December 07, 2006

How To: Request Letters of Recommendation

I checked my email today and I was happy to see an email from an aspiring pre-med in My Medical School's mentorship program. He asked me the following questions about Letters of Recommendation (LORs):

  1. How "early" is early enough to get LOR's? I'm planning to embark on a study abroad scholarship opportunity. [...]

  2. So, I don't know if I should ask a LOR right now, or wait until January, or wait until I get back?? [...]

  3. Maybe you could tell me any tips or advices on a good way to ask them for a LOR, & what they expect from you in order for them to write a good one for me.
I thought that these were excellent questions, certainly ones I wished I knew the answers to when I first started applying for medical school. I mentally wince when I review all the things that I could've done much better in "round 1" that still could have used a little polish in "round 2." I'm happy to share my wisdom to spare others the same agony, not because I'm a know-it-all (though I am a wanna-know-a-lot!)

Here's what I said in response: (scroll to the bottom for key points.)

  • I think that it would be a great time to ask your professors for a LOR. It gives them some time to think about it and compose it while your experiences with them are still fresh in your mind.
    (Look into whether or not your institution has a Credential filing service that can take care of your LORs for you. Your LOR writers can submit their LORs to the service and they will send the letters for you, to the organizations you request in a confidential manner. It will save on all the envelopes you have to give to your professors, not to mention the worry that comes with your insecurities about the different stages of transit.)

  • When approaching someone with an LOR request, schedule an appointment with them ahead of time and take some time to sit down and talk with them. Tell them what your intentions are and what they will be writing for, especially for your liberal arts/humanities professors. Come prepared with your curriculum vitae (CV) that they can hold onto and reference as they wish in the construction of the LOR. A lot of good things come out of this visit and I learned the hard way that it is not a good idea to ask someone via email -- it's a lot more difficult to follow up with them if you haven't established that bond before you bug them about things like that. :)

  • If you're wondering how many to get and who to ask, look at the reqs for the schools you're interested in. I made an excel sheet to keep track of what I needed to do for which schools by what deadlines, because it can sneak up on you all too quickly if you're not organized. I'm not sure if this formatting will work, but here's the sample categories from mine:

    Medical Schools//Status//Website//LORs//2ndary due//progress//fee//interview

  • It sounds like you still have a lot of time, so it's great that you're being proactive and you're thinking about these things! Scout out on the internet for a sample questionnaire. Some medical schools have a questionnaire that the recommenders fill out to address various areas. "Does this student apply critical thinking to your subject? Strongly agree<-->disagree." Then it all boils down to whether or not they would score you as a "Highly recommend," "Recommend," "recommend with reservations" and "do not recommend."

    The strongest LOR you can get is one that says "I would go to this person if I were sick and send my friends and family to see them too, without a doubt." I've heard of cases where faculty have actually gone out of their way to call the medical school to talk about the student, but of course, you can't ask your LOR writers to do any of these things for you. :)

Key Points on LOR requests:
It's always better to ask early than late.
Approach them face-to-face and chat with them about your interests.
Come organized with a CV and topics they should address in the LOR.
Use a Credentialing Service if it is offered by your institution.
Follow up with your LOR writers as the deadline approaches.

Other resources to check out:

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