Planning for Medical School Applications: Letters of Recommendation

MD/PhD admissions
By Lara E.

For me, letters of recommendation were one of the most stressful parts of the application process. I had so many questions. Whom should I ask? When should I ask? Should I provide my recommenders with suggestions about what to include in their letters? Is it awkward for me to nudge letter writers about approaching deadlines? 

Letters of recommendation are an integral part of your medical school application. They complement your personal statements by giving medical school admissions committees a different perspective on you as a student, mentee, colleague, employee, or person. An outstanding letter of recommendation has the potential to make your application memorable; a recommender can unabashedly gush about your amazing qualities in ways that you cannot in your own personal statements. On the other hand, a negative (or even just lukewarm) letter can hurt an otherwise sound application. 

The best piece of advice I received before applying to med school was to start thinking about and collecting letters of recommendation as early as possible. As application season loomed nearer, it was a weight off my shoulders to know that my letters were all collected and ready to submit. All of my energy could go toward putting the finishing touches on my personal statements and supplemental essays!

Below are some tips to help reduce stress and ensure that you have the strongest possible letters: 

1. Plan ahead and act early. 

When it comes time to write and submit your applications, you will have enough on your plate. Take care of requesting and collecting letters of recommendation early, so you have them filed away and ready for submission. Having letters taken care of well in advance will save you from having to write those awkward emails reminding recommenders to submit as deadlines race closer and closer.

Asking your letter writers early can actually improve the quality of your letters. Let’s say you have a summer research position, where you do phenomenal work, make new discoveries, and form great relationships with your colleagues. You want your mentor to write you a letter of recommendation soon after you finish your summer work, while everything is fresh in their mind. You don’t want to wait a year and a half to ask them and have them submit a generic letter because they can’t remember the specifics of your work. Ask sooner rather than later—it will relieve stress down the road and strengthen your letters!

2. Provide your letter writers with clear, easy-to-follow instructions.

Your recommenders are busy, and letters of recommendation are time consuming to write. You want to streamline the process for them, so they don’t waste time and energy trying to figure out how to upload or submit the letter. Keep in mind that letters of recommendation are formal, so they should be printed on letterhead and signed (be sure to include this in your instructions!). 

3. Give your letter writers direction. 

Like I said, your recommenders are busy, so it is helpful to give them a starting point. Some may even be unfamiliar with medical school applications and not know what to include in this letter. You might be wondering this yourself! Refer to the AAMC’s “Guidelines for Writing a Letter of Evaluation for a Medical School Applicant" for more information. This page lists several “Core Competencies” that every medical student should have.

Ideally, you have picked recommenders who can each speak to different competencies to show medical schools that you are a well-rounded individual. Consider writing a cover letter for your recommenders, highlighting the core competencies you think they can speak to and providing several examples of instances in which you demonstrated those competencies. This cover letter will jog their memory of you, increasing the changes of a superb letter! Furthermore, this strategy will increase the likelihood of your letters as a whole covering as many of the competencies as possible.   

4. Use Interfolio for easy letter storage and delivery. 

You might be wondering, “If I ask for my letters early, what am I supposed to do with them until I apply?” Interfolio Dossier can help! Once you have made an account and sent an online letter request form to your recommender, they will be able to submit their letter of recommendation to Interfolio, where it will be stored until you are ready to submit it to medical schools. The letters are kept confidential the entire time, so you will not be able to see them. When you are ready, you can submit letters directly from your Interfolio Dossier to your AMCAS application. Check out this link for more information!

Cambridge Coaching has the most qualified team of medical school writing coaches available anywhere.  Our team is composed of MD, MD-PhDs, and professional writers because we understand that the best coach is going to help you produce a dazzling AMCAS essay, as well as a suite of supplementary materials that provides a persuasive, integrated argument for why you belong in medical school.

The challenge of the medical school application process isn’t just due to the workload, either. It has to do with the sheer competitiveness of the system. You can’t take anything for granted; every aspect of your application has to be solid - your GPA, your MCAT, your recommendations, your interviews, your activities, and your personal statement. That’s why we go beyond the usual options and offer coaching that covers the entire application, not just your personal statement. While we are happy to work with clients on a single essay or drafts, we find that we achieve the best results with clients who work with us throughout their application process - from the MCAT through to the admissions deadlines.

Contact us!

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Lara holds a BS in Chemical Engineering from Stanford (Phi Beta Kappa,Tau Beta Pi). She's currently pursuing an MD/PhD at Harvard Medical School in the Health Sciences & Technology program.


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