A medical school letter of recommendation is a vital part of applying for medical school. You have already come a long way toward that goal by completing a pre-med program. Now, you need to have a letter that sums up your personal strengths, your achievements, and how these elements combine with the necessities of life as a medical student and future physician. But what do you do if your contact wants you to do the writing of the medical school letter of recommendation?
Understanding the Correct Circumstances to Write Your Own Letter
The idea of writing your own letter of recommendation can be a combination of horrifying and confounding. It may appear to be an ethical dilemma or a mere challenge of writing positively about yourself without sounding arrogant. The fact is that many professors and professionals request that you write your own letter for them to peruse and sign. This may indicate that your preferred expert is over-worked but still wishes to support you, or that they place sufficient trust in your ethical code to believe you will create a self-evaluation that is honest.
Benefits of Writing Your Own Letter of Recommendation
The opportunity to craft your own recommendation letter can be positive. When you contribute to the letter, you have an idea of its contents. You also have the chance to incorporate specific achievements and aspects of yourself. This is in vast contrast to the former way of things when students went to great lengths to assure that the letters came from the writers unseen. Often, the professors would sign their names across the seal of the envelope. This meant you had no opportunity to see what the professor had to say about you. When you write your own, you can work things in that best suit your goals and ambitions.
Who to Ask for a Letter of Recommendation
The choice of who to ask for a recommendation is a vital one in the process of applying to medical school. The right letter may well give you a competitive application against applicants who carry similar credentials. These might include high MCAT scores, high GPAs, and a well-structured resume that includes community-based extra-curricular activities. Consider who to ask strategically; you want someone who will give the most effective summation of your work ethic, intellect, and potential. Professors who know you well make excellent individuals to write for you. High-quality letters may also come from community leaders you have served under, mentors, researchers with whom you have worked, and doctors you have shadowed.
Laying Groundwork Preparatory to Writing Your Letter
Your desired recommender has asked you to write your own medical school letter of recommendation. Start your process by discovering those elements your recommender wishes and their reasoning for wanting them. Find out if they wish the whole letter written, an outline provided, or a bullet point list of items to cover. Discover, in a polite fashion, why your recommender wants your involvement in the letter’s process. Lack of time is one thing, but a feeling that they do not know sufficient characteristics or accomplishments of yours to write a complete letter is another. You can be sure to cover material about which they do not feel comfortable in the draft, outline, or bullet points. Finally, confirm that your recommender will go over the draft to offer their own contributions.
The time frame when asking for letters of recommendation letters is a crucial element of the process. Contacts should have enough time to draft a letter that is carefully crafted. Give recommenders at least two weeks. This is an absolute minimum; with less notice, the contact may lack time to incorporate personal aspects to the letter or to draft a letter based on your outline or bullet points. Too much notice is also problematic. You risk your recommender forgetting the commitment. If you do give several months to your contact, be sure to send a follow-up message a few weeks prior to the deadline.
Number of Letters Required
The precise number of necessary letters varies according to the MD program to which you are in the process of applying. Med schools typically require somewhere between two to five letters written on your behalf. The program may welcome additional letters; find out before you include extras. Some med schools only accept three letters. Others will take six or seven, and still others will accept as many as 13 letters of recommendation.
Components to Suggest
When requesting a letter, lay out precisely those elements the medical school admissions commitee of your choice seeks in applicants. One key element is the explanation of the relationship between you and your contact. This includes the number of years you two have known each other. When discussing your character, the recommender should focus on the ways your behavior will benefit your expected medical successes. Obstacles that you have overcome should feature prominently as well. Certain areas of competency should stand out, these include things that are necessary for med school such as:
- Quantitative reasoning
- Critical thinking
- Scientific Inquiry
- Competencies in human behavior and life sciences
- Social skills and written communication skills
- Ethical responsibility
Suggested Letter Length
Some first-time letter writers may not know the desired length of a letter of recommendation. In these cases, a good rule of thumb is that the letter should be between two and three pages. A single page tends to look sparse, while letters that ramble on for more than three pages are arduous for the admissions committees to wade through, leaving a negative impact. Quality should be emphasized over quantity above all.
A strong letter of recommendation can be considered as akin to a brief essay. It has an introduction, a thesis, body, and conclusion. The thesis statement establishes that you have proven yourself to be a strong student destined to succeed in the program for which the letter is intended. The thesis’s support is detailed in the specifics of the work you have performed with and for your contact.
Consider Your Medical School Personal Statement
Connect your good work from your PS to your required letter. Begin by making a list of your PS’s key messages about yourself. Consider how your letter can both confirm and augment such messages from a different angle. If you establish your passion in a field of study, your contact’s letter should convince the admissions team that your intellectual engagement with it is every bit as strong as your emotional connection. Establish particular anecdotes for your recommender to remember. You can draw these from performance reviews, conversations in the past, and written feedback. Finally, point out how such qualities, events, characteristics, messages, and anecdotes reveal the ways in which you are a strong candidate for medical school and an eventual life as a physician.
Humbly Acknowledge Accomplishments
Letters of recommendation, by definition, are documents highlighting your assets, accomplishments, and strengths. You should state the ways you have academically excelled and the contributions you have offered by means of your service, extra-curriculars of which your contact would be aware in a fashion that is clear and honest. While you may be uncomfortable writing of yourself in a positive fashion, try to be objective. Remember humility, but frankly make honest claims of your intelligence, competence, and devotion.
Remember to Use Power Words
Some words simply convey stronger imagery than others. Do not simply say that you are smart or kind. Instead, choose words like compassionate and empathetic to replace words like kind. Admissions committees can see that you have been a smart student; skip that wasted word and choose something like inquisitive or intellectual.
Use Impeccable Style and Grammar
While your recommender will review the letter, editing it as desired, you still want to be thoroughly aware of style and grammar as you write. This is not your own voice. It is meant to be the voice of your contact. Thus, use a style that is professional and semi-formal. Proofread immaculately. This not only reflects well on the contact and on yourself because of the letter’s contents, but it continues to demonstrate your abilities to your contact.
Elements of Good Medical School Letter of Recommendation
Key elements that admissions committees look for include such aspects as specifics, comparisons, and the ability to succeed. The first, specifics, are vital for distinguishing you from the other applicants. They give elements of your character that simple descriptive words lack. The second, comparisons, pertains to the recommender mentioning other pre-med students known and the ways in which you excel in relation to them. Finally, a vital component of a good medical school letter of recommendation is a focus on your capacity to succeed while attending medical school and beyond.
Elements of Poor Medical School Letter of Recommendation
Poor letters of recommendation feature an abundance of adjectives with no supporting examples to prove their accuracy. They evaluate the applicant without comparing your merits to those of others. Finally, they focus on personal qualities but do not relate them to the ways in which those qualities will help you excel in the setting of a medical school or field.
Properly Presenting Yourself
Much like you dress up for job interviews, your letter should be dressed up by means of proper, clean formatting. That first sweep of the eyes across the front page is the first impression. It should feel appropriate, neither too flashy nor inconsistent in choices in formatting. Follow a traditional letter format for formal letters, even when submitting the letter electronically. Include recommender contact information in the upper right. In concluding, go with the safe choices of sincerely or kind regards.
Utilize Specific Examples
You have established your character with power words and presented yourself in a professional manner; now focus on making use of particular examples that highlight the words you have chosen. Specific anecdotes tell admissions committees more about you than a simple stark word. Take for example the descriptor team-player. If you use that description, go on and tell a story where your assistance ensured the medical team operated smoothly.
Highlight Your Best Qualities
While this might be taken for granted, it is worth special consideration and an emphasis. Humility has long been a trait desired in physicians. You still need to manage to praise yourself. The admissions committees will have read your letter as coming from someone else, not from you. It might be easier to pretend you are writing the letter to describe a close friend. Finally, consider those qualities a school desires in a candidate. Be sure you mention those traits that you possess.
Terms that are overused and imprecise are to be thoroughly avoided. You may be a hard worker, but do not mention this in your letter. Instead, demonstrate how you were a hard worker without using that term. Aim for precise demonstrations of your abilities and skills. Cliches can prove to be a death knell to an applicant’s letters of recommendation.
Call Back to Your CV or Medical School Resume
A phrase that calls back to something evidenced by your medical school resume opens the letter’s door to the mention of non-clinic activities in rounding out the letter. This creates a stronger letter. It also provides a committee member the chance to know more about you without actually sorting through your resume.
The Three Minimum Paragraphs
The strongest letters of recommendation include a minimum of three essential paragraphs. These are the introduction, the paragraph detailing your abilities, and the conclusion. In the introduction, there should be mention of the duration of your relationship with the recommender and the capacity in which you two have known each other. The second paragraph assesses your abilities in a frank fashion. The conclusion summarizes the strength of your contact’s recommendation.
Opening Paragraph Tips
In the introduction, you should feature a clear statement that establishes the contact’s support for your application and an indication of your relationship. Include specifics; these may include projects and courses the two of you have shared as well as anything demonstrating how well you two know each other and the ways your contact knows your work. This establishes your contact’s ability to evaluate the potential you bear for future success.
Following Two to Four Paragraphs
These paragraphs make up the body of the letter. These several paragraphs offer specific anecdotes and examples supporting the thesis. Courses completed, submitted projects, discussions of extra-curricular work of which your contact is aware, and professional exchanges can comprise large segments of these paragraphs.
Concluding the Medical School Letter of Recommendation
The conclusion is responsible for wrapping up the letter, frequently taking the chance for reflection on your personal attributes rather than your professional achievements. This may also include an emphasis on enthusiasm for writing this recommendation. If your contact consents, the conclusion includes an invitation to reach out to the contact for further information.
Insert Key Statistics When Possible
Numbers draw the eye in a sea of words. When these numbers are percentages related to your comparative performance, they have even more importance. Consider statistics such as which percentage in which you are included in relation to other students. For example, that you are within the top 5% or 20% of those students whom the contact has taught or worked.
Phrase Weaknesses in a Positive Light
There is always a way to phrase things in a positive light. Rather than stating that your documentation has been poor, include this fact as a plus: you have demonstrated improvement in your documentation, for example. Not only does this give the positive aspect of documenting, but it also shows that you are willing to work and continue to grow in your field’s necessary abilities.
Use a Full Signature and Keep it Real
The signature should include all of the contact’s position titles and faculty appointments. These establish the recommender’s qualifications to establish your character and abilities. They also have the advantage of looking more impressive. An actual signature is also preferred to a digital signature.
Red Flags to Reviewers
Reviewers look at countless letters of recommendation. Perfect structure and grammar alone will not distinguish your letter; they will merely make it competitive. Avoid these red flags to stand out in a positive light. First, do not let your letter sound too much like your resume. Dry facts are better replaced by compelling stories. Second, do not let your letter fail to show you as unique and qualified. Rather, place an emphasis on illustrating a few of your relevant qualities, connecting them to your desired career. Finally, do not let your letter go on for too long. One to three pages suffices. Quality is a must and takes precedence over quantity.
Sample Letter of Recommendation
Dear Admissions Committee,
It is my pleasure to write this letter of recommendation on behalf of James. I am a professor of biology at University of X. I first met James 2 years ago when he enrolled in my Introduction to Biology class. Even though the class had 200 students, James was able to stand out as a stellar student. He did not achieve the highest marks, earning a final grade of B+, but his hard work ethic and determination was impressive.
James initially struggled in the class, having done quite poorly on the first 2 exams. I held two office hour sessions every week, which James attended without fail. He was receptive to feedback on his studying skills. He did not give up on concepts that were difficult to him. For example, he had difficulty with Mendelian genetics problems, so he scoured the internet for extra practice problems and brought them to office hours to discuss. This also helped other students who were in attendance. This showed that he was resourceful and was willing to put in extra work to improve. By the time of midterm and final exams, James scored at the very top of the bell curve and was consistently in the top 5% of students in the class. Due to his initial poor exam grades, his final grade was a B+, which does not reflect his mastery of the subject by the end of the semester.
That summer, James was chosen to be a tutor for the Intro to Biology course based on his excellent grades and reliability. He was a tutor for the work-study program, which only selected students with the highest exam grades and recommendations from professors. James went above and beyond his role as a tutor, and held many group sessions free of charge for those who needed extra help. He demonstrated excellence as a group leader and peer mentor. James often attended my office hours even after the course ended, to share his course notes and study strategies with students who struggled like he did initially. James a truly a good team player and I enjoyed having him as a student.
Over the next two years, as James moved further along his studies in Biology, he asked me to be his major advisor. I happily agreed. Together, we worked on two research projects, one of which has been submitted for publication. The entire research team loved working with James. He would spend countless hours in the lab and was not discouraged when experiments did not go well. He met all deadlines in advance, and we could always rely on him to produce a detailed and thorough manuscript. James expressed his interest in research as well as in the clinical sciences. I believe James will be a great clinical and academic physician.
As his major advisor, I was able to see all the evaluations made by other professors in our department who had the pleasure of teaching James in various courses. Professor Y, who taught Advanced Physiology, said “James was an active participant in the class. He asked questions that reflected deeper thought into the subject. You could always rely on James to think outside the box and bring new insight.”
I give my highest recommendation James for admissions to your medical school without any reservations. James is in the top 5 percent of students I have taught in my 30 years as a professor at University of X. He will be a great addition to any medical school class. Please feel free to contact me with any questions.
As you can see in the above example, great letters of recommendation include specific anecdotes about your work ethic. They can also be used to explain why you have certain grades that are mediocre. For example, the professor in the letter explained why James only earned a B+ in the biology course despite having mastered the subject by the end. Applying to medical school requires discipline and knowledge of the process. Consider applying to our Pre-Med Internship for more insight into the field and how to create the best application possible.