Medical School Letters of Recommendation Can Be Tricky...Let's Clarify Them

Oftentimes people ask me: How many medical school letters of recommendation should I get? How good will my committee letter be? How many other letters are necessary? What are the letters that look the best? Which medical school letters of recommendation don't look as good? So many people are just a bit unsure about how the letters of recommendation should fit into their application. That is fine, that is why we are here. Let's get you some answers.

What a Medical School Letter of Recommendation IS and IS NOT

A letter of recommendation, for most people, is just someone saying nice things about them. Surprisingly most schools read the letters and say something to the effect of.. "another basic letter" and move on and never give it another look. Why? Well because like a medical school personal statement, people squander the opportunity to really show off who they are as a person, and as a potential medical school student. So when the schools get the letters, it is more of the same drab, and lacks the pop that really turns heads and gets the attention on you. So that should make your goal pretty obvious.

You want letters that will have the pop, the flair, to excite the reader with your passion. On the interview page we talk about thinking of questions and defining your passion and using that passion as a strategy to be "different" in the application process (different IS VERY GOOD when talking about medical school applications). Take a look at that if you think you could use some ideas on how to define it.

That passion, fire, desire, however you want to define it should be your driving force of your entire application. And it is no different in your medical school letters of recommendation. Each letter should supply the reader with a definition of you passion, and therefore should be written by those who understand your passion and are willing/able to write about it. This will make your letter a worthwhile tool to the medical school application process.

A medical school letter of recommendation IS NOT a free pass to entrance. It is NOT about quantity, the minimum number of fantastic letters will CRUSH, and I mean CRUSH many average letters. It is NOT about having 1 from a doctor, 1 from a researcher, 1 from a teacher etc...that is just a myth that for some reason continues. What really matters to these schools is that they are given ample opportunity to know you, who you are, and what makes you tick. Each portion, including your letter, should be part of that goal.

How To Get The Medical School Letters of Recommendation

Once people understand what they are looking for the next question is always HOW? Well, I'll tell you. You need to do 2 things to make this happen:
1. First, you need to work with 2-3 people who can attest to your passion in certain areas. If you ask for a letter that explains who you are and what you are passionate about but they don't know will just be goofy. So make sure you don't only work with these people, but that you get to know them. Talk to them about how they became who they are and where they are going. Once you are friends, the doors will open, and they will want to know more about you, your plans, passions, and personality. Then you can move on to step 2...
2. Next, educate them on what you are doing. This should take all of 3 minutes. When you ask for the letter oftentimes the writer will want to sit with you anyway to talk, but if they don't ask themselves, you should ask for a few minutes. In this SHORT meeting, ask them what they think your goals, aspirations, and passions are? If they are answering those questions correctly make sure to tell them that you are really trying to present yourself by highlighting those passions and goals. Ask them to talk about those things at least briefly in the letter. Doing this will help them understand what you are trying to do and they will feel more prepared to write about you.

The Logistics of the Medical School Letters of Recommendation

Ok here is where many people get behind in the application. DO NOT EVER GET BEHIND in the medical school application process. I can't emphasize enough how much it will hurt you to apply in December instead of June. Take a look at the timeline set forth on the medical school admission page. You need to be getting your medical school letters of recommendation early. Early enough to get them in very quickly during the application process. So ask a few months before you will need them.

I recommend using a software program like Interfolio which is a letter managing software. I've heard great things about interfolio which is why I recommend it but I think there are some free ones out there as well. This makes life so much easier on everyone who uses it. And more importantly, you can know when your letters are uploaded and you can send them to the application services very quickly after they open.

If you want to manage them yourself that is just fine as well. Start early still, make sure the writers use school letterhead where appropriate, and then make sure they are done and ready to send before the application opens so when it does open they can send them soon after. If you manage them yourself you should have envelopes prepared and stamped to the addresses you are sending to. Lastly, you should VERIFY that they were sent out. It is VITAL that they get there as early as possible.

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