Admissions committees don’t know you personally. They have to make a decision based off of what they see on paper. One thing that I’ve learned after applying to medical school and residency, is the POWER in having a STRONG recommendation whether it be a letter or a verbal recommendation (like a phone call).
As you know, the competition is fierce and the odds are against you so you need to maximize your chances by making your application as strong as possible and having excellent, STRONG letters is key.
But plan accordingly. You’ll be relying on professionals who have very busy schedules and your primary application will not be complete (and therefore not sent to medical schools) until everything is submitted, including your letters.
Follow the below steps to ensure that you get STRONG letters submitted BEFORE you plan on applying.
– DR. TROT
1. Know WHO you need letters from
Generally speaking you will need at least one letter from an academic faculty member (often within a science department) and a non-academic letter (someone other than your mom lol…although I’m sure she’d write an AMAZING letter on your behalf).
A good first step is to get an idea of who you need to get letters from early so as you go through your coursework, you can start thinking of who you want to write your letters. This is a much better approach then figuring this out months (or weeks) before you plan to submit your application and you frantically knock on doors of professors who don’t remember you.
Not something you want to experience.
Examples of who can write letters for you:
Your pre-med advisor
Someone you did an extracurricular under. Examples:
2. Decide on your letter writers throughout the process
A key step in becoming an informed and prepared applicant is planning ahead. By following #1 and knowing who you need to get letters from, as you go through your coursework, extracurricular activities, etc., you can start thinking of who you will ask to write your letters when it comes time to apply.
If you wait until a semester or more after a class or contact a doctor months after working with him or her, there’s a good chance that they won’t remember you or how awesome you are and you risk getting a generic letter.
I cannot stress enough that you need STRONG letters.
Casually thinking of who you will ask to write your letters as you go through your pre-med journey will significantly help you; rather than scrambling to find letter writers, you already know who you want to ask and may have already done so (hint hint).
RULE OF THUMB
Prior to applying, decide on at least FOUR people who you think will write STRONG letters for you:
A non-academic person
A doctor (not always a requirement)
3. How to ask for a letter
It’s important to stress to the potential letter writer that you need a STRONG letter of recommendation. Of course, when you ask someone to write a letter for you, you should re-familiarize them with who you are, what you’ve accomplished thus far, and your goal (getting into medical school).
Because many professors, advisors, etc. have worked with hundreds of students, I ASSUMED:
A) There was a good chance they didn’t remember me right off the bat.
B) They needed more information to write the letter.
Here’s how I ask for a letter:
I prefer to ask people in person and I would recommend you do that too. Not only is that more personable, but it can also help a busy professor or doctor put a name to a face and say,
“Oh, hey Alana how are you?” versus “Now, which pre-med student is this?’
I start out by re-familiarizing them with my journey and my ultimate goal (medical school, residency, whatever it is) and ask if they would be willing to write a STRONG letter of recommendation for me. I absolutely say “strong” and emphasize that. I would rather ask that and they say no then risk getting a generic letter. Here’s an example:
“Hey Professor J, how are you? Do you have a minute? So you may recall that I am currently a pre-med student and am working very hard to get into medical school, which I’m sure you know is very competitive. I am a junior now and will be applying to medical school the next cycle and was wondering if you’d be willing to write a strong letter of recommendation for me?”
If they say yes:
Great! First step is over with. Now it’s time to give them the “ammo” to help them write your letter as there are likely things they don’t know about you.
How do you solve this?
Give them supporting documents to help give them a complete picture of who I am. I literally bring these with me or I email them to the letter writer shortly after if requested:
Any other supporting documents
If they say no:
…don’t take it personally.
May be they feel that they don’t know you well enough or perhaps they simply don’t have the time. And that’s okay!
This is exactly why it’s important to start thinking about letter writers EARLY. If Person B says no, well good thing you have time to contact Person C.
4. Make It VERY easy for the letter writer
Assume that your letter writer is very busy and writing a letter of recommendation is another thing on their long to-do list.
First, remember to be grateful for their time and help.
Secondly, make this as easy as possible for them. This will ultimately make it a lot easier for you. Getting letter writers to write and submit their letters on time can be very stressful because you are literally waiting hand and feet on very busy professionals who have more to worry about than writing a letter of recommendation.
IMPORTANT: Give. Them. Time!
Do not ask a week before you need it. Give them a heads up well in advanced so they can plan accordingly and so they don’t rush it.
DR. TROT’S RULE OF THUMB:
Ask your letter writer 2 months before you need them to submit it with a brief, friendly reminder after 1 month.
After you ask if he/she would be willing to write a STRONG letter, if he/she says yes, tell them you can give them the supporting documents I listed above but ask them if they would like hard copies or electronic. Some may prefer that you email it to them so they have less papers to keep track of.
Tell them what the letter is for.
Tell them when they need to submit their letter by (see #5).
Letter writers generally submit their letter directly to the application service online. Not everyone is comfortable or up-to-date with the ever-changing technology and may find it confusing. Simplify it for them and give them the steps/instructions they need. If they have to figure it out on their own, that may delay when their submit it.
5. Know your goal submission date
It’s very important to know when you can begin submitting your applications(s) so you can apply early. Having a goal date will also help you when it comes time to getting your letters. Remember, your application is not complete until your letters are submitted by the letter writers so they need to know when they need to submit by.
When I was applying to medical school, I found this process to be frustrating because the completion of my application was dependent on busy professionals i.e. it was out of my hands; I had to patiently wait until they submitted their letter.
* Twiddles thumbs *
To avoid having a letter writer delay the completion of my application, I came up with this trick:
Come up with your goal submission date
…i.e. when you want to submit your primary application to AMCAS and/or AACOMAS). Let’s say that’s June 15th.
Subtract 2 weeks from that date
…that is the date that you tell your letter writers that they need to submit their letter by so say in this case, June 1st.
Now you have a 2 week “grace period” to compensate for any late submissions
…ideally the letter writers will aim to submit their letter by June 1st but something may come up or they simply forget to submit it and remember days later. But that doesn’t delay your application because you don’t plan on submitting it until June 15th. Limit your stress in this stressful time.
Now, do you have to do this?
Of course not! Do what works for you. This is what I do to make sure that the only thing preventing me from a complete application is me.
Know who you’re required to get letters from.
Start thinking of who to chose as you go through your coursework, extracurricular activities, etc.
Ask people that you are confident will write you a STRONG letter. If you have any doubt, consider someone else.
Know your goal submission date and tell letter writers a specific date that you need their letters submitted by.
Notify them early; give them time!
Send them a brief, friendly reminder so they don’t forget.
Have supporting documents ready in case they ask.
Make the process as easy as possible for them.
Not mentioned but important: Waive your write to view the letter. If you don’t, that is suspicious.
– Dr. Trot