Letters of Recommendation for Medical School | Ultimate Guide

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The letters of recommendation (LOR) for the medical school application is one aspect that feels the least in your control. While you are in the driver’s seat for your grades, MCAT, research, and personal statement, LORs are based on someone else’s assessment of you. And generally, you aren’t allowed to read them. Because of their nebulous nature, it’s critical to approach LORs systematically to ensure you receive the strongest letters possible.   

Why is the Letter of Recommendation Important?

The letter of recommendation is similar to the personal statement in that it can make or break a medical school application. Allow me to explain. Many pre-meds are focused on getting straight A’s, a high percentile on the MCAT, multiple publications, and writing a strong personal statement. These are all important factors in the application, but they don’t tell the admissions committee anything about your interpersonal skills. And interpersonal skills are a huge part of being an effective doctor. Even if you’re the most intelligent and accomplished physican, neither patients nor your colleagues will enjoy working with you if you lack proper bedside manner. Enter the letter of recommendation.   The LOR is unique in that it is the one aspect of the application that shows medical school admissions committees what others think of you. It’s easy for you to talk yourself up on your personal statement, but for someone to stick their own neck out to support you says a lot, especially when their opinion holds weight.  

Who should I ask to write my Letter of Recommendation?

There are two characteristics of the ideal letter writer: first, they know you intimately and can speak to your strengths, and second, they are regarded as an authority in their field of study. The former ensures that they are able to write something more meaningful than a generic letter, and can speak to your personal qualities that make you unique. The latter increases the impact and weight of their letter to medical school admissions committee members. While this is the ideal letter writer, it is much more important that that they know you intimately and can write a personal and strong letter of recommendation. Being a “big name” is a bonus, but is certainly not required.  Writers should be knowledgeable about   1. Your unique characteristics and strengths  2. The demands and expectations of medical school  3. Why you’re qualified to be a strong medical student and doctor  Ultimately, you want to go for quality over quantity. While there is no perfect number of letters, having fewer strong letters will always beat several mediocre ones. More on how to ensure you receive a strong letter below.   

How many academic letters?

The majority of medical schools will require 3 letters from your pre-med coursework, whether that is in college or postbacc. You should aim to have two letters from science professors and one from a non-science professor. Science letters come from biology, chemistry, physics, and math professors. Non-science letters refer to classes in the humanities, social sciences, or arts.   There’s an art to choosing which professors you will ask to write your letters. You should excel in the class, with an A or A- at worst, and be on good terms with the professor. In larger science courses, it may be difficult to foster a genuine connection with your professor. In these instances, teaching assistants (TAs) may write the letter, as they are more familiar with your character and work ethic, and have the professor co-sign it. This is not ideal, but it can work in a pinch. I instead recommend going to office hours early on in the quarter to demonstrate genuine interest, curiosity, and to be memorable to the professor. When I was in college, I attended the office hours for a course that was known for being the toughest pre-med class, and the professor did not have a rosy reputation. I was pleasantly surprised by her kind demeanor, we had stimulating discussion about science both regarding and beyond our course work, and I excelled in the course. During my interviews, multiple admissions committee members commented on how strong that particular letter was.   That being said, don’t overlook your non-science letters. There’s a reason medical schools don’t just require three science letters: non-science letters serve as an oportunity to highlight character traits that are less commonly demonstrated in science courses. Imagination, creative thinking, interpersonal skills, and public speaking are traits that are difficult to showcase in your typical organic chemistry course.   

Are extracurricular letters required?

While not required, we recommend securing letters of recommendation from extracurriculars that were particularly significant. This may include research mentors or principal investigators (PI), physicians that you shadowed, or leadership from other volunteer organizations. If appropriate, aim to secure a letter from each of your three most meaningful activities on your AMCAS.    

How to ask for the letter of recommendation

There are two common ways to approach your letter writer: via email or in person. Politely ask if the professor, advisor, or mentor is willing to write a strong letter to support your application to medical school. It’s key that you include the word “strong”, as this will help you screen out those who know you well enough to wrong a quality letter. Ask toward the end of your course, or shortly after the class is over. Do not wait months or years, as you want the letter writer to have you fresh in their mind!  If they agree, thank them and ask to schedule an in-person meeting to provide materials and answer any questions they may have. At the meeting, bring the following: 
  • Manila envelope that is pre-addressed to your letter submission service. Place a post-it with a submission deadline.
  • Signed waiver for the letter service (this waives your right to view the letter)
  • Curriculum vitae (or resume)
  • Transcript
  • Personal statement (if available. If not, include a few personal notes on what you would like them to include in their letter, why you want to go to medical school, and why you will be a good doctor)
Timing wise, we recommend requesting a 4 week turnaround, even though you may be applying months (or even years) ahead. This ensures timely delivery and prevents procrastination, which even professors are subject to. However, be flexible and courteous, and accommodate your letter writer’s schedule. Remember, they are doing you a favor.   If you want to receive more detailed, in-depth, one-on-one advising, our team of doctors can help. From helping you approach the letters of recommendation to your personal statement, application planning and much more, we will maximize your chance of acceptance to your dream medical school. Visit our advising page to learn more.
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