The Application Process
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Premedical File/Composite Letter of Recommendation
Most medical and dental schools require a composite letter of recommendation. Rather than having several recommenders send individual letters to each medical school, a faculty member will write a single, lengthy, composite letter incorporating letters submitted by a variety of faculty and others on and off campus. These letters are then edited by Cate Talbot Ashton, Health Professions Advisor in the Career Center and then they are submitted to your AMCAS application for allopathic medical school or directly to osteopathic medical schools. For this purpose, each applicant must set up a premedical file.
Other health professions, such as veterinary school, physical therapy and physician assistant programs, do not require a composite recommendation letter. Instead, they employ (and prefer) a more conventional application process, in which letters from individual recommenders (typically 3, although this can vary) are sent in support of an application. Typically these individual recommendations are submitted online, which requires the writer to submit the letter directly, rather than via a file process.
ESTABLISHING A FILE
Beginning in February, 2010, Colby began using an on-line letter collection system called veCollect for medical and dental applicants. Applicants will consult directly with the Health Professions Advisor about when will be the appropriate time to set up your veCollect file and how to establish the veCollect file. veCollect will be where all of your individual letters are submitted and held to be used in developing your composite letter. Letters collected in your veCollect file will not be released for any other use. If you may need letters from some of these same writers for other situations, you must ask for a separate letter.
As a general rule, at the time that you ask the Committee to prepare a composite letter, you should have no fewer than 4 (ideally no fewer than 5) and no more than 6 reference letters, with at least 2 from faculty in the natural sciences (from courses taken on and/or off campus). These are essential for documenting your intellectual and personal qualities in an academic context. The numbers of recommendations written from people other than faculty will vary widely depending on your particular extracurricular experiences. If you are applying to osteopathic schools, you may also need a letter of reference from a D.O. If you have more than 6 letters, we will ask you to identify the 6 you want us to use (if you don’t provide us with that selection, we will use the first 6 that were submitted to your file).
In seeking recommenders to write to your file, all of the following are relevant (in some cases the categories are overlapping): faculty in your major; faculty in the natural sciences, both at Colby and at any other institution(s) at which you have taken required or elective courses; faculty in the social sciences and humanities; medical professionals with whom you have worked, in a paid or volunteer capacity, e.g., a Jan Plan supervisor in a hospital or research center, the director of an ambulance service, the head of a dental lab, or a health professional who has supervised you in a clinic; researchers with whom you have worked, in a paid or volunteer capacity; administrators, coaches, and other College staff; and employers or work supervisors, both on and off campus. Remember, your goal is a minimum of 4 letters and a maximum of 6. You may need to be selective.
Because you will not be opening your veCollect file until February of the year you will start the application process, it is important that you nurture the relationships you have with people you may want to ask to write a reference. The best letters are written by people who know more than one dimension of you and with whom you have established a relationship over time. If you have a professor for a class that you anticipate not having again, take the time and effort to maintain that relationship by occasionally visiting them during office hours, attending events sponsored by their department and making a point of having a conversation with them, take them to lunch either on your own or with other students, or send them an update on your experiences and whereabouts. If they never see or hear from you again, they will forget the details about you. If you stay in touch, you’ll stay fresh in their memory.
Note: Be aware that all faculty take sabbaticals, and that some may leave to work at other institutions, and plan your recommendation requests accordingly.
You should begin requesting letters in February of the year in which you will be applying. You may consult with the Health Professions Advisor about the best combination of letters to support your candidacy.
It is your responsibility to seek any and all recommendations directly from potential referees, and to see that these recommendations are sent in a timely manner. You will add each writer as an “evaluator” to your veCollect file. They will receive instructions on how to submit their letters to your file. You will be able to monitor when letters are received by checking your veCollect file.
There may be an occasion when an individual may want to send a recommendation directly to the medical schools at the time that you apply, and you will facilitate this be adding them as a single recommender in your AMCAS application or having them send letters directly to osteopathic schools (the AACOMAS application does not have a letter system). This is wholly acceptable, but it is your responsibility to ensure that their letters are mailed in a timely fashion. You should offer these individuals the option of sending a single letter to your veCollect file. We will then either incorporate their comments into your composite letter, or simply attach a copy of their letter to your composite letter.
By obtaining recommendations from a variety of sources, your composite letter can describe your abilities and interests as comprehensively as possible. This is consistent with the current emphasis that professional schools place on students having a wide range of academic and interpersonal skills.
Once you notify the Health Professions Advisor that you will be applying to medical or dental school in the upcoming cycle, you will receive up-to-date, detailed instructions on how to work with the HPPC. We will request some or all of these items in order to put together your composite letter: (1) a copy of your academic record at Colby (which we will obtain directly from the Registrar); (2) reference letters from faculty, staff, and others from on and off campus (placed in your veCollect file – ideally by June 1, with an absolute deadline of July 15); (3) an up-to-date resume; (4) admissions test scores (MCAT or DAT); (5) a completed PIF (personal information form); (6) a copy of your application essay(s) used in your initial application; and (7) your AMCAS/AACOMAS/AADSAS ID number and, if using AMCAS, your Letter ID (added to your veCollect file). In addition, if you are applying to osteopathic schools, you’ll need to provide a list of the schools to which you are applying (added to your veCollect file). Questions about providing these materials can be addressed to the Health Professions Advisor (email@example.com). Alumni and reapplicants will be asked to provide an update on activities they have undertaken to improve their candidacy since graduation or their first application.
Important: The Committee will not undertake the writing of a composite letter of recommendation until ALL of the specified recommendations and informational documents, as described above, are in your veCollect file by July 15 (though we suggest completing your file by June 1). It is your responsibility to be sure that your file is complete. We also will not begin your application until you have submitted your AMCAS/ AACOMAS/ AADSAS application. Your goal is to have all of your composite letter support materials in place when you submit your initial application.
Also Important: Our goal is to be able to have the composite letter to your schools by the time you return your secondary applications to the schools. It is your responsibility to ensure that materials are submitted to the HPPC by the deadline in order to allow us to meet that goal. If all of the required materials are submitted and the Committee is able to write your composite letter early in the summer, ideally by June 1, it will take approximately 3-4 weeks to get your letter completed and submitted. We will NOT produce a composite letter for applicants whose files are not complete by July 15 – no exceptions will be made.
Admission Tests and Test Preparation
- Medical School: the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) is required.
- Dental school: the Dental Admission Test (DAT) is required.
- Veterinary school: most schools require the Graduate Record Examination (GRE).
For medical school, it is advantageous to take the MCAT by April of the year in which you submit your applications. This is because most schools have a rolling interviewing and/or a rolling admission policy, i.e., first come, first interviewed/admitted. If you will not be able to take the MCAT before April and begin your application by June, you should consult with the health professions advisor as early as possible about your particular circumstances.
Test Preparation: Whether or not to take a formal test prep course, e.g., from Kaplan, Princeton Review, or any other reputable prep company, is an individual decision. In our experience, there is a positive correlation between how a student has done on standardized testing prior to college, and how well a student does on admissions testing for the health professions. For example, if a student has had relatively weak performance on the SAT, it is probably a good idea to consider a test prep course. Moreover, many students, regardless of testing history, have benefited from formal test preparation.
At this time, there are no classroom-based prep courses offered on campus. Many prep companies offer live-on-line classroom courses with a structured schedule of classes that students join on the internet. Feedback from Colby students who have explored this option has been very positive.
Application Services/Individual Applications
Most (but not all) health professions schools utilize a centralized application service rather than accepting applications directly from prospective students. Application materials can be obtained directly from the application service:
AMCAS (allopathic medicine) https://www.aamc.org/students/medstudents/eras/ – required by all MD medical schools
AACOMAS (osteopathic medicine), https://aacomas.aacom.org/ – required by all DO medical schools
AACPMAS (podiatry), http://www.aacpm.org/apply/apply.asp
AADSAS (dentistry), https://portal.aadsasweb.org
VMCAS (veterinary medicine) http://portal.vmcas.org
TMDSAS (Texas Medical and Dental Application Service) http://www.utsystem.edu/tmdsas/ – required by all Texas medical and dental schools except Baylor Univ.
OMSAS (Ontario Medical School Application Service) http://www.ouac.on.ca/omsas/
From year to year, various schools join, or drop out of, these centralized services. Up-to-date information in this regard can be found in the publications and websites on the Resource List.
The opening date varies for these application services. You must consult the appropriate service web site for details. Several open at one date, but do not allow you submit the application until a later date. Each service offers a downloadable instructions manual that is important to consult when you have questions. Read instructions carefully as you may not be able to correct mistakes once you submit your application!!! There are closing dates as well, for the centralized application services as well as for individual schools.
It is to your advantage to submit your applications as early as possible – ideally in June. In our experience, this increases the likelihood of being interviewed. As noted above, most schools have rolling interviewing and/or rolling admissions. If circumstances force you to apply later in the cycle, be sure to consult with the Health Professions Advisor as early as possible.
Many professional schools have early decision (E.D.) programs. If you have a particular school that you strongly prefer and want to use this option, typically you must apply before September 1. However, if you are an E.D. applicant at one school, you cannot be an active applicant at any other school until you hear about your status–accepted or rejected–from the E.D. school. Thus, applying E.D. may put you a few months behind as an applicant at all other schools if you are not accepted in the E.D. process. Unlike college, very few applicants are accepted for early decision for professional schools and those are usually only the very strongest applicants. You can find information on specific schools and E.D. programs in the admissions guides noted in the Resource List.
The centralized application services require an official transcript from every college or university you have attended or earned course credit from. Please be aware that your Colby transcript does not necessarily include grades and/or records of courses that you have taken at other institutions and, even if it does, official transcripts from other institutions are always required in addition to the Colby transcript.
To send a Colby transcript, contact the Colby Registrar’s Office. For off-campus study programs run by Colby your courses and grades are part of your Colby transcript. For other programs and/or courses taken away from Colby, it is your responsibility to see that the relevant transcript information is submitted to a centralized application service or to individual schools. This includes summer school courses, college courses taken while in high school, courses transferred from other colleges, and courses taken abroad, whether taught at a foreign university or by the staff of the American sponsor. You should consult with the Registrar to confirm what is, and is not, on your Colby transcript.
Transcripts must be submitted at the time you apply. You must make arrangements for this directly with the Registrar’s Office at Colby and at all other schools.
Virtually all schools ask you to write an essay on why you want to pursue your intended profession. This is often the most challenging part of the application–it can be difficult to write about yourself, and there is a risk of using the wrong tone, i.e., of either overselling or underselling yourself. Moreover, professional schools view writing as an index of thinking, thus the essay is a key part of your application. As a general guideline for getting started, it may be helpful to approach the essay as if you were writing a recommendation for someone else whom you know well, emphasizing strengths as well as areas for growth. The essay typically discusses significant events that influenced your decision to pursue your intended profession, experiences that have reinforced that decision, and specific scientific-technical and interpersonal skills that you will bring to the profession. It is routine to seek advice or feedback from the Health Professions Advisor in the Career Center or from another faculty member who knows you well. Finally, it is a good idea to have someone familiar with the writing of pre-professional essays read and critique it for both content and style. Your initial essay may be included in your online application service (the AMCAS, for example) — be sure you consult the service instruction manual for information about the length allowed.
Most schools will ask you to submit a secondary application. This often involves more essays. Schools will usually not look at your composite letter of recommendation until they have received your completed secondary application. Some secondary requests will come very soon after submitting your centralized application service application, others will come later. Typically, you will have to pay additional application fees to each school when you submit the secondaries. You should consider this in your application fee budget.
Most schools interview only those applicants whom they are seriously considering. Check specific information on individual schools in the publications noted in the Resource List. The content and style of interviews varies widely.
Probably what the interviewer(s) is(are) evaluating most is your motivation toward, and chances of success in, the profession, and your ability to talk intelligently with some degree of depth and enthusiasm. If the composite letter can mention your interests and experiences this may help to focus the interview in a way most beneficial to you.
It is important to inform yourself about specific programs available at a specific school and inquire about them during your interview. Not only will you appear to be knowledgeable and interested, but also you will get a better sense of the school. Finally, it is a good idea to keep up with general current events by reading newspapers and magazines, as well as with new developments in science and health, through journals available in the Science Library (e.g., Science, Nature, The New England Journal of Medicine).
For helpful tips in preparing for a medical school interview you may want to check out the Student Doctor website, which has excellent articles about preparing for your interviews and provides feedback from individual candidates’ interviews at most medical schools. The Health Professions Advisor also has an interviewing handout for medical/dental candidates that includes sample “practice” questions.
The expenses of interviewing (e.g., airfare, hotels) are borne by the applicant, except under special circumstances. You should set money aside in advance for those expenses and think about purchasing an interview outfit in advance.
Should you be accepted at more than one school, withdraw from the school(s) that you clearly have no intention of attending. If you are accepted at one school and want to hold on until you get an answer from another school that you prefer or until financial aid packages are clear, this is reasonable. But tying up several places for extended periods of time is discourteous to all other pre-professional students. When you finally decide on a school, it is polite to write to other schools that have not yet notified you and ask them to remove your application from consideration.
Please keep the Health Professions Advisor informed of your progress, in particular regarding interviews as well as acceptances, but also wait-list or alternate status, and rejections.