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The Ultimate Guide to Letters of Recommendation for Medical School

If you’ve made it to this page, you’re probably applying to medical schools this cycle and are in the process of trying to understand how the whole letters of recommendation business works.  You’ve put in the work, gone to office hours, mastered the perfect organic chemistry chair flip and are at the point where you’re ready to blow medical schools away. In between you and that opportunity stands the letter of recommendation.  We’ve tried to boil down the highlights in terms of exactly what you need to know and what you need to do.

START AS SOON AS YOU CAN

If you get one take away out of this article, it should be: ask for your letters early!  Do not leave them until the last minute.  

If you are applying this cycle, start getting your letters of recommendation together now. Take the time to start getting to know your potential letter writers early on.  We know that’s easier said than done: getting good grades, maintaining your extracurricular commitments, and trying to have a semblance of a personal life makes this seem less important.  But your letters are one of the most important pieces of your application!  A strong letter can open doors while a poor one can immediately shut them.  Even if you don’t like talking to professors, go to office hours or try catching them after class. If you don’t have genuine questions about course material, ask them about their research or strike up a conversation about something else.  It can be a great opportunity as many are fascinating people when they’re not droning on in a lecture about protozoa.  As they get to know you more, when the time comes for you to get your letters of recommendation in order, they will have had plenty of information, interactions, and content to pull from.

So when should you ask if you are actually applying? We recommend early February.  Yes, February!  While applications don’t open until June, your letter writers have multiple other commitments (including other letters to write).  Asking early is courteous to your letter writer and beneficial to you: it prevents a rushed, last-minute letter.

SO WHO SHOULD WRITE THESE LETTERS?

The requirements are actually pretty similar for most medical schools. However, some do differ and you don’t want to be stuck with an incomplete application.  We recommend going to every school’s website and creating an excel sheet to keep track of their specific requirements just in case.

The most important answer to this question is simple: someone who will write you a strong, glowing letter. An outstanding letter of recommendation will make your application shine.  Medical schools read a lot of letters.  If a professor really goes to bat for a student, you can be sure medical schools take note.  On the flip side, the absolute last thing you want is an unenthusiastic, monotone letter even if it is from someone who almost won a Nobel prize once.

We recommend 4-5 letters in total for most applicants.

  • Science letters: most schools require 2.  No getting around it, get to know those science professors!
  • Non-science letters: most likely will come from a professor in your major or someone you clicked with.
  • Other letters: a research mentor’s letter who you worked closely with can speak volumes.  Similarly, anyone else who you worked with in a close capacity whether it be at a job or a volunteer project can potentially be a strong addition.  Use your best judgement here since these aren’t mandatory.  Ask yourself: “will what this person has to say about me add value to my application?” If the answer is no, don’t ask them.
  • Committee letter: if your medical school has this, use it.  No way around it.  It’s usually a panel of advisors who draw on your course evaluations and an interview with you to write a letter for every medical school applicant in a template format.  Be kind, do well in your classes, and give them something interesting to write about!  If they require an interview, schedule it as early as possible.

WHEN SHOULD I ASK FOR A LETTER OF RECOMMENDATION?

Fun fact: most professors do not love writing medical school letters of recommendation.  They will do it, but that’s not why they went into their field.  Professors are busy so show them you value their time by trying not to make any last-minute minute requests, especially if you can avoid it.  Ask at least 2-3 months before you plan to submit your application.  The further in advance you ask is fine.  We recommend January or February, right after winter break.

HOW SHOULD I ASK?

Ask in person.  Professors have many students and a visual image of you will remind them of who you are if you haven’t been in contact in a while.  Plus, it’s much more personable than email. If you absolutely have to write an email, follow the same steps!

The actual wording you use is also important.  Ask them: “would you be willing to write a strong letter of recommendation on my behalf for medical school?”  Note the emphasis on the word strong.  You don’t want a lukewarm letter.  If the professor doesn’t feel like they can do that piece well, no harm done!  Much better a no than an unenthusiastic letter.

Assuming they say yes, you want to be prepared with a folder or envelope including:

  • A letter thanking them for taking the time to speak on your behalf including deadlines in bold.  Set the deadline 2 weeks before you actually need the letter (remember, professors are busy).
  • CV/resume
  • Unofficial transcript list
  • Optional: Personal statement draft (only if you have it ready)
  • Optional: AAMC guidelines for a strong letter (useful for professors who may not write many medical school letters of recommendation)

After they say yes, hand them the folder and sincerely express your gratitude.  It’s okay to send reminder emails, don’t be shy. After the entire process is done, be sure to send a thank you note or a small token of appreciation if you feel close to the writer.  Now kick back and enjoy not having to deal with any letter of recommendation stress.  If you have any other questions, feel free to reach out to us.