Medical school letters of recommendation are a surprisingly undervalued and misunderstood part of the application process. While many students know they’re important, they actually have no clue how to go about getting them (or how many are needed).
This guide will cover everything you need to know about letters of recommendation for medical school. By the time you’re done reading it, you’ll be ready to go!
Table of Contents
- What Is A Medical School Letter Of Recommendation?
- How Many Letters Of Recommendation Do You Need For Med School?
- How Long Should Your Letters Of Recommendation Be?
- Who Should Write Your Letter Of Recommendation?
- How To Get A Letter Of Recommendation For Medical School
- How Are They Submitted?
- What Is A Committee Letter?
- Closing Thoughts
What Is A Medical School Letter Of Recommendation?
A medical school letter of recommendation is a crucial part of the application process that gives admissions committees more insight into who you are and the doctor you might become. While many hopefuls rightfully focus on MCAT scores and creating an ultra-competitive application, letters of recommendation hold significant weight as well.
Nearly all medical schools ask for these letters, and they have a bigger impact than most students realize. As the name would imply, letters are pieces of correspondence from those who have experience working with you on some level. They can come from educators who are privy to your capabilities, employers who managed and oversaw your work, or even supervisors who witnessed your work ethic firsthand.
Letters of recommendation can substantiate the rest of your application and highlight why you are a good candidate for medical school.
Needless to say, strong letters of recommendation from those who support your endeavors are paramount. Favorably written letters can make a world of difference and give your application a competitive edge. Getting into medical school is hard, so you want to take this process seriously!
Med schools ask for letters of recommendation because they provide organic and layered information that no amount of data can provide. Sure, killer grades and an impressive score are a crucial part of the puzzle. But does that information say anything about who you are? Do they reflect your dedication or passion?
Think of a medical school letter of recommendation as a restaurant review. You can take a look at an establishment’s menu to see if it meets the essential criteria of what you’re craving. But to see if the food is well-made and tasty, you’d have to turn to honest reviews of people who have already eaten at that restaurant for insight.
A solid letter of recommendation serves the same purpose, but for a more important reason (obviously). These letters allow admissions panels to evaluate you holistically. They are a more personal part of the application process that goes beyond your grades and credentials. The letters are about digging deeper and painting a more detailed picture of what you can bring to the table, allowing the school to see if you are a good fit.
How Many Letters Of Recommendation Do You Need For Med School?
How many letters of recommendation you’ll need to provide depends on the medical school’s requirements. Most schools ask for at least three letters of recommendation. However, some will request five or six!
Even if your school only asks for two or three letters, it always pays to have more. As long as you’re not explicitly limited to a specific number of letters, you’re free to send more. Doing so could give you more opportunities to highlight specific skills or credentials that the standard applications don’t show.
However, keep in mind that sending too many letters can also work against you. Make sure to read your medical school’s requirements.
As a general rule of thumb, three to five letters is the sweet spot.
Another important consideration is the type of letters you’ll need. Once again, requirements can vary from one institution to the next. The admissions process is quite stringent, and some med schools like to see letters in a specific format for streamlined operations.
The application might ask for:
- Committee letters
- Letter packets
- Individual letters.
Committee letters are more formal and ask for detailed information that only specific organizations can provide (more on that later).
Letter packets are also formal. The packets consist of several letters written by referees at your current undergraduate school. Typically, these packages are assembled and sent by your school’s career center, making things much easier on your end.
Finally, there are the individual letters. Individual letters are, by far, the most common. As you can guess, these letters provide a more personal touch and come from people you ask.
How Long Should Your Letters Of Recommendation Be?
It’s important to check with your medical school’s requirements for guidance when it comes to the length of your letter. It’s important to understand any specifications that your school requests.
With that being said, medical school letters of recommendation tend to be one to three pages long.
For example, your medical school of choice might want to see letters in a specific format. Some won’t even read the letter if it’s not on official letterhead. Those small details matter, and you need to pass them along to your referees to avoid delays or headaches.
All that said, the amount of words isn’t nearly as crucial as the overall quality of the letter. A short and to-the-point letter that offers glowing commendations can have a more significant impact than a fluff-filled piece without any conviction.
You can’t control what others say in their letter, but you can certainly have a say in who writes them. Requirements aside, quality is always more important than quantity in this case!
Who Should Write Your Letter Of Recommendation?
As you probably know, letters of recommendation can’t come from random people! It’s easy to get favorably written pieces from close family and friends. But that’s not what med schools want.
Medical schools want unbiased letters of recommendation from people who can illustrate what you have to offer. As a result, many have strict requirements you have to meet.
In many cases, schools will ask for various letters based on your current situation or work history. If you’re like most applicants, you’re an undergrad seeking to matriculate into medical school. So, you have limited real-world work experience.
Schools will often ask for insight into your knowledge and skills from:
- Other relevant staff
If you are a working professional or have taken a year or two off from your education, the school may ask for letters from employers or supervisors. Letter requirements may be different for those who served in the military as well.
Typically, medical schools will ask for several letters split into two distinct categories.
While exact requirements can vary, most schools will request two letters of recommendation from science professors and one from a non-science faculty member.
The faculty letters are great for exemplifying your academic prowess and topical aptitude. It’s best to get letters from different disciplines and from professors who gave you a grade. Remember: These letters should comment on your academic ability, and faculty who previously evaluated you through grading are better able to do that.
What types of faculty are best? Turn to professors who taught you subjects that will directly impact your medical school career. Medical schools generally prefer to have letters from biology, chemistry, or physics professors.
That doesn’t mean that the school will automatically reject other science-based topics. However, those closely linked to what you’ll study in medical school are always better.
For the letters from non-science faculty, anything outside of biology, chemistry, and physics will do. Many applicants like to ask professors dealing with arts, humanities, or social sciences.
The science faculty letters should talk about your proficiency in their given topics. Their glowing review of your academic prowess goes a long way. However, the non-science faculty letters can address other essential skills.
For example, they can talk about your critical thinking, comprehension, or communication skills. Those letters can even highlight the diversity of your academic experience, how you work with others, or what you do to learn interpersonal skills.
Good examples include professors who read your writings, viewed presentations or oversaw larger group projects. As long as they can comment on your capabilities, their letters can make a difference.
Medical schools may also ask for one or two letters of recommendation from non-academic sources. These are often referred to as character letters.
These letters of recommendation should tell admissions panels about who you are on a more personal level. Think of it as a letter where someone “vouches” for other critical personality traits rather than just your academic excellence.
While you might be tempted to turn to family and friends, that’s not the way to go with character letters. Many medical schools outright reject correspondence from someone who has too much personal connection with you. As a result, family, friends, and clergy are out of the question.
Every letter of recommendation needs to hold weight and add something new to your application. While they will not comment on your academic performance, these writers can say something about your attitude, work ethic, dedication, and other traits that you’ll use as a doctor.
The best character letters come from employers, volunteer supervisors, doctors you shadowed in the past, someone you researched with, or faculty advisors of clubs. Anyone who has seen you interact with patients is also a good candidate.
How To Get A Letter Of Recommendation For Medical School
Once you understand what types of medical school letters of recommendation you need, it’s time to take action.
This stage of the application process can be daunting. It’s not always easy to put yourself out there and make requests from people you respect. However, taking this step is necessary for putting you on the path to your future.
First things first, when do you need your letters?
Letters of recommendation usually aren’t due until you submit secondary applications. That means that July of the year you apply is the earliest you can send them in. Don’t wait until the last second!
Give your referees plenty of time to write a killer letter. Rushing them will only leave sour feelings behind. Referees are doing you a favor, so the last thing you want to do is hurry the process.
At the very least, give your referees two weeks. If possible, aim for a month or two of wiggle room! The people you ask faculty letters from probably have a long list of letters they need to write.
Professors get asked for letters of recommendation all of the time. As a result, it’s not uncommon to see turnaround times of one to two months. The earlier you ask, the easier it is for everyone involved.
Now, don’t be surprised if some of the people you ask don’t deliver. Things happen, and people forget. Rather than constantly asking for the letter, have a few backups on hand.
It’s always better to have more letters of recommendation than you need to cover those worst-case scenarios. The last thing you want is to scramble at the last second!
Asking For Letters Of Recommendation
The best way to ask for letters of recommendation is to visit your referee in person.
It’s tempting to make requests over email. While there’s nothing wrong with making the first contact through email, an in-person visit can be more beneficial.
There are a couple of reasons for this:
First, it helps the writer remember you. Professors see students come and go all the time. If you haven’t taken their course recently, they could forget your name. A face-to-face visit is a great way to jog their memory.
Plus, it gives you a chance to catch up and talk about your aspirations. That personal connection makes all the difference.
Another benefit of asking in person is to gauge the writer’s response. The goal of a letter of recommendation is to provide correspondence from someone who supports your endeavors. If you’re a bit hesitant, you can take those non-verbal cues as a sign to ask someone else.
Try to visit your referees when they’re not busy. Asking a professor immediately after class or an employer in the middle of the workday can come off as awkward and rushed. Have a discussion when things are calm, as people are more likely to respond positively.
During your visit, make sure to ask for a strong letter of recommendation for medical school. The word “strong” is the most crucial part of the question here. That simple word indicates the importance of the letter while allowing you to pick up on some more non-verbal cues.
How the individual responds will either affirm your choice or indicate that you need to ask another person.
Don’t be offended if your request for a letter results in a “No thank you.” A letter of recommendation can take a significant amount of time to write. It’s not uncommon for some faculty members to have a personal policy against writing them.
Some may not feel comfortable writing the letter for you. That’s OK. It’s far better to hear a referee say “no” than to learn later that they had some not-so-nice things to say about you.
Providing Additional Support
After your professor, employer, or supervisor agrees to write a letter of recommendation for medical school, provide all the support they need. Ask them what you can do to help them write a strong letter.
Listen carefully, and follow up on those requests as soon as possible. Don’t leave your writers hanging. Providing those additional documents will remind them to finish the letter while also giving them plenty of support to craft the best piece possible.
Many faculty members request things like resumes, grade transcripts, a list of rewards, and more. Whatever the case may be, provide the materials and wait to receive your letter!
How Are They Submitted?
There are a few ways to submit your medical school letters of application.
Generally, these letters are sent through the AMCAS portal. Interestingly enough, it’s one of three sections you can modify after submitting your initial AMCAS application.
Letters of recommendation are supposed to be private. Technically speaking, you can request to read them before submission. However, most medical schools won’t view them favorably.
It’s important to waive your rights to read the letters. That way, your writers can say what they want without any pressure on your end.
Medical schools prefer that your letter writers submit documents on your behalf rather than the other way around. This method of submission ensures complete privacy across the board.
Your referees can do this in a couple of different ways. The easiest is through the AMCAS Letter Service. After providing a letter request form, writers can include your AMCAS ID and an AMCAS letter ID. With those few credentials, writers can log on and submit letters directly.
The great thing about the AMCAS platform is that documents are accepted instantly. It eliminates a lot of the worry and waiting.
Writers can also submit the letters through Interfolio. The all-digital system is also pretty streamlined. However, it can take upwards of three days to get accepted and marked as “received.”
What Is A Committee Letter?
Earlier, we talked about how some medical schools required a committee letter. Also known as a composite letter, this correspondence is school-specific. They come from pre-med advisors at your undergraduate college.
The purpose of committee letters is to evaluate your position as a medical school candidate. It typically includes information about your academic performance and capabilities. Basically, it’s a letter from your current or past school discussing your potential as a medical student.
Not all colleges offer committee letters. For this reason, it’s not as common of a requirement as individual letters.
If it is available, make sure to request a committee letter as early as possible. Many medical schools have strict requirements and additional hurdles to get through before you receive a letter.
Getting a medical school letter of recommendation is not something you should take lightly. These letters are incredibly important, and can have a major impact on the outcome of your application.
If you have any questions about the process feel free to get in touch! We’re always happy to help.