It’s never too early to start thinking about your letters of recommendation for medical school. Here are five easy ways to ruin your chances of getting great (not good) letters of recommendation.

It is no secret that your academic performance and MCAT scores are among the most important factors in the medical school admission decision. However, having stellar grades and impressive test scores are not the sole deciding factors in gaining admission to medical school. And while admission officers consider many other factors, your letters of recommendation are also an important factor when it comes to getting in. In fact, after your GPA and MCAT scores, it holds greater importance than all other components of your application, holding more value in the eyes of admission officers than factors like your personal statements, medical and clinical work experience, and leadership experience.

Letters of recommendation for medical school are kind of a big deal. Medical school admission officers say that non-academic data, such as interview scores and letters of recommendation, are the most important data for deciding whom to accept into medical school, according to a survey published by the Association of American Medical Colleges. The decision of whether or not to offer a prospective medical student a seat in the next incoming class goes well beyond impressive grades and stellar MCAT scores. Now that you know how important medical school letters of recommendation are to your application, is there anything you can do to make sure the ones that are submitted on your behalf endorse you as the best medical school candidate possible? Of course there is! Your goal is to make it easy for your professors to write your letters of recommendation. Unfortunately, there are students who received good – not great – letters of recommendation. If you’d like to help your potential recommenders write the best letters possible, steer clear of these five ways to ruin your changes of getting a strong endorsement.

Choose the Wrong People 

Given that your letters of recommendation are entirely dependent on someone else so you should be giving a lot of thought to who you will ultimately choose. Regardless of what stage of the medical school application process you are at, if you haven’t started to think about who you will want to write your letters of recommendation – you’re late. Students are often so
busy studying for their classes or preparing for the MCAT, that they forget a very crucial part of the application process – getting letters recommendation. 

Remember, medical school admission officers are preparing to evaluate you as a possible student in their next class, and want to know who you are as an individual. Having strong letters of recommendation can literally be the deciding factor in whether or not you get accepted into medical school. On the other hand, having a weak letter of recommendation could also put an end to your medical school dream. It is also important to know that medical schools may require different types of letters of recommendation so it is crucial that you develop relationships with individuals who fall into one category or another. For example, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine requires a recommendation from the applicant’s college premedical committee or an officially designated premedical advisor. If the applicant’s college does not have a premedical advisor or premedical committee, two letters of recommendation are required from science faculty members in science departments who have taught the applicant and one non-science faculty member who has also taught the applicant. In addition to the letters indicated, applicants with advanced degrees and/or full time employment are required to submit recommendations from
each component of their education and major work experience.

Your job is to be strategic about the people you choose to write your letters of recommendation. You’ll obviously want to choose individuals who you are truly confident will write a strong letter for you. If you have to question whether or not an individual may have trouble speaking on your strengths, capabilities, and motivation, then they’re not the right choice. Shoot for individuals
who will be able to speak highly of your academic abilities, motivation to become a doctor, level of maturity, and various accomplishments. The individuals who you should choose are those who want to see you get accepted to medical school and become a doctor just as much as you do. And while you may have several individuals in mind, consider who has the ability to the most relevant information that medical school admission officers will find most valuable. In the end you are looking for people to essentially be your personal advocate, you should also consider who might be in a position to best convince medical school admission officers of your abilities.

Perform Poorly in Class

The most surefire way to develop a good relationship with an individual who could potentially become the writer of your letter of recommendation is to do a great job! By excelling academically in class or performing above average at work, you are setting the stage for a positive relationship with a potential future letter writer. Medical school is considered to be one of the most academically challenging paths in graduate education and chances are, the person who will write your medical school recommendation knows this too. By getting good grades or performing job tasks well, you open the door to allow you to take the next step to engage with this person. For your classes, after you’ve learned what a professor has taught and proven it by performing well on exams, your next job is to show your willingness to learn more. The key to developing a positive relationship with a professor is by being an active participant in class. When you give a professor the opportunity to get to know you beyond just seeing you in class and a grade next to your name, you give them more chances to pull from interactions to write
about you on a more personal level. And in some ways, if you’re able to connect with a professor while taking a larger lecture-style course rather than one taught in a smaller setting, kudos to you. Imagine that you are a medical school admission officer who reads a letter of recommendation written by a professor who teaches one of the notoriously crowded General Chemistry or Intro to Bio course and talks about a particular student who made animpression on him/her, wouldn’t that be quite impressive? Performing well in your classes will also give your premed advisor an indication of your academic level since they are not able to evaluate you in an actual class setting. And for those of you who will need someone from your place of work to write a recommendation, go above and beyond what you’re asked. Show initiative and remain committed to whatever assignment or project you work on – it will show and pay off in the long run.

Talk About Everything But Wanting to Become a Doctor

If you’ve made the decision to become a doctor everyone around you should know it. They should not only know that you want to become a doctor but also why you want to become a doctor. The path to becoming a doctor is not an easy one and you must be committed and passionate about your decision to dedicate the rest of your life to practicing medicine. When you talk about becoming a doctor, it’s important that you don’t’ come off as arrogant or obnoxious about it but get across your true passion about why you want to pursue a career in medicine. By being able to express your commitment to wanting to become a doctor in a non-generic way, the people around you will understand how serious you are and will feel great if there’s anything they can do to support you in anyway to help you pursue your dreams. Let’s imagine for a minute that you are an art professor and had a student who always talked about being, say an Ocularist (someone who paints artificial eyes) and told you about when the first decided they wanted to be an Ocularist, why the find being an Ocularist so interesting, why they find painting eyes to be so awesome, and why they wanted to spend the rest of their life being an Ocularist. Then a few months later, they tell you that they’re applying to one of the top Ocularist training programs in the country needed a recommendation and wanted you to write it? Wouldn’t it be easy for you to accept the request? Besides, you’ve heard so much about their dream of painting artificial eyes on several occasions for the last few months and they ended up receiving an “A” in your class. The point it, when you talk about wanting to become a doctor to those around you, including your professors and colleagues at work, you give them the opportunity to get to know you on a personal level, stripped of your smarts and other abilities.

Allow For Only A Little Bit Time 

Writing a recommendation is no easy task and the last thing that you want to do is not give your recommenders enough time to put together strong, thoughtful letters of recommendation for you. Once you’ve decided on who you’ll be requesting your letters of recommendation from, you may actually sabotage your chances of getting a great letter if you don’t give them the time they need. Providing a comfortable time to write a letter of recommendation is an easy, but very crucial step that you must not overlook. You’ve put in the work and spent time allowing this person to get to know you, now make it all count for something. People are busy and if you’re requesting one from a professor, chances are you’re not the only one, so give them the respect and courtesy they deserve by providing them with plenty of time to honor your request. Generally, at least 4-6 weeks is an ideal amount of time to give your recommender to write your letter. If you want to blow your chances of getting the best recommendation possible and really annoy your recommender, go ahead and give them less than 2 weeks to prepare your letter. This is the most important application yet, don’t blow it by making the simple mistake of not giving enough notice.

Hold Back Additional Information About Yourself

It may be easy to underestimate how difficult it is to write a strong letter of recommendation that may give you an advantage to gaining acceptance to medical school. In order for the people writing your letters of recommendation to vouch for you on the strongest level, you’ll want to give them all the information they’ll need to successfully fulfill your request. Aside from the information they may already have about you or anything that you might have spoken to them about, put together a comprehensive file that will give them the opportunity to speak on your behalf from as many different angles as possible.
Here are a few items to include in your file:

  • Cover Letter. In your introductory note to the person writing your letter of recommendation, briefly remind them what the letter of recommendation is for and thank them for agreeing to write the letter for you. Be sure to include your contact information so they can reach you if they have any questions or need additional information from you. Also give them information about your deadline for receiving their letter.
  • Resume/CV. Prepare a resume of your academic and extracurricular accomplishments, honors and awards, relevant work experience, research or clinical activities, and hobbies. When listing your experiences, make sure to highlight duties and tasks that showcase relevant knowledge and skills, leadership abilities, and other qualities that may help paint a well-rounded picture of you.
  • Essay. If you have completed your AMCAS essay or at least a draft, it may be a good idea to share it. This will give them the opportunity to learn more about you and your desire to become a doctor in ways they may not already know. It may help give them a greater sense of why you are pursuing a career in medicine and possibly give them a chance to make a more meaningful connection that would have otherwise been left uncovered.
  • Statement of Purpose. If you’re not comfortable providing a copy of your AMCAS essay, you may want to consider putting together a shortened version of what many other graduate and professional schools call a Statement of Purpose. You can use this document to give a general sense of the type of schools you are applying to and why you believe they would be best for you. Try to write at least two compelling paragraphs so that the person writing your recommendation can have more than enough information to endorse you in the strongest way possible.
  • Unofficial Transcript/MCAT Scores. Providing your unofficial transcript and MCAT scores pretty much just confirms what the person writing your letter of recommendation should already know about your academic capabilities. They will get the opportunity to asses your overall achievement in various courses, science and non-science, and if necessary remind them of the grade you received in their course. Giving the people writing your letters of recommendation a chance to see your transcript and test scores provides evidence of your overall qualifications for the study of medicine and solid ground for helping them build up a case in your favor.