With the next application season starting in about three months, now is a good time to start thinking about obtaining letters of recommendation. I’ve been asked a few questions about this, so this is my attempt to answer them. It probably doesn’t cover every aspect of the process, but it should help a little. If there is anything else that you want to know, just send me a message and I can add to the list. Also, be sure to check out the Student Doctor Network (SDN) forums, because they literally have an answer to just about every question you can think of.
When should I ask for letters of recommendation?
I usually ask two months in advance of when I would need the letters. Usually LORs aren’t needed until you complete the secondary application which will be around July or August if you submit at the very beginning. Giving two months will also allow you to send a one month reminder if your letter still has not been written.
How do I approach and ask potential writers?
If you’re still in school, you can always swing by during office hours and ask professors. Just tell them a little about yourself and your goals. Ask them if they would be able to write you a “strong” letter of recommendation. Don’t be afraid to ask if you haven’t interacted much with your professors. In the past, professors who did not know me very well usually asked me for a copy of my CV and personal statement to help them write the letter.
If you have taken online classes or have since moved away from school, e-mail is another great idea. I have asked for LORs by e-mail before, and it really has not been a problem. At most they will want more information about you, which shouldn’t be too hard to provide. I have never been denied a request for a letter, and I really do think people enjoy writing them. Just make sure to give them time. These are very busy people!
In the case of physicians, when you initially contact them for shadowing, don't be afraid to ask if they would also be willing to write you a good LOR. They may not know enough about you to write a strong letter, but they can definitely give a character reference and their thoughts on how much interest you have shown.
How many LORs should I obtain and who should write them?
At the very minimum, I would say it is good to have at least two letters written by science professors and one from a non-science professor. If you are applying to osteopathic schools, a letter from an osteopathic physician is required or strongly recommended for a lot of schools. It is best to go directly to the websites of the schools that you want to attend, and look up the individual requirements. I remember having one school that specifically only wanted two letters, and another really only wanted a letter from the pre-medical committee. It will save you time if you look up the requirements in advance.
For the 2014 cycle, I had letters from the following:
1. My current boss (non-science/research/work)
2. Science professor from my graduate course (science)
3. Science professor/mentor from undergrad (science/research)
4. Science professor from graduate course who was also the advisor of my program (science/advisor)
5. Osteopathic physician (DO/clinical)
Should I have my writers send the letters directly to AMCAS or the schools?
The first time I applied to medical school I had my writers send their letters to each individual school (osteopathic). This can be extremely time-consuming, and it will be hard for you to keep track of everything. I strongly recommend that you set up an Interfolio account (www.interfolio.com). It only costs $19 per year, and you can have your writers send one copy of a letter directly to them. Interfolio will then make copies, and send the letters to wherever you designate them to. Your writers will also be able to send in an electronic copy of their letters and digitally sign it on the website. Super convenient! For AMCAS, the letters will need to be sent directly to their letter service, but this can also be done through Interfolio.
As a non-traditional student who has been out of school for a while, what letters should I get?
Unfortunately, you will still need to obtain letters from science professors who have previously taught you. It is also good to have LORs from employers and possibly clinical letters from places that you may have volunteered at. If you completed grad school, also include letters from graduate professors and your advisor.
How important is a letter of recommendation from my school’s pre-medical committee?
For some schools, this letter is very important (and I have the rejections to prove it). As a non-traditional student though, some schools will allow you to substitute science professor letters for this requirement. The pre-medical committee at my undergraduate institution does not give letters if you have been out of school for more than a few years or if you have a GPA below a 3.0, so unfortunately I was unable to obtain one. The pre-medical committee at my graduate school also did not want to write me a letter (which I mentioned in a previous post), and this hurt me at a couple of schools.
Can I pick and choose which letters I want to send to specific schools?
Yes! AMCAS will let you designate which letters you want sent to specific schools. Interfolio is also great for this because you can have all your letters stored in advance and sent to the individual schools (osteopathic only) at your convenience.
How can I check to make sure the letters meet specific requirements?
This is another plug for Interfolio, but they are the absolute best for checking this. I waived all my rights to view my letters, so I had no idea if they met the requirements of being SIGNED and on LETTERHEAD. This past cycle, I applied to Boston University and they sent me an e-mail stating that some of my letters did not have this. I would not have known otherwise! After that, I made it a point to call Interfolio and ask them which letters did not meet the requirements. The customer service representatives will go through each of your letters and let you know if they have what is needed. You can then send another request to your writers, and they will replace the letters. This is very invaluable because it can mean the difference between an automatic rejection or an interview.
Should I wait to submit my application until I have received all my letters?
As soon as you are ready to submit the application, go ahead and do so. The letters will be required to mark your application as complete once you receive the secondary and submit it. Some schools reject pre-secondary, so there is no need to send letters until you have been asked to do so.
Should I mention osteopathic medicine in my personal statement?
Even if you are only applying to osteopathic medical schools, in my opinion you should not write about osteopathic medicine in your personal statement. When you receive secondary applications, the majority of them will ask "why this school" and "why osteopathic medicine". If you write about this in your personal statement, you will have a really hard time answering the question in your secondary essays without sounding redundant. The personal statement should focus on your desire to become a physician and seek to answer the question "why medicine?".