Pre-Med Spring Break: Letters of Recommendation

As the snow falls and you dream of your potential Spring Break tan lines, you might wonder if you are forgetting anything other than sun lotion and checking for the Spring Fling artist (announcement later). If you are applying to medical or dental school, in addition to MCAT preparation for the May or June test takers and drafting Personal Statements, you should be thinking about letters of recommendation.

Medical schools require that you submit a “committee letter” and letters of recommendation as a part of your secondary application. In order to receive the committee letter from Penn, the Health Professions Advisory Board (HPAB) requires that you send a minimum of 3 letters (referenced in the committee letter), though you may send a maximum of 6, and has set May 15th as the deadline for having those letters of recommendations on file with Career Services.

Before the festivities begin or even after you are all settled in at home, you should request letters of recommendation from a variety of people with whom you have worked but are relevant to medical school.  You might ask a TA from a biology recitation, a Principal Investigator from your Organic Chemistry lab, or your supervisor from a hospital volunteer program. Please note: you must have at least one letter of recommendation from someone who has taught you in the sciences, however, two is preferable.  In addition, it is ideal to have at least one letter of recommendation from someone who has taught you in a course outside of the sciences and one of your letters must be from a member of your undergraduate school’s standing faculty (i.e., Assistant, Associate, or Full Professor).

Having a letters of recommendation from someone famous, your baby daddy’s psychologist, or a family doctor who has known you since you were a toddlers are not recommended as the letter would not necessarily be helpful or particularly relevant.

Please instruct your recommenders to submit their letters of recommendation directly to your Credentials File in Career Services via email (, accompanied by a Confidentiality Agreement, which is available on the Career Services website: You need to complete the form and sign the Confidentiality Agreement; we strongly suggest that you waive your right to see your letters since medical schools prefer confidential letters of recommendation and the committee letter is confidential.

Lastly, you can confirm whether letters have arrived in your Credentials File by checking the status online: Please check regularly, allowing at least a week for processing.

Don’t Leave School Without It!

Graduating students, don’t leave Penn without setting up an Interfolio account through Career Services. This on line credential/reference management system offers you the opportunity to store letters of recommendation, and have them mailed whenever you apply for graduate school admission, jobs or special programs in the future.  This is the ideal time to ask current professors, your advisor, or others you have worked with for a recommendation.  Let the author of a letter know what your future plans may be.  Have a discussion with them to determine their willingness to write a recommendation for you.  More detailed information is available on the Career Services website:  How to Ask for a Recommendation.

Please go to Follow the instructions for opening an account and learn how the system works.

Pre-Health applicants will continue to use the Career Services Credentials system.

Why Not to Go to Graduate School (Yet)

by Peter Stokes

Since I’m glad to have been to graduate school myself, and I’m now pleased to be able to counsel students as they make their graduate or professional school plans, I would have a hard time arguing here that grad school stinks and you should avoid it like the plague.  Nevertheless, I do think that grad school represents a serious commitment, and that what you should avoid is using grad school as a default option, casually and without due diligence.

If you’d prefer just to stay in school rather than even think about the tough job market, well, I do have some sympathy.  By all means take this moment to climb back into bed, pull the covers over your head, and let out a self-pitying groan.  (I’d like to say this is a strategy I am unfamiliar with.)

Assuming that you’ve now pulled yourself together and are reading again, however, consider that grad school may not in fact be such an ideal place to be, just yet.  Grad school demands sacrifices of time, effort, and usually money.  Your position will seem even less rosy if after making those sacrifices and earning that advanced degree, you find that your job prospects are limited because you lack experience in the field, or that you have an unnecessary or the wrong degree for what you really want to do.

If you love research—and are sure you will still love it after several years of working on a narrow topic—a Ph.D. might well be for you.  Or if you’ve got a very good idea of what profession you want to go into, and you’ve done your research and know that there is an advanced degree you need for it now—by all means get that application together.

What does doing your research mean here?  Well, you should know what grad school entails, how it will help you in your profession, and what it costs (both in real terms and in lost income)—and you should have done this preferably at least in part by speaking with people in the field you want to work in, who have made decisions like this themselves and are in a great position to advise you.

However, if you’re not sure yet what profession is for you, or if you’re unsure at this point if you’ll be able to sustain an interest in academic work, or if the kind of grad school you have in mind usually expects full-time work experience—then you should probably wait.  It is rarely a bad idea to take some time before going to grad school.  That time gives you a chance to find out more about your career options, and what kind of grad school might be appropriate.  Make sure you explore all your options for what to do after school.

You can do some preparation for graduate school while an undergraduate without applying.  You can take the appropriate standardized test (GRE, GMAT, etc.), and talk with potential recommenders (you might use Interfolio).  But if you’re worried that you’ll lose your motivation for grad school if you take some time before you go, don’t.  In my experience, and that of many others, you’ll find if you take some time to be something other than a student, that when you return, you’re all the more focused and ready and able to take advantage of the opportunity that graduate school can represent.