Pre-Professional Health Care Programs

Letters of Recommendation

How many letters of recommendation should I have for my medical school application, and who should I choose to write my letters?

There is no specific number, however students should have at least two letters from science professors and another two or three letters from other sources (other courses, research mentors, supervisors of major extracurricular activities, etc). In general, 4-5 letters is enough.

Ask the professors who know you best; the best choices are those you have done research with and/or who have read your academic writing. The most important thing is to get letters from individuals who know you well, so your letter writer can note more than just your academic performance in his/her class, but also talk about personal qualities that make you a great applicant.

You may ask employers, especially if you have been out of school for some time and/or if your job is relevant to your field; it is a good idea to chose a letter writer that is well known to your field. It is actually quite surprising how much a "name" can help your application. Along these same lines, do not ask graduate students to write letters for you. If you feel as though a graduate student (e.g. teaching assistant or research mentor) knows you best, ask him/her work with the professor leading the course or laboratory to write a letter that will be co-signed (or solely signed) by the professor.

What if I'm not sure if my letter writer will write me a good letter?

I feel it's perfectly acceptable to ask your letter writers if they feel that they know you well enough to write you a strong letter of support. Most faculty, when asked this question, will respectfully decline if they feel they cannot do so.

How soon should I ask for my letter of recommendation?

You should give your letter writer at least 6-8 weeks to write your letter of recommendation. Asking them a week or two before the letter is due not only shows poor planning on your part, but a lack of awareness of basic rules of etiquette. It can also result in a hastily written, poor letter.
In the fall everyone will be asking them for a letter, so be early; not only will they have more time to write a thoughtful letter, they will also see you as responsible.

How you should ask

Say something like the following, "I am applying to graduate school this fall. Would you be able to write me a strong letter of recommendation?" A professor is unlikely to say "no" to a request to write a letter. However, if you say "strong," the professor might say, "I don't think I know you well enough" if s/he doesn't think the letter will be that strong. That way you can ask someone else. Remember, you can't read your letters before they are sent on your behalf.

Also, it is best to talk to professors in person. If that's not possible, talking on the phone is much better than over e-mail. By no means should you contact your professor through text or social media messaging.

Be prepared

As soon as a recommender has agreed to write for you, provide him/her with the following:

Does it make sense to ask for a letter of recommendation immediately after I take a course, even though I won't be applying to medical school for a year or two?

Yes. In fact, in larger classes where it's more difficult in getting to know your professor it's probably a wise idea to do so. You could simply explain your concern about asking for a letter in two years and ask if he/she could instead write the letter now and keep it on file for the future.

I've heard that sometimes professors can be really slow in sending in their letter of recommendation. What can I do to prevent this?

The first thing is to make sure you give your professor 6-8 weeks notice with a clear deadline of when it needs to be received. Approximately 2-3 weeks before the deadline, you may send a brief, gentle reminder that the deadline is approaching. Most faculty will actually appreciate this reminder, as long as you gave them an appropriate amount of time to get the letter written in the first place.

Should I waive my right to see my letters of recommendation?

Yes. Not doing so simply raises questions in the eyes of the admissions committee that the student is worried about something their letter writer is going to say. Admissions committees know that a letter writer's comments will be more accurate and honest if the right to review the letter has been waived by the student.

Online Letters

Most schools now have the option or even requirement for online letter submission. If your letter-writers are willing or eager to participate in this option, it is best for you because there are no forms involved and you can track the arrival of the letter much more easily. However, many professors find this option more difficult or annoying, especially if they didn't grow up on the internet. You should select the option that your letter writer wants to use. Do NOT assume that the letter writer prefers the online system! (Or that they prefer paper!)

Extra Letters

You may find yourself in the lucky situation of having more than three people who can write great letters for you. Most schools will accept and read four or five letters, however, some say they will read the first three to arrive. So, if you are tempted to send more than three letters, make sure you believe that each is equally good just in case only three will be considered. Sometimes having a fourth recommender can help in case one letter gets lost in the mix or one of your writers turns his/hers in late.

Committee/Composite Letters

Each of your designated schools will decide whether a committee or composite letters may count as more than one reference. These letters typically represent a compilation of letters collected from various individuals. "

Thank your recommenders!

Thank your letter-writers twice. Once, send a card or inexpensive/homemade gift (do not be elaborate!) as soon as the letter writer is finished with the task. Next, thank them again as soon as you decide where you will be going, in March or April. You may also tell them about the other places you were accepted to if you were particularly successful. This second thank-you is important because they will be very curious as to where you end up after putting so much effort into you. It is also a good idea to stay in touch after graduate school has started. You may need letters of recommendation in the future for grant applications or other pursuits, or you might apply to be a professor at your undergraduate institution some day!