Asking for a letter of recommendation is a critical step in the application process for medical school. This letter is very important because it allows the admissions committee to gain a better understanding of you as a person and see how you have distinguished yourself from your peers.
Many premeds get unnerved/shy at the thought of asking someone to endorse their candidacy for medical school, but this should not be the case.
Ideally, you will have three or four people writing letters on your behalf and they should come from the following areas:
- Science Professor (2)
- Clinical Activity (1)
- Your Choice (1)
This is the basic outline of the people medical school admissions officers will expect to write letters on your behalf. It is advisable to not use family friends unless they have directly overseen you in an academic, volunteer, or clinical activity. Be sure to check with the individual medical schools for their specific policies on letters of recommendation. What professors have to say about recommendations.
When asking for a letter of recommendation there are a number of things which you must do inorder to ensure a timely letter. Initially, give your recommenders three to four months to write your letter. Ideally, while enrolled in class you will gain a sense if you want a professor to write a letter on your behalf. If this is the case, within the first three weeks you must approach the professor and let them know you are thinking about having them write on your behalf.
By doing this you are making yourself known to the professor and allowing the professor to think about you throughout the course so that he/she has specific examples to include in the letter. Office hours are the best way to stand out in a class, but be sure to have specific questions for your professor.
Depending on when you need the letter, you can formally approach the professor and ask for them to write a STRONG letter of recommendation on your behalf. If the professor balks at the idea of writing a STRONG letter then do not use them. The purpose of the letter of recommendation is to distinguish you as a candidate who deserves to attend medical school and anything less than a strong letter will not accomplish this goal.
Hence, when asking for the recommender to write a STRONG letter it must be done in person and not via email, you need to be able to read their reaction.
It’s helpful to provide background information on yourself. This may include:
- an updated resume
- current list of activities
- your hobbies and interests
A key aspect would be to convey to your recommender why you want to pursue medicine and in some cases you can even ask them to write more towards a specific topic. For instance in my case, I worked extensively with an anesthesiologist since high school and had him write specifically towards my clinical understanding of medicine and personal traits that are desirable in a physician.
Obviously, you cannot ask this of your academic recommenders, hence the importance of having a diverse pool of letter writers will make you a very complete applicant in the eyes of medical school admissions.
The timeline for the letter of recommendation cannot be understated, a delay here can completely derail your whole application. Tell your recommenders upfront when you would like to have your letters complete. Since we are allowing 3 to 4 months to write, I believe it is good to send a friendly reminder 1 to 2 months before the deadline to check in on their progress.
When doing this, you will find most writers will say either they have not started or the letter is complete. I had to push my recommenders in the last three weeks to complete the letter which they had agreed to write.
Please use a lot of tact and discretion in prodding your recommenders to complete a letter because you don’t want to be pushy, yet you must have the letter complete by the deadline: its your medical school application on the line.
Finally, you need to inform your recommender whether you will be waiving your right to view the letter or if this right will not be waived. By waiving your right and agreeing to never see the final letter your writer will be more candid and honest in their assessment of you as a candidate for medical school.
I waived my right to view my letters because I had picked writers who I trusted and also responded yes to the question of writing a STRONG letter on my behalf. The option is yours to make and I will not push to waive or not waive access to the letters written on your behalf.