Advisor Corner: Choosing the Right Letter Writers

Letters of evaluation are an important component of your application to medical school. We asked three pre-health advisors about their advice for choosing the right individuals to write letters of evaluation on your behalf and what best practices they have for approaching these people.

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Glenn N. Cummings, PhD, Associate Dean and Director of Health Professions Advising & the Post-baccalaureate Premedical Program, Bryn Mawr College

First and foremost, applicants should ask two people who taught them science to support their application to medical school. Whether or not these are the most detailed letters among all of one's letters—sometimes at a large university, science faculty can seem rather removed at the front of a big lecture hall—they are very important, even if all they do is state the recommender's confidence in the applicant's ability to handle the science in a med school curriculum. 

After that, choose recommenders who know you well over anyone you perceive as being in some position of status or importance. Anyone who has evaluated or supervised you is a good candidate. Think about the different voices of support you're getting and how, as a group, they discuss all important aspects of your professional and academic life. Candidates often worry that a recommender won't be able to give a broad picture of the applicant, and recommenders sometimes worry that they know the applicant in only a narrow context, but everyone should have faith that all of the letters—combined—will present a holistic view. Also, committee letters are valuable for this complete picture. 

Lastly, I suggest applicants set up a face-to-face meeting, or at least a phone call, in order to request letters. Sending an email that requests an appointment and then asking for a letter in person is most effective when it's possible to do so. Don’t simply send an email that says "Can you write me a letter?" which takes a few minutes to write, and yet asks the recommender to spend a lot more than a few minutes of their time on your letter!  Always be prepared to provide a resume, a draft of your personal statement, and a copy of one assignment from a course if the recommender was one of your professors.

 

Carol Baffi-Dugan, Associate Dean of Undergraduate Education, Director for Health Professions Advising, Tufts University

Letters of recommendation are an important component of your medical school application. Admissions committees hope to gain some insight into you as a person from individuals who can knowledgeably and objectively evaluate you.

Many colleges have premed committees that write composite letters and/or create letter packets for medical schools. If yours does, be sure to follow their instructions and timeline. Regardless of whether or not you have a pre-med committee, it is wise to have some academic letters - from your academic advisor, faculty member in your major, or other faculty. Other letters can offer different perspectives – those from employers, internship sponsors, coaches, or staff members with whom you have worked can be very informative. The AAMC offers guidelines for letter writers if yours are uncertain what they should address.

Recommenders should be approached early and asked if they feel comfortable writing you a good letter of recommendation. You might offer a copy of your transcript, resume, and/or draft of your personal statement to help the writer. Your recommender should be sent the appropriate form or instructions, and information on due date as well. Writing a good letter of recommendation takes time and effort so express your gratitude to someone who is willing to help you reach your goal.

 

Mary C.D. Wells, MA, Director, Medical Professions Institute, The University of Texas at El Paso

You want three letters of evaluation minimum, with several of these coming from professors/instructors, and at least one of these in sciences. I tell students that the most important criteria is whether or not the individual knows the applicant well.  For this reason, early on I encourage students to build relationships with some of their professors and to request letters as their interactions near completion (we collect such letters in our advising office for students).  Even so, this can be difficult, especially in science lectures of a hundred students, so students need to sometimes think outside the box in selecting evaluators. Maybe you participated in an honors discussion group with a lecturer in the criminal justice department, or completed a research internship out of state last summer. Or maybe you’re doing research this semester in someone’s lab, but the PI is rarely on the scene; on the other hand, their PhD fellow directly supervises your work in the lab.  Any of these individuals could provide valuable observations of your characteristics. Also, you can obtain additional letters from employers, community coordinators, physicians, and/or other mentors, again always first analyzing for the acid test, “How well do they know me?” If you’re not sure, you can always ask, “Do you feel you know me well enough to write a strong, honest letter of evaluation of me?” 

I always recommend that students use what I like to call the “three-pronged approach” to initially contacting potential evaluators (as well as potential physicians to shadow):  an email, a voice message, and a visit to their office with a note prepared to leave behind. This accomplishes several things. First, you can be assured you are ‘on their radar.’ Second, you demonstrate that you are professional and serious of intent. I tell students to give professionals two month’s advance notice to write a letter, but it’s wise to also follow up with gentle, brief reminders. Always thank your letter writer, and demonstrate your appreciation by updating them on the eventual results of your application. In the excitement of acceptance, it’s easy to forget to do this, but deeply rewarding to your evaluator.

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