In a small office in the Biology Laboratory these days sits an assistant professor of Botany who has hardly glanced at a microscope or fiddled with an amoeba for weeks. The assistant professor likes to work on his own research projects as much as the next man, but he has become a martyr to the cause of getting Harvard men into medical schools. As the professor in charge of Biology, he has been deluged all fall by pre-meds needing recommendations from science professors in support of their applications to medical schools.
So far this fall the biology professor has filled out forms or written letters--depending on the whim of the medical school involved--for over 64 students. Since each student brings in recommendation forms from an average of five medical schools, the assistant professor has so far been responsible for the handling of over 300 separate letters. Aside from the sheer volume of the paper work he must handle, the professor must conjure up impressions of students who took Biology 1 as long ago as three years. For this he relies on reports submitted by the student's lab man at the time and on a short interview with the pre-med when he presents his recommendation forms.
The professors in other basic science courses also have their problems with pre-med endorsements. Chemistry 1 depends to a great extent on reports filed by the applicant's lab man backed up, as in Biology 1, with a short student interview when he comes in to submit his application forms. Professor Rochow, however, ignores the forms issued by some medical schools in favor of a personal letter.
Perhaps the most extensive system is run by Professor Fieser of Organic Chemistry, who recommends over 100 pre-meds each year. Fieser has an elaborate chart-complete with photograph-made up for each student so that his progress through the course can be clearly charted. Very poor students and very good ones have personal conferences with Fieser. Finally, when the student comes in to the Organic office in his senior year bearing forms to be filled out, Fieser has a 15 minute interview with him and then immediately dictates a letter which is run off in duplicate and sent to medical schools in lieu of the forms they request. Fieser focls that his system has the advantage of taking the main burden of recommendation-making away from youthful lab instructors, who are often impatient with all but other organic chemists.
This variety of methods shows a lack of coordination between the various courses. Certain innovations, such as Fieser's photograph idea, should be used as much as possible in each of the big science courses. The whole system in Biology I should be revised, and the assistant professor liberated. Futhermore, the heads of the courses should check with the medical schools themselves, for some schools definitely favor one form of recommendation over another, and it is bad policy to antagonize an admissions committee by ignoring its petty likes and dislikes. Although problems vary from department to department, it should be possible for the heads of the large pre-med courses to arrive at a standard procedure for evaluating a student's ability and promise.