How do I ensure my letters of recommendation are strong?
Try to identify your professors and mentors early if you can so you can be extra intentional about forming a relationship with them.
Relationships take intention and time, so if you are getting a letter from a professor from freshman or sophomore year, try to reach out each semester to catch up in some way. Catching up can be over email or phone call, but in person gives the best quality if your letter writer can be available to meet with you.
One example of how I’ve reached out to professors from early on in my college career have been sending them articles from current courses that remind me of them/their coursework. This led to invitations to meet up to talk about the articles, which led to one professor even offering to write me a letter before I even had to ask! Keeping in touch and maintaining a relationship is essential if you want to get the best rec letter out of it.
Do not worry about having ALL extremely strong rec letters! If you simply need one more, it is completely acceptable to ask a professor in whose course you did well. Professors understand that you need letters of rec and often are willing to do so. Obviously, it is best to build a relationship with a professor to get a more personalized letter of rec. The best way I would recommend doing this is office hours. If the class is extremely large, it is hard for a professor to get to know you through lecture alone so it is best to go to their office where you will be much closer to a 1:1 ratio. In smaller courses, in addition to attending office hours, It is good to ask questions before, after, and during lecture to continue to remind the professor that you are engaged with the material.
Can I get a committee letter?
Unfortunately, there is no pre-med committee letter service at our university, so you will need to find individual letter writers. Most students find it most beneficial to obtain this combination of letters:
- Two science course professors
- One non-science professor
- One personal letter: a boss, research PI, volunteer supervisor, or physician you shadowed
- IF APPLYING THROUGH AACOMAS, a letter from any DO physician you have observed in a clinical setting (shadowed or worked with)
- IF YOU ARE IN YOUR GAP YEAR, get a letter from the gap year employment supervisor
- IF APPLYING MD/PHD, a research letter — from an MD or a PhD rather than from a lab manager or student supervisor
Can I ask my professor for a letter of recommendation partway through a course?
It is okay to ask a professor for a letter of recommendation while you are still in their class, but it is probably better to wait until the end of the class to ask, and it is probably too forward to ask a professor before the class or internship begins.
Should I ask for my letter in person?
Try to ask for letters of recommendation in person if you can. It can really help to see the facial expressions of the person you are asking, as emotions are basically impossible to know via email. If you have not seen the professor in a while, you can email to ask if they can have a few minutes for you to stop by. Be very sensitive to their time, and go to ask when they say they are available.
When should I ask?
If you don’t anticipate taking more classes with a certain professor, it’s advisable to ask the professor a few weeks after you’ve received your grade in their class. If your relationship with your letter writer is a little bit more drawn-out time-wise, you should be asking a few months before submitting your application. If you want your letter in by June, March/April should be the latest you contact someone about writing you a rec letter — because May will often be the busiest season for all graduate applications and letters. Remember that you can always submit your primary application without having the letter submitted by your professor, and you only really need your letters by the time you submit secondaries (around the first week of July, but could be later because of COVID delays this 2020 cycle).
What if I can’t ask in person due to distance or other reasons?
If you must ask via email, be very polite and formal, and try to keep the email short and to the point. It can be helpful to follow this rough structure:
1) Acknowledge they have many other important things to attend to and that you are grateful for their time.
2) Express what you enjoyed about their class and why
3) Explain that you are applying to medical school and that you are wondering if they could write you a strong letter in support of your application.
4) Mention what competencies you believe they would be able to speak on.
5) Thank them for their time and consideration.