’t written many letters for med school, and was wondering what kind of information to include? Are there any guidelines for what should be included in a letter of recommendation? 

Answer: Just this month, a working group of med school personnel, premed advisors, and other administrators within the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) published a set of guidelines that can be shared with letter writers. These guidelines emphasize the idea that a letter should provide an assessment of your suitability for medical school, they provide suggestions for the kinds of background information that can be helpful within a letter (e.g., how long the recommender has known you and in what capacity), and they stress the importance of pointing out ways that you might make a unique contribution to your medical school class. Most importantly, they highlight the desire that recommenders comment on behaviors that they have observed that may demonstrate core-level competencies that the medical schools are looking for in future physicians. You can find the guidelines online here.

Of course, they don’t expect any single letter writer to be able to speak to all of the competencies, but ask you consider who you’re asking for a letter, think about which ones you may have exhibited while working with them. For example, if you participated in a group project that culminated in a presentation, they may be able to comment on your teamwork skills and oral communication. If your first paper needed serious work, and you went into office hours and to the writing center, and improved your writing substantially by the end of the semester, he professor could comment on your capacity for improvement and response to a challenging situation (resilience and adaptability), and possibly your critical thinking and written communication skills. As a freshman, you can also consider these competencies as you choose your activities going forward, so that you always have an eye on your personal development relative to the kinds of habits of mind and personal characteristics that are valued in a holistic admissions process at the medical school. The full definitions of the competencies are available here.

Aside from the actual text that’s within the letter, we also refer you to the letter of recommendation form that’s available to give to each of your recommenders, so that they know where to send their letters, and our office’s suggestions for letter writers (both are available as pdf documents here). 

Securing Recommendations from Professors Teaching Large Classes

Question:  I just had a quick question about good sources for recommendations here at Princeton. I am majoring in Econ, which I love. However, since most of the science classes I have taken thus far - as a non-major - are large classes, how would you suggest I go about getting recommendations for med school? Anyway, thank you again for all your help. I truly appreciate it!

Answer:  When the time comes to apply to medical school, we will require that you find at least two people in science (preferably people who have taught you, but not always) to write you letters of recommendation.  If this seems difficult given the size of the pre-med science courses, our first hope would be that you will continue beyond the med school requirements and take smaller, upper-level science classes during junior and senior year, where you will get to know your faculty more easily. However, if for some reason it is still a concern of yours at the time you're applying, then you should approach the professor or TA in person, ideally after making an appointment (not hectic office hours, if it can be helped). Bring with you a copy of one assignment from the class, just to jog their memory; a resume or informal list of activities; a rough draft of a statement about why you are pursuing medicine (often this is a draft of the Autobiography that you will write for our office, but not always). Have this material available in a folder and offer it to your potential letter writer. It's probably much more than they need, but it's better to have too much information about yourself rather than too little. When you meet, talk with them about why you're asking them and see if they have additional questions for you, and ask if they feel that they know you well enough to write you a supportive letter of evaluation. Offer to follow up with another meeting or to answer any questions they may have by email. As long as you performed well in their classes and you've provided the recommenders with additional info, it is very rare that a professor refuses to write a letter, or writes a poor one, if the student goes to that much trouble.  

Humanities/Social Science letter

Question:  I’ve heard that a letter from a non-science professor (from the humanities or social sciences) is required for medical school.  However, you don’t mention this in the Application Guide on your website.  Is the letter from a humanities or social sciences professor something that is optional, recommended, or required?

Answer:  Please let us know if you've come across this policy from a specific medical school. As far as we know, as long as you have a committee letter, schools do not also require a specific non-science letter. We advise you to gather 4-6 letters of recommendation, two of them being from people in the sciences. For a science major who may also have letters from lab supervisors, it might be a good idea to round out her recommendations with a letter from a discipline in the humanities or social sciences, maybe from someone who has seen the student in a context other than a lab.  But for another student, such a letter might not be necessary. The best letters of recommendation are those written by people who know you well. Their background is not as important as what they’ve seen you do—make an oral presentation, prioritize tasks, write clearly and critically, interact with others, lead a group, etc. And also important is the diversity of perspectives your letters present as a group.  No single letter will depict the whole you.  

Is it OK if one of my fellow students writes a letter of recommendation for me?

Question:  I'm applying to medical school this summer.  I'm collecting letters of recommendation, and I'm wondering if it's okay to have a letter from a peer. I'm not saying my best friend, but someone who I became acquainted with as a result of my being the president of a student organization, someone who can talk about my extensive involvement in this organization but who is still only an undergrad. Thank you.

Answer: In general, no. Letters from peers aren't valued much by medical schools and we would recommend you avoid them. The comments of your acquaintance, as a current undergraduate, won't be taken very seriously by medical schools UNLESS she/he co-writes the letter with an administrator or dean on campus. Does your student organization have a faculty sponsor or adviser, and if so, might this person sign off on the letter while your friend writes most of it? This would be the only way to proceed, if feasible. 

A Letter From a Doctor I Shadowed

Question:  I’m working on getting my letters of recommendation together and I’m thinking of asking a doctor that I shadowed since that’s my main medical activity. Do you think that’s appropriate?

Answer:  Most of the time, we’d probably say no, but it would help to know more about the shadowing experience that you had. For example, if you shadowed a physician whom you have known over a number of years, you had a sustained period of shadowing (i.e., longer than a day or two), you had a number of in-depth discussions with the physician about your interest in medicine and your observations of his or her work, and you had a lot of interaction with patients, staff, etc., during your time that the physician witnessed, then that letter may be appropriate. If it was someone who you didn’t know well, who you shadowed for just a few days or few sessions, and the extent of your interaction was watching him/her work and asking some questions along the way, then probably not. You want your letters to come from individuals who know you well and can comment on your suitability for a career in medicine based on observations they have made of your personal competencies, as described in the Guidelines for Writing a Letter of Evaluation proposed by the American Association of Medical Colleges. Read through the guidelines and see if you think that the physician you shadowed can comment on these aspects of your candidacy based on the time you spent together. If not, then probably better to use the shadowing experiences in other ways in your application – describe what you saw and learned in your activities list, maybe share an anecdote or two in your personal statement, discuss your experience at your interview – but seek out letters from individuals who are more qualified to speak about what medical schools are hoping to learn about you from your letters. 

Letter from Preceptor or TA

Question: Is it OK to get a letter of recommendation for med school from my preceptor? I’m applying this summer and at the meeting before winter break I thought you said that preceptors were fine. Just checking. Thanks!

Answer: Your memory serves you well. A letter of recommendation from a preceptor or a TA is fine. You’ll want two letters from someone who taught you in science courses, and often in the science disciplines it is the preceptors, TAs, and lab instructors that get to know you best. If a preceptor offers to co-sign his/her letter with the primary professor for the course, that’s nice, but it certainly isn’t necessary. Any doctoral candidate at the University who instructs our undergraduates is a perfectly acceptable recommender. Now, one final note: Princeton is not a large state school where many of your courses (particularly introductory ones) might be taught by graduate students; you do have the advantage at Princeton of meeting our more senior faculty from time to time. It would appear strange to medical schools if all of your 4-6 letters were from preceptors!  

MD/MPH Recommendation Letters

Question:  If I am planning to apply for an MD/MPH joint degree, how should I go about asking for recommendations?  Can I ask the same people to discuss their experiences with me with respect to both medicine and public health in one letter?  Or do I need to find two different sets of people to write separate recommendations for the MD and MPH?

Answer:  Each MPH program has slightly different requirements concerning letters of recommendation, so it's always best to check directly with the programs you've chosen to determine what they would prefer.  Generally speaking, we would recommend that you obtain separate letters of recommendation for the two programs, MD and MPH.  Your committee letter from our office, which contains recommendation letters for medical school that you have asked your recommenders to submit to us, will go to your medical schools.  For MPH programs, however, you should gather approximately 3 letters discussing your interest in public health.  The people who write your MD and your MPH letters may certainly overlap; you need only ask each to tailor his/her letter to each advanced degree, creating two versions - often the changes needed are very slight.  How do the MPH letters get to your schools of public health?  If you apply through SOPHAS (the centralized application service), you will submit your letters electronically. The sending of your med school letters is taken care of entirely by the HPA office. 

Additional Recommendation Letters If Wait-listed

Question:  I am wondering about getting more letters of recommendation to augment my application at wait-list schools. At this point, can I just have the writer send the letters directly to the schools or, to save them time, can I take the letter myself and copy and send it to the schools? My PI here at the NIH has written me a letter already, but I may have one of the post-doctoral fellows with whom I work very closely write me another one. I know they would be happy to do so.

Answer: The letters should still be confidential, so give your recommenders the stamped-addressed envelopes and ask them to send the letter as soon as possible to the schools where you are wait-listed. This is a very good idea. They could also email the letter if their letterhead appears in the email. In that case you could give admission deans’ titles and email addresses to the recommenders to use. Good luck!