Letters of recommendation are a vital piece of every successful medical school application. While your personal statement provides your own account of your skills and winning personality, letters of recommendation are written by respected professionals, such as physicians, mentors, and professors. If they write you an unbiased yet glowing letter, admissions committees will take notice. How to choose medical school recommendation writers essentially boils down to who knows you best and who will write you the strongest letter.
Since a letter of recommendation is an objective summary of your skills written by a qualified professional, receiving a poor or even lukewarm recommendation is extremely detrimental to your chances of medical school acceptance. It is essential to approach this process in advance and with a great deal of organization to ensure you choose your letters of recommendation writers wisely.
Check out our Medical School Letters of Recommendation Guide, which includes everything you need to know about the letters of recommendation process.
How to Choose Medical School Recommendation Writers
There are a number of aspects to consider when choosing your letter writers, and some factors are more important than others. Use the following criteria to maximize your chances of success.
1 | Will They Provide a STRONG Letter?
Whether or not the letter writer will provide a strong letter of recommendation is the most important criteria to consider.
You NEED strong letters. Anything less is not worth including, as it will only hurt your chances.
While it can be enticing to choose someone who has excellent prestige, don’t do this at the expense of getting a strong letter. If the writer doesn’t know you, how can they authentically speak to your strengths? Proving that a big name in medicine knows who you are and can confirm your existence in their class doesn’t provide an admissions committee with any information—it merely suggests a bit of shallowness and short-sightedness on your part.
Choose writers who know you well and are extremely confident in your abilities. This is why it’s so important to start this process early, as in order to secure strong letters, you need to develop strong relationships—and this takes time.
Be polite but professional with your professors and mentors. Seek their advice and engage them in conversation. Demonstrate your vast interest and commitment to medicine. Once you feel you have developed a strong bond, it’s a good idea to ask them if they will write you a strong letter. They have been through this process too, and they have likely written dozens of letters of recommendation for other students. They will know what you’re looking for.
For more details, read our guide on How to Get Strong Medical School Letters of Recommendation.
2 | Do You Have Your Bases Covered?
The number of letters you need will vary depending on the medical schools you’re applying to. Generally, for AMCAS, it’s ideal to acquire 4-5 strong letters of recommendation, but it’s important to check each school to ensure you know what they expect.
Your letters of recommendation should include:
- 3 academic letters written by undergraduate professors. 2 of those letters should be written by science professors, and 1 should be written by a non-science professor.
- 1-2 letters from your extracurriculars. Generally, these letters come from professionals you worked with during your research and clinical experiences.
Shoot for quality over quantity. Having fewer strong letters is always better than a large number of mediocre letters. A few qualified professionals saying you’re great is a lot better than several professionals offering a collective shrug.
3 | How Well Do They Know You?
It’s crucial that your letter writers know you very well. If they don’t know intimately why you’re qualified to be a strong medical student and doctor, they cannot speak to your strengths and unique personal qualities authentically.
If you choose a letter writer you have barely spoken to, they won’t have anything interesting to say. A perfunctory confirmation of your existence as a student is useless to an admissions committee and boring to read—in other words, it’s a complete waste of their time.
Choose someone who knows you well and is able to speak to your unique characteristics and strengths. This will help ensure you receive a strong letter.
Now, getting to know your professors and mentors well is easier said than done. Since most students take classes alongside 300+ hopeful premeds, it’s necessary to attend office hours to secure strong letters from your professors. Come prepared with intelligent questions and topics to discuss. Demonstrate your interest and engage the professor with intriguing topics to help yourself stand out.
When it comes to extracurricular letters, developing relationships with research, clinical, or other mentors is a bit easier, as you will have more individual interactions with these mentors. But don’t take this for granted. Make the most out of each of your interactions; be engaging and polite but professional.
The best letters of recommendation are written by professionals who can speak specifically to their relationship and interactions with you. A strong, personal, and specific letter is best, so work on developing your relationships as soon as possible.
4 | Do They Have a Positive Impression of You?
This may seem like a no-brainer, but it’s crucial your letter writer likes and respects you.
What is their opinion of you? Do they have positive memories of you? Can they speak highly of you? Think long and hard. Did you do anything that might have left a sour memory or bad impression?
For example, consider the grades you received in their class. If you got below an A- in the professor’s class, they are not the right person to ask. The professor has almost certainly already received a number of requests for a letter of recommendation, and you will be at a significant disadvantage if your academic performance falls below that of other interested students.
Seek out letter writers who gave you excellent marks and who seem to enjoy the conversations they have with you. The more confidence they have in you and your abilities, the stronger your letter of recommendation will be.
5 | Are They an Authority in Their Field of Study?
This is an important consideration, but not quite as important as you may think. It’s ideal if your letter writer is widely considered to be an authority in their field of study but always opt for someone who knows you well first.
A letter from a doctor with a prestigious reputation will carry more weight and make a larger impression on admissions committee members, but it’s much more important that your letter writer knows you intimately and can provide you with a strong recommendation.
Having a ‘big name’ write one of your letters definitely gives you a leg up over your competition, but not if the letter itself is mediocre. If a ‘big name’ has a lukewarm impression of you and writes you a lackluster letter of recommendation, your attempt will backfire, and it could seriously hinder your chances of acceptance.
6 | Do They Understand the Medical School Application Process?
Choose letter writers who understand the medical school application process to ensure they know exactly what’s expected. These writers will already be familiar with the submission portal, and they’ll know what medical schools are looking for in a letter of recommendation.
Choosing someone without this intimate understanding or who doesn’t know what a ‘strong’ letter of recommendation is could mean your letter lacks important characteristics. It could also mean your letter is late. Ensure your letter writers understand the application process and what should be included in the letter of recommendation before you choose them.
7 | Are They Available and Reliable?
Can you count on them to get you your letter in time and to submit it through the proper portal? The proper portals for allopathic medical schools are the AMCAS Letter Service and Interfolio. A great letter that isn’t ready in time won’t do you any good, so choose letter writers you know you can count on.
It’s a good idea to make the process as easy as possible for them. Provide all of the necessary materials so that writing and submitting the letter is nice and simple.
Letter of recommendation materials to include:
- Submission instructions (including your AAMC ID and their personal Letter ID)
- Updated CV (a comprehensive CV—not a resume)
- Academic transcript
- Personal statement (if you have it available)
- MCAT score
- Submission deadline
Provide your letter writers with a clear deadline that’s long before your own application deadline. We recommend two-three months. Set a reminder two weeks out from the due date. Be flexible and accommodate your letter writer’s schedule.
It’s also a good idea to have backup options available in case anything falls through. Your letter writers lead busy lives and are most likely writing several other letters of recommendation, so don’t leave anything up to chance. If your letter writer hesitates or implies they don’t have enough time, move on. They are signaling to you that they are not the best option, either because they know they don’t have the time or because they don’t have anything strong to say about you.
Optimize Your Entire Application
Building strong relationships and choosing the best letter writers for your application is a tough skill to master. To make an impact, begin developing strong relationships early on. These relationships will be the foundation of your letter writer requests. Carefully consider your options to determine who will be able to give you the strongest letters possible.
Med School Insiders offers Comprehensive Medical School Admissions Packages designed to help you with every step of your application process. We will help you acquire strong letters of recommendation to maximize your chance of acceptance to your dream school.
Our team of doctors has years of experience serving on admissions committees, so you’ll receive key insights from people who have been intimately involved with the selection process.