A step-by-step guide to crafting a strong medical school recommendation letter for yourself
Applying to medical school can seem like a solitary effort. The work is all on you.
You’ve got to get great grades, do well on the MCAT, earn enough clinical hours, and write a stellar set of personal statements and secondary essays. There’s one application task that you might be excited to leave to someone else: the writing of your recommendations.
You reach out to the people who can speak best to your strengths, picking the right mix of science and non-science mentors or bosses, and drawing on multiple phases of your life experience, from university to professional environments, classrooms to gap year.
But now one of your writers tells you they’re extremely busy and need you to write your own letter of recommendation. What do you do? How do you write a medical school letter of recommendation for yourself?
This isn’t an uncommon situation, though it can make many applicants uncomfortable or scared. What can you say about yourself that won’t sound pompous, braggy, or awkward? Won’t it be obvious that you’ve written it, instead of a recommender? How can you handle this with respect for your recommender’s time and for the application process, while also avoiding short-changing yourself?
First of all: know that writing your own letter of recommendation is an acceptable, even common practice, and that it doesn’t mean your recommender is too busy to help you get into medical school or uninterested in championing you. They said yes, which means they’re on board!
Approach this situation as a chance to prepare your recommender to write the ideal rec letter. By maintaining an open conversation, the result may be better than what would have come had your recommender been sitting alone in a room, scratching their head about what to say about you.
Here’s how to ensure that this self-written letter maximizes your chances of getting into medical school.
Preparing to write your own medical school recommendation letter
Begin by establishing what your recommender wants, and, if possible, why they want it. Do they really need you to write the whole letter from scratch? Could you simply offer them an outline or a list of bullet points to cover? Here’s one way to ask these questions via email:
Dear Professor Orpheus,
Thank you so much for agreeing to work on my letter. I’m happy to get you whatever materials you need to make the recommendation strong. What would be easiest for you to work with? Do you prefer a full draft, an outline or list of bullet points, or something else?
If you have no preference, I can write up a draft leaving space for you to add some information that only you could articulate about me.
Please let me know if that works, and thank you so much again. I’m grateful to have your support as I apply to medical school.
If asking during an in-person conversation, try something like: “Thanks so much, Professor Orpheus. I’m really grateful for your help. I’d just like to write down what exactly you need from me to make this letter happen. What makes the most sense? A full draft? An outline? Bullet points? Something else?”
Then, politely, try to establish why your recommender wants you to be involved in the drafting of the letter. It may be because they’re simply pressed for time, but it may also be because there are things about you—characteristics or accomplishments—that they feel they don’t know. You can then ensure that you cover that material in either bullet points, an outline, or a prose draft.
Lastly, confirm that no matter what you do, your recommender will go through your initial draft or letter. Even if you’re playing a major role in writing your letter, your recommender should still be involved, both for ethical reasons and because the entire point of a recommendation is to get someone more experienced than you to say you’re a good candidate for a medical career. If they really don’t seem to plan on contributing to the draft at all, you may be better off asking someone else who’s more passionate about your potential.
As you get to writing, draw on some of the same tools you used to sculpt a strong medical school personal statement (PS). Your recommendation letter should address your personal characteristics and qualities and provide examples and anecdotes of times that you demonstrated said qualities. While your PS is a chance for you to reflect on those, your letter of recommendation should include examples of your recommender seeing these qualities in action, whether in the classroom, the office, or the lab. For instance, it’s not useful for Professor Orpheus to write that Karina is smart, hardworking, and responsible if she doesn’t also note instances where she saw Karina display her smarts (say, by acing her class), her work ethic (by persisting in the face of less-than-ideal lab results), or her responsibility (by leading group projects with less invested students).
Here are a few steps to help you connect the good work you’ve already done on your medical school personal statement to the letter you need:
Make a list of the key messages about yourself that you’ve conveyed in your PS. For instance, Karina has included a number of reflections on her neurobiology research in her PS and has stated her goal to be a physician-scientist. Professor Orpheus, in whose lab Karina worked for a year and a half, will need to confirm that Karina is both serious about and prepared for this work.
Think about how your recommendation letter can confirm and augment those messages, from another angle. Karina’s PS reflections were intimate, tying her interest in the neurobiology of addiction to a family history of substance abuse. She identified her lab research but chose, correctly, not to get into the weeds in favor of drafting a compelling narrative. Now, Professor Orpheus needs to convince the admissions committee that Karina’s intellectual engagement with her lab work is as strong as her emotional relationship to it.
Set down specific events or anecdotes that your recommender would remember if they needed to. Think about past conversations, performance reviews, or written feedback you might have received. That way when you hand the letter draft to your recommender, you can say, “I recall us discussing my performance in the lab during the fall 2017 semester, so you’ll see that I mentioned it in the second paragraph.”
Again, the fact that your recommender has asked for your help doesn’t mean they don’t remember you or admire your contributions to their class, team, or work environment. It just means they might need your help remembering some of the specifics.
Identify how those messages, qualities, characteristics, events, and anecdotes show that you’re a strong candidate to become not only a medical student but also a physician, down the road. In other words, just as you did for your PS, spin it forward.
(Note: Read over the AAMC letter of recommendation guidelines.)
Drafting a medical school letter of recommendation for yourself
Recommendation letter format. Your letter should be about one page single or 1.5 spaced, and no more than five paragraphs. Remember: a longer recommendation letter is NOT necessarily a better recommendation. As with any formal communication, stick to Times New Roman, 12 pt, with 1-inch margins, and ensure that your advisor uses official letterhead, if possible. You may find it helpful to create an outline before writing your first draft. Here’s a letter of recommendation outline one student, Toni, used to organize her writing:
Introductory paragraph: salutations, and an explanation of how Professor Jillian Ostrowski initially met me in class.
Explain how I joined her grad class the next year and was a unique participant. Describe the class for an outside reader.
Talk about some of the substance of the grad class, including my relationship with Georgina, my patient, and the writing I did afterward. Specifics.
Conclusion, including superlatives (Toni is best/most/etc), leaving space for Professor Ostrowski to fill those in.
Medical school letter of recommendation sample
Here’s a medical school letter of recommendation example based on Toni’s draft that you can use as a template:
April 3, 2019
Jillian Ostrowski, MD, PhD
Professor of Neurobiology and Medicine, University of California - Beverly Hills
1 Phineas Gage Way
Anderson, CA 12345
Letter for Toni Zhao
AAMC number 98765432
Dear Admissions Committee Members,
I first met Toni Zhao when she was a sophomore in my Introduction to Neurobiology course. This is one of the large lecture classes on campus, but Toni came to office hours regularly to discuss the weekly topic and to get advice about pursuing a career in medicine and neuroscience. The next semester, I took her on as a junior TA due to her straight As in the class, and she began grading tests and papers and assisting with study sections.
I worked further with Toni when she was a junior and applied to be in a course I co-teach with the divinity school. This is a class generally populated by graduate students, half of whom are in medical school and the other half of whom are training for the clergy. We focus on degenerative brain diseases. Students learn the hard science of what causes various forms of dementia and then spend time in pastoral care communities caring for patients.
Toni, who is the stepdaughter of a pastor and the daughter of a physician, petitioned me to join the class, and, after consulting with my co-instructor, I decided she was both academically and emotionally mature enough to participate. This is the only time I admitted an undergraduate student to the course.
Toni thrived in this unique environment, not only acing the academics but also developing a relationship with a particular patient, Georgina, who was prone to intense anxiety as her memory failed her. I was impressed to see someone as young as Toni successfully teach Georgina mindfulness techniques that allowed her to better contain her panic attacks. A few months later, when Georgina passed away, her family invited Toni to the funeral—a sign of the connection she had established in a very short period of time. Toni was herself deeply affected by the relationship and the course, and wrote movingly about it for the UCBH Medical Humanities Review.
In my thirty years of teaching, I’ve never met a student who so exemplifies both the combination of facility in the sciences and the emotional intelligence that will be required in medical school and as a physician. I wholeheartedly recommend Toni for admission.
Following up with your medical school recommender
Lastly, make clear to your recommender what’s left for them to do. Refer back to the original expectations set when you asked them what they needed from you (i.e., bullet points or a full draft). When you send over your draft, write clearly what else they should do. For instance, Karina might tell Professor Orpheus: “I’ve written up a few examples of my interest in global medicine and public health, including papers I wrote for your class and work I did to prepare for the medical mission trip we went on. I’ve left space for you to add a paragraph that places me in the context of other students you’ve worked with, since that’s something I can’t speak to.”
How do you know what you can’t do but your recommender can? Context, uniqueness, and superlatives. Toni was aware that recommenders need to not only speak to specific good qualities an applicant has exemplified but also needs to place them in the larger context of the applicant pool. A professor may have worked with many medical school hopefuls over the years and should be able to say something like, “Toni is one of the most diligent students I worked with this year. In addition to doing her own lab work along with the two other undergraduates in my lab, she was the only one to offer to mentor next year’s students.” You’ll want your letter writer to be able to say that you were the only or the most or the best in something, something you’ve already drafted up for them.
In this case, Professor Ostrowski might note that Toni is the only undergraduate student she’s ever let into this advanced graduate school class. Toni’s original draft might read: “I worked further with Toni when she was a junior and applied to be in a course I co-teach with the divinity school.” After Toni asks Professor Ostrowski to include a note about being the only undergrad to ever be admitted to the course, Professor Ostrowski might add: “This is the only time I admitted an undergraduate student to the course.”
There you have it—your own medical school letter of recommendation: a joint effort between you and your recommender, and better for it!