The core components of your med school application—premed coursework, the MCAT, and your personal statement—tend to be regimented affairs. With the possible exception of the personal statement, they don't leave much room for maneuvering or strategy. But one component of the application stands out because of the flexibility it affords: the letters of evaluation (LOE).
LOE can fall into one of three general categories (courtesy of the AAMC website):
1. A "Committee Letter" is written by the premed adviser and is intended to represent the school's general evaluation of the applicant
2. A "Letter Packet" is a set of letters assembled by your institution that, strangely enough, counts as only one letter
3. An "Individual Letter" is a traditional letter written by and representing the opinion of an individual letter writer
[See U.S. News's rankings of Best Medical Schools.]
You might want to consult your nearest math major to calculate how many possible combinations can be created with these similar and overlapping options. That being said, each medical school will have its own requirements and limitations for the minimum, and often maximum, number and/or type of letters you submit.
The number of letters aside, here are my top five pointers for procuring LOE's that shine as brightly as you do:
1. Solicit letters from people who know you well! I can't stress this one enough. In one recent survey of internal medicine clerkship directors involved with medical admissions, the "depth of understanding" of the applicant demonstrated by the letter-writer was ranked as essential or important by 98 percent of those surveyed—far more important than any other aspect of the letter, including the author's academic rank or institution, or even the actual academic ranking of the applicant him or herself.
2. Smart letter solicitation is like smart voting: it is best done early, and often. There is no reason to wait to ask a professor for a letter until you are completing your application; if you think you can get a good letter from your freshman biology professor, ask at the end of your freshman year. He or she will most likely write a great letter—one that demonstrates that he or she knows you well and includes concrete, specific details about how qualified you are—when you are still fresh in their mind.
3. In light of the importance of having professors who know you well write a LOE, consider taking courses (especially science courses) with small class sizes, and/or taking multiple courses with the same professor in order to cultivate a relationship that will result in an excellent LOE.
[See the 10 medical schools that lead to the most debt.]
4. Make life easy for your letter-writer. Do NOT wait until the last minute to solicit your letters. Keep in mind that many students besides yourself are probably asking your professor to do them the same favor (and remember, this is a favor—treat it as such!). You don't want to taint your otherwise spotless reputation with a late request for a letter; even subconsciously, the letter-writer might let negative emotions relating to tardiness and deadlines seep their way into their LOE.
5. Be overly generous when it comes to supplying your letter-writer with resources to make it easy for them to write a glowing LOE. Supply materials like a copy of your CV, a draft of your personal statement (even if it isn't perfect yet), relevant grades and/or coursework, even a reminder of the excellent papers and projects you completed under their guidance. Whatever you can do to increase the likelihood of a letter that demonstrates that the author knows you well and is justified in their enthusiastic support of your application is well worth the effort.
Remember that you are ultimately in control of this section of the application, given that you are the one who chooses the recommenders. This level of control may be more powerful than you realize, and soliciting letters in a smart, strategic fashion can mean the difference between standout and forgettable LOE.
Joshua U. Klein is a Board Certified OB/GYN and a Clinical and Research Fellow in Reproductive Endocrinology and Infertility at Columbia University Medical Center in New York City. After earning his medical degree at Harvard Medical School, he completed residency at Harvard's Brigham and Women's Hospital and Massachusetts General Hospital.