Understanding the role you play when it comes time for getting letters of recommendation for admission to medical school.

The medical school application process is inarguably a tedious one. There are primary and secondary applications to fill out. There’s the MCAT to dominate, your list of personal experiences to fine tune, and your personal statement to draft. There’s figuring out which schools you even want to try to apply to, from your “safety schools” to your “just possibly maybe” list.

There’s budgeting your money for interview traveling and a sharp suit, refining your interview skills, and doing your research to know the exact application deadlines and requirements for each and every school on your list. And finally, as if all of that wasn’t enough, there’s the need to gather letters of recommendation.

While all other parts of the application process more or less rely on you solely, letters of recommendation can only be controlled by you to a certain extent. Beyond that point, they must be left to the hands of your requested letter writers, whoever they may be. Because of this, doing your part of the letter of recommendation process is essential for ensuring the best possible outcome.

Research Specifics

Know letter requirements (committee, doctor, professor, etc.): Firstly, when approaching the letters of recommendation parts of any medical school application (whether it’s a primary or secondary application), be sure to carefully research what the requirements for a specific school are. For instance, some medical schools only require a general “committee letter” of recommendation; such a letter is typically drafted by the pre-medicine committee at your undergraduate school and contains input from a number of different professors and faculty members who have submitted statements about you to the committee. Other schools might refuse to take such general committee letters and instead require that you submit only letters of recommendation from single individuals. Still, other schools may ask for a variety of letters from different sources; for instance, a school might require that your application contain letters from a former professor, a medical doctor and a “personal reference” from someone who knows you outside of the academic or medical setting. Some schools go as far as to differentiate between types of medical doctors (allopathic and osteopathic). Since each school has different requirements, it’s important to research the specifics of each and every school that you plan on applying to.

Utilize Digital Services

Fortunately, even though you will most likely be applying to many different medical schools, modern day applications are in some ways simpler than their predecessors. Specifically, the common use of digital letters of recommendation services makes it possible to collect all of your letters in one convenient location, provided your letter writers are willing to submit their letters in this way. Interfolio and VirtualEvals are two such letter collecting services online; through these services you are able to keep a digital collection of all of your letters of recommendation for a set period of time. (The length of time usually depends on the particular service that you are using.) This way, you can easily know exactly which of your letters of recommendation have actually been written. Of course, you can only see when and if a letter has been completed; the contents of these letters remain unknown to you.

Once your letters of recommendation are submitted and received, it is then up to you to make sure that the schools that you are applying to get the correct letters—a process that is usually accomplished through the AMCAS Letter Service. While not all medical schools currently utilize this service, a good majority of them do. Check the specifics of your medical schools to find out if using this service is a possibility or to find out if there is another digital letter collection/sending service that they utilize.

Be Considerately Timely

While it is up to your committed letter writers to submit your letters on time, it is up to you to request these letters long enough in advance that all writers are given ample time to complete their tasks. Asking for a letter of recommendation just a couple of weeks before your completed application needs to be submitted is rude and unprofessional and will not give your letter writer a positive view of you, no matter how outstanding you might be in other fields. Since the due date for each medical school application might be different, and since there’s a good chance you’ll be able to submit the same letter(s) of recommendation to more than one school, it is ideal that you plan to have all of your letters turned in by the time that the soonest application is due. This way, you have full access to all possible letters of recommendation for yourself as soon as you might possibly need them.

Additionally, when asking for a letter of recommendation, it is advisable to never ask someone with the assumption that they will be available to write the letter for you. Provide them with a way out in your initial request as a standard courtesy (“I understand if you’ve already committed yourself to  too many other things at this time to have the time to write me a letter.”), but also provide them with a timeline of when you need things by. If you want to submit your completed application by a certain date that is earlier than the due date, make this known (“My application to medical school is due on ______, so I’d appreciate it if you could submit your letter by _______.”). This way, you have made your requests and timeline clear to the letter writer, and they know exactly how soon they need to submit the letter by.

Keep Things Personal

While not submitting a letter of recommendation by its due date will certainly hurt your chances of getting accepted in a medical school, only having “standard,” non-personal letters of recommendation certainly won’t do you any favors either. Admissions committees receive thousands of applicants every year and skim through even more letters of recommendation. What they are not interested in seeing is a letter that simply commends someone for being a “good student.” Such letters are impersonal and give the impression that the letter writer does not really know the student well at all. If possible, ask professors and others who actually know you decently well to write your letters of recommendation. If you attend an undergraduate school where there are thousands of students in your classes, it will be much more difficult to establish a close relationship with a professor or other such figure. Because of this, it is all the more important that you are proactive in pursuing such relationships, even from your first year of college. Little things, like being a biology lab TA, or a math tutor, or a leader in a science club, might help you establish such a relationship with someone who might eventually be a good source for a letter of recommendation.

Provide Your Information

One easy way to ensure that your letters of recommendation are very memorable and specific to you as a person is to actually provide your letter writers with some interesting information about yourself. This information can be anything that you feel would help make yourself appear as a stronger candidate in their eyes and in the eyes of an admissions committee; it does not necessarily have to be information that seems specific to the field of medicine. Even though your favorite professor might know that you are an outstanding student in chemistry lab, providing him with a little bit of insight into your non-academic life will help him get to know you a little better and give him a stronger base of information from which to compile his letter.

Say “thank you”

Finally, even though it’s their job to actually compose and submit the letter to the appropriate site, it’s your job to make sure that their contribution to your medical school application is appreciated. Sending a “thank you” note not only will show your gratitude and showcase your manners, but it will also keep your relationship with the letter writer a positive one. A hand written note is typically recommended, but an email thank you note may also be welcomed in certain situations. While this may not seem like an important relationship to keep (particularly if you don’t think that you will ever be seeing that person again), it actually may be a very crucial one to maintain.

Specifically speaking, getting into medical school on your first round through the application process is obviously the ideal goal. However, realistically speaking, not everyone is fortunate enough to have such luck. Because of this, maintaining a positive relationship with your letter writers is important; even though it’s not an ideal scenario, there is a chance that you might be having to ask them to re-write a letter for you (since some online letter services allow letters to be considered “new” only within a one year period of time). Letters of recommendation are important, but they are rarely the reason that an applicant is rejected from a medical school; while retaking your MCAT to improve your score, redoing a class to improve your GPA, or rewriting your personal statement might be necessary steps to getting accepted on your second (or even third) time to apply, finding different people to write your letters of recommendation typically is not necessary. Maintaining good relationships with those letters writers however, is necessary.

Overall, collecting letters of recommendation does not have to be a daunting task, regardless of how many different medical schools you might be applying to. Applying to more medical schools will mean that you will need to do more research to find out the specific requirements and due dates for each school, but it might not mean that you have to actually have more letters of recommendation physically mailed out, thanks to services like Interfolio and popularity of the AMCAS Letter Service. While these letters typically do not hurt you (since hopefully you are only asking for letters from committees or individuals who only have positive things to say about you anyways), a good letter can definitely help improve the competitive strength of your application.

Be timely in your requests, proactive in providing your letter writers with positive information about yourself, and grateful for the time that these letter writers put into crafting and submitting your letters. While there is no set formula for being guaranteed a spot in medical school, having a good collection of positive letters written on your behalf can only help your cause.