Questions About Committee Letters & Letters of Recommendation

The HPA Committee Letter

What is the committee letter and why is it important?

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 cocurricular 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.

It can be a helpful road map for an admissions officer to read since it summarizes information found throughout your application materials into a cohesive narrative.

You can read more about the logistics of it on the HPA Committee Letter page of our website.

Are there things I should do for HPA as a first-year student to make sure I can get a committee letter?

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/prehealth 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. But we will write a committee letter for any Princeton student or alum who meets our eligibility criteria, and we have applicants every year who we meet for the first time in the preapplication process. Please use our office in the ways that work for you!
 

A friend of mine is afraid to go to HPA until he’s sure he wants to go to medical school because he’s afraid that any doubt about the career will be mentioned in the committee letter. Is that really something you would write about in a committee letter?

We would honestly be surprised if there were students who didn’t experience some doubt about the career choice during their time at Princeton. We expect you to be using these years to try on different possibilities, get a better sense of what medicine and other careers might be like, and what fits for you based on all of the new perspectives that you gain from your college experience. We are happy to act as sounding boards in this process. It can be especially helpful to talk with us through any accompanying academic difficulty since we will try to provide context around academic issues in your committee letter and understanding your difficulties in the moment may make it easier for us to capture your growth from the experience in the letter. Plus, we might be that we can provide you useful advice that could inform your decision, or help you navigate academic challenges. The better we know and understand you from as many angles as possible, the more we will be able to write a detailed, strong committee letter.

I heard that there were certain guidelines that we have to follow to get a committee letter from HPA. Does that include having a specific GPA or MCAT score? I'm afraid my GPA won't be high enough to get a committee letter.

Some colleges have specific cutoffs, but we do not. Our eligibility criteria are listed on our website, and as you will see, they have to do with logistics, not metrics. But, we do consider it our duty as advisors to caution you against applying before we think that you're likely to reach the goals you have set for yourself in the application process—it is our job to help you consider your strengths and areas to improve, and your likelihood of success given qualitative and quantitative data from past application cycles. Additionally, our advice is based on many factors beyond metrics—admissions is holistic and there are candidates with very high metrics who we advise to take more time to shore up other parts of their preparation (see FAQ on Barriers to Acceptance), or students with relatively low metrics who we think are likely to break through in the process given other aspects of their candidacy (e.g., distance traveled, personal qualities, career vision, upward trajectory). 

But, at the end of the day and given all of the information we can share with you, it is still your final decision as to whether or not you'll apply in any given year, and we will support you as strongly as we can with our advice and our committee letter.
 

I’m participating in a postbac record enhancer program. My postbac program offers a committee letter service, but I know that Princeton does, too. Should I get two committee letters? If not, which one should I use?

Since the purpose of the committee letter is to summarize and present your candidacy overall to medical school admissions offices, there’s no reason to have two. We would recommend choosing whichever letter you think is more likely to provide the best assessment of your candidacy.

On the Princeton side, you are required to meet our eligibility criteria, which include the timing and number of science courses that you took at Princeton, and at least one letter from someone who taught you in a science who can speak to your abilities in the sciences. For some students—especially those who have been away from Princeton for a while or who feel that they will have a stronger committee letter without a Princeton science letter—it makes more sense to use the postbac committee letter.

Overall, about 25-30% of applicants whom we have supported with a committee letter in recent years took some postbac coursework before applying. We’re happy to talk pros and cons with you as you make the decision—we will not be offended if you choose not to receive a committee letter from us! Students who choose to use the committee letter service through their postbac program can still receive advising through HPA during the application process—we’re happy to give you access to our online, Princeton-specific resources, talk with you about your school list, essays, etc. Just be in touch with us to let us know your plans!

Letter logistics

How many letters do I need?

Generally speaking, medical schools require at least three letters of recommendation. For applicants who receive our committee letter of recommendation, we ask you to collect from three to six letters. We send all of them along with our letter (your recommenders do not send letters directly to medical schools). 

For other health professions, the standard is three or four, often with one required from someone who speaks to your academic/science ability, sometimes with one required from a health professional.

Different medical schools have different letter requirements. How do I make sure that I meet them all?

If you're receiving the HPA committee letter, in almost every case, a medical school will accept what we send them in lieu of their individual letter requirements. As you check school websites, you'll usually see language like, "either a committee letter from your institution OR xyz letters." The exception is for osteopathic medical (DO) schools that often require a letter from a physician even if you have a committee letter. Please let us know if you find schools that ask for specific letters even if you have a committee letter since it's helpful to keep track of this on our end. 

If you're not receiving the HPA committee letter, create a spreadsheet or other organizing document and pull together the requirements from each of your schools of interest, then generate a list of writers who will cover all of them. Have each writer submit their letter separately (or we can upload their letters individually into the letter writer portals for the application services), and then assign the appropriate letters to each school. You should find that there's a significant overlap in the types of letters that schools require. 

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

It can be 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, even if it's just changing the date on the letter. 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. 

I’m a first-year prehealth student. How early should I worry about letters of recommendation for medical school?

You will ask most of your recommenders to write letters close to the date you apply or graduate. However, you should develop professional relationships with your professors as early as your first semester of college. Getting to know your professors now will make you more confident in seeking their support and advice in the future. You may also find you need a letter of recommendation for a summer internship or fellowship application, well before you apply to medical school.
 
Strong professional relationships with professors are developed through office hours, classroom, and other interactions. If you are in large lecture classes, make it a priority to introduce yourself after class during the first few weeks and choose a seat where it will be easiest for you to participate in class. Spend some time researching your professor on the department website; learn more about their work, education, and research interests. Visit office hours to review exams or quizzes and better understand homework assignments. Don’t be afraid to share your own professional and academic goals with professors and ask for their recommendations and advice. Lastly, remember that your professors want to see you learn and succeed—they are generally thrilled to be able to connect you to opportunities and resources that will support your goals.

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?

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.

Choosing letter writers

I plan to apply to fellowships, medical school, and jobs that require letters. I feel bad asking the same people to write for so many things, but I also feel like they’re the best people. Is it bad to ask someone to write a lot of letters?

It’s normal to have a few go-to people who serve as references for you. Those who have mentored you and developed a good working relationship with you will be happy to support you in your next steps. Once a writer has one letter written, it usually isn’t too difficult to adapt the letter for different situations. You will want to make it as easy as possible for the writer, though. Some tips: 

  1. Reflect carefully on whether a given writer really is the best person for the type of position you’re applying for. There are times when it does make sense to choose one go-to writer over others, or branch out and ask someone new.
  2. When you ask for a letter the first time (in person ideally, or by phone/web conference so that you can get a better feel for their honest reaction to your request), let them know you may be applying for other opportunities and ask if they’d also be willing to support your application to those opportunities. More advice about how to ask can be found In the Letters of Recommendation section of our website.
  3. Provide very clear guidelines on what letters you need, the system for submitting the letters, and the deadlines for each opportunity. Let your writer know that you’ll send a follow-up email to remind them of the deadlines a week in advance (then make a note on your calendar so that you remember to send the reminder!).
  4. If you want them to focus on different things about you for different opportunities, convey that to them. For example, if you’re applying to one job that emphasizes your research skills and another that will want to know more about your written communication, be sure that that is clear to your writer. Most writers appreciate some prompting about what to highlight in a letter that will best set you up for the opportunity.
  5. Once a letter is submitted, thank your recommender and keep them updated on the results of whatever you’ve applied for. Any writer who supports you will be invested in your future. It’s gratifying for them to follow your professional progress.
     
As a non-science major, I've only taken large intro science courses. I'm worried these letters won't be strong--what should I do?

Our first hope would be that you continue beyond the intro courses and take smaller, upper-level science classes before you apply since it's easier to get to know your faculty.

One of your science letters can also come from a scientific research experience, so if you've done science-based research, you'll only need one classroom letter. 

As you take the large classes, then try to be proactive and actively engaged (not just for a letter—also for your own learning!). Attend office hours, ask questions, work well with peers in the lab. When you ask for the letter, make an appointment to meet with the processor or preceptor in person. 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. Offer to send them a copy of your resume, a "biosketch" that provides more detail about you and your interest in medicine, copies of past assignments, or other information that may help them write. 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.  

Do Psychology professors count as science recommenders? How about COS or CBE?

Medical schools want to know that you have the academic preparation to succeed in the medical school curriculum. The science letters of recommendation contribute to the evidence of this readiness for success. What department a professor teaches in is less relevant than the work that you did with them and whether they can speak to your ability in the sciences and readiness for the kind of science that you'll learn in medical school. Medical schools are also looking for evidence of your development of the science competencies and the thinking and reasoning competencies, which your science recommenders will hopefully be able to speak about:

Thinking and Reasoning Competencies

  • Critical Thinking: Uses logic and reasoning to identify the strengths and weaknesses of alternative solutions, conclusions, or approaches to problems.
  • Quantitative Reasoning: Applies quantitative reasoning and appropriate mathematics to describe or explain phenomena in the natural world.
  • Scientific Inquiry: Applies knowledge of the scientific process to integrate and synthesize information, solve problems and formulate research questions and hypotheses; is facile in the language of the sciences and uses it to participate in the discourse of science and explain how scientific knowledge is discovered and validated.
  • Written Communication: Effectively conveys information to others using written words and sentences.

Science Competencies

  • Living Systems: Applies knowledge and skill in the natural sciences to solve problems related to molecular and macro systems including biomolecules, molecules, cells, and organs.
  • Human Behavior: Applies knowledge of the self, others, and social systems to solve problems related to the psychological, socio-cultural, and biological factors that influence health and well-being.

Be sure that you have a conversation with your science letter writers to ensure that they feel that they can speak to your academic readiness for medicine and your scientific abilities, and ask them to comment on both in their letters.

I’ve heard that a letter from a non-science professor (from the humanities or social sciences) is required for medical school. Is the letter from a humanities or social sciences professor something that is optional, recommended, or required?

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 three to six letters of recommendation, two of which speak to your abilities in science. 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.  

Do I need a letter from a physician? I could ask someone I shadowed.

Some schools require a letter from a professional who can speak to your readiness and fit for the profession--this includes many veterinary, osteopathic medical (DO), PA schools, and others. Allopathic medical (MD) programs don't tend to require a physician letter, but if you've worked closely with a physician over an extended period of time as a research assistant, scribe, or medical assistant, that letter could definitely be valuable.  

A letter from someone you've shadowed is less likely to provide the kind of in-depth information that can help you stand out as an applicant. 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 them work and asking some questions along the way, then the most they may be able to say is that you seemed attentive and asked good questions, which is a small and relatively generic snapshot of you over a couple of hours/days, versus a letter from someone who worked with you in a long term, more active role.

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 it's 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. 

Is it OK to get a letter of recommendation for med school from my preceptor?

Any post-doc or doctoral candidate at the University who instructs our undergraduates is an acceptable recommender. In many of the larger science courses, the professors have established a protocol for letters--they may incorporate feedback from preceptors/TAs or co-sign letters with them. We don't recommend letters having letters written by undergraduate TAs.

Special Case Letters

I've asked someone for a letter but they've never written a med school letter before and asked if there are any special guidelines. What should I tell them?

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 for medical school letters. 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 to 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, your writer 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, the 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.

In your early college years, 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.

Aside from the actual text that’s within the letter, we also refer you to the letter of recommendation form and our office’s suggestions for letter-writers
 

My summer PI asked me to write my own letter of recommendation and that they'd sign off. I'm uncomfortable with this idea. What should I do?

We think that this is extremely unfair to applicants. You shouldn’t be expected to know how your PI might write a letter and what perspectives they actually have about you. We’d recommend asking the recommender if you can have a follow-up discussion. In advance of the discussion, prepare and send your mentor a packet of information for the writer that includes your resume, a short essay that includes some details about your background and motivation for medicine, and a bulleted list of the qualities that you feel that you demonstrated, with concrete examples of how you demonstrated them. Refer to the AAMC Letter Writer Guidelines and Core Competencies when putting this together (and share a copy of these with the recommender). If you'd like, we can brainstorm ideas for this during an individual meeting. 
 
It’s possible that by providing this information and then following up with a meeting where you can discuss this, your PI will feel that they have enough information to write for you. If they still insists on your writing the letter, try to get them to share their own observations and feedback on what you’d provided. Ask questions like, “What adjectives would you use to describe me?”, “How does my performance compare to past students you’ve mentored?”, “What do you think my best qualities are?” You may also ask for a past letter that they’ve written (with the name removed for confidentiality) so that you have something to use as a template to create this letter. If you also worked with a postdoc or another more established individual in the lab, you could ask them to write a draft and have the PI cosign it. It is also absolutely reasonable to forgo the letter and count on other letters.
 
This situation sometimes arises when you ask for a letter too close to a deadline and the writer feels they will not have time to properly write a letter. Be proactive and ask for letters at least a month in advance of any deadlines so that they will have plenty of time to write, or even further in advance if you know that they write a lot of letters of recommendation.
 

I'm applying to both MD and MD/PhD programs. Can I use the same letters for both?

You'll want two sets of letters, one for each type of program. MD/PhD program directors have told us that they appreciate receiving letters that are specifically addressed to their program type. It probably won't be a huge "red flag" if your MD/PhD letters address your interest in medicine, but it's more appropriate for them to address your interest in the dual degree, specifically.

Some of your writers are likely to write the same or very similar content for both types of programs. In this case, all they need to do is submit one version where they write something like, "I recommend X for admission to medical school" and another with, "I recommend X for admission to MD/PhD programs." 

Some of your writers, especially those who have overseen your research, may write a more tailored version with more detail about your skills as a researcher and potential as a graduate student for an MD/PhD program than they would for an MD-only program. 

Be sure to check each MD/PhD program that you plan to apply to for their letter requirements. MD programs only hold you to specific types of letters if you don't have a committee letter of recommendation from us, but some MD/PhD programs are more specific in their requirements.

I saw that one MD/PhD program I"m interested in requires letters from every PI for every research experience. I've worked in five labs but a few were just administrative / basic tasks. Do I really need letters for all of them?

It's best to reach out to the programs directly and explain your situation and see what they recommend. In the past, these programs have often clarified that they're happy to have just two or three letters from the most significant and/or most recent experiences, but it's a case-by-case situation. Send a polite, professional email briefly outlining your research background (when you were in each lab, for how long, level of engagement) and see what they recommend. We're happy to read over any email before you send it.

Should I get different letters if I'm applying to an MD/MPH dual degree program than just for MD?

First, check with programs of interest and see if they prefer that you apply to both programs as an incoming student or if it's better to wait until after you've matriculated at the medical school. Many programs allow you to apply to the MPH as a first- or second-year medical student.

If you do find programs where you want to apply MD and MPH simultaneously, read their web pages for their specific instructions. 

In some cases, you may need to obtain separate letters of recommendation for the two programs, MD and MPH. The people who write your MD and your MPH letters might overlap. In this case, ask your writer to create two versions of their letter, one that states that they're recommending you for the MD and the other for the MPH. The content of the letters for each may be the same or very similar, but the more that you can have your MPH letters tailored specifically to public health, the better. 

If the MPH requires separate letters to be uploaded (to their portal or through the common application to public health programs, SOPHAS), you'll work with your writers to ensure that their letters reach the destinations. Try to organize all of this information for them ahead of time to facilitate processing. We'll send all of your MD letters out on your behalf.