One medical student’s experience obtaining a pre-health committee letter for medical school

If you are applying to medical school, or are thinking of applying, you may have heard of the “committee letter”. What is a committee letter, also known as a composite letter? Why would it matter to you?

Per the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), “a committee letter is a letter authored by a pre-health committee or pre-health advisor and offers evaluation and advocacy on your behalf by highlighting your background and accomplishments, contextualizing challenges, and outlining your overall preparation and motivation for pursuing a career in medicine.” As always when applying to medical school, the AAMC should be your first stop when gathering information. As of spring 2021, they had a helpful article on the subject, which contains the above definition, as well as this key point: “Procedures for obtaining committee letters vary widely among institutions, so you will need to make sure you understand your institution’s process.” Note that not all medical schools have a public preference for committee letters.

I graduated from a small university without a pre-health committee, so during the 2016-2017 medical school application cycle, I sat down with my friend and then-fellow AmeriCorps VISTA member Paul to learn more. Elements of the process and medical schools’ preference for receiving committee letters as part of applications may have changed  since this conversation and are still subject to change.

Paul studied biophysics at Washington & Jefferson College (WJC) in Pennsylvania, where he participated in the pre-health committee letter process. After graduating, he spent one year in AmeriCorps, studying for the medical college admission test (MCAT) and then applying to medical schools. He entered University of South Carolina School of Medicine at the end of that gap year.

Paul’s main reason for participating in the committee letter process was his interest in standing out among his fellow students; at the time, his pre-health committee ranked applicants from his school. Initially, he thought that such a letter was required by health professions schools, but he also saw came to see other benefits. Paul believed that that committee letter would be a more holistic and objective, as individual letters submitted by an applicant are likely written by people whom the applicant know well, who like the applicant and who, consequently, support the applicant. On the other hand, Paul argued, committee letters are less biased towards any one applicant and give more of an evaluation rather than guaranteed recommendation.

When Paul attended, WJC used a system that provided a cover letter and rank for each student who participated in the multiyear committee process. That process involved required meetings learning about applying to medical school, practice workshops for activities like interviewing and writing a personal statement, as well as an MCAT exam given by Princeton Review. During his senior year, Paul attended mandatory mock interviews and received feedback based on his performance. Near the end of year, he submitted a required comprehensive personal portfolio and was then interviewed by two randomly selected committee members as the final test. At WJC, the committee letter required three individual component letters, two from faculty members in the sciences and one from a non-science faculty member. (I did not receive a secondary application from one medical school because I failed to submit the required number of non-science faculty letters, so make sure to read the school’s requirements, as posted on their website! Budgeting for four or more letter writers may be a wise strategic move if your list of medical schools is not ready by the time you need to request letters. Just don’t be greedy, as other students will likely be asking those same people for letters. Consider offering to write the first draft–I did so when I was a college student.) Students at WJC were not allowed to read their cover letter, but the school did tell applicants their ranking. One point of stress that Paul mentioned was the variation among universities in when committees supposedly submit their letters to AMCAS. That submission date may be worth asking about, especially if you are concerned that the committee may not submit until July or August, relatively late in the rolling admission cycle.

For those students with the option of a committee letter, Paul recommended that students participate in the process and use to a calendar to stay up to date with assignments and meetings. Procrastinating could lead to significant stress down the road. Despite the challenges of obtaining a letter, Paul thought that having the letter and participating in the process made completing his AMCAS application less stressful. He felt nervous about the committee’s absolute ranking for his letter, but a top rating of “outstanding” boosted his confidence. Overall, he was thankful for the committee process, as it informed and prepared him for applying to medical school.

What is your experience with committee letters? Do you have any other tips for students who have the option of participating in the pre-health committee letter process?

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