Medical school recommendation letters are an important part of the application process. They are meant to present an external, objective evaluation of your suitability for a career in medicine to admissions committees. This blog will teach you how to get stellar recommendation letters from referees, provide you with medical school recommendation letter samples, and answer some questions you may have about this intricate process.
Here's what we're going to cover:
Your medical school recommendation letters must be exceptional. Do not ask for a letter from anyone who would not describe you as an excellent, outstanding candidate for medical school. Your referees must be able to talk about your best skills, your greatest accomplishments, and your virtuous character. You do not want mediocre or unenthusiastic letters of recommendation. The writers should have no hesitation to provide you with a letter when you approach them. If your chosen referee is unsure, it would be better to ask someone else as these letters are meant to enhance your application and make you stand out to admissions committees. After looking through hundreds of applicants with high GPAs, MCAT scores, and impressive personal statements, these letters will influence the impression you’ve created with all your other application materials. In short, these letters need to emphasize your exceptionality in order to make a lasting impression.
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Most medical schools ask for at least three letters of recommendation. Some schools may ask for four or five so make sure to check this information with the school to which you’re applying. There are three different types of medical school letters of recommendation: Committee Letters, Letter Packets, and Individual Letters. In the US, Committee Letters are common. A Committee Letter is written by your university’s pre-med advising committee which represents your school’s evaluation of you as a candidate. This type of letter is not offered at every school. The Letter Packet is also an option at some schools. The letters from your referees are assembled and sent out by your school’s career center but there is no letter from your pre-med advisor or committee. Individual Letters are exactly as they sound and are also quite common. Medical schools may require a variety of recommendation letters based on your current situation or work history. If you’re a student, some schools may require a certain number of letters from science faculty and some may ask for letters from employers or supervisors if you are in the workforce. The requirements may be completely different if you served in the military. As previously mentioned, be sure to check with your program as to what kind of recommendation letters you are expected to provide.
Something to remember, it is wise to ask for more letters than is required for your application. Essentially, it is good to have back-ups. In case one of your confirmed referees can no longer provide a letter, you will have enough letters to meet the minimum requirements. You do not need to provide recommendation letters to AMCAS to verify your application as letters will be sent to schools on a rolling basis if you didn’t include them during your initial submission. However, some schools will not call you for an interview until your LORs are all submitted, so do ensure you ask for them to be submitted in a timely manner.
Let’s examine how to choose your referees and what each type of letter should include.
Science and Non-Science Faculty
Some schools may request two medical school letters of recommendation from your science university professors or mentors and one from a non-science professor. Science professors may include faculty members in biology, chemistry, physics, and mathematics departments. Non-science references can come from the arts, humanities, and social sciences. Tip: If you are not sure who counts as a science professor, try to get letters from professors appointed in the faculty of science at your university. You may need to ask the schools you are applying to for clarification in case of an ambiguity, such as psychology professors whose work could be in both arts and science faculties. Try to get letters from different disciplines to show a wider variety of skills. For example, instead of asking two biology professors, it’s a good idea to ask one biology professor and one physics professor. The next important factor in your selection is to choose a professor that can speak to your performance. If you got a C in a class, that professor is probably not the best referee to choose. With that said, you don't necessarily have to pick a professor where you scored an A+. If for example, you got a B+ in chemistry but you demonstrated significant improvement in the class by regularly getting extra help from your professor, getting a tutor, etc, this can be a great way for admissions committees to see your motivation for self-improvement while also addressing the fact that you achieved a lower grade than you would have liked.
Many undergraduate classes have hundreds of students and it is difficult to get to know your instructor on a personal level. However, you must have a good relationship with the faculty member who will write your recommendation. Attend their office hours, ask them questions after class, volunteer to help with their research. This way they can draw from personal interactions and experiences with you when they describe you as a worthy applicant. Keep in mind that if you have a fantastic relationship with a teaching assistant (TA) but you hardly know your professor, it’s best to ask for a recommendation letter from your TA, who will be better suited to discuss your particular strengths and speak to your suitability for a career in medicine.
Your science references should emphasize your skills and abilities that highlight you as an excellent science student and future practitioner. Medical schools want to see examples of your ability to problem-solve, learn independently, and show initiative in group projects and labs. If your referees know you very well, they should outline your participation in and outside of the classroom. Perhaps you attended the professors’ office hours, volunteered to lead seminars, or participated in conferences and presentations. They may also comment on your activities and interests related to science, like student science clubs or study groups.
Your non-science professor can address your critical thinking and comprehension skills. For example, if you are asking for a letter from a professor who has read your writing extensively, they can comment on your clarity of thought and expression. If you have done presentations in their class, they could highlight your verbal communication skills. Strong written and verbal communication skills will advocate your ability to interact with patients. Additionally, non-science coursework can show diversity of experiences and resilience, as you learn more about the people and groups around you, perhaps learn to appreciate barriers that patients can face in healthcare, and learn to succeed at a subject that may be different from the science ones you have taken.
If the school’s requirements allow, a physician you volunteered with or shadowed can write you a medical school recommendation letter. This physician should know you very well. You should not ask someone with whom you spent a few hours with sporadically. If you haven't participated in any shadowing yet, make sure you understand how to ask to shadow a doctor and how many hours of shadowing are required for medical school.
Your recommender must be able to speak to your personal characteristics such as professionalism and maturity. The letter must outline why you would be a good doctor, your professional strengths, your passion for medicine, and any other memorable skills and characteristics that make you stand out. For example, if a physician has observed your excellent interactions with patients, this should be mentioned in the letter. Your cooperation, teamwork, ability to follow instructions, and other professional qualities can be sources of inspiration for the physician's recommendation letter. Any examples describing your superb qualifications and suitability for medicine are encouraged.
If you have been involved in research projects, your research mentor can write your medical school letter of recommendation. Again, this should be someone who knows you well and can give specific examples and descriptions of your strengths and accomplishments. A research supervisor can comment on your dedication, analytical abilities, self-directed learning, and problem-solving skills. Research is a lengthy process, so it would be great if the letter from your research mentor could demonstrate examples of your development and growth as a researcher and thinker. Additionally, they can comment if you participated in presenting or publishing research.
If you are no longer a student, some schools will ask you for a letter from an employer or supervisor. In this case, your employer should be able to comment on your strengths and qualities that would be relevant for medical school. For example, they can emphasize your leadership skills, ability to cooperate in a team, and show initiative. If you have several supervisors who work with you, you could ask them to co-author the letter together. Perhaps each one of them has seen you shine at different times during the work process.
Volunteer or EC Supervisor
Hospital volunteer supervisor or university athletics team coach can be very helpful as non-academic letters of reference. If the referee has known you for a long time and has seen your skills improve, they can write a valuable recommendation. These types of supervisors can know applicants very well and genuinely want to write a strong letter.
Check out our video for some more tips on how to secure strong recommendation letters:
The two most common ways to ask for a recommendation letter is in person and via email. Approaching a referee directly eliminates waiting for a response. To do this, you can visit professors during their office hours or catch your employer during a break. Most likely the person will give you an answer right then and there. If the answer is yes, you should arrange for a second meeting where you will provide all the necessary information for your recommender: deadline of application, information on how to submit your letter, your transcripts, CV, list of awards, and so on. If you are asking through email, wait for them to respond with a yes before sending in all your supporting documents and submission details.
If it’s been a while since you have taken your professor’s class, it’s a good idea to approach your professor personally. Seeing your face and speaking with you directly will jog their memory on who you are and what your performance was like in their class. Email, on the other hand, could leave them questioning your identity if it's been a while since you interacted. For this reason, try to approach them at the end of the semester or when you are receiving feedback and don’t wait until you apply to medical school, which could be months later. This is when they will remember you and your skills and they may even begin drafting the letter soon after you ask.
Be sure to ask your referees to write a recommendation letter well in advance. Aim to ask them at least one month before the application deadline. Sometimes it is beneficial to ask for a letter much earlier. For example, if you participate in a research project during summer between sophomore and junior year, and if you plan to finish working on it when summer ends, you should approach your research supervisor about a recommendation letter that summer. This will ensure that your accomplishments and strengths are fresh in your supervisor’s mind. The same can be said for letters from your professors. If you do particularly well in a second or third-year class during your undergrad and get to know the instructor, don’t hesitate to ask for a letter after the class ends. To store these early letters, you can ask your writer to send the letters to your school's career center, your career counselor or advisor, or any similar office. Once the application process begins, simply remind your recommender about the letter, where it is stored, and its deadline.
Do not be afraid to ask for strong recommendation letters. Take time to explain why a letter from this writer would be valuable and important for your application to medical school. Professionals, university faculty, and employers usually know what such letters would entail and often consider this as part of their job. Most of them have written these kinds of letters before. It can be intimidating to ask for recommendation letters, but don’t be shy - if you don't ask you won't get! Be confident, but not forceful.
Do not annoy your writers by constantly asking them how the writing process is going. Once your referees commit to writing you a letter, be sure to provide them with deadlines for submission. It’s perfectly acceptable to send them an email as the deadline approaches to remind them about submission. If they do not respond, you can follow up with a phone call. If you do not hear back from them at all, you should assume this person is no longer your recommender. This is why it is important to have back-ups. It is always better to ask for recommendation letters from more people than is required. In case one of your referees backs out or is no longer available as a reference, you will still have enough references to fulfill medical school requirements.
Do not ask to read your recommendation letter. You should trust the person you chose to write you a glowing reference and waive your right to review the letter. The general rule of thumb is that letters of recommendation should be confidential. This allows your referee to provide a truthful review about your performance and provides medical schools with confidence in the review. Of course, this doesn't apply if you are writing your own letter of recommendation.
Note: Most Canadian schools do not give students the option to waive or not waive the right to review your letter and require confidentiality, as they want referees to be honest.
Click here to view a science professor’s recommendation letter.
Click here to view a physician’s recommendation letter.
Click here to view a science professor’s recommendation letter.
What makes these medical school recommendation letters strong:
1. Each letter is clear and concise. The authors write succinctly. The tone is official and professional.
2. Each referee stated how they know the applicant. They identified why they are in a position to describe the applicant as a perfect candidate for medical school. They have been able to examine these applicants on personal and professional levels.
3. The referee uses specific examples and behaviors to highlight skills the student has and ends by stating why the applicant would make a great physician. These referees demonstrate, rather than simply talk about the applicants' talents, skills, and qualities. Each quality or characteristic is supported by concrete examples of the candidates' experiences in the medical field.
1. Who should write my medical school letters of recommendation?
Most often medical school recommendations are written by people from these five categories:
a). Science and non-science faculty
c) Research supervisors
e) Volunteer or EC supervisors
To write a strong letter of recommendation your advocates must know you well. A big name in science or a senior faculty member may seem impressive, but not if they do not know you well personally. Try to ask individuals who’ve known you for at least a year. This way, they’ve had a chance to get to know you so they can speak from experience and give a detailed account of your candidacy. Help them write your recommendation by providing the following:
a) A copy of your personal statement. For reference, check out our blog to see some of the best medical school personal statement examples.
b) Your transcripts and test scores if they are available.
c) CV with a list of important accomplishments.
d) Any other information not included in your CV that can strengthen the recommendation, i.e. publications, professional and educational associations, etc.
e) Be prepared to answer their questions about why and how you are pursuing medicine. This may be explained in your personal statement, but having a brief 15-minute chat with your referee can also be a way of showing them the thought you have put into choosing a career in medicine.
A good letter of recommendation will make you stand out among hundreds of applicants and may directly influence your chances of getting admitted. The content of the letter is of utmost importance, but the overall presentation of the letter is also significant so try to avoid asking anyone who you know to be a poor writer. Note that clear, concise, and direct language is appreciated by adcoms rather than overly creative and complicated language. They read thousands of these letters every year and do not want to put in extra effort to try to decipher complicated language.
2. How do I submit my letters of recommendation?
Your recommenders must submit the letters electronically through the AMCAS Letter Writer Application or Interfolio. If a letter is uploaded through the AMCAS Letter Writer Application it is immediately marked as received. A letter uploaded through Interfolio will take approximately three days to be marked as received. If your letter was submitted through the AMCAS Letter Writer Application and is not marked as received, contact your letter writer and ask them to submit again. If you need other options to submit recommendation letters, contact AMCAS. When uploading your letters, the writers must include both the AAMC ID and the AMCAS letter ID found on the Letter Request Form. It is crucial to include these numbers to correctly match the letter to your name. Some medical schools request letters to include your school’s official letterhead and the author’s signature.
Canadian schools have their own application procedures. Each school and Ontario Medical School Application Service (OMSAS) has its own preferred way of submitting LORs. Although most prefer letters to be submitted online through a specific portal, make sure to check with the program and contact admissions office directly to confirm.
3. How long should the recommendation letter be?
Recommendation letters are usually between one and three pages long. The quality of content should always outweigh the length. See the examples above for effective recommendation letter samples.
4. Can I ask my TA for a recommendation letter?
Absolutely! Due to the high volume of students in most undergraduate classes, you do not always have the opportunity to work directly with your professors. You will, on the other hand, most likely work with and get to know your teaching or lab assistant. It's more important to secure a letter from a TA that knows you best, compared with a professor you've never had a conversation with.
5. It’s been a while since I graduated from college. My professors may not remember me. What should I do?
If you are worried about the quality of your recommendations from old professors, then it's best to ask another suitable individual for a letter. If you must send in a letter from a science faculty member, you'll have to contact the professor or TA you interacted with the most. More often than not, a little refresher will enable them to remember you, plus, you may be more memorable than you think! Tip: Ask if you can chat on the phone or visit their office briefly. Asking in-person may help jog their memory and help them to recall you. Do not just barge in during their office hours, though, as these are intended for current students. Ask and make an appointment beforehand.
6. What if my professor says no?
A professor will usually only refuse to write a letter if they truly feel that they don’t know you and your work well enough to write you the kind of recommendation you need to get into medi-cal school. Don’t be discouraged if this is the case, you’ll simply need to search for someone else which really, is better than a poor or ineffective letter of recommendation.
They could also have already committed to other students, which stresses how important it is to ask early (and ideally when you are still working with, or at a time when they have evaluated your work).
7. Why Do Medical Schools Even Ask for Letters of Recommendation?
Medicine is a collaborative environment, but also one where you will spend time learning from more senior practitioners for a long time. Medical schools do not just want to hear from you, they want to hear from people in supervisory positions who you have worked with. They want to learn about your potential to become a strong physician from people who you have collaborated with and learned from.
8. How often should I check in with a referee?
Once before the deadline (approximately 1-2 weeks prior) and only check in after that if they have not submitted or are having trouble with the online portal.
9. Should I send a thank-you to my referee?
Send a thank-you email once the deadline has passed. You should also send a card or a handwritten letter by actual mail (not email) once you get accepted to show your appreciation and ensure you maintain a positive relationship with your referee.
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