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By: Kaiwen Song

MCAT? Thank God that’s done! Autobiographical sketch? Just needs another look. Supplementary essays? Completed and edited! Now I just pray that my reference letters arrive on time.

This September, many of my peers and I applied to medical school through the Ontario Medical Schools Application System. In addition to the full application, OMSAS requires that three physical copies of completed reference letters be received by Oct. 1 — not sent by, not postmarked on, but received. Although many medical schools understand the variability of mail delivery times and use Oct. 1 as a flexible deadline, certain schools don’t. The University of Toronto medical school this year is notable for declaring on its FAQ page that if a reference letter arrives at OMSAS even just one day after the deadline, the corresponding application will not proceed to file review.

As you can imagine, the weeks leading up to the deadline were a very stressful time. In addition to taking the MCAT, completing our autobiographical sketch, and writing our supplementary essays, we also had to take all the necessary steps to ensure that our reference letters arrive on time. Unfortunately, as students, we can only do so much. We begin by asking our potential referees early to provide them with plenty of time to write it, as well as for the letters to arrive at OMSAS safely before Oct. 1 through the postal system.

As the deadline approaches, we start to send carefully worded reminders to our referees — forceful enough to express the reference letter’s importance, but restrained enough to not offend. Although we understand that our referees lead busy professional and personal lives and require time to complete the letter, we can’t help but feel uneasy since our entire applications are on the line. At the time, it felt supremely unnerving and frustrating – all of our hard work can be undone by something outside of our control.

Upon further reflection, I am surprised to say that I actually believe that the University of Toronto medical school’s strict deadline is fair. If the deadline was flexible, up to what point should reference letters to accepted? One week after the deadline? One month? There must be a clear deadline to ensure that all applications are processed in a timely manner, and Oct. 1 seems perfectly reasonable.

That being said, I would like to advocate for the change from physical reference letters being mailed in to electronic references sent through email. The biggest source of stress regarding references was the unpredictability of the postal system. Reference writers could send the letter weeks before the due date, but there’s still the chance that it could arrive later than the deadline, especially if the letter is coming from another province or country. If a letter is lost in the mail, students have no way of determining whether that occurred, and there may not be enough time after this discovery to ask for another letter. All of these issues can be addressed by switching to an electronic system, such as the one used by the United States’ undergraduate college application system. Students are asked to input their referees’ email addresses into the system, and their referees will receive a secure link in which to comment on the student’s suitability for their applied program. As soon as the reference letter is submitted, the student will receive notification of its completion.

An electronic system for receiving reference letters will streamline the process, reduce the anxiety of students at a very tumultuous time in their lives, and ensure that all applications can begin to be processed in a timely manner. As anyone can tell you, applying to medical school is hard enough already. Let’s not make it harder than it has to be.

Photo Credit: Ontario Universities’ Application Centre

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