What’s the most stressful part of applying to medical school? You may be surprised that many medical students say it wasn’t securing the MCAT scores or nailing an outstanding transcript—what really made them sweat was getting those precious letters of recommendation.
Why did getting a professor to write a letter of recommendation become, at least for some, a crazy nightmare of missed deadlines and sleepless nights? Because the students didn’t plan ahead. As a result, they risked their application being rejected as incomplete.
You’re already one step closer to your letters of recommendation
By taking the time to read through this checklist, you’re already getting ahead of many other medical school applicants.
This checklist is based on feedback from students, professors and medical schools. While we can’t guarantee that following these steps will secure you a place in the medical school of your choice, you’ll be helping give yourself the best possible chance of achieving that ambition.
- Start your planning now
It’s never too early to start thinking about who will write your letters of recommendation and the timetable for getting it done. The best letters are written by professors and others who know you well, so begin nurturing those relationships.
Don’t be afraid to ask your professor how they like to handle requests for letters of recommendation. Showing an interest in their side of the process can win you credit and helps you be better prepared.
- Read example letters of recommendation
As part of the application process, you can choose whether to read the letter of recommendation written on your behalf. Best practice is to waive your right to see the letters, because confidentiality encourages honesty, meaning those reading the letters will place more trust in them.
However, taking a look at example letters helps you to understand what yours might contain and can give clues as to how you can make a better impression on those likely to be writing your letters.
- Consider who you will ask to write a letter of recommendation
The most effective letters of recommendation come from people who know you well and can provide an objective perspective on your suitability for medical school. Your professors and other teachers won’t be surprised to be asked to write a letter on your behalf, unless they barely know you.
From the moment you start at university or college, or decide you want to go on to medical school, start thinking about who you will ask to write these all-important letters, and what you can do to make it easier for them to create a great impression.
- Know your deadlines
Acquiring letters of recommendation often creates stress because it becomes a last-minute task. You might think requesting a letter six weeks ahead of your application deadline is plenty of time, but what if your professor has been asked to write over a hundred of these letters?
Each letter takes up precious time and with all their other commitments, there’s only time to write so many in a week. Do everyone a favor—know the deadlines for your letter submission and let the writer know what the deadline is. By having these dates firmly in your diary, and that of the letter writer, you put yourself in a place where you can avoid the frustration of last-minute or late letters.
- Know how many letters are required
Medical schools will usually tell you they want three letters of recommendation, two from a science faculty and one from a non-science. Take the time to research the school’s requirements because some want even more letters, for example, if you have considerable post-graduate experience.
Consider three to be the minimum, although many medical schools will advise that having more letters will not give you any advantage.
- Ask in good time
It’s never too early to ask for a letter of recommendation. From the moment you decide to apply to medical school, be thinking about who will write those letters and raise the subject with them early, even if the deadline is many, many months away.
By showing that you’re planning ahead, you’ll impress on your letter writers some of those qualities you want them to highlight on your behalf—commitment, initiative, enthusiasm.
- Provide information
Don’t be afraid to remind the people writing your letters of recommendation about your achievements, ambitions and the times you have worked together. You’re just one of the many students whose application they will be supporting, meaning it won’t be so easy for them to distinguish you from the others.
Give them a helping hand by prompting their memories. Giving them a short email or a list of bullet points on a piece of paper could make the difference between a good and an outstanding letter.
- Let them know how to submit
The easier you can make it for your letter writer to create and submit their document, the more likely that it will be delivered on time. It can also give you extra credit as an excellent planner and communicator.
- Pursue politely
Those final days running up to the deadline can be nerve wracking, as you wait for confirmation that the letters of recommendation have been posted on your behalf. It’s easy to fall into the trap of spending hours online, continuously looking out for the acknowledgement of submission.
A more effective approach is one of gentle reminders. While sending an email every day to your letter writers may be over the top (it has been done!), a consistent approach can help give you peace of mind. But keep it varied and, where possible, make the effort to deliver some reminders in person.
- Be grateful
Once your letters of recommendation are written and submitted, the job is done. But taking a moment to say ‘thank you’ to your writers is a professional etiquette that it’s wise to adopt. Not only is it good manners, it also helps you to stand out from the crowd, and you’ll never know when making a good impression on someone could be to your credit in the future.