The letters of recommendation portion of the medical school application typically raise the most questions and take the most time. It is the only part of the application that depends on the efforts of multiple busy professors and doctors, not to mention the emailing and letter sending that must take place to get the package finalized. This article aims to make the process a little less complicated by answering some of the most commonly asked questions about LORs.
What is the value of a letter of recommendation?
Let’s face it – anybody can write a personal statement. Because what more do people love than to talk about themselves? Just give them the prompt and a word count, and they can fill pages. Anybody can spin tales about why they need medicine in their life, and why medicine needs them. This is what makes letters of recommendation so valuable – somebody else fully believes in your capabilities as a future healthcare provider, so much so that they are willing to write an essay about your qualities and talents in an attempt to convince an entire admission committee.
When applying, you have to keep in mind that most others applying have high GPAs, MCATs, and an extensive resumé of extra-curriculars. Having the support of professors, physicians, research mentors, and community leaders vouching for you may be the factor that separates you from all the other applicants.
When should I start thinking about letters of recommendation?
As early as possible! You should be thinking of every professor and faculty mentor you work under as a potential letter writer. Especially if you are thinking about applying straight into medical school during your senior year, this means you only have 3 years to get your letter package together. Waiting until a couple of months before you apply to get your letters in order is a recipe for disaster.
During your first two years, focus on doing well and standing out in your classes so that you have a handful of options to ask by your third year. However, it’s never too early to secure a letter of recommendation in your first couple of years! If you do particularly well in a class or develop a strong relationship with any professor in your lower-division courses and believe that the faculty mentor can speak to your academic ability, don’t hesitate to pop the question! Never be afraid to ask a professor if they are willing; the worst that can happen is they say no. Future applicant version of you will be very grateful.
For those of you who want a set timeline, it is best to have an idea of your letter writers by Spring vacation (mid-March) and have asked them all by the beginning of April. This will give them at least 2 months to compose and submit your letters before your AMCAS submission.
How should I ask for letters of recommendation?
Obtaining letters of recommendation is a part of the application process that is not entirely within your control. As such, it is a source of significant anxiety among students. Your admission to your desired program will be based, at least in part, on the words of others. In this keystone article, Dr. Lisabetta Divita provides 7 tips on how to get stellar letters of recommendation.
How many academic letters should I have?
Most medical schools will require at least 3 letters from professors of undergraduate classes: 2 science & 1 non-science. A “science” letter refers to the BCPM category (Biology, Chemistry, Physics, Math). A “non-science” letter refers to a class that falls outside of the BCPM category, typically humanities, social science, or arts. Ideally, the professor of the class writes and signs the letter. However, in a large science class with limited one-on-one interaction with the professor, it is not uncommon for the professor to request a teaching assistant’s help, so get on first-name terms with the TA’s of the course as well.
The academic letters should come from professors of classes in which you excelled. This means you received an A or an A- at worst. The non-science letter is often overlooked, but it can serve a distinct purpose. Oftentimes the qualities that a humanities professor praises an applicant will complement those of the science letters. Imaginative writing, analytical thinking, and public speaking are talents that have little opportunity to showcase in a typical chemistry or biology course.
What about letters from extracurricular activities?
With the 3 academic letters, the minimum requirement for most schools should be satisfied. However, any extensive extracurricular activity you are involved in should have a letter of recommendation from a faculty member. This includes research mentors, physicians shadowed, and volunteer organization leaders. A good goal to aim for is to get letters from each of the three “most meaningful” activities on your AMCAs. This breaks down to anywhere from 4-6 letters – an example is below:
- Lower-division Molecular Biology professor (with input from a TA)
- Upper-division Physiology professor (with input from a TA)
- Upper-division Applied Linguistics professor
- Basic science research mentor
- ER physician shadowed for 2 years
- Student-run homeless clinic advisor
Tip: Go for quality over quantity. There is no magic number for letters of recommendation, but it is always better to have a few strong letters than a bundle of mediocre letters. When asking someone for a letter, be sure to emphasize if they are willing to write a strong letter of recommendation for you. You can help them by meeting with them frequently and providing information about yourself or a personal statement. A mediocre letter may hurt your chances more than help them.
How do I ask for a letter of recommendation?
There are two ways to approach asking for a letter: in person or via email. I recommend asking in person because, with email, there is often a delay in response. Ask near the end of a course or shortly after the course ends, especially if you are confident you will receive a high grade. Something along the lines of “Hi Professor X, I thoroughly enjoyed your class this semester and learned a great deal. I am applying to medical school, and a strong letter of reference from you would truly strengthen my application”. Once they agree, arrange for a meeting with them to go over logistics. At the next meeting, provide each writer with the following items:
- A pre-addressed manila envelope (if not submitting directly online), with a Post-It with an agreed-upon submission deadline
- A signed waiver for the letter service being used (Interfolio, your career center, etc.)
- A curriculum vitae (or resume)
- A copy of your transcript
- A personal statement (or a few bullet points on what you want them to mention in their letter)
How long should I give them to write letters?
This will be different with each letter writer. A research mentor who only works with a few undergrads may only need 2 weeks to write a letter for you, whereas a professor of a class of 250 pre-meds may be writing up to 20 letters that quarter and require 3 months to put them all together. It is courtesy to allow the writer at least a month to write and submit the letter, but be sure to agree upon the submission date. Once the submission deadline nears, feel free to pop into their office or send them a reminder email about your letter to be sure everything is in order.
Finally, a personal note: When I was applying, I waited until April to ask for my 2nd science letter, only to be shocked that the professor was writing 11 other letters and projected a submission date of August. I submitted my application in June, but without a complete letter package, some schools waited until September to read my complete application. Please don’t make the same mistake I did; submit your letters early!
Other good resources for you:
- How to find a research position
- Seven top tips to get stellar letters of recommendation
- What do I do if I need help?
Updated October 11, 2020.