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Committee Letter of Recommendation

1. What is the Committee Letter?

The Health Sciences Advisory Committee's letter of recommendation, which includes photocopies of your faculty and non-faculty letters of recommendation, is a significant factor in your application to medical school.

You are not required to apply through the Health Sciences Advisory Committee. However, we do not recommend that you apply independently. Since most medical schools are aware that Swarthmore has such a Committee, they will wonder why they are receiving an independent application without a Committee letter of recommendation. Everyone cannot be recommended equally strongly, so some deficiency in the record is assumed to be the reason for applying outside the usual structure. (In most cases, medical schools assume that you have been disciplined for either academic dishonesty or irresponsible behavior.) The medical schools trust the Health Sciences Advisory Committee because, by its nature, it is likely to be more consistent in its recommendations and in differentiating among various degrees of achievement. Applicants who have done well here and who receive favorable faculty recommendations get stronger Committee recommendations than those who have not done so well. Medical schools trust the Committee and it seeks to perpetuate that trust by continuing to be honest. The Committee writes the best letter it can based on the facts available, but must express distinctions between good, better and best. This policy favors everyone in the long run. If you feel there may be trade-offs between a Committee letter and an independent application in your case, Gigi will be happy to discuss this issue with you privately.

Since the Committee letters of recommendation must be similar in editorial content, they are all written by Gigi. All the letters are reviewed by another member of the Health Sciences Advisory Committee to assure that we are being fair to you. What is written is based on your achievements here, your activities as you describe them to Gigi, and what the faculty and non-faculty letters of recommendation have said about you.

The form of the letter is as follows: First, there is a brief statement identifying you, your class and major, any awards (Honors, Sigma Xi, Watson, etc.) you have received, and your most noteworthy non-academic experiences. Your rank in class (top 10%, top 25%, etc.) as reported by the Registrar may also be included. We then discuss your academic performance as reported by faculty members, and personal qualities, again as reported by faculty or employers. We follow this with comments about your motivation and suitability for medicine using evidence from the medically-related activities in which you have been involved and anything else we have learned from you about your experiences and accomplishments. Finally, we offer a summary recommendation. In all cases we try to make your letter as positive as honestly possible, given your academic record and activities. At the end of the letter, we add two statements if they are true. The first states that the applicant has waived his/her access to the contents of this letter and the attached faculty and non-faculty recommendations, if you make the decision to do so. The second states that a check of the files in the Dean's Office has shown no disciplinary actions (see above).

We then attach photocopies of your faculty and employer recommendations. The Committee letter packet typically runs about eight to ten pages in length and provides a comprehensive view of you as a person and student.

Assuming that you have met all the deadlines listed in this guide, your Committee letter packet is scanned and uploaded to AMCAS Letter Writer Application, a secure, web-based system for transmitting letters of recommendation to medical schools, in late July or early August. The medical schools you've applied to will download your packet when they are ready to evaluate your file. We use a similar on-line system to transmit your Committee letter packet to osteopathic schools and a few other programs.

Please remember that the Committee letter can be sent only in support of applications to medical or other health-related professional schools and for certain scholarships for these schools. We will not send the letter to graduate schools or to prospective employers since the individual recommendations included in it are authorized only for medical education programs.

2. Letters of Recommendation

You should get five or six recommendations from people who know you and your work well. (More than six is not advisable.) At least two should be from science professors (preferably in different disciplines), some from non-science professors, some should be from your major department. Depending on your particular circumstances, you may want to get a letter from a summer research mentor, or a paid or volunteer work supervisor. Some medical schools (like Harvard) and MD-PhD programs (like Washington University) require letters from all research experiences. If you have any questions about whom you should ask, feel free to consult with Gigi.

The letters of recommendation should give medical schools a vivid, positive picture of you and your abilities. You should choose faculty who are familiar with your work and with whom you have done well (A, A- or B+.) That clearly places you in the top half of the class. Recommendations from family, friends, neighbors, ministers, your physician etc., are not going to carry much weight. Recommendations from coaches and deans are fine, but they cannot know the quality of your intellect as well as a faculty member can. Three or four of your recommendations definitely should be from Swarthmore faculty or staff because they place you in the context of our student body and applicant group. Do not request a letter from someone with whom you have had conflicts, or who you know has been disappointed by your performance or behavior. All letters of recommendation we receive are photocopied and included in your Committee packet. We do not choose the best and ignore others, although alums sometimes replace some college recommendations with letters from more recent professors or supervisors (without being told the content or quality of the letters).

You should give the Health Sciences Recommendation Form to your recommenders before the end of the fall term, at which time you should mention politely that their letter and the Recommendation/Waiver form are due in the Health Sciences Office by the second Monday in February. It may be helpful to provide the professor with some written reminders about your work in the course, especially if it has been a while. If you are taking a course during spring semester, and you feel that a recommendation from that professor would form an important part of your file, please speak to Gigi.

Sometimes faculty or employers send their letters too late for incorporation into the applicant's Committee letter of recommendation. Please encourage your recommenders to get their letters in as soon as possible, but also give them the consideration of not asking them to write letters at the last minute. While it is possible to have late letters sent to medical schools via AMCAS' letter service it is far preferable to have all your letters as part of your committee letter.

You will notice that the Recommendation Form invites you to waive your access to the contents of the letter of recommendation by signing on the student signature line. While you are not required to do so, most medical schools give greater weight to letters that have been kept confidential. If you waive your right of access, we state that prominently in your Committee letter. If you intend to sign the waiver of access, be sure to do it BEFORE you give the form to your recommenders.

If you are not planning to apply to medical school for several years after graduation, it still makes sense to request faculty letters now, while you are still on campus and while they can remember you more vividly. We will keep them on file until you let us know that you are ready to apply.

3. Information Form

Once you tell us you are applying, we will be sending you an electronic version of the information form, which should be completed, printed out, signed, and two copies returned to the Health Sciences Office by January 22. It is also on our website. In it we ask you to list the names of faculty members and others from whom you will request letters of recommendation, your activities at Swarthmore, any extra burdens you have carried, jobs, and any medically related experiences. We also ask you to write an essay on why you want to be a doctor. This essay helps us to write a more personal letter on your behalf and, at the same time, prepares you to write the essay required for medical school applications.

Please do a careful and thorough job on the Information Form. Students and alums who have resumes should attach them to the form as a supplement.

Specific suggestions for filling out certain parts of the Information Form are given below:

a. Calculation of Grade Point Averages

In this section we ask you to calculate three grade point averages: all Swarthmore grades, all college-level courses and all college-level science and math courses. The first is so the Health Sciences Advisory Committee can get a sense of where you rank in relation to other Swarthmore students. When we actually write your Committee letter, we will confirm your calculation with one from the Registrar. The second and third, for which you must use all the grades you have received from Swarthmore and any other undergraduate institution, is what will be calculated on your medical school applications.  Do not include shadow grades; they will be invisible to the medical schools when you apply. 

b. Waivers

On page 6 of the Information Form and on the Recommendation Form, you will notice opportunities to authorize release of information and to waive your right of access to recommendations and to the Committee letter.

The first statement on the Information Form is an authorization to send a Committee letter on your behalf. You must sign that or we cannot send a letter for you. That is a legal requirement.

The second statement (and the similar waiver statement on the Recommendation Form) invites you to waive your access to the contents of your Committee letter and to faculty and non-faculty recommendations. Whether you waive access or not is up to you, but if you do Gigi can state in the Committee letter that you have done so. Most medical schools have made it clear that they prefer letters to which access has been waived. They feel the confidentiality gives them added assurance that we have been truthful about you. Although this is not a necessary condition for having us write a letter for you, it strengthens your application if you waive access.  Nearly all applicants do. 

The third statement allows us to add your name and the medical school you are attending to a list we make available to future Swarthmore applicants and include in our annual report.

c. Selection of Medical Schools

We ask you to make a preliminary list of the medical schools to which you will apply. In selecting schools, you should consider 1) your state of residence, 2) your GPA, and 3) amount of tuition. The most useful and accurate source of information is Medical School Admissions Requirements (MSAR), published by the AAMC, which profiles each allopathic medical school including its mean GPA and MCAT's. You can purchase the most recent on-line edition for approximately $28. We suggest that you consult the latest updated edition before submitting your final list of schools in June.

d. Personal Statement

The essay you write for Gigi on "My Reasons for Choosing a Career in Medicine" is a preliminary draft of the personal statement you will be required to write for medical school applications. It will not be forwarded to medical schools, but will be used in preparing your Committee letter of recommendation. At your interview, Gigi will go over your essay and make suggestions about its content for use in the AMCAS application. Detailed instructions for writing the essay are included on the Information Form.

E. Meeting with the Health Sciences Advisor

When the Health Sciences Office has received your letters of recommendation and your Information Form and essay, you will be invited for an interview with Gigi. At this time she will review your list of recommenders, your academic record and extra-curricular activities, your health care related activities, your list of medical schools to which you are applying, your essay and your reasons for wanting to go to medical school. All of this information will enable her to write a truly personal letter on your behalf. She also will give you her best estimate of your chances of being accepted to medical school.