Applying to Medical School

How to Ask for a Letter of Recommendation

It’s surprising how many pre-meds are scrambling to get letters of recommendation right before they turn in their medical school applications. It’s even more alarming that many pre-med students don’t know the proper etiquette when asking for a letter of rec. While it’s understandable to not know if you’re a young college student, you’ll have to learn eventually. Here are some surefire tips you can follow to ask for those important letters of rec. These tips are specifically for pre-meds but the general guidelines apply to pretty much all graduate school applicants.

1. Think of Most Supervisors and Professors as Potential Letter Writers

At the beginning of each quarter or semester, you won’t know whether or not you’ll do well in a specific class. You also won’t know if you’ll want your professor to write you a letter of recommendation.  As a result, it’s wise to treat most professors as potential letter writers. This mindset will push you to study harder in each class and give you an incentive to go to office hours. Furthermore, you’ll get to know your professor this way. As you study for your class and attend office hours, you may realize that you want your professor to write you a letter. Since you’ve already treated the professor as a potential letter writer, this opens the opportunity for you to actually ask him or her.

View every extracurricular activity supervisor (research, volunteer, work, shadowing) as a potential letter writer also. His or her impending letter shouldn’t be your sole motivation for excelling, but if you stand out in whatever activity you participate in, your supervisor could take notice and be willing to write you a letter of rec.

2. Develop a relationship with your professor, supervisor, etc.

The last thing you want is to put your professor/supervisor in the awkward position of having to write you a letter of rec, even though he or she doesn’t know you. The best way for your professor to get to know you is for you to attend class and office hours regularly. Don’t ask a professor who doesn’t even know your name, to write you a letter of rec despite them being a “big name”. Ask professors who can actually write something personal about you. If you’re interacting with a supervisor, make sure you remain proactive and engaged throughout the duration of your extracurricular activity in order to secure your letter at the end.

3.  Offer a copy of your resume, transcript, personal statement (if you’re close to applying), etc.

No matter how well he or she may know you, your letter writer may still request more information. Thus be prepared to provide your letter writer with whatever they need. Some letter writers may ask to meet with you individually to get to know you more. Provide them with any envelopes, consent forms, or any logistical item they may need. You need to provide your letter writers with whatever they need so that they can write you the best letter possible.

4. Ask Your Professors/Supervisors  After Your Interaction With Them Is Over or When You’re  About to Apply

If you took a biology class during your sophomore year and you want your professor to write you a letter of rec for medical school, it doesn’t make much sense to wait until the end of your senior or even junior year to ask. By the time you ask, your professor might not even remember you. In general, it’s best to ask for a letter of rec as soon as possible, right after your interaction with your potential letter writer is over. The best times to ask would be at the end of your quarter/semester or a couple of weeks after you received your grade in the professor’s class (the latter is usually a better option). For a supervisor, try to ask near the end of your tenure at that extracurricular activity.

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If you and your professor or supervisor have an extremely strong relationship and he or she will remember you no matter what, then you have much more flexibility in regards to when to ask. The timing of asking for a letter of rec is important and will require your discernment, but typically, the earlier you ask the better. Try to avoid asking for letters of rec too close to the due date of your application. For example, if you want to turn in your AMCAS application in June of your senior year, it’s not wise to ask your final semester’s microbiology professor.

If you have obtained a letter but don’t need it just yet, you can use a letter storage service; most schools provide one. These storage services will save your letters until you need to use them. If your school doesn’t have one, you can use an online letter-storing program such as Interfolio.

5. Give Them Sufficient Time to Write Your Letter of Recommendation

Generally asking 3-4 months before your application is due is pretty safe. If you’re turning in your application in June, March should be the latest you ask any professor or supervisor for a letter of rec. Once again, you can get away with asking late if you have a very close relationship with your letter writer, but typically, asking too late puts unnecessary pressure on your letter writer and portrays you as someone who doesn’t plan ahead.

6. Ask in Person if Possible

Make sure you conversate first with your professor/supervisor before you ask for your letter of rec. Therefore, it doesn’t seem like the relationship is disingenuous. And if for whatever reason, you can’t ask in person, email is usually the next best method of communication. 

7. Ask Your Letter Writer To Write You a Strong Letter of Rec

You don’t want someone who can’t write you a strong letter to write a letter of recommendation for you. If your letter writer honestly says that they can’t write a strong letter for you, then kindly inform them that you’ll ask someone else. Most letter writers will honestly say whether or not they can write you a strong letter.

8. Always Waive Your Right to See Letters

AMCAS will ask you to waive your right to see your letters of recommendation. You should always waive your right. This is to protect letter writers so that they can write as honestly as possible.

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9. Know the Different Types of Letters of Recommendation

There are three main types of letters that AMCAS accepts:

  • Committee Letter: A letter authored by a prehealth committee or prehealth advisor and intended to represent your institution’s evaluation of you. A Committee Letter may or may not include additional letters written in support of your application. This is sometimes called a Composite Letter.
  • Letter Packet: A packet or set of letters assembled and distributed by your institution, often by the institution’s career center. A Letter Packet may include a cover sheet from your prehealth committee or advisor. However, unlike a Committee Letter, a Letter Packet doesn’t include an evaluative letter from your prehealth committee or advisor.
  • Individual Letter: A letter written by, and representing, a single letter author. If you’ve already included an Individual Letter within either a Committee Letter or a Letter Packet, then you don’t need to add a separate entry for that letter.

10. Know Each School’s Letter of Recommendation Requirements

Every medical school has its own requirements for letters of recommendation. Before asking your letter writers, be sure to check the school’s requirements.

Check MD school requirements

Check DO school requirements

11. Understand the AMCAS Letter Service

This service enables letter writers to send all letters of recommendation to AMCAS directly rather than individually to each school (all schools except two do participate!) in it. It’s important to provide your letter writers with the appropriate AMCAS Letter Request Form (generated after you create a letter entry for your letter author within the AMCAS application), so it can accompany the letter they have written on your behalf.

However, if you’re applying to D.O. schools you’re going to list your letter writers on the AACOMAS application. Your letter writers will then receive a link from [email protected] to submit the letter on your behalf.

12. Stay Organized!

Admissions advising consultants and former applicants alike will all tell you that excellent organization is key during the medical school application process. Keep a folder (paper or digital) for every letter writer you ask. Include all communication, school LOR requirements, additional information the letter writer requested, and any other related information. This will be especially important if you find yourself having to reapply to medical school, as AMCAS will not retain letters from previous application cycles so you will need to resubmit them.

13.  Ask for more than the minimum letter requirement

A letter writer can tell you they’ll be happy to write you a letter, but with their busy schedule, they might not necessarily get to it. You don’t want to be put into a predicament where you’re relying on one individual for a letter of rec. Instead, ask many potential letter writers and then filter which ones you want to represent your application. That way you will have options and not have to worry about receiving a single letter from a letter writer.

14. Get Expert Help With Your Med School Application

Whether you need help identifying letter writers, writing your personal statement, creating your school list, or just staying organized, the expert advisors at MedSchoolCoach can help! We’ve helped thousands of students get into medical school, and we know exactly what admissions committees are looking for so we can help submit your best application.

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Edward Chang

Edward Chang is the Co-founder and Director of Operations of ProspectiveDoctor.com. He graduated from the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and is currently a urology resident at the University of Washington. He also attended UCLA as an undergraduate, graduating with a major in Molecular, Cell, and Developmental Biology. If you are interested in contributing to ProspectiveDoctor.com, please contact him at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @EdwardChangMD and Prospective Doctor @ProspectiveDr.

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