Letters of recommendation can be one of the most stressful and mystifying parts of the premed process. Many other steps, like your grades, only rely on your effort and feel easier to control. But asking for letters of recommendation requires you to ask for help, which can be difficult for students. It also requires you to trust someone else with an aspect of your medical school application. To lower the stakes a little bit, most of the time, LORs aren’t going to hurt you. Chances are, if someone can’t write you a good letter, they’ll let you know. Letters of recommendation can help your application by giving the admissions committee additional insights into who you are.
In this guide, we’ll cover all the essentials you need to know, like what LORs are and aren’t, who and how to ask for them, and how to submit them.
What are Letters of Recommendation?
Before we go into what letters of recommendation are, let’s cover what they are not. Your letter writer is not trying to sell you and all your outstanding qualities to the admissions committee. They should also not be reiterating your resume and transcript; the admissions committee already has all of that. One of the main goals of a letter of recommendation is to add to the committee’s understanding of you.
To better understand what things a medical school letter of recommendation should include, read over the AAMC’s Guidelines for Writing a Letter of Evaluation for a Medical School Applicant. This is also a very helpful resource to share with all your letter writers, especially those unfamiliar with the medical school application process. The letter should generally focus on what the writer knows of you from specific interactions. If your letter writer is wondering what qualities they should highlight, you can share the AAMC’s list of core competencies with them. In short, the core competencies list 15 qualities that medical schools want to see in incoming students. To learn more about their impact on your medical school application, read our guide to the core competencies.
The letter writer can include specific examples of how you demonstrated these qualities while they have known you.
How Do Medical Schools Use Letters of Recommendation?
Like almost anything in this process, this will depend on the school. For the most part, medical schools don’t share the minute details of how they evaluate letters of recommendation. It also doesn’t serve you to waste mental energy trying to figure out exactly when and how medical schools will assess your letters of recommendation.
Who Should You Ask for Letters of Recommendation?
Each school will have a list of their letter of recommendation requirements, which can be found on their website. This can make the process more difficult because you need to research the requirements of each school you’re interested in. You don’t want to apply to a medical school only to find that you haven’t met their LOR requirements.
If you have letters of recommendation from two science professors and one from a non-science professor, you should be in good shape to fulfill the requirements for most medical schools. Some students may also include a letter from a physician they worked with or shadowed, but most schools do not require this. The best way to find out what each school requires is to check their website. If you are a nontraditional student who has trouble fulfilling LOR requirements check school websites or contact them to see what alternatives might be available.
You should also keep in mind who can write the strongest LOR. Ultimately, this will come from someone who knows you well. If you don’t have someone who fits the LOR requirements and knows you well enough to write a strong letter of recommendation, it’s time to develop that relationship.
Check out our post on this exact question for a more in-depth breakdown of deciding who to ask for LORs.
When and How Do You Ask for Letters of Recommendation?
You are bound to have changed throughout your college career and throughout the premed process. A letter written about you years ago is unlikely to capture who you are now accurately. That doesn’t mean that someone who first got to know you years ago can’t write you a high-quality letter. It does mean that you need to maintain that relationship or reconnect with a previous professor or another potential letter writer.
You can set the expectation that you will eventually ask for a letter of recommendation once you sense that you have a good relationship with this professor. This might be during the semester or at the end of the class. You might say something like,
Hi Dr. Taylor, I’m planning on applying to medical school in a few years. I’ve really enjoyed my time in your class (or lab, etc.), and was hoping to keep in touch with you during my college career so that when the time comes, you would be able to write me a strong letter of recommendation.
If they say yes to this, make sure to hold up your end. It might be a good idea to send them an update email or have a quick meeting once a semester. If you have the opportunity to take another class with this professor or otherwise remain connected to their work on campus, that can be an easy way to maintain the relationship. Asking early helps you develop the relationship further and get a stronger letter than you would from a professor who’s only known you for one or two semesters. It also gives you time to find other options if they say no. If they do say no, don’t take it personally. Think of who else you might ask, and have a similar conversation with them.
When the Application Cycle Arrives
During the year you are going to apply to medical school, start formally asking your letter writers for a letter of recommendation no later than February or March. You should also keep in mind any special deadlines for your premed’s committee letter process if that’s something your school offers. Asking early gives your letter writer plenty of time, and allows for the possibility that they may procrastinate or need extra time without delaying your application. Most schools require that all of your letters be submitted before they will consider your application complete.
Do I Need to Finish My Personal Statement First?
Don’t delay asking for letters of recommendation because you assume that letter writers will want to see a draft or completed version of your personal statement. Many won’t. Even if you know they will want to see a draft of your personal statement during the process, you should still ask them early to get the process started.
Submitting Letters of Recommendation
When Should You Submit Letters of Recommendation?
You can submit your application without LORs, so you may need them slightly later than the rest of your materials. However, as stated before, most schools will not consider your application complete until the expected letters are received, so you don’t want to overly delay submitting your letters of recommendation. Many students begin submitting their secondary applications in mid-June, so it can be useful to have that time in mind as a firm deadline for submitting letters of recommendation. You still want to give your letter writers an earlier deadline than this like mid-May just in case something goes wrong.
How Do You Submit Letters of Recommendation?
For you and the letter writer, the stress doesn’t begin and end at requesting and writing the letter. You need to send a more formal request either through the application service or through a third-party letter service. Your writer needs to ensure their letter is signed, dated, and on official letterhead. You need to make sure that your letter writer is aware of these requirements before they have finished and submitted their letter.
Even though not every school requires these extra details, enough of them do that you should ensure all of your letters have them. The actual process of submitting your letters of recommendation will depend on where you submit your letters of recommendation. You can either submit them directly to the application service(s), or you can use a third-party letter service. A new third-party letter service called myLORs will be rolling out in Mappd Pro soon, and you can find more details about it later in this article.
Coming Soon to Mappd Pro: myLORs
Mappd is working on an exciting new development in the premed space: myLORs! Submitting letters of recommendation can be stressful for students and letter writers alike, and we hope to simplify that process for you. myLORs will allow you to easily request, store, and transmit your letters of recommendation. We will also check your letters for the necessary details like letterhead, dating, and a signature to make sure medical schools don’t reject your letters for improper formatting.
Mappd Pro will soon include access to myLORs, and also currently includes access to Chat Advising where you can get answers to your pressing questions from our premed experts. You will also have the option to share your Mappd data with your letter writers, hopefully allowing them to have a better sense of the entirety of the path that has led you here to this moment of applying to medical school.
Your letter writers will also be able to easily send you messages within Mappd if they have questions for you throughout the process. You can also easily share documents with letter writers like a draft of your personal statement or your resume.
Right now, you can join the list to get all the latest news about myLORs and be the first to know when it rolls out.
More Links and Resources
The Premed Playbook Guide to the Medical School Application Process for even more information on letters of recommendation