Whether you’re a medical school applicant or not, at some point in time you’re going to need a letter of recommendation. This post is part of my Applying to Medical School Series however, I think that anyone who needs a letter of recommendation can benefit from some of these tips.
Keep in mind that your school/ institution may have certain requirements that you need to follow so be sure to check with them to make sure that there aren’t any additional institutional forms or requirements for securing a letter.
Also everything I say isn’t gold… this is just what worked for me so as always take what’s relevant for you and ignore the rest. It also doesn’t hurt to check with an advisor if you’re unsure about anything.
By the way, I’m really sorry for making this post so long. I definitely tried to keep it organized by using bolded headers and by numbering the steps to keep you organized so that way its easy to follow and reference later. Okay lets get started!
STEP 1: GET ORGANIZED
There’s nothing worse than asking for a letter of recommendation and then your letter writer requests a CV/resume or a copy of your essay and you don’t have one ready. Be prepared. You don’t want to ask for a letter and then follow-up a month later when you finally get around to updating your resume.
Here’s a list of some things you may want to have in your back pocket when you ask for a letter.
- Your personal statement (or application essays) – sometimes if you’re requesting a letter early, it can be appropriate to give them a draft
- If the application asks questions that gives more insight to you as a person and your motivation for the position you’re applying for then consider giving your letter writers a copy of this as well. This will help them learn more about you and why you are qualified for whatever it is that you’re applying for
- Resume/ CV
- Instructions to the letter writer for how to upload/ submit/ mail the letter once completed
I’ll go over what to do with these items and how to give these documents to your letter writers in step 3.
STEP 2: ASK FOR THE LETTER
When asking, make sure you ask for a STRONG letter of recommendation. If someone is too busy or if they say they don’t think they know you well enough to write you a strong letter than DON’T PUSH IT. STOP. DO NOT PASS GO. DO NOT COLLECT $200. JUST LET IT GO. Seriously though… President Obama can write your recommendation letter but if it is generic or doesn’t shed a good light on you then it’s a waste of time and can potentially do more harm than good.
So what should I say in the first email?
Personally I think it helps to remind a person who you are, especially if you haven’t interacted with them in a while. Perhaps you may want to include the class you had with them, something positive about the course or experience you shared with this person, and if applicable you can tell them why you’re asking them to write a letter. Perhaps you worked with them during a busy time and they witnessed your ability to manage stress and a heavy workload. Or maybe they mentored you and witnessed you do something amazing in your field. Let them know why their perspective would be valuable.
When I sent my first emails out, I also added that I would like to meet with them in person to discuss my application further. I think I said something like: “If you are able to write me a strong letter of recommendation, please let me know if you’d like to set up a quick time to meet so I can give your more information about insert whatever you’re applying for here (fellowship, scholarship, internship, etc)” Most of my letter writers usually agree to this unless they are far away or just super busy. I like this because it gives me a chance to meet with them, remind them who I am (if I haven’t seen them in a while), and also give them everything they need (see #3).
If you are applying for something like a fellowship or an internship that the letter writer may or not have heard about, it doesn’t hurt to include a link to the opportunity. (ex: If you’d like more information about this internship feel free to ask or you can see their website at insert website here). However please don’t send information about medical schools or grad schools. No need to give them the mission statement of your medical schools. The only time you may consider this is if you’re applying to something specific or nontraditional such as a specialized rural health track at a medical school or something that has a specific focus that may need more of a specific letter to tailor to the application. Remember that this is just for extra info. You should have given a quick summary of the thing you’re applying for in the body of the email (what the experience is, how long it is, where it is, what the purpose is, etc).
STEP 3: MAKE THE PROCESS AS EASY AS POSSIBLE FOR YOUR LETTER WRITERS
So you email your letter writers to ask them for a letter. You made sure to include what you were applying for, why you wanted it, a quick anecdote or some type of explanation that would explain to the letter writer why you are asking them and now they said yes. They also may or may not have agreed to meeting you in person to discuss it further. So now what?
After they said yes don’t go ghost and just pray they submit on time. First off, get organized. Remember those documents I said to have handy in #1? Time to pull them out!
If I was going to meet my letter writer in person then I printed everything out – this included: essays, CV/ resume, and CLEAR INSTRUCTIONS on how to submit the letter of recommendation (Don’t forget to include the deadline!!). If it required going to a site, making a log in and uploading the letter (some applications are real fancy & high tech) then include those steps as detailed as you can. I usually did this in Word (mostly copy and paste from whatever the application documents said) and then titled it Instructions for Submitting or something like that. If your letter needs to be mailed somewhere then include a pre-addressed envelope WITH A STAMP. My school required a special form to be signed by the student and the letter writer so I signed my portion and put it along with the rest of the documents. And to top it off, put it all in a plain folder (literally less than a dollar from like Walmart or target). So now when you meet with your letter writer you can talk about the thing you’re applying for, why it’s important to you, catch up with them, etc. And then let them know that if needed they can see your personal statement/ essays, resume/ CV, and instructions for upload, which are all conveniently in a folder. Also let them know that if needed you can send them a digital copy via email as well if it’s more convenient for them.
This makes a win-win situation. Your letter writers love you because you saved them time and you look more organized. And you love your letter writers because they have all the important info about you to write you an awesome letter — basically every one wins and every one is happy!
BUT WHAT IF I’M NOT MEETING IN PERSON?
Have no fear… you can still message them to say thank you to them for agreeing to write your letter and let them know that you attached a copy of your personal statement, CV/ resume, and instructions for upload for their convenience. Don’t forget to save things as PDF. It’s more professional and an old advisor told me this prevents unwanted errors or changes being made to your documents by accident. Be sure to let them know that they can contact you if they have any questions or issues.
STEP 4: FOLLOW UP
Because you’re so awesome and organized you won’t be asking for letters of recommendation at the last minute. 2 weeks before the deadline send your letter writer a quick reminder and be sure to let them know they can contact you if they have any questions.
STEP 5: SAY THANK YOU & SEND UPDATES!
Be sure to let them know if you got the position. And regardless if you did or not, make sure you thank them for their time. When I moved to LA, I emailed all my letter writers (and the assistants of the professors I worked with) to say thank you and let them know I was excited to start medical school. Also if they were close by, I gave them a small gift (a thank you card & a gourmet cupcake wrapped in a cute box from a popular bakery next to campus). Gifts are optional but I actually really liked my letter writers and I love cupcakes and gift-giving so this is what I chose to do. I did this very informally and just popped by their office when I had free time, or I caught them right outside the classroom after I knew their lecture would end.
But wait… what if my letter writers ask me to draft my own letter of recommendation?
Honestly, this is something I hate doing and I always struggled with. But Elyse over at Love and the Sky wrote an awesome post about drafting your own letter of recommendation. I’m not going to reinvent the wheel by writing about that because she did an awesome job explaining the process so I highly suggest you check her post out. I definitely put a few notes/ tips from her post that I liked best into a word doc and saved it on my laptop so that I could reference it in the future during residency application season!
So basically that’s my foolproof plan to a good letter of recommendation. Ask people who like you, stay organized, and stay in communication with them.
You’re probably thinking that I did the most, but in all honestly I do everything extra so there’s that. But also, a lot of my letter writers held a lot of time-consuming positions and were some of the busiest and most popular professors to request letters from. I also asked some of them to submit letters for multiple applications at once such as fellowships/ scholarships + medical school (don’t worry they had several months notice) so it was important for me to make it easy for them. A friend suggested I put together a letter packet since it worked for her, and I did the same and got awesome feedback afterwards from almost everyone. I’m not sure if this is common or not but like I said it worked for me, and hopefully it works for you too!