Letters of Recommendation: Getting Strong and Plentiful Letters
Episode 4: Who and how to ask for a STRONG letter, FREE 16-Step guide, & upcoming coaching course!
In this episode:
PREPARING: What is my competition doing?
HOW TO GET A STRONG LETTER
TO SEE OR NOT TO SEE: There is no question.
WHEN TO ASK
QUICK TIP: Questions to ask in order to choose the right letter writer.
I am your host, Daniel Williams, MD.
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PREPARING: What is my competition doing?
Getting any letter of recommendation (LOR) from a physician or undergraduate faculty can by daunting. With limited face-time, busy schedules, and such high expectations for a LOR, how in the world are you supposed to get 3, very solid, letters from reputable doctors?Let’s start with a discussion about the “PreMed Committee”. This is actually an official entity that medical schools care about (not necessarily anyone else). It is made up of a (somewhat) official Premedical Academic Advisor and 2 underlings, which are often other faculty.
In the late ‘90’s and early ‘00’s, this was still a robust entity found in all but the smallest colleges.There have been massive cutbacks in funding nationally and the result has been fewer and fewer committees that actually know the real scoop. Some of them are registered members of the National Association of Advisors for the Health Professions. This organization attempts to educate non-physicians about the premedical application process. While this is better than nothing, they don’t know what they’re talking about from first-hand experience.In short, get your letters of recommendation from members of your PreMed Committee if you have one PLUS one from a physician.You typically want one from your advisor and 2 from faculty ( the standard carte blance answer). I say if a physician doesn’t write you a letter you’re shooting yourself in the foot.Sidestep all the guesswork on the part of academic advisors and get a physician to evaluate you.
Of course, the quality of the letter is the most important thing.If the strongest letter is from your postman, that’s the one you want! More about that in a minute. I still say that getting to know and perhaps shadow a physician is the best way to get the strongest letter.
HOW TO GET A STRONG LETTER
Relationship matters! You don’t want any old letter of recommendation. You want a “strong” letter of recommendation. What’s the difference?
When you approach a potential letter-writer, you should ask “Are you able to write me a strong letter of recommendation?” Physicians and faculty know that this little adjective means, perhaps more than you do, so make sure you say it that way. If they hesitate, decline, or in any way don’t convince you that they will write a strong letter, then don’t use their letter!Give the writer a copy of your resume or CV, transcript, research papers, and any other documentation that will allow them to see parts about your application that they would have no other way of knowing about.
TO SEE OR NOT TO SEE:
There is no question.Once you find the right person to ask, you will give them a standardized form from the AMCAS. It asks them specific questions about their relationship with you, projects they worked with you on, and how long they’ve known you. This is why it’s important to meet and start grooming someone early that may be able to write you a letter.
There is a section on the form for you to sign. Here you have the ability to waive the right to see the letter. Virtually everyone waives it because the medical schools prefer it that way. This way the writers feel free to put negative comments if they want. Of course, you don’t have to worry about that because you have known them and worked with them for a long time and specifically asked them if they could write a strong letter. They said yes! Go ahead and waive.
It is polite to write thank you notes for many occasions. Writing one to letter writers and interviewers is no exception. Do this as a common courtesy.
WHEN TO ASK
When to ask – start a relationship early, they ask how long. Relationship is harder than getting the letter. The letter should be a natural step in your relationship. You can ask early in undergrad before they forget you. They will at least take notes on your packet and write it later, so that it will reflect a more recent date by the time of the application.
When selecting someone to write you a letter, consider the following:
• Have they written letters of recommendation before?
• Is this a physician that practices as some small independent place and would, therefore, have no real idea what admissions committees are looking for these days?
• Do you have a good, close working relationship with them, or do they not even know you by name for whatever reason? (large university, no collaborative research projects, mediocre student…)
Here is more than you want to know about the recent FAQ’s regarding medical school application letters of recommendation:
http://www.aamc.org/students/amcas/amcaslettersfaq.htmShopping for a PreMed advisor? See if your local university even has one. Here’s a link to see what pre-med advisors are telling each other:
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