Letters of Recommendation: How Do I Get Em’

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Welcome back,

Applying for medical school is an odd process, especially if you’re a nontraditional applicant. For myself, I rushed to complete the premed requirements and my major/minor/undergrad research. After being molested by academia, you’re thrown into the hardest entrance exam in on the planet (no hyperbole) for 5-6 hours. Then you are asked to complete several other Herculean feats to complete your medical school application, abbreviated as the AMCAS:

  • Primary Application
  • Scores: MCAT, and GPAs (two separate undergraduate GPAs will be calculated by AMCAS), a masters degree will not shroud undergraduate GPAs, it will however show improvement.
  • Personal statement:  bust out your feather quill to write the best personal statement you’ve ever written — no, the one you wrote before won’t do either.
  • Work Activity Section: I’ve already covered this in another article.
  • Letters of Recommendation: this article will focus on obtaining a letter.

So, I’m often asked about the subject of “Letters of Recommendation” (LOR, or LORs when plural), I’ll tell you how I handled them in this article and attempt to answer the following three FAQs:

  1. From who do I get them from, and how important are LORs?
  2. How do you I ask letters for a recommendation?
  3. When do you need to start thinking about letters of recommendation and what is the timeline?
  • From who do I get them from, and how important are LORs?

Most medical schools accept two types of letters individual letters and/or committee letters. If  you are traditional premed then go with whatever your premed adviser suggests as the standard protocol for other premeds from your university who have been accepted. From what people tell me, that usually entails obtaining a committee letter if you’re a traditional premed. However, as a nontraditional I had no idea if my university actually has a premed committee, nor did I care to receive premed advising as a late entry nontraditional. Thus I obtained individual letters from various professors — so this article will focus primarily on individual letters. In my own case, having individual letters seemed to work out because I was offered four acceptances by mid winter. There are probably pros and cons to either form, for example committee letters are probably logistically a lot easier to obtain and they probably know what to write to make you look like a good applicant. The downside (just to play devil’s advocate) is that you’re really hedging all of your bets on the committee who probably don’t know you very well personally besides the occasional meeting. The upside of the individual letters is that if you chose you writer wisely you’ll end up with a very exceptional personalized letter. But you could also chose the worst person to write a letter for you, and on top of that you’d have to handle all the logistics of making sure your letters go to AMCAS on time on a case per case basis. Before committing to schools be sure to check with each school’s policy because sometimes they do have very specific requirements.

In my case, my individual letters were:

  1.  Human Physiology Professor and my research principal investigator
  2. Chemical Engineering Professor and the chair of my research scholars program
  3. Chemistry Professor and research adviser for research scholars program
  4. Political Science Professor who I volunteered with for prison education programs
  5. The dean of my major

I chose writers who could vouch for what I felt were my strengths like work ethic and science background (letters 1, 2,3,4), my commitment at bettering my community (letter 4), and someone who could vouch for my patient experience (letter 5). If you have individual letters coming in, use them to compliment your AMCAS. My principal investigator worked together quite intimately, so they also had no problem ameliorating my perceived shortcomings for the admissions committee. I had all but one of them upload the letter electronically after I gave them a written tutorial about how to upload it to be sure it arrived on time.

Either way you choose, individual or committee letter(s),  there’s no way you can guarantee the admissions committee will see the writer’s arguments for your admission as satisfying or cogent. It’s hard to quantify how important LORs are, because we have to consider a lot of variables such as the rest of your application and letter quality, but I’ll just say in my case my letters came up favorably during all of during my interviews (unless they were not given access to the LOR prior to the interview). So, I think it’s probably safe to assume they’re important and shouldn’t be thrown together haphazardly, the quality and amount of effort you put into obtaining good LORs will correlate to better LORs.

  • How do you I ask letters for a recommendation?

You may be in school or out of school, either way the strategy isn’t that different. Now, I work with professors everyday for work, and I see how busy they are and how to get through to them. Check online, go to their office hours. Bring transcripts with overall GPA, classes you want them to see highlighted, plus any other recent accolades. Tell them why you want a letter from them specifically, when you intend to apply, and when you’ll need the letter by. If they agree give them at least 6 weeks (make the window too short and they’ll refuse, too long and you’ll never get a letter finished). Even if you obtain a verbal confirmation that they’ll write you a letter, be sure to follow up with a formal request for both your records by email, it’ll help keep the record straight for both of you. Remember, your letter writer probably doesn’t have time to write you letter, but they’ve kindly agreed to postpone their other responsibilities for you.[[ (quick reference): [insert Corran letter] I asked for all of my letters in person.]]

If possible make in person verbal requests, bring nothing with you but a succinct explanation of why you want a letter from them, and verbally confirm they can write you a “strong” letter of recommendation. If they agree to write you a strong letter then tell them you’ll follow up with a written email with your transcripts/stats, and means by which they can submit the letter. Some professors will tell you directly, “I don’t think I can write you a strong letter”. It doesn’t necessarily mean they curse your existence, they’re probably being honest because it translates to “I don’t know you enough to write you a strong letter”. On the other hand, in the unlikely event that they actually despise the day you were born and have a picture of you on their dart board, you wouldn’t want one from them anyways right? Don’t take it personally if they refuse, they’re likely doing you a favor by saying “no” either way. If they say they can not write you a strong letter of recommendation thank them and move on.

Follow up with a very easy to read email. Now, I assume your writer will be an excellent reader, but they don’t have time to read through a gregarious lengthy email. Furthermore, they’re putting their “street cred” at risk as a professional by attaching their name to yours, so it’s quite an honor to receive a strong letter of recommendation, make sure you’re doing your part to make it easier on your letter writer. So keep it short and sweet and unambiguous, so be sure to include in the formal written request:

  • Let them know the exact name you used to registered for AMCAS as well as your AAMC ID#. Remind them the letter requires an official letterhead.
  • First and foremost, thank them for agreeing to write you a strong letter by a specified date — letters will likely roll in late if you rush the writer without prepping them properly or allow the responsibility to fall onto them to ensure timely completion.
  • Give a  very brief narrative about you and your intentions (a short paragraph).
  • Stats: give them a summary of your GPA/CV, favorable or not. For their peace of mind include a PDF attachment of your transcripts/CV, let them know it’s attached and the correct title if you have multiple attachments. Highlight the pros of your stats, offer to talk more in depth in person about personal circumstances that may of left bruises on your transcripts.
  • Concretely tell your writer what types of things you’d like them to address.*
  • Give them a concrete way to submit the application. This will mean giving them the physical address of the AMCAS letters service if they want to go snail-mail, or providing them the links and steps to upload your letters online. If your letter writer finishes the letter and can not send it because of poor instructions it’s not the fault of the writer.

Don’t be surprised or insulted if the professor who agrees to write you a strong letter first requests for you to draft a letter of recommendation for yourself then submit it to them to modify as template (it’s very common in the research world). Above all else you should always know your strengths and weaknesses of your application. Use this knowledge form a draft that shows your good points and rationalizes the humps on your application without making excuses. There’s a good chance that the LOR they actually send will appear nothing like your draft, but the highlights you wanted will likely still be captured.

  • When do you need to start thinking about letters of recommendation and what is the timeline?

You should start thinking about who would make a good candidate for strong letters as soon as possible. The sooner you understand the strengths and weaknesses of your application the sooner you can start pulling together your writers. If you’re afraid of writers forgetting about you later, let them know about how you’d like a letter later, and send them an email as a record to confirm the confirmation. When it comes time to ask them later, you could pull that record up to help refresh their memory.

Give your writers ample time to compose a good letter for you, if you try to drop a bombshell on them at the last second don’t be surprised if you get a mediocre letter or if they outright refuse out of principle alone. You can turn in your primary AMCAS application prior to receiving any letters, however schools will not invite you post secondary application unless you’ve submitted your LORs they request for their program. So, it’s important to consider the timeline when you’re requested strong LORs. I approached my writers formally in April (primary applications open in June) and I gave them a deadline of the 3rd week of May. This gave my writers enough time to compose the letters, and enough time for me to discretely nudge my writers when they were falling behind.

In closing…

The amount of preparation and methodology you chose to use to obtain your LORs will have a correlation to the LOR quality submitted. If you put in the minimal amount of effort then expect a minimal LOR. Also remember, your writer (especially professors) are putting their reputation on the line, so be courteous and respectful. Be sure to thank your writers after the process, and keep them up to date on your progress or lack-thereof (as a tutor I really loved when students got back to me about grades or when I wrote a rare LOR for them). Be honest, respectful and appreciative while constructing your professional network with your writers.

Have something to add about your experience with committee letters or individual?  If so, feel free to share.

Thanks for reading, and feel free to contact me anytime https://twitter.com/masterofsleep

*updated on 12/18/13 Added something about the letterhead. Thanks  SDN user.


3 thoughts on “Letters of Recommendation: How Do I Get Em’

    She’s Done This a Time or Two | said:
    December 12, 2013 at 3:50 pm

    […] Letters of Recommendation: How Do I Get Em’ (doctororbust.wordpress.com) […]

    Garner the Letters of Recommendation | said:
    December 23, 2013 at 12:02 am

    […] Letters of Recommendation: How Do I Get Em’ (doctororbust.wordpress.com) […]

    […] Tips on Getting Letters of Recommendations […]

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