When the time finally comes for you to apply to medical school, perhaps one of the most nerve-wrecking tasks looming before you is the need to acquire “letters of evaluation,” recommendation letters, to round out your application.
Who to Ask
Medical schools have different requirements, but in general require (1) letter from a science professor, (1) letter from a non-science professor, and (1) letter from another individual. Often you are able to substitute these three letters with a letter from a pre-medical committee.
You should ask professors whose class you either (a) did really well in or (b) had opportunities to stand out amongst your classmates. Ideally you should ask a professor who knows you very well to write you a letter of recommendation.
Make a list of persons that you would want to ask; pick your top person for each category, and ask them. This way, if one of these people fall through, you have back-ups.
Ask the people that you feel would give you the best letter two months before the letters are due; for AMCAS applications that open in May, this means asking for a recommendation letter in March. Pay careful attention to the procedure for submitting letters of evaluation on the AMCAS website.
Asking for a Recommendation
This step is perhaps the worst; but remember that whoever you are asking for a recommendation letter was once in the same position at you. Your professor likely had to get a recommendation letter when they initially applied to graduate school all of those years ago, the doctor you shadowed needed a letter when they applied to medical school, etc.
Don’t ask for a recommendation via e-mail; instead make the effort to come by your professor/mentor/employers office and ask them in-person to write you a letter. This will take them probably 30 minutes to 1 hours to complete, so you need to show that you have the time to ask them.
Most importantly ask if they would feel comfortable writing you a good recommendation letter. If they say no, don’t take it personally. Your professor likely has many students, you have relatively fewer professors. You may remember them very well and feel that they must know you will, but this isn’t always true. If your request is refused, this is when you can refer to your back-up list.
Helping out your Recommender
To ensure that your recommender can write the best letter possible, bring them a copy of your resume. Don’t just hand it to them, but ask them if it would help them write the letter. When you ask them to write the letter, have a printed copy of the resume on hand to save everyone time.
You can also provide some sample recommendation letters to show what sort of letter you will need.
Writing a Recommendation for Yourself
Sometimes the person you ask for a recommendation is too busy to write a letter of recommendation. In this case, they may ask you to write a letter for them, and then they will review it, edit it as appropriate, and sign it. This sounds unethical, but this sort of letter writing is practiced often in business and elsewhere. If you feel uncomfortable with this however, do let them know. If they say you cannot write a recommendation for you otherwise and you still feel uncomfortable, then you should ask someone on your back-up list for a letter.
Before You Need to Ask
If you are early in your pre-medical career and are not yet at the point to be asking recommendation letters, you can still prepare for this process. If you find a professor that you like, try to take as many classes with them as possible so as to develop a better student-teacher relationship with them. Then, when the time comes for you to ask for a letter, they will be more likely to feel that they can give you a strong letter of recommendation. Generally, one semester is not enough time to get to know a student well enough.
Also consider getting involved in unique activities in which you will have close contact with your supervisors. These supervisors can provide a wealth of help when the time comes to ask for that third non-professor letter.
However, in all of this, be true in your intentions; do not just talk to your professor so you can squeeze out a letter later. Anyone can see through a student who comes to the professor every day asking useless questions. Only talk to the professor if you have genuine questions or a need to do so. The honest student will get the best recommendation.