Med School Requirements: Letters of Recommendation, Part I

September 16, 2014
Lauren Poindexter

Identifying Your Recommenders

As an MCAT instructor, I routinely field questions about the med school application process, especially concerning credentials and Letters of Recommendation (LORs).

Your med school application’s LORs carry the potential to pull admissions committees over to your side by showing them your many diverse attributes and personal qualities. To highlight these, you’ll want to submit excellent recommendations from professionals who can paint a flattering picture of you by way of vivid descriptions and sincere commendation.

Requirements for your Letters of Recommendation

Each medical school has its own set of standards and formats for the LOR, so you’ll want to do some research into the specific schools to which you’ll be applying.

If you’re applying to US allopathic (MD) medical schools, visit the AMCAS website and check out the latest Medical School Admissions Requirements (MSAR) guide. If you’re applying to osteopathic (DO) medical programs, you should visit the AACOM website and check out the Osteopathic Medical College Information Book.

Regardless, make sure you know the deadlines, number of letters required, and which recommenders you will need to approach for your varying types of recommendation letters.

Types of recommenders for your med school requirements:

  • Science Professors: You’ll want at least one recommender from a pre-med science, like biology or anatomy, to speak to your hard science credentials. The letter should not be written by a teaching assistant, though TAs are welcome to contribute their thoughts to the professor writing your letter. If you don’t have strong relationships with any of your professors, start visiting them during office hours to build a rapport.
  • Non-Science Professors: Reach out to a humanities or social sciences teacher (past or present) as well.
  • Physician: You want to find someone who knows you personally and If you’ve worked with or shadowed a physician during your pre-med extracurriculars, this is the perfect place to start.
  • Pre-Med Committee (only if your school performs this service): This is basically a cover letter that is written by your school’s pre-professional advising committee, pre-med office, or similar body at the institution.

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
  • Representative from Volunteer Programs, if you have medical-related volunteer experience
  • Graduate Program Director, if you are a graduate student or have completed your master’s degree
  • An Update…: A new letter accounting for your past year’s activities, credentials, and successes (if you are re-applying)

Characteristics too look for in med school recommenders:

When choosing the recommenders to help you meet your med school requirements, 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 a specific field doesn’t necessarily make them the right person to pen one of your letters of recommendation—it’s far more important that they know you as an individual.

Along the same lines, you want to avoid the dreaded form letter of recommendation because it says nothing unique about your personal attributes vs. those of any other applicant.

Your goal is to identify writers who are knowledgeable about two things:

  1. Your unique characteristics and credentials
  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 specific experiences, so that when the letters are combined, the med school admissions committees at the schools you’re applying to can get a vivid and complete impression of your character.

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

  • adaptability
  • critical thinking
  • integrity
  • logical reasoning
  • oral communication skills
  • personal maturity
  • reliability
  • self-discipline
  • work habits
  • compassion
  • cultural competence
  • intellectual curiosity
  • motivation for medicine
  • persistence
  • professionalism
  • resilience
  • teamwork

Looking at the list above, which of these qualities do you possess? Who are the people in your life that can attest to this? Answering these questions will go a long way towards helping you identify and choose the people who will write your letters of recommendation.

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

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




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