By Ryan Karmouta MD, MBA
If you’re reading this, you’ve worked hard in your classes, have taken the MCAT, and are almost ready to put your best foot forward for medical schools. But there’s this murky, unclear process: the letters. Below we’ll try to demystify some of this process and hit on how to ask, who to task, and when to ask.
Don’t leave the letters to the last minute! Start getting to know your potential letter writers early. For some that’s easier than for others. I personally was not a student who enjoyed talking to professors or going to office hours if I didn’t have genuine questions, but it really does turn out to be a great experience as they’re often fascinating people when not lecturing at you. Take the extra time and get to know your professors and mentors outside of the large classroom setting. This goes both ways as they get to know you more, so when the time comes to ask for a letter of recommendation years down the line, they have information and interactions to pull from!
Who do I ask?
The requirements are homogenous for most medical schools, but I recommend going to every school’s website and making an excel sheet of their specific requirements as sometimes there is one that differs from the rest. The most important quality for all of these is to ask people who will go to bat for you, who will write you strong, outstanding letters that will make you shine. The last thing you want is an unenthusiastic letter even if it is by some big shot!
- Committee letter: if your medical school has this, you’re going to need it. No way around it. It usually consists of a panel of advisors who draw on your course evaluations and an interview with you to write a letter for every applicant. The best you can do is be kind, do well, and give them something interesting to write about! These are all usually templated.
- Science letters: Most schools require 2 science letters. Getting to know your professor early is great for these!
- Non-science letter: Likely will come from your major or a professor you clicked with.
- Other letters: A research mentor’s letter can speak volumes or someone who you worked with in a close capacity whether it be at a job before school or a volunteer project. Use your best judgement on this and ask yourself: “will what this person has to say about me add value to my application?”
Professors are busy so just show them you value their time and try not to make any last-minute requests if you can avoid it. I recommend asking letter writers 2-3 months before you plan to submit your application. The further in advance you ask shouldn’t hurt.
Preparation is key here. Firstly, I recommend you ask professors in person as the visual image of you will likely remind them who you are if you haven’t spoken in a while and it is much more personable than email. However, if you need to write an email for someone who is out of town or you can’t meet up, follow the same steps! An important consideration is when you are asking them to write a letter on your behalf, be sure to ask if they would be willing to write a strong letter on your behalf. If they say no, no harm done! You don’t want any unenthusiastic letters!
Prepare a folder for every letter writer including:
- An intro letter thanking them for taking the time to speak on your behalf including deadlines bolded. I recommend making the deadline 2 weeks before you need the letters.
- Unofficial transcript list
- Personal statement draft (don’t worry about this, you likely won’t have it)
- AAMC guidelines for strong letter if you wish.
After you ask them in person, hand this to them if they say yes and do express your gratitude! Same goes for email requests. It is okay to send reminder emails; just be aware they are likely writing many letters hence why asking early is key! Be sure to send a thank you note and a small gift or token of appreciation if you feel close with them.