Let’s set the scene. You’re in your professor or mentor’s office and you’ve mustered up the courage to ask them for a strong letter of recommendation to medical school. They say yes, but then they ask you to write it. What? Can you even do that? Yes, while the whole point of a letter of recommendation is to give an admissions committee an established professional’s opinion of you, you may still be asked to write your own letter of recommendation. It will still be from their perspective, and they will still read over and sign it—the only catch is that you have to write it.
It may not be the most preferable outcome, but it’s something you should be prepared for. While it’s yet another thing you have to dedicate time to, if you do it right, you can turn it into an advantage.
In this post, we break down why you may have to write your own letter of recommendation, the benefits of doing so, and common mistakes students make. Plus, we’ll share real examples of self-written letters of recommendation by students.
If you haven’t already, save our complete Medical School Letters of Recommendation Guide, which includes who to ask, how to ask, common mistakes, and FAQs.
Why Might a Student Have to Write Their Own Letter of Recommendation
You may be asked to write your own letter by people who don’t typically write medical school letters of recommendation, such as those who are not part of the medical school world. They’re not used to doing it. For some people, it’s normal to get requests each year, but for others, they may not be prepared for the question or know where to start.
For example, this request may come from a non-science professor or a doctor who doesn’t typically work with students or in a residency setting. So, if you have a mentor or a strong relationship with someone in the non-science world, anticipate the possibility of writing your own letter.
While it does mean more work, it’s important to remember that this is as much a win as earning a strong letter of recommendation. If the person you asked to write you a strong letter asks you to write it yourself, it means you just secured a yes. You have a letter writer, even if you have to write the letter yourself. They want to support you, but you’ve got to do the leg work.
The Benefits of Writing Your Own Medical School Letter
While daunting, writing your own letter of recommendation has many benefits if done correctly.
Writing your own letter can be just as much a win as receiving a strong recommendation letter written by your mentor. By writing it yourself, you can tailor it to support the narrative of your entire application. In doing so, you can ensure your letter of recommendation packet is well-rounded and representative of your skills and personality.
Key benefits of writing your own letter:
- You can guarantee it’s a strong letter.
- You have control over the narrative.
- You can tailor the letter to any gaps you may have in your application.
- You can ensure the qualities you want highlighted are there.
- You can ensure generic descriptors like “hard-working” and “intelligent” aren’t used.
- You can attain letters from people in the non-medical world who may not be familiar with writing medical school letters of recommendation.
What Do You Do If a Letter Writer Says No?
You’ve finally mustered up the courage to ask someone you respect for a letter of recommendation to medical school… and they just said no. Obviously, this is not the outcome you hoped for. So why did they say no, and what are your options now?
Are they saying no because of a timing issue or because they actually don’t have strong things to say about you? Are they hesitant because they aren’t used to writing letters of recommendation, or do you know they write multiple letters each year? If it’s the latter, it’s likely they have stronger things to say about other candidates or have already committed to too many students.
But here’s the thing: A no is as useful as a yes. A lackluster letter can bring down your entire letter of recommendation packet.
Be specific when you ask the question: “Can you write me a strong recommendation for medical school.” If they say no, you’ve likely dodged a bullet. In most cases, don’t fight the no.
If you feel confident about it, you might ask to meet with them to explore why, but don’t push it beyond that. There’s a reason they are saying no.
- They may have extenuating life circumstances that prevent them from being able to write the letter.
- They may have other students they believe are more qualified and have already committed to writing those letters.
- They may personally feel they do not have a close enough relationship with you to write you a strong letter.
Now, should you offer to write the letter yourself or accept the no?
If you’re asking a science professor or medical educator, they very likely already know they can ask you to write your own letter, and they are choosing to say no instead. If you suspect the non-science person you’re asking to write the letter is saying no because of their own lack of experience, you could suggest writing your own letter, but don’t put pressure on them.
Hearing a no is definitely tough, but remember—it’s a blessing in disguise. If someone says no, roll with the punches, and move on to the next best candidate.
Mistakes Students Make Crafting Their Own Letters
The first thing to know is admissions committees shouldn’t be able to tell the difference between the letters written by recommenders or one you crafted yourself. It should naturally fit the mold of any other letter.
Writing a letter about yourself in the voice of another person isn’t easy, and many med school applicants make the same mistakes. Below, we’ll get into common mistakes applicants make when crafting their own letters of recommendation.
1 | Being Too Humble
While a casual observer might think that the trouble would come from a student talking themselves up too much, it’s often the case that students are too humble and self-deprecating. Of course, this is very understandable, as you’re not used to selling yourself, let alone from the perspective and in the voice of someone else. You don’t want to put words into someone else’s mouth, but you’re being asked to do just that.
Remember, the central message of any letter of recommendation is, “You need to accept this person into your medical school because they’re amazing.”
Avoid hyperbole, but keep in mind that your letter should still be loaded with praise. This person thinks very highly of your accomplishments and skills.
If you’re having trouble, objectively reflect on your achievements. There’s a reason you are applying to medical school and believe you will make an excellent medical student and future doctor. What are those reasons? What personal qualities and accomplishments has the person you’re writing the letter seen with their own eyes?
Structure the letter around what they have witnessed. What are some consistent compliments they give you? What are a few areas where you always do well? Admissions committees are looking for students who excel at critical thinking, teamwork, and community service. They want people who are dependable, intellectually curious, creative, and resilient.
As a hopeful premed, you already possess most or all of these qualities. Think about a few of the times these qualities have been on display in front of the person you’re asking, and tell the story that paints you in the best light.
2 | Avoid Exaggerations
Now, while the letter should be full of praise, do not exaggerate. Don’t claim that you’re the all-time best student they’ve ever had. Avoid superlatives. Tip the scales toward praise while ensuring it feels natural and realistic.
One way to do that is by saying you are one of the best students they’ve had the pleasure to teach or interact with. You are the most exceptional student in this way. Avoid being too effusive. The praise should be high, but it should also make sense.
3 | Not Providing Specific Examples
Saying you’re “outstanding,” “exceptional,” or “the smartest person in the room by far” doesn’t actually give admissions committees that much to work with. Just like with your personal statement, big claims must be backed up with evidence and anecdotes from real life—in this case, your shared history.
What has the letter writer seen that showcases these skills and traits? You need to contextualize it. What’s an important project or paper you’ve completed for them? Have you collaborated on anything together? Have you contributed to the class or program in a meaningful way? Have they seen how you’ve grown and evolved over the years?
Keep in mind that a typical letter of recommendation is only one page long, so you likely won’t be able to cover everything. What projects or stories highlight you in the best possible light?
It’s not enough to make the claim that you’re hard-working or dedicated. How have you demonstrated (to this person) that you’re dedicated? Did you routinely exceed expectations and go above and beyond the call of duty? Think of a few different examples you can include, and choose the best ones—just make sure they’re specific and you can speak about them concisely. Showing your skills and positive qualities in action is much, much more effective than simply listing them.
4 | Missing the Voice of the Letter Writer
Remember, this letter will not be written in your voice. While you don’t need to capture every essence of the other person and their exact cadence, you should keep in mind who the letter writer is when crafting your recommendation. What’s their background? What’s their familiarity with medicine? Are they a non-science professor or a science professor? What do they know about you? What words would they use?
If you’re asking someone to write you a strong letter of recommendation and they’ve said yes, even if they’re asking you to write the letter for them, it means you have a strong relationship. You already know them well. What would they say about you? Why are they writing this letter? What is their relationship with you? What’s their experience working with you? What skills or traits have they seen you display? What makes the recommender unique to you?
Reflect on the background of your recommender. You’re crafting their role for you. As a recommender, you’re essentially assigning them to discuss either X, Y, or Z. If another letter writer spoke about your dependability, make this letter focus on your resilience or intellectual curiosity. What personal qualities do you feel have not been emphasized enough in other elements of your application? Are they qualities this letter writer has witnessed and can comment on?
Each writer’s perspective on your qualifications as a future physician will be different, as they each have a different relationship with you and have witnessed you accomplish different things. If the letter is from a history professor, they can’t authentically speak about how you perform in a clinical setting, but they can speak to your intellectual curiosity and willingness to go the extra mile. Allow the person behind the letter to shine through.
Don’t just write a letter saying you’ll thrive in medical school. Write a letter about WHY you’ll thrive in medical school.
5 | Agreeing When You Feel Really Uncomfortable
If the idea of writing your own letter seems impossibly daunting, you can always say that you’re uncomfortable with the idea. If you have a strong relationship, and you likely do since you’re asking them for a strong letter, saying no might not mean you won’t get a letter from them.
Instead, arrange a meeting to discuss the concerns you have. Bring your personal statement, your CV, projects you’ve completed for them, the marks you received, and a short summary of the qualities you believe the person can authentically speak about. Make it as easy as possible for them. This way, they can write the letter quickly, highlighting exactly the qualities you recommend.
You could also meet them halfway by creating an outline with bullet points and specific examples of the strengths and admirable qualities you’ve demonstrated to them. By organizing the entire letter and giving them all of the information they need, you make the process much more streamlined.
Weigh the pros and cons to determine what’s better for you. If writing your own letter is going to cause you enough stress to derail other aspects of your application, it may be best to find another letter writer.
6 | Pushing for a Letter When You Receive a Clear “No.”
If you receive a no, accept it and move on. Pressuring a busy professional to write you a letter of recommendation won’t result in a glowing letter. While this kind of rejection is never easy to hear, it’s not the end of the world.
Remember: receiving a “no” means you’ve dodged a bullet. If a prospective letter writer says no, it’s either because they’re too busy, they don’t feel they know you well enough, or they don’t think too highly of your skills. This means the letter they might write for you would either be generic, lukewarm, or negative, and a lackluster letter can bring down your entire application.
If you’ve received a clear “no,” shake it off and thank your lucky stars they were honest with you. Thank them for their consideration, then track down the next person on your list. If you’ve planned ahead and continued to build relationships leading up to your application, you should have plenty of other options.
7. Allowing Typos or Grammatical Errors to Slip Through
You are writing for, and therefore representing, your recommender when you write this letter, which means even more pressure to ensure no spelling or grammatical errors slip through the cracks. While your recommender will still read through the letter before it’s sent to an admissions committee, you don’t want to make them second-guess their recommendation.
You’re not writing as yourself, so be formal and professional. Take extra care and attention during the editing phase. Use grammar and spell check tools like Grammarly and Hemingway Editor, but don’t rely on them alone, as these grammar bots have little understanding of context.
Your writing must be immaculate. Not only will this make your letter all the better, but it will also enhance your recommender’s confidence in you and make them all the more enthusiastic to sign their name.
Read our guide: How to Edit and Proofread Your Own Writing—8 Tips.
Writing Your Own Letter of Recommendation Examples
Below are two real examples of successful letters of recommendation that were written by a student who was accepted at Stanford University School of Medicine. The name of the student has been redacted.
Write Your Own Letter of Recommendation Letter Example #1
To Whom It May Concern:
Over my career as a physician I have had patients who made a lasting impression on me. ______ is one of those I will not forget. I’ve known ______ for eighteen years and have had a hand in mentoring him the last few years as he developed into an exceptionally capable pre-medicine student. During this time, I have seen his passion and desire to make a difference first hand. His humble and kind demeanor, compassion, work ethic, team approach, and strong character are qualities that define the fine young man he is. ______ always listened and observed with acute attention to detail when he was shadowing me. My experiences with him also allow me to attest to his ability to handle adversity.
In August of 2014, ______ began running a 102 to 103 fever daily complete with headaches and other symptoms, losing twenty pounds in the span of a month. Numerous blood tests and scans showed nothing definitive other than the disease was autoimmune in nature. As I had no answers for him I sent ______ to an infectious disease specialist at UC Health. Six months later, ______ was still running a fever and enduring tests. Ultimately, this workup resulted in an anticlimactic diagnosis of a Fever of Unknown Origin. Despite everything during this time, he kept his full load of AP classes and competed in football, basketball, and baseball, not wanting to let his teammates down at his small high school. His drive is incontestable. Fortunately for both me and him, toward the end of his senior year ______ fever finally disappeared. This tough personal experience fueled a fire in ______ whether it was research, taking a summer to get an EMT certification, or leading his university’s pre-health society, he took and is still taking every step to prepare himself to become a physician.
I have no doubt ______ has the skills to be a valuable addition to medicine; however, what sets him apart is that he also has an innate drive to make a difference. What he has done up to this point was not about checking pre-requisites off a list or becoming a more competitive applicant; he did it out of a genuine desire to make others around him happy. While that may have meant having less fun than other students, I could see that ______ realized his limited time on this Earth also meant he had a limited time to make it better. In this context, I can rationalize why he chose to volunteer abroad rather than spend most of his time traveling. It is without hesitation that I recommend ______ for entrance to medical school. I have no doubt he will be a strong patient advocate, the kind of doctor I’d want to have by my side.
Please feel free to contact me if there is anything I can expand upon further. He is an exceptional person, and one with equally exceptional potential.
“Over my career as a physician I have had patients who made a lasting impression on me. ______ is one of those I will not forget.”
Notice here the student writer emphasizes how they stand out without resorting to hyperbole; note they aren’t saying they are the best or the student who has made the biggest impression. The letter is filled with praise without sounding unrealistic.
“I’ve known ______ for eighteen years and have had a hand in mentoring him the last few years as he developed into an exceptionally capable pre-medicine student.”
Early on, the letter establishes the longstanding relationship the recommender has with the student, which sets the tone for the rest of the letter.
“Despite everything during this time, he kept his full load of AP classes and competed in football, basketball, and baseball, not wanting to let his teammates down at his small high school.”
The writer provides a clear example of how the student exemplifies positive characteristics instead of simply listing them.
Write Your Own Letter of Recommendation Letter Example #2
To the Medical School Admissions Committee:
There was rarely a time when I had to turn the light on in my classroom; even when I arrived 20 minutes early to set up for the day, ______ was sitting down and looking over material as if to prime his brain. If it wasn’t for my class, it was for Nutrition or Organic Chemistry. During the time I was with ______ there wasn’t a moment that was wasted.
While he was by no means a chatterbox, when ______ did speak up, it was usually followed by a deep question or comment that not only showed his conscientiousness, but also his interest in the policies and problems we discussed. Another unique quality I noticed was the way he listened; whether it was me or a fellow student, ______ would pay attention to every word and inflection. I could tell that he was sensitive and empathetic to others’ cultures and ideas by his responses to them.
Unlike other science majors I have met, ______ was not driven by letter grades, but rather by the act of learning itself. Specifically, I could tell that ______ passion was healthcare almost immediately; a few days into the quarter, he approached me about the book I had written, Brave New World of Healthcare Revisited: What Every American Needs to Know About Our Healthcare Crisis. Very few students have the drive, let alone the courage, to spark a conversation about such complicated issues, but ______ seemed to enjoy wrestling with new ideas and problems.
I recommended another book to ______, The Razor’s Edge, and although he couldn’t make the time to read it during the quarter, when he reached out to me about writing a letter of recommendation, he also shared his view on the fictional piece. Unlike my book, The Razor’s Edge was not about science or doctoring; nonetheless, ______ digested the author’s words with the same tenacity that drove him to understand the aging crisis in America. To me, these actions highlight his well roundedness, and I am confident that he would be a physician that strives to learn about a patient as a person with as much vigor as that with which he seeks to understand pathophysiology.
I did not need more than a quarter with ______ to know that he has the potential to be a great physician. His preparedness and listening skills will serve him well when interacting with the diverse set of patients present in the world today, and I can confidently say that I would feel safe and valued under his care. While his effort in class was impressive, what set ______ apart from his peers was his genuineness. He truly believes it is his duty to help others live life to the fullest, and that is why I unhesitatingly recommend ______ for matriculation into your medical school.
“While he was by no means a chatterbox, when ______ did speak up, it was usually followed by a deep question or comment that not only showed his conscientiousness, but also his interest in the policies and problems we discussed.”
The student letter writer works to embody the voice of the recommender. You can feel the personality shine through instead of it feeling like a formal, generic letter.
“I recommended another book to ______, The Razor’s Edge, and although he couldn’t make the time to read it during the quarter, when he reached out to me about writing a letter of recommendation, he also shared his view on the fictional piece.”
Here the student writer shares a very specific example that helps paint a picture of who the premed is. The developing narrative paints the student as conscientious, intellectually curious, and open-minded, as neither book mentioned in the letter was required reading.
How to Write Your Own Letter of Recommendation
Here’s a final recap of the key points to remember when writing your own letter.
- Don’t be too humble. Praise yourself from the recommender’s perspective while avoiding hyperbole.
- Avoid exaggerations that are false or unrealistic.
- Provide specific examples that illustrate who you are and why you exhibit the traits you are discussing.
- Write in the voice of the person who will submit the letter. What do they know about you, and how do they speak?
- Don’t agree to writing a letter if you feel uncomfortable doing so or know your other endeavors will suffer.
- Don’t push for a yes if your potential letter writer says no. You’re better off moving on to someone who shows interest and enthusiasm.
- Take extra care proofreading and editing your letter. You are representing someone else, and you don’t want them second-guessing their recommendation.
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