Q:What’s the deal with Letters of Recommendation?

A: Letters of Recommendation (LORs) are letters written by professors and other people who know you well and can attest to your ability to be successful in medical school and beyond. You usually get between 3 and 6 and often your undergraduate advisory committee will make sure they get sent out to the application service, AMCAS.

So, what letters do you need? Well, it depends on the school you are applying to. But in general you will need the following:

1) At least two letters should be from professors of science courses

2) One letter must be from your major
-If you are a science major, it can count as one of the premedical science course letters.
-Get letters from advanced courses in your major

3) If you had a minor in addition to the major, you should get one from this field if possible

4) If you are a science major, you need a letter from a faculty member outside the sciences also.

5) Letters from research supervisors should be included if possible

6) Letters from employers who know you well

7) If you are an alum who has been working, you should get a letter from your current employers

8 ) Letters from volunteer supervisors who know you well

9) Coaches if you’re a competitive athlete

10) Post-baccalaureate students and transfer students need a letter from that program

11) Students with or obtaining graduate degrees must have at least one letter from the graduate program

12) Be sure to check the requirements of your individual schools

Ok, that’s what you need. But when and how? I think a lot students are understandably nervous about requesting letters from their professors and employers, but honestly it shouldn’t be that big of a deal. They are very used to the process and if they can write a good letter, they’ll let you know when you ask. But how? Here’s what I’ve done in the past that has worked well for me…

I picked people based upon my grade and success/participation in the course as well as professors that I had gotten to know a bit outside of the classroom. I was really hung up on going to office hours my first couple years in college, but honestly, you should just go to say hi, even if you don’t really need clarification on something (although, frankly, if you are understanding every single thing that is taught in a class you’re either brilliant or at the wrong college!). Get to know them, not artificially or anything, but because you’re genuinely interested in their work or the class. Once I stopped worrying about getting to know professors for LORs and just actually started talking to a few, the people best suited to write my letters just sort of emerged. Just go at it organically and you’ll be on the right path.

So once you’ve selected your people, how do you go about actually asking? This is the part that terrifies students I think, although for me I was always worried they didn’t know me well enough to write a good letter. What I did was set up a meeting and go visit them when you aren’t going to be interrupted. Have a conversation about something unrelated to the big question and just relax. At the end of the convo, ask them nicely if they think they would be willing to write you a good letter of recommendation. The word ‘good’ is important because it allows them an out if they don’t really want to write it or if they genuinely don’t think they could do a good one. You don’t want someone who isn’t going to do a strong job writing one, so if they say no, move on. But if you’ve gotten to know them and are a halfway intelligent, decent person, they probably won’t say no, even if they are the busiest person in the college.

Once you get your verbal agreement, proceed by getting the materials ready. You should provide your writers with hard copies of your transcript (or at least a reminder of the grade you made in their course), a copy of something you wrote well for them, your resumé, and a cover letter explaining your goals and thanking them for their time. Make sure the deadline for the letter is clearly marked, preferrably in multiple locations. Put in this packet a stamped envelope to your school’s health professions advisory committee or information about how to submit it appropriately and then put it in their mailbox or under their office door. Then let them alone for a couple months!

As the deadline approaches, it is customary to send them an update email about your life and to thank them again. This also reminds them of the deadline and gets you back on their radar assuming you haven’t regularly been communicating with them. Once the deadline has passed, email (or send a thank you card in the regular mail!) and thank them. After you’ve been accepted or rejected, let them know the outcome. They’ve put some stock in you and deserve to know how it all turned out, to celebrate or commiserate.

Since I am taking some time off before I actually go to medical school and am not actually attending college at the time of the application process (which is, thankfully becoming increasingly popular), I asked my letter writers almost a year in advance, when I finished their courses and was getting ready to graduate. I did everything the same though with the packet and everything and just told them I would be in touch. I then left for the Peace Corps and have stayed in touch with an email every few months. My letters were due at the end of March and I’m happy to report that they are all finished and submitted!

VirtualEvals is a program that collects the letters and distributes them to the medical schools. There is another online program that does the same thing, Interfolio, and both are used in the process depending on what your advisory committee selects. If you don’t use your undergraduate’s committee process you are able to select your own distribution method, but it’s always a good idea to go through your school because they offer institutional support in your pursuit of medicine and in this competitive era, that simple thing gives a necessary boost, like shadowing and undergrad research experience. It’s not required, but it is.

Doing all this in the Peace Corps is its own interesting challenge, although I am lucky and have gotten an incredibly nice placement in a pretty average lifestyle Peace Corps country. Basically I am living the life as nicely as possible as a PC/Benin volunteer and I am not complaining! I clearly have relatively regular internet access and I also have running water. If doing this process by snail mail, plan several months in advance and make copies. I am very lucky that a) I have internet access and b) the Medical Professions Advisory Committee at my school (MPAC) is going completely virtual this year so I don’t have to worry about important things getting lost in the mail intercontenintally. The only thing that might cause some frustration is getting transcripts, but that’s never easy even in the states and at any rate, is for another post.

Thanks for listening, I hope this helps!

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