Franklin & Marshall College Franklin & Marshall College

Dear Admissions Committee

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By Glenn N. Cummings, Ph.D., Director of Health Professions Advising

  • How many letters of recommendation should I get for medical school?  What’s the “right” number?
  • How can I get letters from a science professor who doesn’t know me very well?
  • Am I supposed to be getting letters from professors early?
  • Can a fellow student write a letter for me since he/she was the captain of my track team?
  • Should I get an additional letter of recommendation and have it sent to the medical school where I’m wait-listed?
  • Is a letter from someone at another college OK, since I took a summer course there?

These frequently asked questions about gathering letters of recommendation for health professional school are but a sampling of what I’ve heard over the years from students as they look ahead and try to determine who might support them in their quest to become doctors, dentists, physician assistants, etc.  The worries are abundant—as is the uneasiness many authors of letters feel when they sit down to draft letters.  On both sides, the students’ and the recommenders’, the process can be uncomfortable, even anxious, tedious, and time-consuming.  As encouragement to all, I have two main things to say:  Yes, there are people out there who read these letters of recommendation (in fact, it's part of their job).  Thus, your work is significant and worthwhile.  And remember, an individual letter writer is but one voice among several singing in support of an applicant.  Therefore, each letter need not describe its subject completely; rather, it need only give an informed perspective from within the context of the author and applicant's relationship.

At a meeting of advisors at the University of Maryland last week, we spent most of an afternoon discussing how we write letters for our advisees and how we educate the faculty, coaches, administrators, physicians, and others in and around our college communities on the essentials for writing effective, evaluative, and ideally elegant expressions of support.  The Association of American Colleges (AAMC) is even developing guidelines for writing letters as we speak.  As a member of an AAMC working group charged with creating these guidelines, I’ve had the privilege of going through a list of suggestions line by line, debating the rationale for including each one in the ultimate guide that the AAMC hopes to introduce later this year.  My point is, the topic of letters of recommendation, or “evaluation” as they may eventually be called, is getting a lot of attention these days.  It’s serious work, and everyone involved in the process—from students to letter writers to Admissions personnel—wants it to remain meaningful and helpful.

So, stay tuned.  If and when guidelines for letter writers are announced, I’ll update you.  And, since you’re all dying to know, the answers to my initial questions are:

  • 4-6.  Two should be from someone who taught you science.
  • If they don’t know you at all, they’re not good candidates to write on your behalf.   However, in some cases you might want to help move the getting-to-know-you process along, providing them with information (resume, sample of class work, etc.) and giving them something to work with.
  • No, but you can and probably should if the professor is leaving F&M.
  • No.
  • Only in isolated cases.  Let’s discuss.
  • Yes, that’s fine.
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