Medical School Letters of Recommendation: Everything You Need to Know

Padya Paramita

Medical School Letters of Recommendation: Everything You Need to Know

After years of preparation, it’s finally time to take the plunge and prepare your medical school application components. While you might be busy studying for the MCAT or making sure every line of your personal statement is near-perfect, you must not forget one important component: the medical school letters of recommendation. These documents accurately represent what it’s like to have you as a student or mentee and come from professors and supervisors who support your candidacy, know you the best, and can best provide context on how you can meaningfully contribute to your dream medical programs.

The process of gathering letters is tough. Medical schools require many letters and the process can differ significantly depending on your undergraduate institution. So, start talking to your recommenders about your plans as early as possible! To help you understand medical school letters of recommendation, I have outlined the policies that different programs choose to implement, the number of letters you need, whom to ask, and what the content of your medical school recommendations need to include. 

How Many Letters Do You Need?

The number of medical school letters of recommendation that are required by the top institutions might throw you off, considering many schools require as many as 5 or 6! In order to gauge whether you would make a strong medical student compared to the other applicants, admissions committees want to learn about your work in various capacities from different sources. 

The exact number of letters you need depends on the program. It is recommended that you try to reach 5 or 6, with some schools asking for as few as 4, as that allows your abilities and potential to be affirmed by a greater number of sources. Getting 5-6 letters in advance gives you flexibility in your selection. In this case, you have more letters than necessary, and can pick and choose for certain schools that require fewer recommendations.

Committee and Composite Letters

Some schools might allow you to substitute medical school letters of recommendation by different professors and supervisors for a committee letter, while others count it as part of the set number of recommendations. A committee letter is a packet offered by many pre-health committees or pre-health advisors that highlights your background and achievements, elaborates on challenges you might have overcome, and evaluates your overall preparation and commitment towards your choice of a medical career.

Committee letters provide greater context of your journey throughout college and reflect on your potential as a medical student. If your college offers it, you should definitely opt for it, as it shows that your school supports your candidacy. The protocol for requesting a committee letter depends on the college, so you will need to make sure you understand the procedure at your school specifically. You might have to go to information sessions, submit essays reflecting on your experiences, attend interviews, and meet certain GPA or course requirements. Since you have a lot to do, you need to start the process early.

Some colleges, such as Dartmouth, Emory, and UConn also send a composite letter. This recommendation still comes from a committee, but one recommender is selected as the composite writer, contributing more than the others in their letter and taking information from the rest of the recommenders to sum up their message.

To further understand how many letters you should seek and the people you should ask them for, let’s take a look at the medical school letters of recommendation requirements as specified by two top MD programs:

Harvard States the Following:

  • At least two (2) letters should be from professors in the sciences with whom they have taken classes.
  • At least one (1) letter should be written by a professor who is not in the sciences.
  • Harvard medical school should receive letters from all research supervisors for applicants to the MD-PhD program as well as applicants to the MD program. Applicants may exceed the six (6)-letter maximum if the additional letters are from research supervisors.
  • If applicants wish to supplement a premedical advisory committee evaluation packet with additional letters of recommendation, they should count the packet as one (1) letter toward the six (6)-letter maximum.
  • Harvard does not require letters of recommendation from employers, but if applicants have been out of school and working, they should have a letter sent.

Baylor Says:

"Three individual letters or one premedical committee evaluation are required; Baylor College of Medicine will accept four individual letters at the most. Baylor prefers quality in-depth letters from people who know you well, rather than giving preference to the number of letters received. Additional letters may be sent; however, we cannot guarantee that the Admissions Committee will review more than four letters. Additional letters will not give you an advantage over the required three letters. As you can see from the specifications, the number of letters and whether you might substitute a committee letter instead depends entirely on the school."

As you can see, including four or five letters is actually the standard when it comes to medical school letters of recommendation. The institutions also include their specifications when it comes to the committee letter, and whether they can be substituted for multiple letters or count as one. When deciding on your recommenders, always take a careful look at how the schools have worded their requirements.

Who to Ask for Medical School Letters of Recommendation

Harvard also sets a good example of the range that most medical school admissions committees look for when it comes to your letter writer. It’s important to show your skills in the hard sciences, but you should also demonstrate that you’ve excelled in various academic domains, have succeeded as an employee, and more. Ideally, you should aim to request medical school letters of recommendation from

  • 2 science professors
  • A non-science professor
  • A research supervisor if applicable
  • An employer if you have been out of school for a significant period of time

Of course, the professors should be ones who have had you in their class. Don’t just ask a faculty member at your college who’s a renowned scientist but knows nothing about you. These letters exist to provide accurate reflections of your presence in a classroom or work setting. If the person doesn’t know you well, they won’t be able to say anything substantial!

How to Ask

You might feel awkward when thinking about the best ways to ask your professor or advisor for medical school letters of recommendation. Don’t spend too much time worrying - ask sooner rather than later. Give them at least 1 month prior to the due date - if you plan to submit your AMCAS application in the first week of June, ask them for the letter no later than May 1. Email or hop on the phone with them and ask if they can meet to discuss your medical school application. 

The more personal way you can ask, the better. When discussing your candidacy and their support, prioritize including specific details from their class, showing appreciation for their perspective and time, and then if they say yes to writing on your behalf, discuss specific character traits you would like them to unpack in their letter. A cover letter can be a personal and professional way to get these points across to the writer!

If they agree, ask them if they need any materials to assist with their writing. They might wish to learn more about your passion for medicine or read the latest draft of your personal statement. It’s always good to pass along a resumé so that they have full context of your background. Send a follow-up email as soon as possible, attaching any documents the recommender has requested, and thanking them. Make sure you outline the exact date you’re hoping that they finish the letter. 

When Are Letters Due?

This brings us to exactly when medical school admissions committees might read these letters. Most letters aren’t due until your secondaries have been submitted. The majority of medical school admissions committees open the letters once they’ve received your primary application, your secondary application, your payment for both these components, and any remaining MCAT scores. 

But, it’s always better to be safe rather than sorry. Tell your recommenders exactly when you’re planning to send in your primary - and that they should aim for their evaluations to be sent in as close to that date as possible.

What Should the Letters Include? 

Your professor or supervisor may have written medical school letters of recommendation before, but if any of your writers need a guideline, the AAMC suggests that your letters should emphasize a correct assessment of your profile as a potential medical school student. The writer should briefly explain their relationship with you by addressing points such as:

  • How long have they known you?
  • What settings have they interacted with you in? (e.g., professor, premedical advisor, supervisor)?
  • Are their observations of you direct or indirect?

The admissions committees will value the quality of information far more than the length of the letter. The letter should discuss your qualifications as a medical student and future physician in-depth instead of going into the nitty-gritty details of the lab course or institution you took with them. Since the admissions committee members will already have a copy of your grades and MCAT score, the letters shouldn’t repeat this information, unless the writer provides further context on any component in your profile.

The writers should keep the following types of assessment in mind when writing your medical school letters of recommendation

  • Observational Assessment - Admissions committee members value observations that the writer has directly noted when they’re reading a letter addressing your suitability for the MD program. The writer should elaborate on your character. The reader must get an understanding of who you are and what you’re like as a person upon reading their letters.
  • Comparative Assessment - The reader will appreciate knowing how your role in the course or lab fares in comparison to your peers. So, their letter could benefit from saying whether you were a standout participant compared to others around you. They should include concrete examples such as, “compared to other students, Jack is the most dedicated student I’ve had in my lab…”
  • Assessment of The Student’s Ability to Uniquely Contribute to Campus - It’s essential that the admissions committee is able to determine your fit for medical school upon reading these letters. Based on what your recommenders have observed, their letters should include how they believe you’re capable of uniquely contributing to the class and campus as a whole. Examples they can use might include providing anecdotes of challenges you’ve overcome, teams that you’ve taken charge of, projects you’ve initiated, and how these have contributed to your learning and growth.

Ultimately, your medical school letters of recommendation should portray an accurate picture of what you’re like in an academic or professional setting and the qualities you possess that would make you a strong fit for medical school. By understanding your actions in different scenarios, medical school admissions committees can assess how you would contribute to campus and whether you have the traits that can help you become a top-notch physician in the future.

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