Strategy for Medical School Letters of Recommendation

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Download the template Letters of recommendation are an often under-appreciated aspect of the application process by both pre-meds and medical students alike. Strong letters have the potential to significantly strengthen an application and account for weaknesses. On the other hand, weak letters can ruin an applicant’s chances who is otherwise stellar on paper.  

Who to Ask

Generally, 4-5 letters total is what you need. At least 2 from science professors
  • 2 science professors
  • 1 non-sience professor
  • 1 Research PI or mentor
  • 1 Physician you shadowed or worked with
  • 1 Community activity or volunteer activity
 

Building a Relationship

Your letter writer should know you well enough to not write a generic letter about you. It should be personal and highlight your strengths. For research mentors or physicians you shadow this isn’t a problem, but it can be more difficult to build a relationship with professors. I recommend going to office hours You ideally want to have one on one face time with the professor, but this rarely will ever happen. Some suggest going to smaller upper level courses, but this does not always hold true. From my experience it seems to depend more on whether the professor is likeable or not. Don’t judge a book by its cover though, one of my best letters came from a professor who had a nasty reputation. However, she was very pleasant in office hours. Do not suck up and do not ask questions that you already know the answer to. I have seen others do this and crash and burn. If you know the material, you should still be able to have intelligent discussions about the subject beyond the scope of the course or tying it in with what you learned in other courses. You will learn to enjoy the material and the professor will be impressed. It should go without saying – if you are aiming for a letter of recommendation, try extra hard in that class. Not to sound like a gunner, but  even if you normally get A’s, strive to set the curve if you can.  

When to Ask

Your letters writers are likely extremely busy and may have multiple students requesting LORs. So be sure to give them plenty of time. I recommend about 2-3 months. If you are taking a course long before you apply, ask soon after the course is complete. If you wait several months or a couple years, they will forget you! Send out a reminder at 2 weeks out from the due date  

How to Ask

Be sure to ask if they are willing to write a strong letter of recommendation. You do not want a generic letter. If there is hesitation or they say “I do not know you well enough to write you a strong letter” then look elsewhere. If you do not specify, you are more likely to receive a generic or mediocre letter. You can ask either in person (if you see them regularly) or send them an email (see the template). Regardless of which method you choose, offer to meet in person to discuss if they prefer, but don’t be pushy about it. Give them a deadline in writing. I would usually put this 1 or 2 days before I plan to submit my application since there may be issues with uploading/submitting the letter.  

Materials to Provide

It’s important that you make this as smooth of a process as possible for your letter writers. Provide the following:
  1. Updated CV (not a resume, but a comprehensive CV)
  2. Submission materials and instructions
  3. Personal statement
  4. Transcript
  5. Personal blurb – some may ask for a personal blurb about “past accomplishments” or “what makes you different than other applicants” [Optional]
  6. While you will obviously include your MCAT score in your CV, they may also ask for a more verifiable source [Optional]
 

Other Considerations

If you are concerned about weak areas on your application, it is generally a good idea to discuss this with your letter writer. However, reserve this for mentors you are close with. They may choose to mention it in the letter and spin it in a positive light. In deciding who to ask, there is a balance of name recognition versus how well they know you. Some letters you may want to cosign. If you worked closely with a TA or PhD student, you can have them write a more intimate letter and have the PI/faculty edit, add his own touches, and cosign the letter.
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