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How To Ask For A Letter of Recommendation

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

1. Think of most professors and every supervisor as a potential letter writer

At the beginning of each quarter or semester, you do not know whether or not you will do well in a specific class. You also do not know if you will want your professor to write you a letter of recommendation. As a result, it is wise to treat most professors as potential letter writers. This mindset will push you to study harder in each class and give incentive for you to go to office hours and get to know the professor. As you study for the class and attend office hours, you may realize that you want this professor to write you a letter. Since you have 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 should not 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.

2. Do not ask people who do not know you

Do not put your professor in the awkward position of having to write a letter for you even though he or she does not know you. The best way for your professor to get to know you is for you to attend class and office hours regularly. Do not ask a supervisor who does not even know your name to write you a letter even though he or she is a “big name”. Ask people who can actually write something personal about you on their letters.

3. Ask your letter writer what he/she needs to write your letter and provide those things

No matter how well he or she may know you, your letter writer may still request more information. Thus be prepared to provide an updated CV, transcript, and even a personal statement (if you are close to applying). Some letter writers ask to meet with you individually to get to know you more. This usually replaces a personal statement. 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 them after your interaction with them is over or when you are about to apply

If you took a biology class during your sophomore year and you want your professor to write you a letter for medical school, it does not 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 is best to ask for a letter of recommendation as soon as possible after your interaction with your potential letter writer is over. The best times to ask would be at the end of 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.

If you and your professor or supervisor have an extremely strong relationship and he or she will remember you no matter what, you have much more flexibility in regards to when to ask. The timing of asking for a letter is important and will require your discernment, but typically, the earlier you ask the better. Try to avoid asking for letters 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 is not wise to ask your final semester’s microbiology professor.

If you have obtained a letter but do not need it yet, you can use a letter of recommendation storage service; most schools provide one. These storage services will save your letters until you need to use them. If your school does not have one, you can use an electronic online letter-storing program such as Interfolio.

5. Give them sufficient time to write the letter

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

6. Ask in person if possible

If for whatever reason, you cannot ask in person, email is usually the next best method of communication.

7. Ask your letter writer if he or she can write a strong letter

You do not want someone who cannot write you a strong letter to write any letter of recommendation for you. If your letter writer honestly says that he or she cannot write a strong letter for you, then kindly inform him or her that you will 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 the letters of recommendations. You should always waive your right. This is to protect letter writers so that they can write as honestly as possible.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ProspectiveDoctor. Follow ProspectiveDoctor on Twitter @ProspectiveDr

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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 edwardchang@prospectivedoctor.com. Follow him on Twitter @EdwardChangMD and Prospective Doctor @ProspectiveDr.

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