What do medical school admissions officers look for when reviewing medical school recommendation letters? Above all, they ask themselves if they were sick, would this person be someone they’d want to care for them as their physician? It’s such a pivotal question and you’d be surprised how many letters of recommendation, however glowing, don’t convey that this is a candidate who you’d want to treat you if you were sick. Within letters of recommendation, medical school admissions officers also look for evidence of perseverance and even transformation. They also, quite logically, pay careful attention to how passionately the recommender writes about the candidate.
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 since such an activity can easily be seen as though the applicant is trying to impress upon an admissions officer that they’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.'”
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 outside of the sciences — 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.
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