[Content in this post was updated March 2021]
If you’re in the process of applying to medical school, you might need help navigating medical school letters of recommendation. We’ve included some advice on how you can ask for and submit the ideal recommendation letter, all while using Interfolio’s Dossier as a valuable component of the application process.
Who to ask for a medical school letter of recommendation
First, you’ll need to figure out exactly who should write your letters. This choice is an extremely important part of the medical school application process; the right recommendation letter might give keep your application competitive with applicants with similar credentials (high GPAs, MCAT scores and a thorough resume of extra-curricular and community-based activities). Think strategically about whom to ask for the most effective evaluation of your intellect, work ethic, and potential.
The best individuals to contact for letters of recommendation are professors who know you personally because you have taken a class (or multiple classes) with them. While a department head or academic advisor you’ve met with several times may be able to speak to your character, a professor who has worked directly with you in a classroom setting will be able to comment more thoroughly on your academic abilities.
Other than professors, there are many individuals you may want to get in touch with for a high-quality recommendation letter. Some top choices include mentors, community leaders, doctors you’ve shadowed, research professionals with whom you’ve collaborated, or other health care professionals who can comment on your skill with patients.
There are some letters that won’t be taken seriously by medical school admissions officers. Because it’s such a specific field that requires a high level of skill, letters from family members, friends, and other people who have never worked with you on an academic or professional level will not be given the same respect as letters from the types of individuals we listed above.
Asking for a recommendation letter
You might know the proper protocol surrounding how to ask a trusted colleague, professor, or acquaintance for a recommendation. But if it’s been a while since you last requested a recommendation and you need a refresher, we’ve got the information you need. When you’re ready to send the request to your letter writer, we’ve got steps that walk you through the process.
First, the time frame for when you plan to ask for recommendation letters is crucial. You want to give your contacts enough time to create a well-crafted letter. We know it takes about 12 days from when a letter is requested to when it is uploaded into our system. Of course, this could vary based on the letter writer; some might have the time to submit it the day after you request it, while others need several weeks notice, especially if they are providing letters for more than just one student.
The absolute minimum amount of time we would suggest giving your med school recommenders is two weeks. With less notice, your contact may not have enough time to write a comprehensive letter that truly reflects your capabilities. Or, you may not be able to get a letter from this contact with such short notice if they have too many prior commitments. When you give too much notice, on the other hand, you run the risk of the contact forgetting to write the letter. If you decide to ask for a recommendation months in advance, you’ll want to follow up with your contact a few weeks ahead of the deadline to remind them of when it’s due.
How many letters you’ll need
The exact number of letters required depends on the MD program you’re applying to. Typically, med schools require between two and five letters written on behalf of the applicant. However, they may welcome additional letters you want to include in your primary application. According to The Savvy Premed, some med schools will only take three letters, while others accept six or seven and some even take up to 13 recommendations!
Components of the medical school letter of recommendation
In your letter request, you should lay out exactly what medical school admissions committees are looking for in their applicants. This is especially helpful for recommenders who haven’t written a medical school letter of recommendation before. In addition, providing this information will make their argument on your behalf much stronger, thus improving the quality of your med school application
What are some important points recommenders should touch upon in the letter? The Association of American Medical Colleges offers some guidelines for developing the perfect medical school letter of recommendation:
- Explain the relationship between the recommender and applicant, including how many years you’ve known the applicant.
- When discussing their character, focus on how their behavior will contribute to their expected success in medicine.
- Include any obstacles the applicant has overcome in relation to their professional development and education.
- Describe how the applicant is competent in the following areas that are necessary for med school:
- Critical thinking
- Quantitative reasoning
- Scientific inquiry
- Written communication
- Competencies in the sciences, such as life sciences and human behavior
- Social skills
- Oral communication
- Ethical responsibility
By providing the letter writer with a framework from which they can develop their recommendation, you’re ensuring they touch on the major points med school admissions officers want to see. It might even be a good idea to send them recommendation letter examples to help give them an idea of what makes a strong med school recommendation letter.
The length of the letter
Letter writers may not know exactly how much or how little they should write in their recommendation. Generally, these letters tend to be approximately two pages. While the letter should be no less than a page and no more than three pages, anywhere in this range is acceptable. It’s important that the letter writer prioritizes quality over quantity. If a one-page letter has all the content needed for an excellent recommendation letter, there’s no need to add to the word count.
How to submit a confidential recommendation letter
Oftentimes, those who write a letter on your behalf would prefer to have this information transmitted confidentially. If you need to submit a confidential letter and make sure it’s approved by AMCAS (American Medical College Application Service), you can submit your letter in any one of these ways:
- Directly to your school
- Via AMCAS or a related health profession’s delivery service
- Interfolio’s Dossier Delivery
If your institution’s pre-med advising offices provide a letter of evaluation service, you may be able to have all of your letters transmitted as an AMCAS application through that office. If you choose to use Interfolio, however, you will receive the following benefits with your account subscription:
- A lifelong place to request and store your letters
- A quality control check on all letters as they are scheduled for delivery, making sure that they have a signature, official letterhead, and the names of the applicant and letter writer
- Guaranteed letter content confidentiality for your letter writer and you
- A customer service team ready to field all your questions
No matter what avenue you choose to deliver your letters, keep our advice in mind during each step of the recommendation process. Ask the right people, give them enough time, make sure they’ve provided the right content, and deliver the letters on time and in full.