Applying to medical school is a complex process with many things to keep track of, and medical school letters of recommendation are a key part of the journey. A good set of letters can mean the difference between getting into an average school or an excellent school, so it is vital to understand how to secure strong medical school letters of recommendation. They will ideally be objective, external reviews and commentaries on your strengths and achievements, and you can use this guide to help you understand how to gather such letters.
In short, medical school letters of recommendation are letters from your close professional references that vouch for your character, skills, abilities, and experience. For medical school, in particular, these letters help clearly explain why you would be an ideal candidate for admission, while also highlighting 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. Letters of recommendation are usually written in formal, proper English, 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. These days, they are more often a PDF or Word document than a physical letter, though that is certainly still an option for some people.
Each school has different specifics for their letters and how they wish to receive them, so be sure to read your application materials carefully. We will dive into some specifics below, but in general there are a few things to keep in mind.
Depending on the school, you will have to submit a varying number of letters, usually anywhere from three to five, with options of submitting up to ten also available. It is a good idea to make a note of the requirements for each school to which you are applying.
Remember, too, that 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 main reasons why medical school letters of recommendation are important. Above all, they help 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:
You are going to medical school, after all, so one of the major things letters of medical school letters of recommendation do is show you can learn, grow, and adapt to changing situations. Being in medicine means thinking on your feet, always adapting, and constantly readjusting yourself.
If your letter of recommendation makes it clear 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 can, and did, learn the things you needed to learn and are equipped with the skills to keep doing so once you are in medical school.
Much like everything else in life, and especially in medicine, you are going to be interacting with people. Whether that ends up being patients, other doctors, maintenance staff, nurses, or plenty of other folks, 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 the process of securing letters 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 that will later remember you and what you did when you were 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.
In these letters, your recommenders can point out specific events, accomplishments, or creations from your life. In doing so, they will show where your skills lie and how you utilize them to create actionable changes in the world, which is a vital part of being in medical school.
On top of that, your accomplishments help exhibit drive, admission, and perseverance. The admissions officers at the schools you are applying to will likely be happy to see that you do not give up and that you keep pushing forward 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 they are skills admissions officers keep an eye out for when reviewing applications.
Namely, empathy is a major soft skill that letters of recommendation can vouch for. They can contain stories about your ability to understand other peoples’ emotions and state in life. This is hard to convey with standardized tests or grades, but letters are the perfect place to point out examples that make it clear you have emotional intelligence.
Your letters also show you can communicate effectively, on a related note. While essays might be able to hint at your ability to write, letters of recommendation go beyond that and provide medical schools with information about how you convey ideas and work with other people to create consensus and compromise.
Letters of recommendation exhibit another key aspect of your soft skills, as well: problem-solving. 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.
In order 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, which come from a group of people in a pre-health committee or a pre-health advisor, a letter packet, which is often put together by your institution, it may have a cover letter too. Still, it does not contain any committee letters, and 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 are your professors. Namely, professors that 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% in and then left; by “know well,” we mean professors who clearly remember you and with whom you’ve worked for a long time.
You can also ask the supervisors of any volunteer or extracurricular positions you have held, such as at nonprofits or charities. Again, make sure they know you well and that you have been at the position for a while. Lab supervisors and high-ranking colleagues could also be a good option, but be sure they are experienced and have extensive knowledge and oversight of you before you ask.
And it is important to remember not to shadow a doctor or take on any role merely to secure a letter writer. This is disingenuous and doing so will likely be detrimental. Your letters of recommendation are meant to be honest reflections of your true personality, after all, and should not be viewed as merely tokens. On that note, you should not ask friends nor family, either. Letters of recommendation are professional documents and they should come from seasoned professionals.
To stay organized during this whole process, it is best to make a thorough list of the schools you are applying to and the kinds of letters they want you to send with their due dates, to keep track of these varying types of writers and letters. Be sure you review your admissions materials to understand any specific requirements a particular medical school may have for your letters.
Along with different types of writers and letters comes the question of how to select who will create your medical school letters of recommendation. This is a critical consideration, 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, and it can help to consult these types of guides. Ask your career and continuing education office if they have any such advice, too.
Namely, as mentioned above, your letter writers should be professional individuals or organizations that you know well and with whom 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 it comes to applying to medical schools.
Furthermore, it makes sense to choose writers with whom you are on friendly terms and with whom you feel comfortable asking for such an important document. Recall that part of the process is in the asking, so you should always keep in mind that point when performing your search for the perfect writers.
With that in mind, the people you ask should have seen your best qualities in action repeatedly. As mentioned above, even if you got a high score in one class or had a conversation with a supervisor once does not make those people viable candidates. Those you ask should be people that you have interacted with multiple times in varied scenarios and who have seen you adapt, respond, and grow your skill set and seen you mature over a long period of time.
After you have decided on the writers of your letters of recommendation, it is absolutely essential that you 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 letter and recall why they would want to vouch for you, so give them time. Plus, these are busy professionals you are asking, and they already have a lot on their plates, so it is polite and proper to afford them any extra time you can.
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 plan to ask for your letters of recommendation and have them secured from January to April. This time frame lines up well with many medical schools’ requirements.
With everything above in mind, here are a few tips that will help your medical school letters of recommendation stand out and really impress admissions officers. Overall, keep the points mentioned earlier in mind. 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 and remind your writers about them so they include them in your letters. Or, you can ask a professor with whom you have many classes and labs, and who constantly comments on how well you are doing and to whose office hours you have attended many times.
Along with that, be sure to be cordial and friendly when asking for your letters, do not be short or rude, because that may be reflected in the resulting letter. Along with this point, always be sure that the people you are going to ask to write your letters will be likely to say yes to you. If you have doubts about this, it is usually best to find someone else.
That is because 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 or is otherwise unavailable.
Another small but vital thing to remember as well 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 any letters you submit should be formatted in such a manner. Not all of them do, but enough require this that it is worthwhile to create a template that every writer can use. 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, an amazing volunteer, and a great colleague no matter what you are doing or the people with whom you are working.
Professional references are best for medical school letters of recommendation. Consider asking people like professors in whose classes you performed well, supervisors who commented on how well you worked, and other such people who can vouch for your character and aptitude.
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 a professor of a medically-related class, like biology, a chemistry professor, a humanities professor, an advanced-level course’s professor, and two to three other sources, like supervisors, lab or clinical workers, or extracurricular supervisors. These are general best-practices, so be sure to check your admissions packets.
Receiving a rejection of a request to write a medical school letter of recommendation is disappointing, but consider it a silver lining. It is far better to receive a “no” and find someone truly passionate about writing you a letter than it is to receive a letter that only includes half-hearted support for you. If the person you ask declines to write a letter, ask someone else. That is why it is a good idea to create a list of programs you are applying to and people whom you can ask to create letters, along with backup options.
No. The people writing your medical school letters of recommendation must be professional references, or from proper volunteering situations like charities and nonprofits, not personal references. If a parent or friend is a doctor or other type of professional, it usually will not be possible for them to create a proper letter of reference for you due to conflict of interest laws and other such regulations. It is often best to save those types of stories for your personal essays, when applicable.
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 that you are 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.
No. Medical school letters of recommendation are only meant to be seen by the writer, the school, and no one else. You might be tempted to be a good friend and share a letter with somebody to help them out, but remember that plagiarism is a serious issue and the consequences are dire. If you are feeling particularly grateful, you can always profusely thank a writer after you are admitted to the medical school of your dreams.
Ideally you would want both quality and quantity. However, if push comes to shove, it is better to have fewer high-quality medical school letters of recommendation than lots of generic, lower quality letters. For example, if the medical school you are applying to requires at least six letters of recommendation but allows up to ten, it is better to have six outstanding letters from passionate, committed writers who know you well, than to have ten mediocre letters from people who do not really know you and are only begrudgingly committing to creating them for you.
Securing solid letters of medical school letters of recommendation is a key aspect of a strong admissions packet to gain entrance to medical school. 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.
There is no need to fear the process, however. 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.