As part of the medical school application process, you will need to solicit letters of recommendation (LORs). Serving as an outside endorsement of your candidacy, a LOR is a letter in which the author will assess your qualities, characteristics, and capabilities as they pertain to medical school. Ideally, a LOR will demonstrate to the admissions committees that you possess the traits they look for in a future physician: intelligence, maturity, integrity, and a dedication to the service to society. Don't underestimate the importance of a strong letter of recommendation. A comprehensive letter from a solid source who knows you well can speak volumes about your integrity and the quality of your work.
Before you begin asking people to write your LORs, you should check on the websites of the schools you're applying to and review their LOR guidelines. You want to do everything you can to give the medical schools exactly the kind of letters they have requested; after all, there is a reason they ask for certain recommenders. Most medical schools prefer to receive a letter from a college's pre-professional advisory committee if such a committee is available. (In fact, they will become suspicious if an applicant doesn't submit such a letter when his/her school has this committee.) At Hamilton, this "committee letter" will be written by the Health Professions Advisory Committee (HPAC). In reality, the HPAC Letter is not really a letter but rather a packet of letters that consists of several individual LORs and a composite letter written by Leslie Bell, Chair of the HPAC.
The process for obtaining an HPAC committee letter is as follows:
Remember to keep track of the deadlines for each component of the committee letter process. The HPAC Questionnaire must be submitted no later than February 1 of your application year, and you must have your interview with Leslie no later than April 1. If you fail to complete each step by the appropriate deadline, then you will delay the completion of your committee letter, which will in turn delay the submission of your application and hurt your chances of admission into medical school.
LORs will be an important component of your application, so you should make every effort to ensure that your recommenders will be able to write a strong letter on your behalf. Schools fully expect these letters to be glowing endorsements. Anything less is a red flag. The key to getting a good letter is identifying someone who knows you personally, can speak to the quality of your work and work ethic, and can address your fitness to be a medical student. The letter needs to comment substantially about your candidacy; it can't simply be a generic letter. The more personal the letter, the better off you are. Professors who are just looking at your resume and don't know you personally rarely write convincing letters. Admissions committees give less weight to a letter of recommendation that focuses solely on the academic qualification of the applicant, and gives little or no attention to the candidate's nonacademic strengths and characteristics. Similarly, letters from family members or close friends without a professional tie are of limited value.
When you approach someone to write a LOR, don't hesitate to ask whether he/she can write a strong endorsement of your candidacy for medical school. If the person says no or hesitates in any way, look elsewhere for a LOR. Although you may feel uncomfortable doing this, it will hurt a lot more in the long run if you don't do it. The last thing you want is a lukewarm or impersonal recommendation. Fortunately, due to Hamilton's small class sizes and emphasis on faculty-student interaction, you should not have difficulty finding a professor who knows you well and can write you a strong recommendation.
On the off-chance that you can't find a professor who knows you well, however, you'll have to put yourself in a position in which your potential recommenders get to know you better. For example, you can schedule a meeting with a potential recommender to discuss your resume, life experiences, and goals. Prior to this meeting, drop off a copy of your resume and/or transcripts as well as a 1-2 page prose "bio sheet" in advance to help highlight who you are and why you want to become a doctor. Help the potential recommender get to know you as a person so that he/she can illuminate your recommendation with personal observations.
If you have more time before LORs are due, then you might consider additional strategies to develop a relationship with your professors. Visit your professors during office hours if you have questions regarding the course material. Try to interact with your professor outside of the classroom setting. Consider getting a cup of coffee with your professor or, if you're 21 or older, take advantage of "Take Your Professor to the Pub" night. If you had a positive experience learning under a professor, apply to become a TA for one of his/her classes or to work in his/her lab on a research project. The possibilities are limitless; you just need to put forth a little effort to get the relationship started.
Assuming the individuals you ask to write a LOR express pleasure and honor at being requested to write a letter on your behalf, be prepared to give them a copy of your resume to provide a complete picture of your background and interests. If you have a strong academic record, you may want to include a copy of your transcript. Any articles or papers you've written that you think may be helpful should also be offered. You may even find it helpful to schedule a meeting with the recommender, even though they know you well, so that you can elaborate a little more on your reasons for wanting to attend medical school.
Don't wait until the last minute to begin soliciting your LORs because doing so means it's likely that the quality of the letters will suffer. Go to your recommenders no later than March of your application year. Make sure you are clear about deadlines, and keep track of the status of your letters. If they're late, call and check on their progress. But don't harass your recommenders; if you make a pest of yourself, it could negatively impact what they will end up writing about you. Also, be sure to provide inform each recommender that they need to submit their letter to Leslie Bell. If the recommender is off campus, provide him/her with a stamped envelope addressed to Leslie. Once you've confirmed that your letters have been submitted, it's nice to send thank you notes to the writers. Personal visits are in order after you've been accepted.
While you technically have the right to view any letters written on your behalf, it is best to waive this right for several reasons. Medical schools are wary of applicants who feel they need to see their LORs. Failure to waive this right creates the impression that your LORs may not be candid assessments of your candidacy and that you may have "censored" your letters by including only those that paint a very positive picture of you. Admissions committees want to have assurance that they are receiving a complete, unedited picture of you from those who wrote you LORs, so it is best to remove any appearance of you having a hand in what they say. From the medical schools' perspective, therefore, it is preferable that you have a closed file and that your letters be confidential.