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How to Ask for Letters of Recommendation

by Miriam Choi

With the growing competition of applying to health-related graduate programs, every criterion in the application process is critical – including letters of references. Letters of references are an important supplemental part of the application that allows third parties to objectively evaluate the applicant holistically.

Most medical schools and other health graduate programs require a minimum of three letters of recommendation. Some schools specify that two of the three must be from a science-related professor or adviser, and the third from a source who instructs a non-science related subject. However, most graduate schools leave this option up to the applicant, even allowing additional personal letters.

Specific requirements may vary by medical schools, so applicants should check specifications by browsing through the AMCAS or AAMC websites.

According to Keck School of Medicine freshman Brandon Wong, class performance and one’s familiarity with a professor are important criteria when deciding who to ask for a letter of reference.

“Always pick a class that you did well in (there may be some extremely rare exceptions here) and pick a professor who you’ve spent some time with,” Wong said.

“It’s best if they know you outside the classroom, such as in a research lab or other extracurricular activity.  Those people will be able to speak to your personality, character, and other ‘non-tangibles’ that they won’t get to see in the classroom.”

As undergraduate students looking ahead to the application process, preparing for letters of recommendations might include cultivating relationships with professors and potential individuals who might be able to work closely alongside the student.

University of California, San Diego senior Alice Rhee said, “The ultimate best thing to do would be to take a class with a professor and TA [teacher’s assistant] for him/her later. Then you’ll really get to know them, and they would love to write you an impressive letter as a way to thank you for your work.”

Approaching a professor or advisor to ask for a letter should be done professionally, giving more than a month for the writer to allocate time in their busy schedules to produce an accurate and informative letter of reference.

Applicants are encouraged to follow proper etiquette in requesting a letter of recommendation, such as making appointments to meet with your evaluator in person.

“For each letter of recommendation, go in person to your professor to ask them,” said Gina Camello, USC’s Pre-Health-Advising Program Administrator Gina Camello.

“To talk to them by email is too impersonal. You want to add a personal touch and make the effort to make an appointment or sit down and eat a meal with your evaluator; teachers are people too.

Sit down and talk and say ‘I’d like to take the opportunity to catch up with you, [to] tell you what I’ve been up to since we’ve last seen each other, what my goals are, and what I want to do in the future.’”

She adds that it is not prideful nor shameful to come prepared to the meeting with an envelope of information that the professor could reference.

“My recommendation is that you put together your own packet of information into a folder,” Camello said. “Inside, you should include your personal statement, your transcript, resume or CV, and a page detailing any other important information like organizations you actively participate in.”

Letters of references reflect a different perspective of the applicant that their GPA or test scores might fail to reveal. So while the content of the letter is entirely up to the evaluator, the committee that receives the letters expects to see specific qualifications, personal character traits, and the validity of the applicant’s claims of excellence.

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