As every student striving toward a career in medicine knows, letters of recommendation are a crucial component of the medical school application process. In fact, in a past post in which I evaluated each component of the medical school application, I ranked the letter of recommendation as the 5th most important component (trailing only GPA/MCAT, research, clinical experience, and the personal statement). Some might even argue that letters are more important than the personal statement, but either way I would place them solidly in the top 5. Recommendation letters are certainly something important to think about and prepare for.
The key to this whole topic though is the following: securing strong letters of recommendation. In my opinion, much of their importance importance stems from the fact that they have the potential to hurt one’s application if lukewarm (and certainly if negative). This is why choosing wisely and approaching the process of obtaining letters in an organized manner is crucial. Here we will discuss all the steps necessary to do so.
How many letters of recommendation do I need?
The first step is to know 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
Now that we’ve covered the basics, here are the keys to success in obtaining strong, effective letters of recommendation.
It is crucial to 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 comes from 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 an intelligent 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 some intelligent questions and topics to discuss. Whether it be 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.
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 discussion that demonstrates your enthusiasm for medicine and the activity itself. Be yourself and do not behave in a contrived manner; but also be sure to go the extra mile if possible.
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.
How to ask for letters of recommendation
The first component of this process goes along with choosing wisely. 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, see our prior post which contains a good sample template for letter of recommendation requests. The key is to be profession and direct while providing some context for the request. Whether in person or via email, at the time of letter request I would recommend including 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 is OK at this point to subtly remind the letter writer of your prior positive interactions.
What to provide to letter of recommendation writers
1 | A manila envelope which is already addressed to your letter submission service. This is generally the AMCAS Letter Service (for allopathic medical schools). Your letter writer will need to submit directly to the service (and not back to you) so providing this makes their job much easier.
2 | Signed waiver for the letter submission service, which is also a necessary component to complete the process.
3 | CV – this should be a comprehensive, professional, and organized summary of your academic, work, and extracurricular achievements to date. Consider our advising services if you need assistance crafting your CV.
4 | Academic transcript
5 | Personal statement (if available). Ideally you will have at least a draft of this completed at the time of letter request, but this not always true as you may ask for academic letters earlier in your undergrad career. If not available, write a brief summary of the reasons you are pursuing medicine and what makes you a unique and qualified candidate.
6 | Provide a submission deadline. Try to provide this in writing, either with your email correspondence or printed with the materials you provide to your letter writer. Make sure this deadline is at least a week in advance of when you need to actually submit. I would recommend giving letter writers 6-8 weeks to complete your letter after being provided the necessary materials. This will mean that starting the process at least 2-3 months before you need letters would be ideal.
Final Keys to Success
With all the above components, you are well on your way to strong letters of recommendation. Here are my final keys to success in this endeavor:
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 all the materials for a letter writer, be organized with all the above components 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 – as I mentioned before, 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, please do not hesitate to reach out to our team about our advising services!