Requesting Standout Recommendation Letters for Medical School Applications

Whom, When, and How to Ask for Great Medical School Recommendation Letters, Including Word-for-Word Scripts

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(Note: This article represents a modified version of Lesson 2 of our free comprehensive guide to medical school applications, Get Into Medical School: 6 Practical Lessons to Stand Out and Earn Your White Coat.)

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Similar to the AMCAS personal statement, just the thought of recommendation letters (or in AMCAS terms, letters of evaluation) makes most students cringe. Common concerns include:

  • “How am I supposed to find three letter writers?!”
  • “Whom should I ask? I was thinking my younger brother’s baseball coach since I helped out with their batting practice two years back and the coach seemed to like me.” (Please don’t do this)

I’ve got your back. In this post, we'll cover:

  • Whom to request recommendation letters from
  • When to request letters
  • How to ask for recommendation letters, including word-for-word email scripts you can cut and paste to make your requests and follow up

Whom to Ask

Fortunately, most schools specify that you will need to submit two letters from science professors (i.e., biology, chemistry, physics) and one from a non-science professor (AMCAS provides information about the types of letters). Check each school’s site to determine whether a letter from a professor in a science-related field (e.g., astronomy, psychology) will count as a science or non-science letter. Moreover, you should only ask for recommendation letters from professors who gave you a letter grade because they'll be better able to speak to your academic abilities.

Some medical schools are open to receiving additional letters. If you’ve done research, I encourage you to ask for a letter from your lab's principal investigator (PI). You should certainly include this letter in applications to research-heavy programs. If you don’t know your PI well, request a letter from a postdoc with whom you've worked closely, and request that the PI to co-sign it.

Helpful letters may also come from a physician you shadowed or an employer or volunteer coordinator. A good rule of thumb is to ask for a letter from a supervisor from an extracurricular activity you designated as a most meaningful experience in your Work/Activities section.

The most important consideration is that you submit outstanding letters. Outstanding letters come from individuals who can speak highly of your skills and qualities and, more importantly, how your merits make you an excellent medical school candidate. Unenthusiastic letters, even if written by a well-known person, are not desirable.

When to Ask

Ideally, you will want to ask for recommendation letters two to three months before you plan on submitting your primary application (i.e., AMCAS). Therefore, if you plan to submit your AMCAS in June, you should ask no later than the beginning of May.

Professors receive a ton of recommendation letter requests during the medical school application process. Asking in advance will give your letter writers the time to write a strong letter, and also to prioritize getting yours done before those who asked later.

Also, find out whether your school has a pre-health committee or pre-health advisor who assembles and distributes letters on your behalf. If so, you should definitely take advantage of this resource and follow their suggested timeline for requesting recommendation letters, etc.

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How to Ask

There are two ways to request recommendation letters: in person or via email.

I strongly encourage you to ask for letters from professors in person, and definitely if it’s been a while since you’ve been in their class or interacted with them.

Before you ask for a recommendation letter, you should prepare a packet that includes:

  1. A list of your grades, separated by science and non-science courses
  2. Your CV or resume
  3. Your personal statement draft
  4. AAMC's guidelines for writing a strong letter of evaluation, including a reminder to write the letter on official letterhead and sign it. You should provide this packet only after a professor or other recommendation letter writer agrees to your request.

Word-For-Word Recommendation Letter Request Email Scripts

Here are exact email scripts you can use to request a letter in person or via email (Note: I have not included a script for requesting a letter via email from a professor who may not remember you because you shouldn't ask them for one):

Asking In Person (if you know them well):

Dear [Professor’s Name], 

I hope this email finds you well. I’m planning on applying to medical school this upcoming summer, and was hoping you’d be willing to offer your perspective on the process since I’ve always valued your guidance. If so, please let me know some days/times that work well for you to meet, and I’ll make sure to accommodate. Thanks for your consideration!

Best,

[Your Name/Last Name] 

Asking In Person (if it’s been a while):

Dear [Professor’s Name],

I hope this email finds you well. My name is [Name/Last Name], and I was a student in your [Course Number/Title] course during [Semester/year]. I really enjoyed your class because [authentic reason].

I’m planning on applying to medical school this upcoming summer, and was hoping you’d be willing to offer your perspective on the process. If so, please let me know some days/times that work well for you to meet, and I’ll make sure to accommodate. Thanks for your consideration!

Best,

[Your Name/Last Name] 

Additional Guidance for Asking In Person

Whenever you meet with a professor to request a letter in person, make sure to let them know why you would value a letter from them, including why you value their perspective or which of your qualities they can speak to. Don’t be shy about priming them to do this because it will help their letters corroborate how you describe yourself throughout the rest of your primary and secondary applications.

Once a letter writer agrees to write you a letter, provide the packet mentioned earlier.

Asking Via Email (if you know them well):

Dear [Professor’s Name],

I hope this email finds you well. I’m planning on applying to medical school this upcoming summer, and was wondering whether you’d feel comfortable writing a strong letter of recommendation. [Authentic sentence describing why you would value a letter from them (e.g., why you value their perspective, which of your qualities they can speak to, etc.)]. 

If you’re willing to provide a letter, I will provide the following supporting materials: 1) a list of my grades, 2) my CV, 3) a draft of my personal statement, and 4) the AMCAS recommendation letter guidelines. Thanks for your consideration!

Best,

[Your Name/Last Name]

Sending Reminders

Recommendation letter writers often procrastinate on submitting letters on time. Therefore, you should email them using the following email script two to three weeks prior to your application submission:

Dear [Professor’s Name], 

I hope this email finds you well. I plan on submitting my medical school applications [on date or in # of days/weeks], so I wanted to send a reminder regarding your recommendation letter. Please let me know if there’s any additional information I can provide.

Thanks again for your support!

Best,

[Your Name/Last Name]

Writing Thank You Notes

 Once a person submits a letter, you should send them a thank you note to express appreciation:

Dear [Professor’s Name],

Thanks again for supporting my medical school applications by offering your perspectives on the process and submitting a recommendation letter. I feel very fortunate to have great mentors like you. 

I’ll make sure to update you as the application season progresses!

Best,

[Your Name/Last Name]

Final Thoughts

Requesting medical school recommendation letters can be stressful, but you can make the process go more smoothly by preparing packets for letter writers, asking for letters a few months in advance, and following the email scripts in this post.

Fear not!

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Frequently Asked Questions

Below is a list of the most frequently asked questions (FAQ) I receive about medical school recommendation letters that are not answered in this article.

I encourage you to ask any other questions you have about recommendation letters in the Comments section below. I'll make sure to answer your questions within 24 hours and add some of them to this FAQ section to make it easier for other students to find this information.

Question: Do I have to send a letter from a professor in my major?

Answer: A very small number of schools require a letter from a professor in your major. Since this isn't necessary for the majority of schools, you shouldn't worry too much about this.

Question: Will I be able to see my recommendation letters?

Answer: You can, but you shouldn't. In other words, you should waive your right to read your letters. Otherwise, medical schools won't take your letters seriously.

Question: Do my recommendation letters have to be addressed to specific medical schools?

Answer: No, this is not expected.

Question: Do you have any tips on how I can get to know my professors?

Answer: Of course. Here they are:

  • Consistently attend office hours, especially during "off-peak" times, like the beginning of the term
  • During office hours, discuss something other than course material (e.g., the professor's research)
  • Take multiple classes with the same professor
  • Invite the professor to coffee or lunch after the term to discuss their work, as well as your career aspirations
  • Work as the professor's teaching assistant
  • If you're interested in their research, ask to join their lab. Your research involvement will not only improve your relationship with that professor, but will also look great on your application

Question: From whom should I ask for recommendation letters if I'm a non-traditional applicant and have been out of school for some time?

Answer: Medical schools want to see recent (i.e., the last three years) data about your academic achievements. Therefore, if you've been out of school for a while, you should aim to enroll in a few science courses—locally or online—to build relationships with professors.

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