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The importance of Rec Letters

zogoto

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    How important are recommendation letters for medical school, and how much trouble is it worth going through to get a good one? The reason I'm asking is this: I'm in a lab class right now (my school has intense bio/chem labs, since instead of every bio class having an associated lab, there's just one lab period), and I went into it knowing no biology (I did not take Bio I). I told the lab instructor (not a professor, but still a PhD), and she basically spent a lot of time answering all of my questions and stuff.

    Then, on the first two tests (out of 3 in the class), I got the highest score in the class (around 100 people). She's obviously very happy with me because she helped me do it. I know the professor of this class as well since I've gone in to talk to him and ask some questions that the lab instructor didn't know (he is the one that designs the experiments we do in the class). I'm looking to get a rec from this instructor and have it signed by the professor. Now, she's asked me to TA the class next term. TA'ing is a huge time committment since it's about 12 hrs/week in which time I can do a lot of other stuff. I'm doubling in math and EECS (elec. eng. and comp sci), so I usually have to take a ton of classes, especially if I want to have room to do more chem and bio courses (which I'm interested in).

    So the thing is I wouldn't really want to TA this class because you basically just babysit the students and answer their questions here and there, BUT if I could make this really good rec I'm getting from her even better, is it worth it? Is the added value of having her see another side of me (teaching, helping students, etc.) and having her know me for an extra term enough to offset the fact that I'll have to do less research and take fewer classes next term?
     

    taponthecloud

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      How important are recommendation letters for medical school, and how much trouble is it worth going through to get a good one? The reason I'm asking is this: I'm in a lab class right now (my school has intense bio/chem labs, since instead of every bio class having an associated lab, there's just one lab period), and I went into it knowing no biology (I did not take Bio I). I told the lab instructor (not a professor, but still a PhD), and she basically spent a lot of time answering all of my questions and stuff.

      So the thing is I wouldn't really want to TA this class because you basically just babysit the students and answer their questions here and there, BUT if I could make this really good rec I'm getting from her even better, is it worth it? Is the added value of having her see another side of me (teaching, helping students, etc.) and having her know me for an extra term enough to offset the fact that I'll have to do less research and take fewer classes next term?

      Letter of rec's are probably the MOST IMPORTANT part of your application if your grades and MCAT are solid (if grades and MCAT are not solid, they're even MORE important). so, they're frickin' IMPORTANT. hope i'm not being too subtle here.

      Putting aside time to TA is worth it but you shouldn't value that over your research and course work. from what i've read, however, it doesn't seem like you're enthusiastic about research or taking on a challenging course load...So your problem is much bigger than trying to secure this letter of rec, I think.
       

      zogoto

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        I think that you misread then, no offense meant :) I'm doing research this term and put about 20 hrs/week into it. At my school, most labs demand a lot, but you also get a lot (everyone that works hard enough can publish). Also, I am enthusiastic about taking a challenging course load. Only some people take more than 4 classes a term at my school, and last term I took 7 and had a great time. Right now, I can finish both majors and all the premed requirements taking just 4 classes a term, but I would like to take more advanced chemistry, some extra biology, and some more advanced math. In order to do that, I need to take more than 4 classes a term. However, TA'ing next term would limit me to just 4 classes I'm guessing (maybe 5).

        So is making this rec better worth it?
         
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        taponthecloud

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          I think that you misread then, no offense meant :) I'm doing research this term and put about 20 hrs/week into it. At my school, most labs demand a lot, but you also get a lot (everyone that works hard enough can publish). Also, I am enthusiastic about taking a challenging course load. Only some people take more than 4 classes a term at my school, and last term I took 7 and had a great time. Right now, I can finish both majors and all the premed requirements taking just 4 classes a term, but I would like to take more advanced chemistry, some extra biology, and some more advanced math. In order to do that, I need to take more than 4 classes a term. However, TA'ing next term would limit me to just 4 classes I'm guessing (maybe 5).

          So is making this rec better worth it?

          4-5 classes are equivalent to 16-20 units which is fine considering you're pursuing two majors. it's usually not a good idea to ask a "TA/lecturer" for a letter if you can get it from the professor directly. however, since the lecturer in this case is a PhD, it won't be a huge problem. just make sure the professor has a substantial role in writing your letter and that he is the one who signs it.

          Btw, I didn't misread. You omitted a lot of information in your original post.
           
          Letter of rec's are probably the MOST IMPORTANT part of your application if your grades and MCAT are solid (if grades and MCAT are not solid, they're even MORE important). so, they're frickin' IMPORTANT. hope i'm not being too subtle here.

          You've grossly overstated the importance of letters.

          It's important not to get a bad one, and good letters can help if you're a borderline candidate, but to say that they are the most important part of the application is silly.
           

          TheRealMD

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            You've grossly overstated the importance of letters.

            It's important not to get a bad one, and good letters can help if you're a borderline candidate, but to say that they are the most important part of the application is silly.

            To showcase this, rec letters have 4 levels: mediocre (this student got an A), glowing, even more glowing, and godlike.

            As long as you avoid a mediocre letter, it's pretty much a checkbox to get the number you need. Few professors are actually going to say that you are a "horrible" student anyway.
             

            taponthecloud

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              You've grossly overstated the importance of letters.

              It's important not to get a bad one, and good letters can help if you're a borderline candidate, but to say that they are the most important part of the application is silly.

              Actually, I feel strongly that they're the most important part of the application...granted, of course, GPA and MCAT are up to par. I suppose most people look at them as something to complete "the package" but, strategically speaking, one really can't afford to get anything except stellar letters of rec esp if one is aiming for the top schools. Have folks gotten into Harvard, Hopkins, and WashU with one or two average letters? Certainly. But these folks have a whole lot more to compensate for that than the avg applicant.
               

              MilkmanAl

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                So really what you're saying is that rec letters are the third-most important aspect of an application, after GPA and MCAT. I guess there's a good chance that's accurate, but it probably varies by school like everything else. The only thing that's certain is that a negative rec will screw you even if you're absurdly qualified otherwise.
                 

                zogoto

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                  So back to my original question, given that this rec is in between the glowing and even more glowing areas right now, is it worth it to take only 4 classes next term and TA a class I don't really want to TA that much in order to get a rec in between even more glowing and godlike (if you think TA'ing would do that), or should I take 6-7 classes and do research?
                   

                  TheRealMD

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                    So back to my original question, given that this rec is in between the glowing and even more glowing areas right now, is it worth it to take only 4 classes next term and TA a class I don't really want to TA that much in order to get a rec in between even more glowing and godlike (if you think TA'ing would do that), or should I take 6-7 classes and do research?

                    If you haven't done research yet, it's better to do that. And it's pretty much a bad idea to do things you don't like for extended period of time. Especially with something like being a TA, if you have pre-meds in your class that actually make you work, you'll probably hate it with a passion.
                     

                    taponthecloud

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                      So really what you're saying is that rec letters are the third-most important aspect of an application, after GPA and MCAT. I guess there's a good chance that's accurate, but it probably varies by school like everything else. The only thing that's certain is that a negative rec will screw you even if you're absurdly qualified otherwise.

                      I always assume GPA and MCAT are good/great, so yeah, all things being equal (which is the most likely case for applicants to top schools), the rec letters will be the tie breaker, thus making it the most important. This is not a purely elitist argument because if GPA and MCAT are below avg then rec letters are EVEN MORE important. So really, in any case, you better make sure you get mostly stellar rec letters...
                       

                      CubaLibre

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                        To showcase this, rec letters have 4 levels: mediocre (this student got an A), glowing, even more glowing, and godlike.

                        As long as you avoid a mediocre letter, it's pretty much a checkbox to get the number you need. Few professors are actually going to say that you are a "horrible" student anyway.

                        i think you say it best here. I don't think they are any more important than any other part of your application. Anyone can find a few people to say a few good things about them. Good letters are expected. Bad/negative letters will hurt you.
                         

                        zogoto

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                          If you haven't done research yet, it's better to do that. And it's pretty much a bad idea to do things you don't like for extended period of time. Especially with something like being a TA, if you have pre-meds in your class that actually make you work, you'll probably hate it with a passion.

                          I have done research in the past. I have some publications from high school/freshman year, and I've most recently started some biochemistry research that I'll also do during the summer. I'll continue it no matter what next year, but I'll have to scale back my involvement. I don't think I'll really hate being a TA, but I like taking classes more than teaching, so while I'm actually doing it, I think I can do a good job.

                          But back to what I'm trying to figure out, do you think that TA'ing will give a big enough boost in the rec. that it's worth it?
                           

                          zogoto

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                            Well I could just say there are required classes I have to take that conflict with all the lab times (which is true, but I could take those required classes the following term), and that I would like to TA a subsequent term (the teacher is leaving after next term).
                             

                            zogoto

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                              I've recently heard that the impression of a lab instructor (even though she's a phd) does not matter that much, even if she's the one that's going to be writing the rec. In other words, if TAing would show her a new side of me and get to know her better, I wouldn't know the professor any better so its not worth it. Is this a valid argument?
                               

                              iA-MD2013

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                                I've recently heard that the impression of a lab instructor (even though she's a phd) does not matter that much, even if she's the one that's going to be writing the rec. In other words, if TAing would show her a new side of me and get to know her better, I wouldn't know the professor any better so its not worth it. Is this a valid argument?
                                possibly...we don't know your prof. But, it is entirely possible that you won't have much contact with the prof as a ta.
                                 

                                cleothecat

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                                  LOR's are important in that if you receive one negative letter, you may very well be hung out to dry.

                                  Worse, is that schools may only look at LOR's after the interview, so that you go through needless expense for attending an interview when you have little chance of success.

                                  So choose your referees carefully, and always ask if they can write you a strong positive letter of recommendation. That way if you get a malicious letter writer, then you may have some recourse.

                                  1% of letters are truly negative, so adcoms look at such letters as strong red flags.
                                   
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