Last Updated on September 27, 2023 by Laura Turner
For over 40 years, medical and dental school applicants have been asked to provide an institutional “committee letter” packet of recommendations if their prehealth offices provide a supportive evaluation. SDN has fielded questions about committee letters for decades, so here is information about what committee letters are and why they are important.
“I’ve read so many posts about people discussing how their committee letter went wrong. Some where technical errors (e.g., committee mixed up letters from different students) whereas other members have had problems like the one [the original poster] has.
I think a lot of premed advisors do their best and have the best intentions. But I’ve always found the concept of committee letters and med schools requiring them to be a bit bizarre because it concentrates too much power into a small number of hands?”SDN Forums, January 21, 2019
A convenient bundle of reference letters, the “committee letter” provides a comprehensive evaluation of the applicant’s background, competencies, and preparation for a desired health professional career in medicine or dentistry. Admissions offices like the convenience of having an applicant’s entire bundle of letters instead of waiting for individual letters because it expedites screening.
There are three types of “committee letter”:
1. Composite committee letter based on solicited letters of recommendation and interview: This composite letter consists of the committee evaluation of the applicant’s academic performance, resume, and other solicited information from the applicant, who has usually qualified by reaching thresholds of GPA and MCAT/DAT performance. Letters of recommendation are solicited by the applicant and sent to the committee during the winter term. Excerpts from these letters are included and referenced in the “composite letter,” and at least one committee member signs the document.
2. Committee letter packet: Admissions committees like to view the original solicited letters when available. The evaluation committee can thus write a short overview introducing the student and append the solicited letters of recommendation. Some advisors may select the “best” letters, while others opt to include all letters regardless of “quality” or “recommendation.”
3. Letter packet: Some institutions will receive solicited letters of recommendation and be a clearinghouse to deliver these letters as a bundle to the applicant’s schools. In this case, the advisor includes a cover sheet about the institution and past successes of the prehealth advising office or postbac program.
[Definitions modified from How to Work with Pre-Health Advisors and Committees – SDN ]
Since the late 1960s, committee letters have been a courtesy to validate students’ preparation for medical or dental school by discussing the rigor of their prehealth curriculum and relating how the applicant’s performance compares to past applicants admitted to a medical or dental school. Admissions officers felt student-solicited evaluators were too biased in their recommendations or bland – lacking valuable, objective insights.
Prehealth committees usually exist at smaller private institutions that handle several dozen medical/dental school applications yearly. Larger private institutions and special masters programs with staff or faculty support may also support a committee evaluation process for hundreds of students. Larger public or state universities may not have a full committee evaluation but can help compile “packets” for applicants that can substitute for a committee letter.
Medical and dental schools do not require committee letters, but such letters are “preferred.” A committee letter shows you built a strong support community in your program and completed a rigorous evaluation process similar to what you will experience in your future career. Furthermore, prehealth advisors and postbac program directors can address your strengths holistically as they have insight into the preprofessional competencies desired by medical and dental schools. However, with over 50 years of experience with committee letters, no empirical evidence shows a significant advantage to applicants with committee letters.
Most other health professions programs (optometry, physician assistant, pharmacy, physical therapy, veterinary medicine) do not expect or want committee letters. Applicants should contact the admissions teams to verify their preferences.
If you are applying to a special track such as a guaranteed admissions track (transitioning to professional school) or MD/PhD, consult the prehealth advisor and committee if they can tailor your committee letter for that purpose.
Each committee establishes eligibility criteria and a timeline, so advisees should frequently meet with their advisor/program director before applying. Some want a desirable GPA or MCAT/DAT score with a minimum number of course credits taken at their institution. Applicants should have completed most prerequisites to prepare for their admissions exam (MCAT or DAT) with a competitive science GPA (usually a 3.0 application GPA threshold, 60 credit-hour minimum). Candidates must release official results from their admissions exam to assure the prehealth committee of their application competitiveness.
To begin the process, undergraduate advisees usually submit a “pre-application” by the end of the fall semester that asks for an inventory of key activities, a biography, a draft personal statement, and references (specific professors, professionals, and supervisors). Prehealth advisors will schedule a follow-up meeting to discuss any apparent gaps with the applicant’s profile. Many prehealth advising offices ask for reflections of their earlier undergraduate years (such as a “sophomore check-in”) showing evidence of pre-professional maturity and growth. Other advisors teach a prehealth “application prep” course the semester before applying, so the institutional letter can act as a student evaluation. If you’ve already graduated from an undergraduate program within the last three years, you can be eligible for a committee letter.
Applicants are asked to write reflections on their commitment to a career in the health professions and service to a diverse population of patients, including those with limited means or education. Research experience is also frequently discussed to demonstrate “capacity for improvement” or scholarly interests, which are desired for those candidates aspiring to specialize. Finally, applicants should identify preprofessional competencies that their activities address and show adequate development for a health professional career.
With the information from the pre-application, advisors’ notes from meetings, and solicited professor letters, the committee letter can provide an admissions committee insight into how the applicant has matured for a future as a health professional student. The committee documents a list of coursework sequences, such as prerequisites in chemistry and biochemistry, and courses that encourage community engagement.
Admissions committees prefer students with experience in “flipped classrooms” or “service learning” with student-driven discussions that resemble their own curricula. By providing insight into how the program structures its academic and preprofessional experiences, the undergraduate committee letter can reveal the learning styles and individual advising that make graduates successful in medical or dental school. Similarly, postbac programs disclose how their students are engaged in small-group learning or research while preparing for mock clinical clerkship (“Shelf”) exams.
Admissions committees also like to see strong relationships from close faculty mentoring. For liberal arts colleges, the committee letter process documents individualized support for the applicant. Because the prehealth committee usually includes science faculty from the biology and chemistry departments, the college’s professors have strongly bonded with the students from classes, advising sessions, or research experiences. The committee members work collegially in crafting their collective evaluation, drawing from their personal knowledge of each candidate’s backstory and college accomplishments. Ultimately, the committee champions the applicants and encourages them to continue improving while applying.
“Our Pre-Med Advisory Committee also reviews the submitted materials with an eye toward helping the student build a stronger application if they are ready, or advising them to improve their portfolio before applying,” adds Dr. Toni Trumbo-Bell, 2022 HPSA Advisor of the Year recipient.
Postbac program committee letters also reveal the advising support that the applicant receives. Faculty advisors usually partner with students once an enrollment deposit is received, even if it is before formal coursework begins. The committee letter documents the plan the advisors developed to prepare students for the medical/dental schools to illustrate the candidate’s readiness for professional school.
As another experienced prehealth advisor comments, “Ultimately, the role of the committee letter is to help students achieve their goals by highlighting how hard you’ve worked to be fully prepared for the next stage of your journey. It is an act of advocacy culminating in the partnership between the advising team and the individual student. All successful partnerships require collaboration, which means you need to be purposeful about building that relationship with your advisors and making sure that you are utilizing the available resources to help yourself be successful. In most programs, students completely outnumber advisors, so it’s unlikely they are going to be able to chase you down and make sure you do everything you should. They are, however, available to help you on this journey. Take advantage of the resources you’ve been offered and talk to your advisor. Help us help you!”
Applicants often ask whether having a committee letter prevents them from soliciting letters from additional references. Often, a committee will not include letters from anyone not associated with the institution, such as supervisors one has worked with or shadowed. Applicants should pay close attention to admissions websites for “letter of recommendation requirements” to plan a strategy to include these additional letters.
AADSAS applicants, in particular, must be strategic about adding a letter to their application. By submitting a committee letter, applicants have only one additional opportunity to include a solicited letter of recommendation outside the committee letter. Work with the prehealth advisor or committee in advance to ensure this additional spot is used wisely, especially since most dental schools will not accept solicited letters of recommendation sent outside of AADSAS until after you are interviewed. Furthermore, they should work closely with the solicited reference to ensure their additional letter is punctually received.
Prehealth advisors and postbac program directors have a schedule in mind when committee letters are sent out, and most committee letters are delivered by September 1. Be sensitive to the concurrent responsibilities the committee members have. Among prehealth advisors who oversee committee letter processes, most write 50 or fewer letters each cycle in addition to other faculty responsibilities (teaching, advising, research, administration, and writing other students’ letters for graduate school or employment). Many other writers are dedicated advising staff. Faculty, staff, and other dedicated advisors take weeks to draft and approve all evaluation letters before they are delivered to the schools. Before sending the letters out to schools, the applicants are usually rated according to an evaluation rubric, and that rating is included in the packet.
Professional school admissions offices consider the information expected in a committee evaluation to be “critical” or “very important” in their applicant review, and a well-written institutional evaluation can be superior to any solicited letters that they read in other applications (2018 NAAHP national survey to admissions officers on committee letters). The individualized committee letter also helps marginalized applicants: premedical committee letters were borne from the social advocacy challenges from the mid-1960s, and admissions committees valued how letters identified qualified minority Black candidates (Grant 1968, Tolen 2021).
Successfully navigating the committee letter process reveals your ability to meet deadlines and act on feedback. While not having a full committee evaluation will not set back an applicant during file review, a handful of programs will ask applicants why they did not meet the eligibility criteria for a committee letter in secondary applications or interviews.
With dozens of committee letters to write, the prehealth advising team patiently frames your candidacy in the best possible light according to their rubrics and insights. The best committee letters give an added dimension that humanizes the application. As admissions committees want to judge applicants beyond just metrics (once you are deemed reasonable for admission), committee letters provide evidence of your mission fit: how you have already contributed to a diverse learning community on your home campus and how you intend to make a difference to society as a healthcare professional.
Questions you should ask your advising office about committee letters
You should have the answers to these questions before beginning the institutional evaluation process and applying.
Does your prehealth advisor or office have an institutional/committee evaluation service for applicants?
- Does the prehealth office website have specific information and committee letter request forms?
- Who serves on the committee (alumni, faculty, or staff)? Who is the chair? What courses do the faculty teach?
- Do current prehealth students (clubs) express positive enthusiasm about getting a committee letter?
- How many requests for letters are made each cycle? How many applicants with letters get offers? How does the prehealth advisory committee make the process easy to understand and transparent?
How do I get a committee letter when I am ready to apply?
- Eligibility (undergraduates, alumni, postbacs)? Is there a minimum GPA and credit hours requirement? Do I need to be a science major?
- Do I need to fill out a pre-application? When will it be available?
- Do I need one for a guaranteed admissions track (like a BS/MD program)? Early decision application? MD/PhD (MSTP)?
- How are ratings distributed among the applicants? Are there differences among premeds (allopathic vs. osteopathic) or among predentals?
- Are reapplicants accommodated? How do we update an evaluation?
- Do I need to schedule individual meetings with the advisors before submitting my request for a committee letter? Can I attend group sessions instead? Can I view a video about the process?
- When are items due: forms, personal statement drafts, school lists, etc.?
- Is an interview required with a committee member? In-person or virtual? Is the interview open-file or closed-file? How long is the interview? What if the faculty member is one of my closest professors; is there a conflict of interest policy?
- Do I need supplemental letters from professors or other professionals?
- Do you charge applicants for the committee letter process (for example, to purchase letter management software, to compensate professors or staff for their time since it isn’t covered in their regular 9-month salary)? Can this charge be waived if I qualified for a fee assistance waiver?
- Can I use the packet to apply to non-medical or non-dental programs, such as postbac/special masters programs or for podiatry/physician assistant programs? Scholarship programs like NHSC or HPSP?
How is the evaluation performed?
- When does the committee meet in person or virtually to discuss my evaluation?
- How diverse is the committee (science or non-science faculty, career services, diversity officers, alumni, local professionals; race/ethnicity, childhood backgrounds, health professional experience, research expertise)?
- Can I get a copy of the evaluation rubric? Can I see a copy of a “cover sheet” that describes the school and committee (similar to an information sheet high school counselors send for college applications)?
- How will the packet describe my educational history and the rigor of the courses I have taken?
- How have past students fared based on their committee rating?
- Can I opt-out if my review is not optimal or could damage my chances?
- If I decide to withdraw from an application cycle, will you keep the evaluation if I apply next year (or in the future)?
- What happens if I have an institutional action? How about an incident reported on a background check? How can the committee help applicants in these situations?
Do you do a quality check on solicited letters?
- Are there “qualifications” that must be met by solicited evaluators (adjunct vs. tenure-track lecturers, research supervisors, graduate student or postdoc TA’s or mentors; current employees only?)
- Do you submit excerpts of recommendation letters with the committee evaluation? Are the original letters included?
- What will the committee do if a professor submits a letter of recommendation late? What if a letter of recommendation is poorly written or negative? Will you be notified?
- What if a solicited letter is not signed, dated, or on letterhead?
- How long do you archive solicited letters and committee evaluations for unsuccessful applicants?
Is an MCAT/DAT required?
- Does the committee include my MCAT/DAT scores in its evaluation?
- Does the committee need official scores to know how competitive my application is and send out my letters?
When will my institutional letter be sent?
- Can you explain how the committee decides which evaluations are prepared first? Are applicants internally ranked or preferentially grouped?
- When is the earliest date that committee letters are delivered to schools? How frequently are letters sent to the schools?
- Will taking summer courses delay my committee evaluation? Will waiting until I submit my application until late summer (August) delay my committee evaluation? Will waiting until I take my MCAT/DAT until late summer (August) delay my evaluation?
- Can you update a committee letter? When is the latest date to provide updates?
- Can I ask the committee to send the packet to a postbac program? Other non-medical/non-dental programs (for podiatry/physician assistant programs)?
Grant, Lester and Hugh Bennett (1968). The Buck Hill Falls Conference on medical education and the college-medical school interface. Journal of Medical Education 43 (12):1258.
Tolen R (2021). Ritual and authority in premedical advisory committee evaluation processes. The Advisor 41(1): 2. https://doi.org/10.47578/0736.04184.108.40.206
Emil Chuck, Ph.D., is Director of Advising Services for the Health Professional Student Association. He brings over 15 years of experience as a health professions advisor and an admissions professional for medical, dental, and other health professions programs. In this role for HPSA, he looks forward to continuing to play a role for the next generation of diverse healthcare providers to gain confidence in themselves and to be successful members of the inter-professional healthcare community.
Previously, he served as Director of Admissions and Recruitment at Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science, Director of Admissions at the School of Dental Medicine at Case Western Reserve University, and as a Pre-Health Professions Advisor at George Mason University.
Dr. Chuck serves an expert resource on admissions and has been quoted by the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC).