If at first you don’t succeed, write an update letter!

Last Updated on June 23, 2022 by Laura Turner

By this time in the year, the medical application process is beginning to come to a close. If you were an applicant this cycle, you know firsthand what a long and grueling process it has been. However, that coveted YES at the end of it really does make it all worth it. If you haven’t received that dream acceptance yet, this time can be worrisome and stressful. But don’t count yourself out just yet! There are a few more weeks for you to get on the radar of that dream school by writing them an update letter. Trust me, it will be worth every second you’ll spend writing it. Let’s break this down a bit.

What is an update letter? 

Everything that a medical school knows about who you are as an applicant, a future medical student, and ultimately a future doctor comes from a short collection of anecdotes that you have packed into roughly 10,000 words over the last several months. Think of an update letter as an opportunity to tack on a few hundred more. The update letter is additional space to introduce your dream medical school to more pieces of yourself. It should be used to highlight how prepared you are to begin medical school in August 2020, and how excited you are to do that at the specific school you are writing to. This is not the time to be vague or generic. Do your research on the programs you plan to reach out to so that you make as convincing a case as possible.

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Who should I send an update letter to? 

Firstly, not all schools will accept additional correspondence from students. Those that do might include caveats, like whether or not you’ve already been invited to interview. Assuming you’re not ignoring any program-specific requests, focus on the following schools:

  1. Somewhere you’ve already interviewed
  2. Somewhere you’ve been waitlisted
  3. Somewhere you’ve not been rejected from (unfortunately, a rejection is a final answer and can’t be swayed by even the most beautifully written letter)

Finally, make sure that you are putting in this additional work for schools where you can really see yourself thriving as a student! Yes, getting an acceptance is ultimately everyone’s goal, but spending some additional time to ensure you end up somewhere you will really be happy is a worthy investment in your future self.

What should I put in my update letter? 

The theme of this update letter is largely “I want to be a doctor; I think I’ll make an amazing doctor, and I am convinced that the best place for me to receive that education is at your medical school.” Much like when you were writing your secondaries, you will need to strike a good balance between being:

  • Confident about what you bring to the table
  • Humble about all that you have left to learn
  • Gracious to the committees taking the time to read your application materials (especially an extra letter like this that they didn’t ask you to submit)

Note that this a bit different from the theme of your primary and secondary applications, where the theme was focused more on “I want to be a doctor and think I’ll make a great one.” The difference is that this should be more of a love-letter to the school that you are sending it to you, rather than an ode to yourself and to all your extra-curricular activities.

The content will vary a bit depending on the relationship you have already developed with the school. For example, if you interviewed, you will want to pull in information from that interview because it informed your decision to want to attend that particular school. Talk about the physicians and students that you spoke to and the things you learned from them. Acknowledge the unique components of that school’s curriculum, values, hospital ecosystem, or commitment to community, and address why those things specifically intrigue you. Maybe you’ve always dreamed of returning to your hometown for medical school to serve your local community. Or you know that a schedule chock full of team-based learning is going to do wonders for your long-term retention of material. Whatever it is that made you pick this school to apply to over the other 178 medical schools in the US, this is the time to let them know!

Similarly, if you are waitlisted or have yet to be invited for an interview, convince them that they should pull your name off the list next. Schools want to be “wanted” by their students as much as students want to be “wanted” by schools. Use this as an opportunity to show them how much you want to be there, and how much you would prioritize being there if given the opportunity.

Finally, the fundamental purpose of this letter is to push them over the edge from “meh, maybe they’d be an ok addition to our class” to “wow, we definitely need this person in a seat at our school!” To do this, highlight how you’ve continued to pursue extra-curricular, research and volunteer opportunities even after submitting your application to medical school.

But what if I haven’t done much? 

The biggest concern that students have expressed to me about writing update letters is that they feel they don’t have anything else to add to their initial application. My answer to this is always the same: this update letter doesn’t have to be particularly revolutionary. It’s fine to let them know if you’ve kept up with extra-curricular activities or jobs that you’ve already spoke to them about. This is just a chance to remind schools of who you are, and what unique experiences and values you will bring to your medical school class. Don’t talk yourself out of it because you don’t think what you’ve done will ring “impressive” enough.

Does anyone even read these? 

I’m asking you to commit to doing a pretty big thing here. Spending the time to draft, write, and re-write a letter that no one even asked you for (about yourself and your accomplishments much less!) is a tall order. Truthfully, whether all of your effort will have been in vain, with your letter falling into some internet black hole, or whether it will ultimately land you a place in the matriculating class of your dream medical school is not something I can tell you. However, I can give you my personal experience: when I found myself in your seat two years ago, I decided to send out nine update letters. I scored myself four “last-minute” interviews at medical schools that had not corresponded with me at all up to that point. What’s more, I turned three of those interviews into acceptances! So yes, while the time commitment is big, the payoff can be huge as well!

Some miscellaneous tips

Remember taking the time to read this additional material that you will be sending their way is a magnanimous act on behalf of the admissions officers. They have spent the last six months inundated with application materials from students, so try to be respectful of their time.

  • Keep it short and sweet! No one wants to be reading pages upon pages of additional information.
  • Make it super easy to connect to your file by putting your AMCAS ID and correspondence email at the very top of the page.
  • Proofread! Proofread! Proofread! I know these letters will have a tight turnaround time for you, but that is no excuse to submit subpar material!

In short, don’t wait! You do still have time to get into that dream school you’ve been working towards, so don’t be afraid to be the person that puts in that extra effort!

If you need more advice or want to take a look at some sample update letters, check out Elisabeth’s upcoming book, Making Pre-Med Count.