The best letters of recommendation are offered by people who have seen you perform in some capacity – as student, student leader, employee, researcher, volunteer. The weakest letters are of the “character reference” variety or from influential individuals who barely know you.
How long should a med school letter of recommendation be?
On average, these letters tend to be approximately three double-spaced pages in length. Any more than that is simply too much, considering that each applicant submits at least three letters of recommendation and that medical schools receive on average 5,000 applications each year. That’s a lot of letters to read! A letter is more likely to be read all the way through and in detail if it’s to the point. That being said, a letter that is too brief – only one page or less – will hurt your application because it will be lacking in specifics that speak to your abilities and character.
How to write a letter of recommendation for medical school
The best med school letters of recommendation all have the following five components:
- They explain how well the letter writer knows the applicant.
The first section of the letter explains the context of the relationship. For example, is the recommender a professor, mentor, or supervisor? How long has the recommender known you? By establishing the background of your relationship, the writer is in the best position to describe you to the selection committee. The best letters are from people who have known you for a year or longer and who have worked closely with you on successful projects.
- They go into depth about your accomplishments.
The majority of the letter should focus on what the writer has observed about the quality of your work and the characteristics that you have demonstrated. The longer this section of the letter is, the better. It is here that the recommender can help you shine as an applicant. An instructor’s letter that describes the content and difficulty of a course and that rates your performance as much stronger than that of many other students tells an admissions committee something significant about you.
It’s important to avoid repetition and duplication in your letters. “Only one recommendation per single source” is a good rule of thumb. This means that each letter should highlight a different facet of you and your accomplishments, ideally presenting you from a different vantage point.
If you have a job where you report to more than one person, don’t ask each of these people for a letter. Rather, ask your supervisors to collaborate on a single letter. Similarly, if you’re a biology major, don’t ask three biology professors for letters. Granted, each might be able to speak highly of you; however, they all will be making similar observations from a single frame of reference. Your goal should be a mix of letters from a variety of experiences and perspectives.
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- They provide details about the outcomes of your work and the impact you have had on others.
Selection committees love facts, numbers, and data. Any outcomes from your work that are emphasized will make the letter stand out from others. Information such as the number of patients you have assisted and positive quotes from people you have worked with can provide convincing evidence of an exceptional character. Other examples of outcomes include publications, poster presentations, and awards.
- They provide context for your accomplishments.
If you are the first person in your family to earn a college degree, this information makes all your success even more remarkable. Information about you, such as the number of languages you speak fluently and your knowledge of other cultures, can also support your candidacy for medical school. A paragraph or two describing your background can really elevate a letter of recommendation and make it stand out to the selection committee!
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- They detail the reasons you will succeed in medical school.
The best letters of recommendation will highlight unique characteristics that the school has already learned about you to explain why you will succeed in medical school. Convincing selection committees that you are well prepared and that you will excel in the next phase of your education adds compelling support for your application.
How these top five letter of recommendation components will help you
I’ve read hundreds of letters of recommendation. In my experience, these five key ingredients just described are essential for letters of recommendation to stand out from the competition and help you shine. When a letter writer takes the time to include all these sections, it also demonstrates a deep respect for and strong confidence in you.
So, how can you go about soliciting these amazing letters?
Follow these strategies and you are almost guaranteed to receive excellent letters of recommendation.
- Choose your recommenders wisely
To repeat the critical information already presented here, being strategic in selecting who knows you best and can write most positively about your work is top priority. Only ask for letters from people who have seen you perform at your best – in classes in which you received an A grade, on research that resulted in a poster presentation or a publication, or in employment for which you earned an award or received a promotion.
- Make sure that you have alternates for each letter category.
Plan for at least one letter writer not to deliver. Other obligations or unexpected illness will keep some recommenders from following through. Choose backup letter writers for the most important categories: science professor, leadership, community service, and clinical.
- Prepare a letter packet to give to each person.
To make writing your recommendation letter as easy as possible for your recommenders, create a packet for them that includes the following: an updated copy of your CV or resume, the final draft of your personal statement, a list of bullet points about your background or important facts they should know about you, a copy of your transcripts, the AMCAS cover letter with barcode, and a stamped and addressed envelope, in case they want to mail the letter.
- Give your recommenders deadlines.
You should assign a deadline that is well before the actual date by which you will need the letters. They are due with the secondary applications, so if you request the letters by the date you plan to submit your primary application, you should safely have all your letters in time to submit your secondaries, weeks later.
- Send reminders, when necessary.
Don’t be shy. If you haven’t heard from the letter writer for a while and the deadline is only a week away, send a gentle and friendly reminder. People get busy. They might have forgotten about it. Don’t take it personally.
- Thank your recommenders!
After you have received a letter from a professor, employer, or mentor, write a gracious thank you note, and send it as soon as you can. Once you get busy with secondaries, the urgency will fade, but it is so important to acknowledge their kindness in supporting your application. Update your letter writers on your progress – especially if you receive an acceptance! They would love to know that their support was important to your success.
Contact Accepted for personalized guidance through the medical school letter of recommendation process. Our expert advisors can help you or your letter writer get the job done in a way that will optimize your chances of getting ACCEPTED.