Letters of Recommendation, Part I: Finding your letter writers

by Lauren Poindexter, Kaplan Elite MCAT Instructor

As an MCAT instructor, I routinely field questions about the med school application process, especially concerning Letters of Recommendation (LORs). This important element of your application carries the potential to pull admissions committees over to your side by showing them your many diverse attributes and personal qualities. To achieve this, you’ll want to submit excellent letters from professionals who can paint a flattering picture of you by way of vivid descriptions and sincere commendation.

The following guidelines are an adjunct to the ultimate source of all rules & regulations of applying to US allopathic (MD) medical schools: the AMCAS website and the latest MSAR guide. If you are interested in applying to osteopathic (DO) medical programs these guidelines still hold true, but you should also check out the great info on the AACOM website!

Step 1: Know the requirements for the letters (deadlines, number of letters required, ways to upload or submit them to AMCAS, how your pre-med committee at school can help, etc.)

Each med school has its own set of LOR standards and limits, so you’ll want to do some research into the schools you’ll be applying to and their requirements. At the very least you should collect letters from the following individuals:

·two from science professors who have taught you (at least one from a pre-med science, like biology or anatomy; should not be written by a teaching assistant, though their thoughts can be offered to the professor writing your letter)

·one from a non-science professor who has taught you (typically humanities or social sciences)

·physician you’ve worked with, shadowed, or who’s known you personally and professionally for some time

·pre-med committee letter (only if your school performs this service)

In certain situations, it’s also recommended that you request letters from the following individuals:

·research director or principal investigator (if you have research experience)

·graduate program director (if you are a graduate student or have completed your master’s degree)

·osteopathic physician (if you are applying to DO schools)

·a new letter accounting for your past year’s activities and successes (if you are re-applying)

Step 2: Make a list of people in your life with which you have a special relationship and who can write intimately about your unique qualities and reference specific situations that highlight your strengths.


Your goal is to identify writers who are knowledgeable about two things: 1) you and 2) the demands of medical school or the medical profession. Ideally, each letter will highlight just one or two of your many admirable qualities and experiences, so when the letters are combined the admissions committee can get a vivid and complete impression of your character.

When choosing your letter writers, it’s important to note that the credentials of your letter writers do not carry more weight than what they write about you! In other words, just because someone is a well respected authority in their field doesn’t necessarily make them the right person to ask for a letter – it’s far more important that they know you as an individual. Along the same lines, you want to avoid the dreaded form letter because it says nothing unique about your personal attributes vs. any other applicant.

The AAMC & admissions committees have identified the following qualities as standards for people in the medical profession*:


·critical thinking


·logical reasoning

·oral communication skills

·personal maturity



·work habits


·cultural competence

·intellectual curiosity

·motivation for medicine





Looking at the list above, what qualities do you possess? Who can attest to this? Answering these questions will go a long way towards helping you identify your letter writers.

Check back next week for Part II of our discussion of letters of recommendation – requesting your letters!

*”Examples of attributes like to be important to admissions committees,” 2011-2012 MSAR, p. 41, (c) 2010 by AAMC


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