Your crash course for letters of recommendation

letters of recommendation medical school admissions strategy
By Rasheca

A key part of your med school application is the recommendation letter. Since you cede control of the contents of that letter to your recommender, the information in letters of rec might seem like a black box. However, there are some tips and strategies that you can use to ensure that your recommendation letters are cohesive with the rest of your application and highlight your biggest strengths.

1. Select the themes or traits that you want highlighted

Each part of your application should work cohesively to give the admissions committee a good understanding of who you are. When you are thinking of who to choose for your letter of recommendation, first start with the themes or traits that you want to highlight. One strategy is to look at the characteristics of admitted students: for example, the AAMC has the 15 core competencies for aspiring medical students. Then, determine which of those characteristics you possess, want to highlight, and will complement what you have already written in other parts of your application. 

2. Think of powerful anecdotes and interactions

Cross examine your list of highlighted themes and traits with a list of your most powerful anecdotes and interactions. Consider making a short list of individuals who you are considering for your recommenders, then brainstorm experiences you've with those recommenders that align with the traits or characteristics you want to highlight. While choosing a well-known recommender can sometimes be a powerful strategy, oftentimes choosing someone who can truly speak to your abilities and character at length is more beneficial. 

3. Contact your recommenders early

Oftentimes, recommenders are writing multiple letters for different applicants. It is important to contact your recommender early to ensure that they have enough time to write your letter and also that you are represented in the best light! For medical school: consider reaching out to your recommenders during the Fall prior to your application season. 

4. Remind the recommender why you picked them

Setting expectations with your recommender ahead of time will ensure that the content of their letter for you aligns with why you wanted them to write your letter in the first place. Over email, it can be powerful to remind them of a lesson you learned from them or an especially meaningful interaction you had with them so that they can identify you and your reasons for reaching out to them (sometimes recommenders are writing numerous letters for students from many classes). Being clear with your expectations and highlighting why you want them to write the recommendation allows your recommender the opportunity to decline if they feel as though they can’t speak to the particular traits/characteristics you've noted. 

5. Consider an in-person or virtual meeting

Try to meet with your recommender in person or virtually. If it has been a while, this meeting gives you the opportunity to reintroduce and re-familiarize yourself with your recommender. In this meeting, make sure to 1) give your recommender relevant updates, 2) allow your recommender to provide you with updates, and 3) review the guidelines and timeline for the submission. 

6. Check in on your recommender throughout the process

Check in at regular intervals (a month out, a week out, and maybe the day or two before if not submitted) to help your recommenders submit their letter on time. 

7. Thank them and let them know the result

At the end of the day, you are cultivating relationships, not recommendations. Be sure to share your wins and losses with your recommenders since they contributed to your application. And do not forget to thank them, no matter the outcome - their time and effort was a valuable part of your application, and it deserve proper acknowledgement!

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