Medical school applications require recommendation letters—also known as letters of evaluation—as part of the application process. Our guide to asking for recommendation letters will help you successfully navigate how to obtain strong letters of recommendation for your medical school application. We will also take a close look at what to do before, during, and after you ask.
Let’s get started on successfully tackling this essential part of your medical school application.
Letters of recommendation for medical school applications are an essential component in evaluating applicants. Recommendation letters from supportive references tell admissions officers about your unique and outstanding qualities that make you an excellent candidate. This can include an overview of your skill sets, your greatest accomplishments, what sets you apart from the crowd, the desirable qualities you possess, and your honorable character.
Bearing this in mind, it is crucial to ask for recommendation letters from references that will be enthusiastic about you, your work, and your potential as a leader in healthcare. You should also aim to ask references who know you well and can comfortably speak to all the areas that will give you an advantage as an excellent candidate. Mediocre letters of recommendation and letters from references who do not know you that well are a sure-fire way of undermining your medical school application. After all, why would admissions officers be excited about accepting you if your letters of recommendation are anything less than enthusiastic?
Let’s go over some key insights on how to secure the best recommendation letters for your medical school application. We will discuss steps to take and helpful tips to consider before, during, and after you ask your references for recommendation letters.
Before you ask for letters of recommendation for your medical school application, it is important to be knowledgeable about medical school application requirements involving letters of evaluation. The AMCAS (American Medical College Application Service) goes over detailed instructions on preparing letters of evaluation. In particular, take note of the following AMCAS guidelines:
Be sure that your references have the current “Guidelines for Writing a Letter of Evaluation for a Medical School Applicant.” This document is designed to let your references know what to include in your letters of recommendation. While these guidelines are optional, we suggest that you share them with your letter writers because the guidelines outline the core competencies that medical schools are looking for in students. If your references have a structure to work from, it makes the writing process simpler and more convenient for them. These guidelines will also strengthen the quality of your recommendation letters and increase your chances of acceptance because all core competencies for prospective medical students are clearly defined.
Because your references must submit your recommendation letters on your behalf, the AMCAS Letter Service allows letter writers to submit recommendation letters electronically. AMCAS then distributes the recommendation letters to participating medical schools. You will need to check with your medical schools to determine if they participate in the AMCAS Letter Service. Be sure to do this preliminary research yourself; don’t ask your references to do it for you.
As stated above, some medical schools participate in the AMCAS Letter Service. There are different ways that references can submit your letters of evaluation to AMCAS electronically or in the mail via the appropriate forms. Always check with your medical school and AMCAS and follow all submission instructions for submitting letters of recommendation. As a courtesy to your letter writers, conduct your own research for application submission guidelines for every medical school to which you are applying. All recommendation letter submission instructions for every medical school, whether it’s electronic or via mail, should be given to your letter writers so they know how to correctly submit everything by the deadline.
Secondly, we will cover how many letters of recommendation you’ll need for your medical school application, as well as other requirements to keep in mind before you reach out to your prospective letter writers. The required number of recommendation letters you will need for your medical school application largely depends on each medical school’s specific requirements. Most medical schools require three letters of evaluation, but some medical schools ask for four or five letters, so be sure to check with each individual medical school to which you are applying.
There are three types of recommendation letters. Medical schools often require a combination of the following types of letters of evaluation (and remember, be mindful of your medical school’s specific application requirements):
Committee letters are common in the United States. Committee letters are written by your university’s pre-med advising committee. This type of letter is not available at every university, so verify with your school in advance.
Letter packets are another option offered at some universities. Letter packets are the letters that are assembled from your references. They are sent by the school’s career center, but they do not include letters from pre-med advising committees.
Individual letters are also common, and they are written by individuals such as faculty members, physicians, employers, as well as research, volunteering, or extracurricular supervisors.
Knowing how to ask for recommendation letters will help you obtain strong, glowing evaluations from supportive references. If you remember only one thing about asking for recommendation letters for your medical school application, let it be this: etiquette, etiquette, etiquette. Your correspondence with your letter writers should always be professional, and if you are asking for recommendation letters in person, then be sure to comport yourself professionally as if you are networking. Pro-tip: Treat everyone you meet in your professional, academic, and even personal life as a potential letter writer. If you always conduct yourself as if you’re networking, people will open doors for you, and opportunities for success will follow.
Your potential references will either say yes or no. If they say no, remember not to take it personally. They probably have a very valid reason for saying no to you. Perhaps they have too many obligations at the time to dedicate enough time to write a recommendation letter. Perhaps they feel they don’t know you well enough to write a good recommendation letter that fairly evaluates you as a candidate. If this is the case, then they are doing you a service by sparing you from submitting a weak letter of recommendation. Focus on asking those who know you and your skills well.
When asking for recommendation letters, it is also important to be mindful of timing and medical school application deadlines. Generally, you should ask your references for letters of recommendation several months before they need to be submitted. This will give your letter writers plenty of time to write and reflect on your strengths as a candidate. This will also ensure that your letter writers will not rush through the process or make mistakes in submitting via the appropriate methods. Additionally, it is advisable that you ask your letter writers while you are working with them or before your project, mentorship, shadowing, employment, or semester ends. This will ensure that your letter writers do not forget you and your quality of work as time passes and you are no longer regularly familiar with them.
Asking for recommendation letters can be done in person or via email. For in-person communication, you can speak with a professor during their office hours or an employer during their break. If they say yes, schedule a meeting to go in-depth about recommendation letter requirements and medical school application information and bring all necessary supporting documents and materials with you, including a copy of your CV for your letter writer to review.
When asking for medical school recommendation letters via email, it is important to keep the language and tone of your email professional, concise, and clear. Be specific in your expectations of what the letter should include, offer some initial instructions and guidance for your letter writer to follow, and express gratitude for their support.
This sample email, provided by The University of Maine Institute of Medicine, touches on all the aspects of how to ask for letters of recommendation professionally and appropriately:
Part of quality networking and being professional is demonstrating good conduct after you ask for your medical school recommendation letters. To do this, don’t check in with your letter writers frequently and pressure them. Allow them sufficient time to write your recommendation letters. You can check in with them a couple of weeks prior to your medical school application deadline to confirm that they have submitted your letter via the appropriate forms.
Once your medical school deadline has passed, send them a follow-up thank you email. Your thank you email can be brief while properly expressing gratitude. For example, follow this sample structure:
1. A polite greeting (Dear Dr. ______ )
2. A clear statement expressing your appreciation
3. If applicable, an update about the medical school to which you applied
4. A professional closing and your signature
You can also send a thank you card in the mail once you’ve been accepted to medical school. This adds a nice personal touch and lets your letter writers know that with their help, you’ve been accepted to the medical school of your dreams. This gesture also ensures that you maintain a good working relationship with them for future endeavors.
Generally, most medical school recommendation letters are written by science and non-science faculty members (such as professors and teaching assistants), physicians, research supervisors, employers, and volunteering and extracurricular supervisors.
Science faculty members include professors and teaching assistants in biology, chemistry, physics, and mathematics departments, etc.
These are professors and teaching assistants in the arts, humanities, and social sciences. Some medical schools require two letters of recommendation from science faculty and one letter of recommendation from non-science faculty. Pro-tip: Ask a variety of sources so that your recommendation letters speak to your well-rounded and numerous skill sets. For example, asking a biology professor, a physics professor, and a humanities professor will provide ample variety in your qualifications and strengths.
If you shadowed or volunteered for a physician, you can ask them to write you a medical school letter of evaluation. Just make sure they know you well and can advocate for your work and work ethic. For example, some students may do a half-day shadow with a physician and then think it’s a good idea to ask them for a recommendation letter—which it isn’t. However, if students have shadowed a physician on multiple occasions and the physician has been able to witness them in action (taking notes, asking questions, perhaps interacting with patients, etc.), then it would be suitable to ask the physician for a recommendation letter.
Research supervisors are a good source to ask if you have worked on a research project. They can give specific examples of your research project and your accomplishments.
If you have employment experience, you can ask your supervisor to write your medical school application recommendation letter. Your supervisor has direct experience with you as their employee. They can discuss your strengths, desirable qualities, and leadership skills, as well as other core competencies and skill sets.
If you volunteered at a hospital or were a part of an athletic team, your supervisor or coach can write recommendation letters that highlight a variety of your talents and abilities.
Above all, you should ask those who know you well because these are the people who will advocate for you and your qualifications to get into your dream medical school. It is advisable that you have maintained a working relationship with your letter writers for a consistent amount of time (several months to a year or more). Remember, always be mindful of your medical school’s specific application guidelines and be sure to include the correct types and numbers of recommendation letters.
Always provide them with a copy of your CV, your medical school’s application guidelines, including recommendation letter submission instructions and deadlines, any accomplishments not listed on your CV such as publications and professional/education associations, and your transcripts and test scores if they are available.
Typically, recommendation letters are one to three pages in length. Admissions officers value quality over quantity in this part of your medical school application, so the content of what your letter writers say about you outweighs the number of pages.
No, you should never ask to read your recommendation letters. This will allow your references to write about you with complete honesty. You should trust that your letter writers have your best interests in mind and will write strong recommendation letters that advocate your skills and qualities as a medical school candidate. In AMCAS, you should waive your right to review your recommendation letters.
Please check with the medical schools to which you are applying. Every medical school has its own requirements of how many recommendation letters to submit, as well as the types of letters. Many medical schools require a variety of recommendation letters from different sources, so it is imperative that you pay close attention to every medical school’s application instructions. Pro-tip: Ask for one or two recommendation letters that are back-ups. This is for your own peace of mind. If a letter writer falls through and can no longer commit to writing your recommendation letter, you will have one or two extra recommendation letters that you can use in your medical school application to meet their requirements.
Admissions officers have the difficult task of going through thousands of applicants. Quantitative factors like GPAs and MCAT scores are highly competitive and can be similar for the top applicants. That’s why admissions officers need something more personal to know you better as a candidate. They also want to see what others have to say about you. It’s easy to pump yourself up, but the impact that you, your character, and your work ethic have had on others is crucial in deciding who to accept into medical school. Your glowing letters of recommendation will help you get accepted to your dream medical school.
Recommendation letters for medical school are a crucial component of the application process. With so many factors to consider like medical school application requirements, submission deadlines, what forms to use, how to access online portals, and how to ask for recommendation letters, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed and lost.
Our guide to asking for recommendation letters will simplify the process for you and take the stress out of preparation. Remember to follow these tips for success, as well as your medical school’s application guidelines, and we guarantee that you will receive glowing letters of recommendation for your medical school applications.