Letters of Recommendation

The next thing that we look at is a combination of 2 things. One is the history of your undergraduate school. Most medical schools have fundamental relationships with undergraduate programs. The goal of the medical school is to have students that are going to finish the program. If they’ve taken 20 students a year from the University of Texas in Austin, and they know that those 20 students reliably finish, that they reliably do well, then that school prepares them well.

And the other component is does that the school stand behind the applicant? Not just what school the applicant went to, but also the letters of recommendation from that school. They are the other feature that comes next. Letters of recommendation are somewhat objective, but they’re objective in an unusual sense. It’s not so much what the letters say, because all the letters pretty much say the same thing. It is who they’re from. As you develop your pre-medical careers, the professor that you like, who becomes your mentor, may be an entry-level assistant professor. A letter from this type of professor is not as important as one from a full tenured professor. We rank the letters by whom they are they from. A letter from a department chair carries more weight that a letter from your biology professor, who’s just a nice person and is only an assistant professor. And a letter from a physician can be pretty poor. Just because someone is a physician doesn’t make them a good judge of your character and your abilities and your motivations. We generally think of an educator as having the opportunity get to know you and assess your character.

You need to cultivate your support. Going to medical school is kind of like a campaign, and you have to cultivate them; that’s what’s it comes down to. You want the people who can professionally support your candidacy — your professors, your chairmen, your deans — you want these people to get to know you. You want to shine for them. You want to demonstrate to these people that they can happily stand behind you.

The people that write these letters are asked to write them all the time. It’s part of their job. So they can’t just write a wonderful glowing letter about every candidate that asks for a letter. They use very subtle language. And some of that language culminates at the end of the letter — you’ve read some of these letters, I’m sure. “Enthusiastically support this candidate’s application,” “Support without reservations,”  — does that sound as powerful as “enthusiastically support”? There’s language to these letters. So when you get these letters, it’s not just a matter of “Gee I got to the Dean,” or “I got to the President of the University and he said he’s writing me this letter.” He might write a letter that hurts you, and you wouldn’t know it. There’s a language to it. It has to be honest. You have to make sure that the people who you get to write these letters know you, have respect for you, and believe in you, because those people are standing behind you. Because they know that if they write you a glowing letter because they like you, and you fail in medical school, that may doom the next 20 good candidates that the university is sending to the medical school. The people who write these letters do it with care. So as you’re developing your careers and developing your support, allow these people to get to know you, and show them that they can happily write you a letter that says they unconditionally and enthusiastically support this candidate.

So your letters count for a lot.

Questions, Comments, Suggestions?

For more information about pre-health professions advisement at SUNY Plattsburgh, please contact

Donald Slish
Pre-Health Professions Advisory Committee Chairperson
Office: Hudson Hall 325
Phone: (518) 564-5160
Email: slishdf@plattsburgh.edu