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Emily’s Path Part 2: Letters of Recommendation

I did not formally begin the application process until I was over a year out of school. I had not sought out a premed advisor during undergrad and was more or less in the weeds when I finally started. When I began assembling my primary application and read the letter requirements, I was completely overwhelmed.

||Read Emily’s Path Part 1||

Most schools required at least two letters from science faculty that had observed me in class. I knew faculty very well from my major fields (Russian and Economics), but had only once spoken directly to a science professor when he came to eat dinner in our dining hall freshman year – five years prior to my current application. As I did not major in a science or understand the importance of getting to know the faculty, I had not spent time with my science professors during office hours.

Had I sought out a premed advisor, or simply looked into the application requirements myself, I would have learned how important it was to forge connections with the faculty that taught my premed science courses. I would have walked into office hours early in the term and introduced myself as a prospective medical school applicant that would be seeking a letter once the term was over. I would have looked up my professors’ research, asked them pointed questions, and told them about my academic and professional interests. In the process, I would have tried to connect on a more personal level – for example, a pair of athletic shoes under the desk might have revealed a shared love of running. In short, I would have made sure that my professors could pick out my face in an auditorium of hundreds and knew a bit about me, so that when it came time to write my letter it would be personal.

||Read How to Ask for a Letter of Recommendation||

However, staring at the list of letter requirements for the first time several years later, I panicked. Desperate for science recommendations, I came up with the following letter writers:

My advisor, whom I counted as a science professor despite the fact that I took his non-science course. He had observed me in class, supervised my research on an extracurricular project, and generally liked me. He also had an appointment in the medical school. I was so desperate that I ignored the fact that he was not convinced that medicine was right for me. On top of that, since he was not practicing he felt that medical school had been a waste of time. I had to hound him to submit my letter on time, which should have raised a red flag.

Former Organic Chemistry Laboratory Instructor. As an undergrad I asked my O-Chem lab TA to write me a letter of recommendation for a summer research position. The instructor signed off on the TA’s letter, and I was accepted to the lab. Racking my brain for science faculty, I remembered this letter (now three years old) and decided to ask the instructor to use it as a base for a medical school recommendation. We met several times to discuss my candidacy. He always seemed scatter-brained, unfocused, and uninterested in my current work or academic record. Also, he had left my university (Stanford) for a private firm so his recommendation was not written on Stanford letterhead, which didn’t help my cause.

Cancer Research Lab PI. While this PI was a fantastic mentor and had observed me when I was a summer researcher in his lab, he was not affiliated with Stanford. Therefore, this letter was not a valid “science faculty” recommendation, but, grasping at straws, I felt I had no other choice.

As with my personal statement, I decided to overhaul my science letters for my third application cycle. I did what I should have done when I started college many years ago: I enlisted the help of professional medical school advisors and established relationships with the science professors of the post-bac courses that I was taking to boost my science credentials.

My anxiety and desperation subsided as I let each instructor know by email and in person that I would be asking for letters of recommendation. I sent them my resume and personal statement along with occasional emails about interesting developments in R&D at my company or course-relevant articles I came across. I replaced my science letters from the first two years with recommendations from my Biology lab instructor, Molecular Biology professor, and Biochemistry lecturer. All were affiliated with UC Berkeley – the university sponsoring the post-bac program, and importantly, all submitted letters on time and on university letterhead.

It is clear why my original letters were insufficient. The replacements “worked” because they were recent, unambiguously “science” letters that covered diverse scientific knowledge and skills and included assessments of individual and team work, and they were personal. Perhaps most importantly, I selected and approached each of these letter writers deliberately – not out of desperation or lack of time. These I curated, rather than scavenged for, and the outcome this year was more favorable.

Note: A comprehensive list of recommendation letter requirements can be found here

||Read Emily’s Path Part 3||

Emily Singer

Emily is a writer for She graduated from the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and is currently a general surgery resident at Ohio State University. She is a graduate of Stanford University, holding Bachelor’s degrees in Economics and Russian Languages and Literature. After graduating in 2009, Emily worked as a research analyst at a health policy consulting firm and a research scientist studying green products chemistry at a San Francisco-based startup. Emily’s interests include health policy, medical education, and global health.

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