Letters of Recommendation: Tips for Getting an Awesome Paper About You

The hardest part of the application process was getting all the letters of recommendation. I did not go through a medical committee for my letters but rather, I asked for letters one by one, from teachers to mentors to doctors. (Not using a medical committee was not by choice, but because a community college did not have a medical committee.)

If your school has a medical committee and all your letters are going to come from it, then this portion may not apply to you. But if your school does not have a medical committee, then this part will be very, very important.

Get Noticed in a Good Way

The groundwork for securing a good letter must be laid since day one. If you want a good letter, it would help for the teacher to know who you are. In class, try to talk to the teachers so he or she will, at the very least, know your name. Try to do well in class (which is a given for almost all medical school students). If you are volunteering, try to know those around you, those you work with, and those you service. If you are shadowing, dress professionally and be on your best behavior.

Since you are now leaving the realms of books and entering the realms of social interactions, knowing a bit of social etiquette and normal social manners would be helpful. Look at people in the eye when talking. Greet people. Smile. Now these may sound very basic, but trust me when I say that there are some people in my class who are not confident, but awkward. If you are one of those people who are incapable socially, start practicing now because after the first two years of medical school, it will be extremely important.

letters of recommendation - faceless

The letters of recommendation will give a face to the faceless applicant. It is important!

Whenever you can, make sure to show appreciation and gratitude. Many of my personal faults were forgiven when I acknowledged their efforts and their time. For example, when I first started shadowing, the doctor I followed did not care either way if I was there or not. I was assigned to her because some people in the hospital pulled some strings and did a favor for me so I can shadow. She did not personally know me. However, after every day of shadowing, I would show my appreciation. I slowly got to know her more and in the end, I received a good letter of recommendation from her.

Basically, who is more likely to give you a good letter of recommendation? Someone who likes you or someone who has no clue who you are?

Asking for Letters

Let’s move on to securing those good letters of recommendation. While you are laying down the groundwork of making yourself likeable, you should find out what each medical school requires for its letters of recommendation. Some schools, such as Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, wanted three letters from science teachers. Other schools want two from science teachers and one from a doctor. If you having the following, you should be okay for any school:

  • three letters of recommendation from science teachers
  • one letter of recommendation from a doctor you shadowed or worked for
  • one letter of recommendation from a supervisor or a mentor you worked closely

I asked for letters at the end of July to the beginning of August. But if I had to do everything all over again, I would ask for the letters from professors in June. Their memory of you is still fresh. And since the letters should be sent by the end of August, asking in June provides them with ample time to get the letters in.

Although I preferred to ask for letters in person, I asked for more than half of them through e-mail, since school was already over. Either way is acceptable. Make sure you ask if the person can write you a good letter of recommendation. You don’t want a letter that bashes on you. Once the person agrees, make the request as easy for the person as possible. Include the following items:

  • stamped envelopes with addresses
  • instructional letter
  • resume
  • primary application essay or personal statement
  • copy of transcripts

Take a look at my instructional letter that I sent to each person who was writing letters for me. The more the writer knows about you and your goals, the better the letter will be. Ask for confirmation when the letters are sent and definitely let the writer know when you want the letter sent by.

Sending the Letters

The writers should be the ones sending the letters.

Letters to allopathic medical schools were sent to AMCAS. AMCAS would then distribute the letters to the schools you specified. If an allopathic medical school does not accept letters through AMCAS, then the letters must be sent directly to the school. When I was applying in 2009, Albany Medical College did not accept letters of recommendation through AMCAS, so the letters were sent directly to the school.

Letters to osteopathic schools were sent to the schools individually. Since I only applied to two osteopathic schools, it was not too much of a hassle. If you are applying to many osteopathic schools, it may be helpful to use a paid letter service like Interfolio.

Dealing with Unexpected Crap

The reason why the letters of recommendation were the hardest part of the application for me was because of a few unreliable people. Most of the people that agreed to write letters communicated with me what was going on. Although I did remind them of the letters every week or every two weeks, the letters were sent. However, I did have someone who dropped the ball completely. I kept reminding her about the letter but communication from her was sparse. The promised letter from her was never sent. When September rolled around, I decided she was not going to come through and made a quick scramble to ask another professor for a letter of recommendation. He agreed and sent out the letter quite promptly.

Always have a contingency plan. Although having three science letters, one doctor letter, and one mentor letter would be sufficient for any letter requirements, having more letters does not hurt. I should have asked the fourth science teacher much earlier instead of thinking everyone will honor his or her word.

Gratitude Goes a Long Way

Once the letters are sent, be sure to thank the person. It could be as small as a written thank you card. I gave one teacher a basketball card from my collection because I knew he collects cards. I gave another a small souvenir I bought from my travels abroad. To this day, I still keep in touch with half of the people who wrote me letters of recommendation for medical school.

When the letters are all in, give yourself a pat on the back. The most aggravating part is over.

This article is part of the Get into Medical School series. Click on the link if you want more tips and hints about getting accepted into medical school.


  1. I am an ER nurse applying to med school. I work with an ER doctor who is also faculty at the med school I’m applying to. He is NOT in admissions – he works in the clinical curriculum division. I have a very good working relationship with him and we get along and joke quite a bit. 
    My question is, would it be of any benefit to ask him for a letter of recommendation? Is it even a good idea? I’m not sure what the proper “etiquette” is in this situation.

    • Alex Ding says:

      Yeah, go ahead and ask for a letter. Since you work with him in a medical setting, the letter would probably be much better than one most applicants can get just by volunteering or shadowing. When you get a chance, talk to him in private and let him know you’re going to medical school. And ask him if it would be ok if he wrote you a letter of recommendation. Since he works in a medical school, he should have an idea how important it is. If he agrees, make life easy and give him your personal statement and resume.

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