Letters of evaluations for medical school can be difficult to elicit because many of the science courses that you take during undergrad have 100+ students in the class so it is hard to find a way to stand out. Some tips when thinking about letters include the following:
It is never too early to start asking for letters
Even during your first year of undergrad, if you did really well in a science course especially, it is better to just ask for the letter. You may be thinking about waiting until your Sophomore or Junior year for a letter but it may be harder then because a lot of other students will be trying to get letters. So actually, if you do well in a class and you feel like the professor knows you well enough, just ask them for a letter. Another thing to keep in mind is even if you do not think you will be asking a professor for a letter, you should still know the professor pretty well so that if you did ask for a letter, he/she would be able to write it on your behalf. The reason I say this is because sometimes you end up doing really well in a class and you may not have expected it and so it could be a great opportunity.
Also during Freshman year there are only a handful of students that would even consider asking for a letter of recommendation so if you did well in the class and take the time to get to know the professor, your letter may be even better than you think. During Sophomore year, students get caught up with taking a bunch of science courses and will forget to ask for letters of evaluation. And then during Junior year everyone will sort of realize they need letters and then will start to freak out and ask all of their professors in hopes of someone saying yes. The best thing to do is to keep it in your mind early and act accordingly.
Before starting a class, think about whether or not you would like to ask for a letter
It is important to think about whether or not you may be asking your professor for a letter. The reason for this is because you may approach your semester in a different manner if you are thinking about getting a letter. Since it is difficult for the professor to know a lot about you, you will need to work harder to get to know the professor. This would include making use of office hours even if you do not necessarily need help in the subject. This way, the professor gets to see you in a different light that is outside of class. Also, the larger science courses have T.A.’s (teacher assistant’s) and these are great people to use as resources. The T.A. knows the professor and talks to the professor often and in many cases will help with the input when it comes to grading. Working with the T.A. one-on-one is also something you should consider doing because the T.A. is usually only a couple of years older than you and knows what it is like to be in your spot and may even give you tips on how to approach the professor.
It is always a great idea to talk to students a year ahead of you that have already gone through the course in order to see what their thoughts are regarding asking a letter from a specific professor. There are some professors that are really awesome at writing letters and others that are just not that great. Knowing beforehand can help to shape how you would like to approach the semester. You do not want to try hard to get a letter from a professor that is generally known to say no to students or who does not write great letters. Nonetheless, do not let this stop you from asking for a letter from someone who you feel you have a strong connection with.
There is also a difference in how to approach interviews when asking right after a class is over and then possibly months to years after a class is over.
Asking right after a class is over
This option is relatively easier than the second option because the course has just ended the professor remembers you pretty well. The best thing to do in this case is wait until your final grades for that semester have come out before asking because a professor is most likely stressing about grading exams and doing final grades. You do not want to ask a professor when he/she is stressing out because the chances of it being a “no” is more likely. So wait until the final grades are submitted and send an email their way explaining what you need the letter for and if they would be willing to write a letter. Generally most students will hear back within a couple of days to weeks. Another reason for waiting until the final grade has been submitted is so that your professor can comment on how well you did in the course.
Asking months to years after a class is over
This is tricky because you are really depending on the fact that the professor remembers you from however long ago. If you are at a smaller school and really made a connection with the professor, it is definitely more likely that you will be remember. But do not fret if you are at a larger school because there are still some options. So, look up the most recent email thread you had with a professor and then reply within that email thread because then if the professor does not remember you, he/she can scroll down and read through previous emails which may help to jog their memory. Also, your email will not be as basic as an email written in the situation above. You will need to explain more and remind them more of who you are. These emails require a little more work and thought in order to effectively get your point across but can be done, just take your time when writing them.
In the end, it is important that you give this part of the process just as much respect that you do to all of the other components. Having strong letters of recommendation can go a long way when there are hundreds and thousands of other students competing for the same spot at a medical school. For another individual to speak highly of you and what you are capable of is a huge plus. Letters of recommendation not only bring to life the numbers and quantitative aspects of your medical school application, but also gives admission officers a peek into who you are from someone else’s point of view.
It is also important that you do not make thinking about letters of recommendations as a secondary thought. These letters should be at the forefront of your mind, years before you even begin the application process. You should really approach each class as though you will, at the end of that course, be able to ask for a letter of recommendation. Make yourself seen, make yourself heard, make and leave a great impression on your instructor. Keep it in the front (and back) of your mind that your instructor, this individual, could very well be the source of a valuable letter of recommendation for your medical school application package.
Think of your letters of recommendation as your letters of support. When researchers and scientist apply for million dollar grants, some provide letters of support from individuals who are there to speak highly on why this particular person should be the “chosen one” in the end. And remember, these individuals are applying for hundreds of thousands of dollars and even millions. Often, these letters of support are not required documents for applying,, but those who do include such letters know that if they can provide one more positive thing for consideration, they are certainly going to include it.
The more positive factors you can present for the case you are presenting that you are a good fit for a school’s incoming medical school class, the better. Staying ahead and on top of the game is key and thinking smart about the process and using it to your advantage will certainly pay off in the end.