Letters of recommendation are a crucial component of the medical school application process. Some even argue that the letters are more important than the personal statement since they offer an inside look at what other people think of you. Simply obtaining the right number of letters is not enough—you need to secure strong letters of recommendation.
Negative or even lukewarm letters will hurt your application. This is why approaching the process of obtaining letters in an organized manner and choosing wisely is crucial. In this post, we will share advice and strategies for securing strong letters of recommendation.
If you haven’t already, read our detailed Medical School Letters of Recommendation Guide.
How Many Letters of Recommendation Do I Need?
The first step is knowing what you are striving for. In general, you will need the following for medical school applications:
4-5 total letters
3 academic letters written by undergraduate professors (2 science and 1 non-science)
1-2 letters from extracurricular pursuits, most commonly research and clinical experience
How to Secure Strong Letters of Recommendation
Now that we’ve covered the basics, here are the keys to obtaining strong, effective letters of recommendation.
1 | Develop Strong Relationships
It is crucial that you choose letter writers that know you well. In order to do so, you must create more direct interactions with your potential letter writers than the average student.
The first challenge is securing academic letters, which will be written by professors. Many students attend universities at which they take classes alongside 300+ hopeful premeds. So, how does one get any meaningful face time with the professor? The first and most simple way is through office hours.
Though this may seem like a chore, attending office hours is a smart and necessary way to meet a professor in a smaller group setting.
Perhaps you will even be able to speak to the professor one-on-one. But more than just attending, go to office hours with intelligent questions and topics to discuss. Whether it’s something you truly need assistance with in class or a topic which you found intriguing enough to discuss as a possible research interest, find something to engage the professor and demonstrate your interest. This will make you memorable and illustrate your interest in their class.
As for extracurricular letters, creating a connection will generally be more simple as you will likely have the opportunity for individual interaction with research, clinical, or other mentors. Still, make sure you are professional and interested. Try to engage potential letter writers in discussions that demonstrate your enthusiasm for medicine and the activity itself.
Be yourself and do not behave in a contrived manner, but be sure to go the extra mile if possible.
2 | Choose Wisely
After developing relationships with select professors and mentors, you will need to choose whom to ask for letters. As mentioned above, you will need 3 academic letters in total, including 2 from science professors, and 1 from a non-science professor. If possible, it helps to have letters from senior professors who are respected or well-known in their field. With that said, this is not imperative.
It is most important that the writer knows you well and can specifically comment on their relationship and interaction with you. A very strong, specific, and personal letter is best. The content will generally trump the qualifications of the writer.
Make sure you ask professors from a class in which you performed well. If you got below an A- in a class, I would not recommend asking that professor to write your letter. They likely receive several requests, and you will be at a disadvantage if your academic performance in their class was below the level of other interested peers.
3 | Ask For a Strong Letter
Whenever requesting a letter, make sure to ask if the letter writer is willing to write a strong letter. The word “strong” is key here.
This will help identify those who feel they know you well enough to comment on the strengths and attributes that will make you a great doctor. This language is well-known to writers and will allow them to honestly answer whether or not they feel equipped to write you a strong, positive letter.
You can ask a letter writer either in person or via email. Either is a reasonable approach. If you would like to approach this via email, use our downloadable email template.
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The key is to be professional and direct while providing some context for the request. Whether in person or via email, when you ask for a letter, include some commentary on what drives your desire to be a physician and why you feel connected enough to the potential writer to make that request. It’s okay to subtly remind the letter writer of your prior positive interactions.
4 | If They Say No Or Hesitate, Move On
If a letter writer says no, they may have a good reason. They might not have the time, think they don’t know you well enough, or not have good things to say about you.
No matter their reason, it’s important to accept their answer and thank them for their time. It’s much better that you know ahead of time rather than have a letter writer submit a bland letter that would hinder your application.
The same goes for hesitation. If you feel any sense from a potential letter writer that they are reluctant to write a letter for you, move on to a stronger option. You need to secure letter writers that will give you a strong letter of recommendation.
5 | Make the Process as Smooth as Possible
Provide your letter writers with everything they need to submit your letter with ease. You should make the process as seamless as possible for them so that they can focus on writing you a strong letter. If they agree, send them a package by email with all of the materials they need or may want to look at. Offer to send materials by mail if they prefer to review physical documents.
- Submission instructions, including your AAMC ID and their personal Letter ID
- Updated CV (not a resume, but a comprehensive CV)
- Academic transcript
- Personal statement (if available)
- MCAT score
- Submission deadline
- Personal blurb – some may ask for a personal blurb about “past accomplishments” or “what makes you different than other applicants” (Optional)
Final Keys to Success
With all of the above components, you are well on your way to securing strong letters of recommendation. Here are a few final thoughts to remember:
Be personal but professional — When establishing a relationship with a possible letter writer, you will need to be yourself and establish a personal connection. Let your personality shine, but always maintain professionalism. Through timeliness and hard work, you can demonstrate your professional nature, which will go a long way toward impressing your mentors.
Be organized — When it comes time to request a letter and provide materials for the letter writer, be organized with all the components. Ensure they are meticulously prepared. Not only will this save the letter writer time and trouble, it will again reflect favorably on your professional attitude and approach.
Choose wisely — Choosing someone who knows you well and who is willing and ready to write a good letter is key. Be watchful for signs that the letter writer is reluctant, even if they say yes. Unreasonable delays in letter writing are one example of such a sign. If possible, strive to ask a writer who is familiar with the process and knows what it takes for students to get into medical school. An experienced letter writer is often a solid one.
Good luck as you embark on your medical school applications. If you would like assistance with any component of this process, including but not limited to letters of recommendation, reach out to our team about our advising services.
Med School Insiders is backed by a team of doctors who have years of experience serving on admissions committees. We’ll ensure you receive key insights from people who have been intimately involved in the selection process.