Strong letters of recommendation that speak to your intelligence, passion, and potential are an essential part of your medical school application. They transform you from a list of statistics on a sheet of paper into somebody perceived to be an intelligent, capable applicant. Together with your personal statement, recommendations are what show admissions committees who you really are.
Still, it can be difficult to know where to begin when asking for letters of recommendation, especially if you haven’t contacted your prospective recommenders for a few years, as is the case for most students who choose not to go directly to medical school after graduation. If you happen to have taken a year or more off before applying, fear not.
Reaching out to a recommender after taking years off
Individuals who are commonly asked to write letters of recommendation—professors, research directors, and volunteer coordinators—are used to being bombarded by emails from students during application rounds. As a result, it may be helpful to remember that what seems to you like a demanding request is something they often consider to be just another part of their job description.
That being said, you do not want your request to get lost in the mix. Therefore, it is all the more important that you reach out to them early on to re-establish your previous connection by sending a short, but informative email.
What to say to prospective recommenders
Once you have identified the individuals you believe will be willing to write you strong letters of recommendation, it is time to contact them. Approximately two to three months before you plan on applying to graduate school, send a personalized email to each of your prospective letter writers. Try to keep this email short and sweet, while addressing the following three main points:
- Who are you? In the first few sentences, re-introduce yourself and remind your letter writer of your shared history. Did you get an A in their organic chemistry class because of all the time spent together in office hours? Did you volunteer under this person for two years and become inspired by their dedication and commitment to going the extra mile? Whatever, the connection may be, include it here as an extra reminder of who you are.
- What have you been doing? Provide a brief (two to three sentence) summary of what you have done with your gap year(s) and why. Most letter writers understand that not everybody follows the same linear path. So, one of the first questions they will have upon hearing from you months or years later is “What have you been up to?” Giving them this information from the start helps transform you from a name on an email to a person who has flourished in the real world. This can carry a lot of weight because it reaffirms for letter writers that your decision to pursue medical school was well thought out, based on academic and professional experiences, rather than simply being the expected next step of a third-year pre-medical student.
- What do you want? Now that they know who you are and what you have been doing, it is time to ask the big question. Would they be willing to write you a strong letter of recommendation? Use another few sentences to explain what program you are applying to and why, and end the email with an invitation for them to speak further with you, at their convenience, in person or on the phone.
It is also advised that you attach a CV so prospective letter writers can see the other organizations and projects you have been involved in that were not mentioned in the body of your email.
Remember, a the great thing about reaching out to letter writers after many years is that you can guide your recommender towards writing the letter you think would best supplement your application by structuring your email and CV to highlight the relevant projects.
When to reach out for letters of recommendation
Reach out to your recommenders and request letters two to three months before your applications are due to ensure that you are able to find alternative writers if necessary. Avoid requesting letters more than six months before deadlines so that you can be certain your plans will not change and that your letter writers will not forget that they committed to writing you a letter.
However, do not hesitate to contact them earlier to send a “Hello, how have you been?” email and re-establish contact.
When evaluating letters of recommendation, quality is far more important than quantity. So, once a prospective letter writer has agreed to speak with you, be sure to ask whether they will be able to provide you with a strong letter of recommendation. Most faculty will be up front with their answer. If they express doubts, ask if there is any information you can share that may help them better represent you in the letter. If they state that they will not be able to provide a strong letter, thank them for their consideration and move on to an alternate letter writer.
Finally, make sure you send your letter writers an email two weeks prior to the application deadline both to thank them and remind them of the approaching deadline. Also consider writing them a more formal thank you email once the application is submitted. Don’t forget to reach out after you have been accepted into schools to send one final thank you email and update them on which school you ultimately choose to attend.