Letters of Recommendation
Medical schools place great weight on the recommendations submitted in support of a student's candidacy for admission.
Types of Recommendations
Students should submit letters of recommendation from faculty and employers or volunteer supervisors, especially related to medicine and health care. Athletic coaches, advisors, and other officers at one's undergraduate school can also be excellent sources of recommendation letters. Admissions committees are interested in letters only from people under whom you have studied or worked. Generally speaking, character references, letters from family physicians, and the like are not appropriate.
In addition to faculty and employer recommendations, the Premedical Committee provides individualized institutional letters of support (committee letters) recommending students who are applying for admission at medical, dental, and veterinary schools. Students must meet a list of minimum requirements to be eligible for a committee letter.
To be complete, a student's file must contain a minimum of four recommendation letters, at least two of which must be from Columbia science faculty with whom the student has studied. Optimally, a student's file will contain five to seven letters from which, at its discretion, the Premedical Committee will choose those most appropriate to attach to the committee letter.
By using the internal application system to receive, store, and manage your letters, you will be able to see which of the letters you have requested have been received for your file. You may need to communicate with firstname.lastname@example.org concerning the status of any recommendation letters you requested from outside the internal application system. Students are responsible for ensuring all letters are in on time, and they may need to remind referees, periodically and diplomatically, to send in recommendations.
Most medical schools expect applicants will have the support of the institution where they completed their premedical preparation. At GS, support is provided by the Premedical Committee made up of the advising deans of the Postbaccalaureate Premedical Program.
Beyond the minimum academic eligibility, the Committee's support is determined by evidence of the student's superior academic preparation, fitness for a career in medicine, fulfillment of the clinical experience requirement, and recommendations provided by Columbia faculty members, instructors at previous schools, and employers and volunteer supervisors.
Students seeking support should heed the advice of the Premedical Committee, including that of their assigned advisor, about how best to prepare and strengthen their records.
The Premedical Committee provides individualized institutional letters of support (committee letters) recommending students who are applying for studies at medical, dental, and veterinary schools. To be eligible for a committee letter, students must meet the following standards:*
Enrollment within the School of General Studies for a minimum of two semesters.
Completion of a minimum of 15 points of mathematics and science coursework within the prescribed curriculum.
A minimum 2.75 cumulative grade point average in math and science courses as part of the GS premedical sciences curriculum by the end of spring semester prior to the application year.
Satisfaction of all curricular requirements with grades of at least C.
Completion of a minimum of 120 hours of volunteer or paid clinical healthcare work, with a letter verifying these hours.
Submission of all materials required for committee evaluation and support by the specified deadlines, including a minimum of four letters of recommendation, at least two of which must be from Columbia science faculty.
An interview with the Premedical Committee.
Completion of premedical coursework while enrolled at Columbia's School of General Studies. Students who start their premedical coursework at GS but complete it elsewhere are ineligible for committee support.
Completion of the program in good standing.
*GS undergraduate premeds are also expected to satisfy these criteria; however, their committee support is not contingent upon a 2.75 GPA in math and science at Columbia nor are they required to complete at least 120 of work in health care settings.
Note: A student who applies to medical school with the support of the Premedical Committee, but is not admitted, normally retains that support for up to two reapplications (i.e., a total of three application cycles—or four, if the student had initially applied via linkage).
Each student preparing to apply to medical, dental, or veterinary school with the support of the Premedical Committee is required to undergo a committee interview sometime in the months before applying. For more information, students should consult the Guide to Committee Interviews and the Art of the Medical School Interview.
With the exception of letters for linkage candidates (which are composed and submitted during the spring semester), letters are prepared in the summer after the student has submitted the common application and other internal application materials. Students whose applications to the Committee are not complete, or who have not met the eligibility requirements by the stated deadline, may apply for a letter in the next application cycle, if they are eligible for support.
For students who defer their application to medical school beyond their last year in the program, the Committee will write a letter of support within three years of completion of the Program, provided that all other eligibility requirements have been met and the internal deadlines for a committee letter are observed. Students who postpone application to medical school after completing the Postbac Premed Program are advised to remain active in a healthcare-related field in order to be considered serious candidates for medical school.
An unsuccessful applicant must decide whether or not to reapply in the immediately succeeding application cycle. This decision should be made in consultation with the advisor. In some cases, it may be advisable to sit a cycle out to address weaknesses in the application before reapplying. Please note, however, that postponing a reapplication for more than three years will result in loss of committee support, unless there has been regular communication with the advisor about one's plans.
GS premeds are eligible for support for up to two reapplications, i.e., support in three application cycles (or, four, if the first application was as a linkage candidate).
The medical school admissions process seeks to determine whether an applicant possesses the academic ability to succeed in medical school. For this reason, substantial weight is placed on the recommendations of an applicant's instructors. Most medical schools expect several references from science faculty; some ask that these be distributed across the premedical science curriculum.
A student's file must contain at least two letters of recommendation from Columbia science faculty under whom the student has studied. Without these, a student will not be eligible for committee support. We strongly recommend that students request at least three letters to decrease the likelihood of a delay if one is not received on time.
Some faculty members have specific requirements for recommendation letters. They may require students to have earned a minimum grade or to submit a resume. Students should identify these requirements early so they know what is expected.
Columbia Science Faculty
Perhaps the most frequent concern premeds have about obtaining letters from Columbia science faculty is that the size of the science lectures doesn't allow for meaningful face-to-face interaction with instructors. While sometimes students may be able to overcome this barrier by visiting the faculty's office hours, it may not always be possible, and it is probably not in their best interest to go to unnatural lengths, to get to know their instructors. It is sufficient if letters from science faculty simply speak to the rigor of the course and explain a student's rank in the class; whenever possible, some faculty will also include personal observations of the applicant. Other letters in applicants' files will attest to their social skills, service orientation, and other interpersonal qualities.
Undergraduate and Graduate School Faculty
An ideal letter from an undergraduate instructor would come from someone with whom the student took more than one course, or under whom the student completed a major research project or a senior thesis. Such a letter is likely to speak to the student's work ethic, class participation, degree of engagement with the subject matter, and skill in communication and critical thinking.
Additionally, students who attended a graduate or professional program should request at least one letter from a faculty member with whom they studied.
Students who have not been in contact with instructors from previous schools may want to refresh their instructors' memories with a letter, a resume, a photo, a copy of a paper completed for their class and/or, if feasible, a personal visit.
Students should secure letters of recommendation from individuals who have supervised their work as a volunteer in a clinical or research setting, and from employers in medicine or health care.
Students with substantial work experience either before or while completing their prehealth studies should also request letters from their employers, current and former, regardless of the field of employment since these often provide valuable information about such matters as work ethic, initiative, team work, leadership, and other qualities prized in the medical profession.
Applicants to Schools of Osteopathic Medicine
Schools of osteopathic medicine like (and, in some cases, expect) to see a letter from a doctor of osteopathic medicine in support of a student's application. Such letters provide these schools with some assurance that the applicant is reasonably well-informed about the distinctive features of the profession. To merit such a letter, students may need to shadow a D.O. or volunteer in a D.O.’s practice.
Applications to research-intensive MD/PhD programs should be supported with letters of recommendations from the scientists who supervised the student’s research, preferably with at least one letter representing each research setting.
The Federal Family Education Rights and Privacy Act of 1974, as amended (the “Buckley Amendment”), provides students with the right to access their educational records. In the case of recommendations, the law provides that a student, if he or she chooses, may waive that right. Students should determine whether or not their interests will be best served by accessible recommendations. The student's decision to waive his or her right of access must be a consistent one for all recommendations including the Premedical Committee Letter. Because letters are transmitted as part of a committee letter packet, it is not possible to waive the right of access to some, but not to other letters in the file.
The Premedical Committee's Stance on Right of Access
The Premedical Committee recommends that students waive their right of access to letters of recommendation. Confidential letters will be written and submitted by faculty and others with the explicit understanding that they will be read only by the Premedical Committee and medical school admissions committees.
The presumption is that letters to which a student has waived his or her right of access are more candid assessments than letters to which the student has retained this right. If a student does not trust that a reference will be satisfactory, he or she will probably do better not to request it, rather than retaining the right to review it. Students considering retaining their right of access to their recommendation letters are encouraged to discuss this with their premedical advisors.
If a student has waived the right of access to their letters, the committee will discard any letter which it learns he or she has read. Students should therefore politely, but firmly decline to accept copies of recommendation letters from their referees.
The Recommendation Letter Waiver form is the vehicle through which students record their decision about accessibility. A completed copy of this form must be given to each referee and every recommendation letter must be accompanied by this form.
The internal application system is the primary way letters of recommendation are collected and filed for inclusion in committee letters. When students establish an internal application account, they will be prompted to provide the name and contact information for one or more letters of recommendation. Doing so will trigger an automated email that will be sent to referees with individualized links through which they can upload their letters. The email will indicate the basis of the student's relationship with the referee. For example, a request for a letter from a student's general chemistry lab instructor would indicate that the student took CHEM UN1500 and in what semester and year she or he did so. Finally, the email will also indicate whether or not the student waived their right to see the letter.
Students should personally ask referees for recommendation letters before entering their contact information in the internal application, so that they won't be surprised when the receive the automated email.
It is also possible for referees to send recommendation letters by US Mail or by email. Mailing instructions are printed on the Recommendation Letter Waiver form students must complete and give to each of referee.
Recommendations should be word-processed, printed on the referee's institutional letterhead, dated, and signed. Unsigned letters will be returned to their authors.
Recommendation letters should be addressed generically (“To the Admissions Committee”), rather than to an advisor or a specific medical school. Students should be especially clear on this point with referees outside Columbia, who sometimes confuse being a premedical student here with applying to the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons. Letters of recommendation addressed to the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons will be returned to referees for correction.
It is important that referees mention in their letters that they are writing specifically in support of the applicant's candidacy for admission to medical school. Medical schools want to know that, when a letter was composed, the writer understood exactly for what purpose their support was being solicited. That said, referees need not feel obliged to judge the applicant's potential either for medical study or for professional success in medicine. It is sufficient for them to say simply what work the student did for them and how well they did it, and that it is on that basis they are recommending them for admission. Of course, if the student's referees are able to add further information, admissions committees will be happy to have it.
If applicable, forward dossiers held at other institutions to the Premedical Office. If the letters in the dossier were not originally written for medical school applications, the student must ask their referees to write new letters specifically mentioning that they are recommending the student for medical school.
Though not required, students should thank those who write letters of recommendation. With as little delay as possible, students should send a brief, handwritten note on good quality stationery.
Prospective referees can find more information about writing recommendation letters for medical school applicants on the AAMC website.
Premedical and Predental Students
If students have provided their contact information in their internal application account, referees will be able to upload their reference letters to the account. Ultimately, letters in the file will be attached to the committee letter of recommendation and submitted through the respective application service whenever applicable (AMCAS, AADSAS, etc.).
Note: Students may not submit letters directly to the Postbac Premed Program Office even if they are signed and sealed. Letters hand-delivered or mailed by students will be discarded.
If referees choose to submit their letters by regular mail, students should provide them with pre-addressed, stamped envelopes for this purpose. Students should not provide their own return address on these envelopes.
Letters, accompanied by waiver forms, should be mailed to:
Columbia University Postbaccalaureate Premedical Program
404 Lewisohn Hall, MC 4109
New York, NY 10027
Referees are welcome to submit letters (signed and on letterhead in PDF format and accompanied by the waiver form) via e-mail to email@example.com. Letters should be sent from the referee's institutional email address. Letters received from a Gmail, Yahoo, or other non-institutional address may be returned.
Most veterinary medical schools require that letters of recommendation, including committee letters, be submitted online through VMCAS. Students should visit the VMCAS website for instructions regarding the submission of letters.
A small number of these schools accept letters of recommendation in hard copy form.
Students should ask referees to submit letters either directly to VMCAS or, where appropriate, directly to the schools to which they are applying. It is helpful, though not required, if referees submit copies of letters to the Postbac Premed Program office, as well.
The Postbac Premed Program Office cannot attach letters of recommendation to the prevet committee letter of recommendation, as they do for premed and predent students. The committee letter written in support of prevets is designed to conform to the VMCAS specifications.
Special Requests: Individual Schools
Students should consult the websites of individual veterinary schools for any special instructions on the submission of letters of recommendation. Some schools, for example, will insist upon receiving a letter of recommendation for each site at which the student worked with animals.