Med School Requirements: Letters of Recommendation

April 6, 2017
Emily Hause

Letters of recommendation should be the best possible reflection of your candidacy.

Finding the right recommenders is essential to an outstanding application.

A previous version has been published by Lauren Poindexter.

A key part of putting together your AMCAS application—one which you shouldn’t procrastinate on—is securing letters of recommendation. These reference letters are important because they have the potential to pull admissions committees over to your side by showing them your diverse attributes from an outside perspective.

To make sure you’re being presented in the best light, you’ll want to submit recommendations from professionals who can paint a flattering picture of you by way of vivid descriptions, concrete examples, and sincere commendation.

Requirements for your letters of recommendation

Each medical school has its own set of standards and formats for securing letters, so you’ll want to do some research into the specific schools to which you’ll be applying.

If you’re applying to U.S. allopathic (MD) medical schools, visit the AMCAS website and check out the latest Medical School Admissions Requirements (MSAR) guide. If you’re applying to osteopathic (DO) medical programs, you should visit the AACOM website and check out the Osteopathic Medical College Information Book.

Regardless, make sure you know the deadlines, number of letters required, and which recommenders you will need to approach for your varying types of recommendation letters.

Types of recommenders:

  • Science professors: You’ll want at least one recommender from a pre-med science, like biology or anatomy, to speak to your hard science credentials. The letter should not be written by a teaching assistant, though TAs are welcome to contribute their thoughts to the professor writing your letter. If you don’t have strong relationships with any of your professors, start visiting them during office hours to build a rapport.
  • Non-science professors: Reach out to a humanities or social sciences professor (past or present) as well.
  • Physician: You want to find someone who knows you personally and, ideally, who you’ve worked with or shadowed during your pre-med extracurriculars.
  • Pre-med advising committee (if your school offers this service): This is basically a cover letter that is written by your school’s pre-professional advising committee, pre-med office, or a similar body at the institution.

In certain situations, it’s also recommended that you request letters from the following individuals:

  • Research director or principal investigator (if you have research experience).
  • Representative from volunteer program (if you have medical-related volunteer experience).
  • Graduate program director (if you are a graduate student or have completed your master’s degree).

If you are reapplying to medical school, it’s also advisable to include a new letter of recommendation accounting for your past year’s activities, credentials, and successes.

Characteristics to look for in med school recommenders:

When choosing recommenders to help you meet your med school requirements, it’s important to note that the credentials of your letter writers do not carry more weight than what they write about you. In other words, just because someone is a respected authority in a specific field doesn’t necessarily make them the right person to pen one of your letters of recommendation.

It’s far more important that recommenders know you as an individual and can speak to your qualifications. Along the same lines, you want to avoid the dreaded form letter of recommendation because it says nothing unique about your personal attributes vs. those of any other applicant.

Your goal is to identify writers who are knowledgeable about three things:

  1. Your unique characteristics and credentials
  2. The demands of medical school
  3. How you’re qualified for medical school

Ideally, each letter will highlight just one or two of your many admirable qualities and specific experiences so that when the letters are combined, the med school admissions committees at the schools you’re applying to can get a vivid and complete impression of your character.

The AAMC & admissions committees have identified the following qualities as standards for people in the medical profession:

  • Adaptability
  • Critical thinking
  • Integrity
  • Logical reasoning
  • Oral communication skills
  • Personal maturity
  • Reliability
  • Self-discipline
  • Work habits
  • Compassion
  • Cultural competence
  • Intellectual curiosity
  • Motivation for medicine
  • Persistence
  • Professionalism
  • Resilience
  • Teamwork

Looking at the list above, which of these qualities do you possess? Who are the people in your life who can attest to this? Answering these questions will go a long way towards helping you identify and choose the people who are best suited to writing your letters of recommendation.

Make sure you’re putting your best foot forward in meeting all of the med school application requirements with our free MCAT prep options.

Emily Hause Emily has been a teacher for Kaplan for over eight years; she's taught MCAT, ACT, SAT, SAT2 and tutored pretty much every subject under the sun in both the classroom and live online (aka Classroom Anywhere) settings. She's also worked for Kaplan in content development and teacher mentorship roles. Emily is currently a fourth-year medical student at the University of Colorado and is hoping to go into Pediatrics. She's involved in many campus opportunities such as being a Prospective Student Representative, admissions committee member, CU-UNITE member, and co-president of the Education and Teaching Interest Group. Prior to medical school, Emily got a BA in Biochemistry and Spanish from Lawrence University and a Masters in Public Health- Epidemiology from the University of Minnesota. In her free time, Emily enjoys dancing, baking, playing tennis and exploring her new Colorado home.

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