What do medical school admissions officers look for when reviewing medical school recommendation letters? Not necessarily what you’d expect. Above all, admissions officers ask themselves this one central question:
If I were sick, would this person be someone I’d want to care for me as my physician?
It’s such a simple, pivotal question, but you’d be surprised how many letters of recommendation, however glowing, fail to answer it. Obviously, this isn’t the sole concern: medical school admissions officers also look for evidence of perseverance, even transformation, and they also pay careful attention to how passionately the recommender writes about the candidate. But if a medical school recommendation letter should do anything, it should make the reader want you as their doctor.
The AAMC Wants More Than Just Your MCATs
Medical school admissions officers look for evidence of genuine empathy in candidates for admission. And, no, volunteering for countless hours at a hospital does not in itself convey genuine empathy. It’s easy to see that as an attempt to impress upon an admissions officer that you’re a good person.
As Ilana Kowarski writes in a “US News & World Report” piece about med school recommendation letters:
“In some cases, [Dr. Stephen] Nicholas, [senior associate dean for admissions and chairman of the committee on admissions with the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons], says, an outstanding recommendation letter can make an admissions officer reconsider an applicant. For instance, he says, a letter that described an applicant’s extraordinary leadership activities in public health organizations caused him to take a second look, despite the applicant’s lower grades and test scores than typically expected at Columbia.
Nicholas says admissions officers can tell when a letter is written out of a sense of obligation and not written with conviction, and he says that a recommendation letter written with feeling is the only kind that is compelling. ‘You develop an ear for authenticity,’ he says. ‘You know it when you hear it.'”
Med School Recommendation Letters Need to Demonstrate Passion
Getting through four years of medical school followed by residency and fellowship calls for perseverance. And medical school admissions officers want to know that they’re admitting people who truly want to be doctors for the right reasons — not just because their parents are physicians or because they think the profession is prestigious.
That’s why, as the “US News & World Report” article correctly and astutely points out, so many medical school admissions officers love med school applicants who’ve studied non-science subjects — because it shows that these students chose medicine willingly and deliberately over other areas of study. Medicine didn’t choose them because, say, their parents insisted it was the only honorable profession. Know any of those parents? We do.
It may seem counterintuitive, but sometimes the best way to get into a top school for a hard science profession is by showing your soft side.