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Choosing the Right Medical School Letter of Recommendation Writer

Author: Michelle Finkel, MD

Having read many letters of recommendation (LORs) as a Harvard Assistant Residency Director, I can tell you that these letters matter much more than I thought when I was crafting my own residency and medical school applications. One little considered fact: Mediocre letters (not to mention frankly bad ones) are a lost opportunity at best and a fast way to bomb your residency or medical school application at worst. It is critical that you get strong letters of recommendation. One major factor in getting those includes asking the right people.

Different medical schools are seeking different sources of your letters. Many medical schools require at least two science professors and one non-science professor to submit LORs on your behalf. Some also require a letter from your principal investigator (PI) if you have done research. Many medical schools now prefer a composite letter from a premedical advisor or committee. (For students attending schools that do not provide this service, individual letters from faculty members can be substituted.) And if that isn’t confusing enough, some medical schools have time limits on their letters; they may require that no LORs are older than a year.

Now, beyond fulfilling a school’s requirements, you want to get the strongest letter you possibly can from the most influential writers. Choosing the right professors can be a challenge, and advisees often ask me for what to look for in a letter writer. Here is my suggested wish list for potential letter-writers:

1. They are senior faculty with weighty titles and are well known in their field.
2. They have spent significant time with you.
3. They are experienced letter-writers.
4. They have explicitly stated they will write you a strong LOR.

Of course all of these qualifications are not possible for all letter-writers. But the more of these you can garner the better. With regard to #1, admissions officers are human just like the rest of us: Receiving a LOR from an accomplished, known colleague will be weighed much more heavily than one from someone deemed less successful and unfamiliar. If you are better connected to someone without a title (for example, a teaching assistant), consider asking the professor (a more senior person who has a weightier title) if s/he would consider writing the LOR with significant input from your closer contact. That way you get the best of #1, #2 and #3.

With regard to #4, don’t be afraid to ask a potential letter-writer if s/he will write you "a very strong" LOR. It may seem awkward at the time you ask but, believe me, getting a wimpy letter will be much thornier. (If they say no, hesitate, or tell you they have to cook Thanksgiving dinner in the spring, think of their negative responses as a big favor.)

Remember that your letters have a big impact on your residency and medical school application, and a mediocre letter can bomb your candid ...

News Release: Choosing the Right Medical School Letter of Recommendation Writer
Submitted on: March 20, 2017 08:30:30 PM
Submitted by: Ryan McGovern
On behalf of: