Applying to medical school is a complex process with many things to keep track of, and medical school letters of recommendation are a vital part of the journey.
A good set of letters can mean the difference between getting into an average school or an excellent school. That’s why it’s vital to understand how to secure strong letters of recommendation.
A strong letter of recommendation for medical school will be an objective, external review, and commentary on your strengths and achievements. This guide will explain what these letters are and how to get letters of recommendation for medical school.
In short, med school letters of recommendation are letters from your close professional references that vouch for your:
For medical schools, these letters help explain why you would be an ideal candidate for admission and highlight the strengths you will bring to the school.
These letters are confidential; only the school you’re applying to and the person writing them will ever see them. This ensures that they are honest and accurate. You must write letters of recommendation in formal, proper English.
Recommendation letters are written in a long-form format, meaning that they tend to be at least one full, single-spaced page and are often more than one page.
Each school has different specifics for their letters and how they wish to receive them, so read your application materials carefully. We will dive into some specifics below.
Depending on the school, you will have to submit a varying number of letters. Usually, you’ll submit anywhere from three to five, with options of submitting up to 10 also available. It is a good idea to note the admissions requirements for each school to which you are applying.
Remember, letters of recommendation are professional documents, and you should treat them as such. Be sure that you ask for them respectfully and formally.
There are a few key reasons why med school letters of recommendation are important. Above all, they vouch for you and show that other people can back up the statements you are making in your application.
Think of it like gathering evidence or citing sources: They reinforce claims and show them to be true. There are four vital points that make letters of recommendation essential to get right:
Being in medicine means thinking on your feet, always adapting, and constantly readjusting yourself. So, one of the significant things letters of recommendation do is show you can learn, grow, and adapt to changing situations.
If your letter of recommendation clarifies that you do this well, you are likely to make a better impression on medical school admission officers. Of course, part of this means having good grades and solid class attendance. These go a long way in showing that you are equipped with the skills to thrive in medical school.
Much like everything else in life, and especially in medicine, you will interact with people in med school. Whether that ends up being patients, doctors, maintenance staff, or nurses, getting along with others is a trait you must have. Your medical school letters of recommendation will help showcase this trait.
As will be explained in more detail later, part of getting a medical school letter of recommendation is the process of asking for them. That means being someone the letter writer remembers well and feels good about, which requires you to be sociable and kind.
Keep that in mind as you take classes, work, and volunteer. Make friends with professors, supervisors, managers, and other similar people who will later remember you and what you did when working together.
To be a strong candidate that medical school admissions officers see as someone worthy of entry, you also need to exhibit strong achievements. Your medical school letters of recommendation are the perfect place to do this.
Your recommenders can point out specific events, accomplishments, or creations from your life in these letters. They will show where your skills lie and how you utilize them to create actionable changes in the world.
On top of that, your accomplishments exhibit drive, admission, and determination. Med school admissions officers will likely be happy to see that you do not give up and persevere despite setbacks to achieve your goals. Tenacity like that helps set you out from the crowd.
Beyond the hard skills that are key for you to master, medical school letters of recommendation also highlight your soft skills. These are things you may not be taught directly in classrooms or read about in textbooks. But admissions officers keep an eye out for soft skills when reviewing applications.
Empathy is a major soft skill that letters of recommendation can vouch for. This is hard to convey with standardized tests or grades. But your letters are the perfect place to make it clear you have emotional intelligence. They can contain stories about your ability to understand other peoples’ emotions and states in life.
Your letters also show you can communicate effectively. While essays might hint at your ability to write, letters of recommendation go beyond that. They provide med schools with information about how you convey ideas and work with other people to create consensus and compromise.
Letters of recommendation can further exhibit your problem-solving skills. Yes, tests and grades show this ability to admissions officers, too. But your letters will contain examples and elaborate on how you apply this skill to the real world.
To understand the types of medical school letters of recommendation writers, you need to know the different types of letters you could be required to submit. These include:
Committee letters come from a group of people in a pre-health committee or a pre-health advisor. Conversely, a letter packet, which your institution often puts together, may have a cover letter, but it does not contain any committee letters. Finally, individual letters are written solely by a single person.
With that in mind, you can start your search for writers.
A good group of people to contact at first is your professors — namely, professors you know well and in whose classes you have performed excellently during your time in school.
Do not select professors in whose classes you merely got a 95 percent and then left; by “know well,” we mean professors who clearly remember you and with whom you’ve worked for a long time.
Lab supervisors and high-ranking colleagues could also be good options. But ensure they are experienced and have extensive knowledge and oversight of you before you ask.
It is important to remember not to shadow a doctor or take on any role merely to get letters of recommendation for med school. This is disingenuous, and doing so will likely be detrimental. Your letters of recommendation are honest reflections of your true personality and should not be viewed as mere tokens.
Along with different types of writers and letters comes the question of selecting who will create your medical school letters of recommendation. This is a critical reflection, considering how important letters of recommendation are for medical school, and you should think it over carefully before deciding.
You are going to want to account for a few key ideas and objectives in your selections. Many schools and job boards send out tips on writing letters, which can help consult these types of guides. Ask your career and continuing education office if they have any such advice, too.
As mentioned above, your letter writers should be professional individuals or organizations that you know well and with whom you have spent a long time working. They should be people like professors, managers, supervisors, and the like. Obtaining a letter from a doctor would go especially far when applying to medical schools.
Furthermore, choosing writers with whom you are on friendly terms makes sense. Recall that part of the process is in the asking, so you should always keep in mind that point when searching for the perfect writers.
With that in mind, the people you ask should have seen your best qualities in action repeatedly. Those you ask should be people you have interacted with multiple times in varied scenarios and have seen you adapt, respond, and grow your skillset and mature over a long period.
Remember, even if you got a high score in one class or had a conversation with a supervisor once, it does not make them a viable candidate.
After you have decided on the writers of your letters of recommendation, you must ask as early as possible to give them ample time to write.
It takes a long time for your writers to consider what to include in a medical school application letter of recommendation, so give them time.
Do not forget the deadlines for your medical school admissions, and give these important dates to your chosen writers as well. It is usually best to ask for your letters of recommendation and have them secured from January to April.
UC Berkeley recommends you request your letters several months before you submit your application. This time frame lines up well with many medical schools’ requirements. Alternatively, you can request them at the time of submission. But this is a risky strategy!
Asking early for a letter of recommendation for medical school gives your writer the necessary time to write you a strong letter. Additionally, it allows them to edit and re-edit it to submit the best medical school letter of recommendation for you.
Asking for a letter of recommendation for medical school can be a daunting prospect. But once you know how to ask for a letter of recommendation for medical school, it will be less nerve-wracking!
When you finally meet your recommender, begin by asking them if they feel comfortable providing a letter of recommendation for medical school for you. Thank them for their time and find a new recommender if they seem hesitant.
But what if you’re unsure whether someone will write a strong letter of recommendation for medical school for you?
In that case, you can always ask your writer honestly if they can write a strong letter for you. Taking the time to choose a writer who is passionate about your application is better than receiving a negative or lukewarm letter.
With everything above in mind, here are a few medical school letter of recommendation tips that will help you stand out and really impress admissions officers.
Ask people who know you well, who have seen your best skills in action, and who are professionals in their field with extensive examples and memories of what you have done and who you are as a person.
For example, if you have amazing volunteering experiences under your belt, remind your writers to include them in your letters. Or you can ask a professor with whom you have many classes and labs and who regularly comments on how well you are doing.
Along with that, be sure to be cordial and friendly when asking for your letters. If you are short or rude, it may be reflected in the resulting letter. Along with this point, always be sure that the people you will ask to write your letters are likely to say yes to you. If you have doubts about this, it is usually best to find someone else.
You want a strong letter that communicates just how passionate someone is about your ability to succeed. If you have to cajole or convince someone to write your letter, the results are less likely to get that across and impress admissions officers.
Make a list of potential candidates and have backups for ones you are unsure of, as well as general backups in case anyone is too busy to write a letter.
Another small but vital thing to remember is to have a pre-formatted letter template with a header available that your writers can use to create their letters. This is important because many schools mandate that you should format any letters you submit in such a manner.
That way, you will not have to worry about which schools need any special formatting because all your letters will have a consistent look.
An overall rule of thumb to keep in mind is this: The process of receiving outstanding letters of recommendation begins long before you even think of asking. It starts with being a good student, a fantastic volunteer, and a great colleague.
Acquiring a great medical school letter of recommendation can take months. But it is worth it! Below, we have outlined several questions and answers to help you get into med school.
Yes, so you should do your best to avoid this type of situation. In general, medical schools want to see a broad range of people vouching for you across different disciplines and fields of study in your medical school letters of recommendation.
Usually, if you are not in a pre-med program at your current school (which, as mentioned, can create a committee letter for you when you request it), they want to see letters from:
These are general best practices, so be sure to check your admissions packets.
A strong medical school recommendation letter will highlight your best qualities, demonstrate your greatest accomplishments, and show your personality at its best.
You can secure strong letters of recommendation by following these steps:
It is polite and expected of you to send gentle reminders every so often about your request for a medical school letter of recommendation.
Be kind and understanding in your reminders, but do not worry about intruding or annoying your writers. Remember — they have a lot going on and will likely appreciate small, gentle reminders that help keep them on track.
Ideally, you would want both quality and quantity. However, if push comes to shove, it is better to have fewer high-quality strong letters of recommendation than many generic, lower-quality ones.
For example, suppose the medical school you are applying to requires at least six letters of recommendation but allows up to 10. In that case, it is better to have six outstanding letters than to have ten mediocre letters from people who do not really know you.
Securing solid letters of recommendation for medical school is a key aspect of a strong admissions packet to gain entrance to medical school. There is no need to fear the process, however.
With some planning, thought, and proactive steps on your end, you will be sure to get a leg up on the process. Asking the right people for letters with plenty of notice is vital, as is remembering to be polite and professional.
As long as you have been a good student, have solid extracurricular activities under your belt, and get along with your professors, colleagues, lab mates, and fellow volunteers, you will be sure to snag many shining letters of recommendation.