Tips & Strategies for Medical School Reference Letters
In all aspects of your medical school application, your goal is to convince the admissions committee that you have the intelligence, drive and stamina to succeed in their highly competitive program. The stakes are high; of all the talented candidates in the applicant pool, they must give YOU a seat in the class.
Yet a field as complex as medicine requires strengths and abilities that are not easily measured by grades and test scores. That's where third-party reference letters come into play. A great letter supplements the data you've provided about your academic and professional history with independent corroboration of your performance and potential.
Yet a compelling letter also provides a separate function that many candidates fail to consider; it provides critical information about your personality, ethics and integrity that aren't captured anywhere elsewhere in the application. Reference letters from credible third-party sources who can objectively evaluate your character are paramount in the evaluation process. They often play a key role in whether you are invited for a medical school interview or offered a seat in the class.
Candidates don't place much emphasis on their letters of reference for two reasons:
don't think they can control their contents
From our experience, most candidates do not do nearly enough to deliver top-notch recommendations in support of their application. Sadly, most letters we see are short, vague and non-persuasive. In highly competitive situations, they do little to convince us that the candidate is special enough to earn our support. By not taking the initiative with their references, many applicants miss a golden opportunity to sell their strengths. The professsional implications can be devastating.
Obtaining great letters of reference requires advance planning and hard work, but it is well worth the investment. Savvy candidates give this step of the application process the same level of attention as the personal statement.
Medical schools expect to see letters from the following people:
pre-medical committee or adviser
Schools differ in the number of letters they require and accept, with most requiring at least three and no more than five. Carefully read all of the information your target medical schools provide on this point. They expect you to follow the rules exactly.
A substantive letter of reference has three important features:
a) The author
knows the intellectual ability and professional effectiveness required
to succeed in medical school
Avoid sending letters from teaching assistants, friends, school alumni, relatives, clergymen or politicians, UNLESS they personally supervised your professional work and can comment on the specific attributes being evaluated in the medical school admissions process . You'd be surprised how many people fall into this trap, not realizing that it actually hurts their chances. Nearly every year, I read a letter written by a Senator, Governor or famous Hollywood star in support of a candidate they barely know. I'm not impressed. Medical school is serious business, not a popularity contest. We're not starstruck enough to give a seat to someone just because her aunt works for the Governor.
Many applicants are surprised that letters from teaching assistants carry little or no weight. The rationale is that they are simply not reputable or knowledgeable sources. We are looking for an honest appraisal of your character from someone with extensive experience in the field. In academia, this includes tenured faculty members.
Here's what the committee hopes to learn from your reference letters:
a) The validity
of your claims of academic excellence, professional success and impeccable
Before you ask anyone to write a letter for you, look at the evaluation form the school has asked them to complete. Note that only a few categories involve your GPA or academic performance. In many ways, your reference writers are being asked to describe your character, personality and temperament, which have little to do with your perceived mastery of any specific subject matter; they are intrinsic character traits that govern your behavior in all aspects of your life. Don't dismiss them as irrelevant.
Many applicants believe that as long as they have good grades, they'll get a great recommendation. This simply isn't the case. Every year, professors tell us horror stories about 4.0 candidates who lie, cheat and steal. We've heard about applicants selling drugs on campus and hiring ringers to take their exams. Some achieved their sterling academic record at the expense of everything else in their life.
Don't make the mistake of thinking that your professors only see your grades. They've been in this business a long time and have seen thousands of students come and go. They can distinguish the fine characters from the bad apples and they don't hesitate to tell us who is who. Pick your references carefully and be sure that they are willing to confirm that you are a person of integrity.
a) Timing. Arrange for your reference letters no later than September in your senior year of college (for those who have already graduated, at least a few months before you submit your AMCAS application). Ideally, ask in the middle, rather than the end, of a semester. At semester's end, most of your professors will be deluged with requests for letters and yours will simply be another in the pack. Increase your odds for a more thorough and personalized reference by requesting it before the big rush.
b) Approach. Never simply call or send a form to your writers: always arrange for a personal meeting, if possible, or make a phone call to discuss your request (if the writer is not geographically close). Explain your interest in medicine, your desire to attend medical school and your need for a comprehensive letter of reference. Discuss any issues or concerns the person may have about your candidacy.
Verify orally that (s)he is willing to write a "strong letter of support," and not just an average or lukewarm one. If you sense any hesitation, graciously withdraw the request. You are better off asking someone else who can recommend you without reservation. If the person agrees to write a letter, give him the following pieces of information:
i) A cover
letter with the names, addresses and deadlines for all of the letters
c) Copy of the letter. Without exception, you should waive the right to see all references letters that are written about you. Admissions committees place little stock in letters that the applicant insists on seeing, because we know that the author is less forthcoming than if the reference was confidential.
d) Format. Letters from your premedical advisor should be professionally typed and printed on the school's letterhead. Other letters you request may not automatically come in this form. If at all possible, ask your writers to send the letters typed on professional letterhead with a laser-jet or inkjet printer.
e) Follow-up. Two weeks after a writer agrees to to send the reference letter, verify that it reached its destination. If it hasn't, ask him to send a second copy. Send a thank-you note to each person who wrote a letter on your behalf.
f) Writing Your Own. Increasingly, professors and bossses don't have the time to write quality reference letters. Instead, they ask the candidate to write the letter themselves and simply submit it to the "author" for a signature. Most applicants consider this a dream come true. After all, what could be better than a chance to "toot your own horn" under the guise of being your own boss or major professor?
Sadly, most candidates haven't a clue what an excellent reference letter looks like. Further, it is difficult to assume the perspective and tone of someone in your recommender's position. As a result, most letters written by candidates are embarrassingly easy to spot: they are timid, stilted and one-dimensional. They include far too many details that a real reference letter wouldn't mention and they are identical in tone to the candidate's own writing. We automatically discount candidates who do this and make a mental note of the individual who supposedly wrote the reference. In a few cases, we've contacted them and they confirmed our suspicions.
We strongly discourage you from trying this approach. Remember, the admissions committee has viewed thousands of letters and has an excellent feel for authenticity. We want ethical candidates who offer a balanced, honest appraisal of their credentials. Rather than writing the letter yourself, ask someone else who will take the time to write a reference that genuinely reflects your suitability for the program.
2) An editing service for existing letters of reference
3) A collection of the absolute BEST reference letters for medical school that we've ever seen