Letters of Recommendation, Part 2: Getting your letters
by Lauren Poindexter, Kaplan Elite MCAT Instructor
It’s a well known fact that letters of recommendation are an important part of your medical school application. In my last article, I provided some tips and guidelines to consider when choosing who to pick as your letter writers. Now that you know who you’ll be asking for letters, today we’ll pick things up by discussing how to request your letters and make sure you get them.
Step 3: As soon as possible and in person, ask each of your potential writers if they are willing to submit a great letter of recommendation on your behalf. Yes, you must say “great” in your request!
Do not accept anything less than GREAT! If they can’t help, find someone else! To those that say yes, offer to meet with them for coffee or during office hours to give them additional information about your background (the packet you will make in Step 4) and answer any questions they have about you. My organic chemistry professor and I met after class for this reason and ended up in a deep conversation about his recurring shin pain and how our fathers both have atrial fibrillation. Naturally, the discussion turned to my past professional medical experience and goals for the future – perfect fodder for a letter of recommendation!
Step 4: Give each letter writer a packet of useful information about you and your application.
You need to make sure that your letter writers have enough information to write you a truly outstanding letter. While they should know a fair amount about you already, you need to provide the tools to complete the picture. In a big envelope, give each letter writer:
· Cover letter: thank them for their help, share directions, deadlines, and contact info for you and your pre-med advisor, if applicable.
· Addressed, stamped envelope: the delivery address is either 1) your address or 2) that of your pre-med advisor if he/she collects your letters on your behalf or 3) AMCAS. Some letter writers know how to upload your letters themselves into the AMCAS system via Interfolio or other applications, so they won’t don’t need a stamped envelope; if you are collecting your own letters, keep them clearly sealed and mail them together to AMCAS. If the writer is sending the letter via USPS to AMCAS, you need to also include the official letter form downloaded from your AMCAS application.
· Curriculum vitae:your “CV” is an expanded resume containing your educational background as well as work experience, activities, leadership experience, teaching experience, awards and honors, and publications. Ask your mentor for a copy of their CV for a clear idea of what one looks like; for the rest of your professional career, you will add to this document!
· Draft of your personal statement: invite them to respond with comments or suggestions for revision, if they wish, but mainly this is to give them a sense of what your application will look like.
· Academic history: science & cumulative GPAs, undergraduate/graduate/post-bac GPAs, explanations for poor performance, MCAT test score(s), and your short- and long-term goals for the future! If there’s a gap or flaw in your academic career, a strong letter may be able to help explain it.
· Tentative list of medical schools to which you hope to apply: you never know who they might know! Plus, they may have insight into some of the schools or offer suggestions for ones you didn’t yet consider.
Step 5: Be kind, but persistent about getting your letters returned on time!
Send brief, encouraging emails or phone calls well in advance of your deadline. In an email to your letter writer, carbon copy (cc) your letter writer’s secretary or assistant and your pre-med advisor if a deadline passes and you haven’t received confirmation that your letter is complete – this little trick has never failed me!
Step 6: Submit your letters to AMCAS, and then write personal ‘Thank You’ notes to each writer.
A handwritten, simple, sincere message of thanks means more than you realize! You don’t have to go this far, but I was so thankful that so many busy people helped me with my application that I sent each of them a handwritten thank you note with some homebaked cookies and a $5 coffee shop gift card. You don’t have to buy gifts or go overboard – just be thoughtful and communicate this in a timely, heartfelt manner.
Step 7: Keep your LOR writers updated with news of your application & acceptance(s)!
Some of these people will serve you well as mentors and friends throughout your medical career, so keep them in the loop! Nothing’s worse than for them to invest time and energy into making you look good for your application and never hearing what became of it. Typically, your letter writers will be overjoyed to hear about your med school acceptances! (At which point you can write them another thank you card.)