The Perfect Letter of Recommendation

Hopefully, by this time those applying to medical school this upcoming cycle have requested for their letters of recommendations. The letter of recommendation can be neutral but may also make or break your chances at getting into medical school. One bad letter can ruin everything even for the otherwise flawless student whereas one solid letter from the right person can take even those with lower scores to the top of the pile. Half of the students who have approached me for a letter have demonstrated great etiquette while the other half have been… lets just say, pretty alarming. For those who have procrastinated and for those future applicants, I have listed a few tips below.

1. Choosing a Letter Writer

Types of recommenders include professors (science and non-science), physicians, premed advising committee (if offered by school), research director, principal investigator, graduate program director, or medically-related extracurricular supervisor. If applying to osteopathic programs, it’s nice to have a letter from a DO. It is always better to have someone who knows you and thinks highly of you over someone well respected. They need to be able to speak highly on your qualifications, competencies, unique characteristics and why they think you will be valuable to these programs. It is not fair to ask a professor you do not know and place them in an awkward position. This is a big reason why Dr. Dale and I always preach the importance of office hours and getting to know your professors. It is also a big reason to stay in touch with people. If you did well in the class and established a good relationship make sure that professor knows your goal is to become a doctor and that you would love if they could stay in touch and they could write a letter for you when the time comes.

2. How to Approach

It is best to approach your potential letter writers for the first time early on, at the end of a semester after you have received your final grade or after a shadowing/volunteering experience you enjoyed. This way you are on their radar. Share with them your plans to become a doctor and that you would love a letter from them in the future if they are willing. Ask if you may stay in touch with them. Approach the letter writer again roughly four months before applying. My recommendation would be face-to-face meeting > email > phone. There is a good chance the letter writer is popular and teaches a lot of students so you want to be memorable and don’t want your message buried or placed at the back of the line. You may ask to meet the letter writer during office hours or depending on your relationship, over a cup of coffee.

3. What to Ask

Hopefully your potential letter writer knows you well but if not, it is important that you first start by introducing yourself and your link with them. A little bit of flattery always helps. Let them know how you enjoyed their class or your experience shadowing. You may even share a memorable moment or something you learned. “Are you willing to write a very STRONG letter of recommendation for me?” Simple as that. There are way too many students who will get awesome letters. You want someone that is super impressed with your work to write this letter or at least someone who is willing to learn a bit about you in order to appreciate how awesome you are. There is little to no benefit in a so-so, mediocre letter. If they are honest with you and aren’t able to write a strong letter, be gracious for their truth and don’t be offended. Simply move on to the next. Make sure to let them know when you plan to submit and ask if they are okay with a reminder.

4. What to Give Them

Be prepared to provide your recommender your CV, transcript and personal statement or brief summary/reminder of who you are. You may do this via email or bring with you in person. I am a huge proponent of including your Diverse Medicine profile link and/or your LinkedIn Profile link in your email signature. This will help them learn more about you and place a face with your name. You do not want to overwhelm the writer with too much info but if you know that they are the type that would want a little guidance you may provide them with the AAMC guideline.

5. How to Follow-up

As mentioned earlier, you need ask the letter writer if it is okay to follow-up at certain intervals. You may check in on them with an email 1 month before you plan to submit. Make sure you do not have any embarrassing or incriminating data online. There is always a chance your letter writer or anyone evaluating you throughout the interview process will search for you. Clean up your social media and make sure your email address is professional and unassuming. It is also important not to burn bridges along the entire application process. If a recommender hears something troubling about you, they may feel obligated to rescind their letter or contact the schools to warn them.

6. Other Important Information

It is important to waive your rights to see the letters in order to protect the letter writers and allow them to be fully transparent with the school. Programs such as Interfolio may help in organizing your letters. However, this is way after my time so check with other premeds on the site about their experience with this. Don’t forget to thank your letter writer afterwards. Update them along the application season. You never know if they have connections at a program you are waitlisted on or one you have not heard back from. Also, make sure to contact the medical school recruiters on Diverse Medicine if you will be applying to their program and feel free to ask them specifics about their school.

Any tips on getting that perfect letter? Feel free to share with your peers.