Menu Icon Search
Close Search
Business Photo from Shutterstock.com

Letters of Recommendation for Medical School

Created April 16, 2014 by Evan Shih
Share

The letters of recommendation portion of the medical school application typically raises the most questions and takes 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 that 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 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 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 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” letters 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 the help of a teaching assistant, 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 for will complement those of the science letters. Imaginative writing, analytical thinking, and public speaking are all 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:

  1. Lower division Molecular Biology professor (with input from a TA)
  2. Upper division Physiology professor (with input from a TA)
  3. Upper division Applied Linguistics professor
  4. Basic science research mentor
  5. ER physician shadowed for 2 years
  6. 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, 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 a 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.

Final 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 that she 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. Don’t make the same mistake I did, submit your letters early!

Evan Shih is currently a first year medical student at David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. He received a B.S. from UCLA in Physiological Science. He also contributes at ProspectiveDoctor.com, where he acts as the Community Outreach Director. Contact him at [email protected].

// Share //

// Recent Articles //

  • Your Gap Year Job Doesn’t Matter

  • Posted June 23, 2017 by The Short Coat Podcast
  • Listeners ask, we answer. A flood of listener questions this week!  It’s probably due in part to medical school application season has begun, which means medical school applicants are trying to figure out if they have what it takes…on paper.  For instance, an anonymous listener (“Meldor”) called in to find out what kinds of gap...VIEW >
  • Quiz of the Week: How Would You Manage This Rancher’s Lesion?

  • Posted June 23, 2017 by Figure 1
  • A 22-year-old male presents with a one-week history of a lesion on his index finger after working at his uncle’s sheep ranch two weeks earlier. When he first noticed the lesion, it was a small firm papule and accompanied by a low grade fever. Examination now reveals a targetoid lesion on his right index finger...VIEW >
  • Medical, +1 MORE
  • Q&A with Dr. Alison Stansfield, Learning Disability Psychiatrist

  • Posted June 22, 2017 by Gloria Onwuneme
  • Alison Stansfield, MBChB, MRCPsych, MD is the clinical lead and consultant psychiatrist for the Leeds Autism Diagnostic Service (LADS). This is an adult all-IQ autism diagnostic service which also provides consultancy and training. She is a regular lecturer for the Andrew Sims Centre on topics such as autism, learning disabilities, Mental Capacity Act, deprivation of...VIEW >
  • Deprescription: In the context of palliative care

  • Posted June 21, 2017 by Ian Wee
  • “Why is Mr X on statins?” asked the palliative consultant. “He has been on statins for a long while given his poor cholesterol profile, even before he was referred to us,” the palliative registrar replied. “What is his prognosis?” the consultant continued. “Three months”. “So why is he still on statins? Does it improve his...VIEW >
  • What is Jaundice?

  • Posted June 21, 2017 by Open Osmosis
  • You may have had a friend or relative whose newborn baby had jaundice but do you know what that actually means or how it’s treated? Well, jaundice is a condition where the skin and eyes take on a yellowish color due to increased levels of bilirubin in the bloodstream. Bilirubin can be either unconjugated or...VIEW >
  • Recess Rehash: Gap Years, Disguised Blessings, and Forbidden Words

  • Posted June 17, 2017 by The Short Coat Podcast
  • Listener T’keyah sends Cole Cheney, Aline Sandouk, and John Pienta a question on gap years, which boils down to what kinds of gaps are okay according to admissions committees? Cole reveals his post-med school podcasting plans, and he and John discuss how not getting your residency match can be a GOOD thing…after one is done...VIEW >

// Forums //