Letters of Recommendation are extremely important! When you are applying, most of the other applicants will have high GPAs, MCAT scores, and an extensive list of extracurricular activities. However, having a strong letter of recommendation that shows support from reputable people like your professors, physicians, research mentors, and community leaders can separate you from the rest of the pack. Having someone who believes in your capabilities as a future healthcare provider, so much so that they are willing to write about your talents and capabilities can even significantly increase your chances of acceptance. Therefore, you want to make sure that the letter you get will give you the best chances possible.
As you go through your journey, begin to identify people who could potentially write you a letter of recommendation early. You can actually begin this process during your freshman year! When you start to identify these people, you can even take them on as your mentors in order to establish a good connection and relationship with them. Waiting to ask for a letter until a couple of months before the submission deadline is not a good idea. You may end up with a poor quality letter from a person who barely knows you and a missed opportunity to allow yourself to stand out.
You also want to ask the people who will write your letters to do so early. When you ask them, provide information about yourself. You want to include your curriculum vitae (you can highlight things you believe should stand out in your letter), a copy of your transcript, and a personal statement about yourself. We commonly recommend that you ask for a letter 5-6 months before you apply. When you ask, discuss and agree on a submission date. You can then follow up with the writer w/in 1-2 months of the due date and provide any new information that will be helpful. As that deadline appears, take time to send a reminder email or visit their office to make sure everything is in order.
In regards to asking for a letter, we highly recommend that you do so in person to avoid a delay in response. Simply schedule a time to meet with them, dress professionally, and speak respectfully. It is also important to ask the individual, if they would be willing to write you a strong letter of recommendation; its important to be intention. In the event that they say yes, be prepared to give them any information they’ll need; do so early in case they may forget or get too busy. If they say no, simply thank them for their time. Do not burn this bridge by being rude because you never know when you may see them again. However, if you need to send an email, keep it short and simple. Let them know how you know them and what they’ve contributed to you, tell them your desire to attend medical school, request a letter, then thank them for taking the time to read the email.
Most medical schools will require at least 3 letters from professors of undergraduate classes: 2 science & 1 non-science. A “science” letter would come from a professor in a Biology, Chemistry, Physics, or Math course. Though professors should Ideally write and sign the letter but many are so busy that they will often recruit a TA to help write a portion of the letters.
Though that satisfies the minimum requierment, it is good to have more letters from other people who can also speak on your character and non-scholastic virtues. This list of people can include research mentors, physicians shadowed, volunteer organization leaders, or even your church pastor. The key thing to remember here is that you want to have quality over quantity. Again, when asking for a letter, be sure to directly ask “Would be willing to write a strong letter of recommendation for me?” A mediocre letter would only result in a missed opportunity.
You must consider that medical schools are looking beyond just your MCAT scores and GPA.
Here is the list of the most common variables for determining competitiveness:
- MCAT – by far one of the most critical factors. For example, the higher the MCAT score, the more interviews a student is likely to achieve.
- GPA – likely the second-most important factor. Overall grades, as well as Core Competency grades, are taken into account.
- Math-Science GPA – this can be more of an unknown to students, but this GPA, which encompasses all of the math and science courses a student has taken, is often considered separately from the Overall GPA.
- For example, a student can have a 3.3 Overall GPA, but their Math-Science GPA can be a 3.8. Medical schools often take both of these into consideration.
- Extracurricular activities – a more elusive and subjective factor, however still extremely important. Medical schools want to know if you can be a leader and have interests outside of medicine. Focusing well on a few activities is often better than doing too many activities.
- Community Service – this is an essential requirement that shows you care about service and helping out people that need it. Medical schools love to function, which takes a significant amount of dedication or has been consistently done for an extended period.
- Shadowing – shows that you took the time to experience the field of medicine. The average for shadowing is usually 50-100 hours, and most try to shadow 2-4 physicians.
- Letters of Recommendation – Strong letters from people you know and/or people in the medical field can have a significant impact on medical schools’ impression of a candidate’s character and dedication to the area of medicine.
Often, the best applicants for medical school have strong inclusions in all of these categories.