| Requirements | Who to ask, and how to cultivate good recommendations | How to ask, and how NOT to ask | Guidelines you may wish to provide to recommenders


  • In addition to doing very well in your coursework and setting up extracurricular experiences, letters of recommendation are very important in your overall application package, possibly a close second to GPA.
  • MD applicants should aim for 3-5 letters; MD/PhD should aim for 4-6 letters. More than 5 for MD applicants is not advisable, as admission committees might be encouraged to skim the letters rather than read them carefully.

Who to ask, and how to cultivate good recommendations

  • At least two letters from individuals in science-related fields
  • Consider TF's, professors, research or project tutors and mentors, employers
  • Academic references are generally weighted more heavily than employer references
  • If you're working on a junior or senior thesis, strongly consider asking your thesis advisor
  • It is very important to ask people who know you well. The recommender should be able to write a detailed, insightful commentary about your positive traits, full of specific examples. This will be much more memorable than general, superficial remarks from a passing acquaintance, even if that person is "more important" or of higher academic rank. However, if everything else is equal, professor's letters are especially desirable, so make an effort to get to know your professors well by going to office hours prepared with good questions.
    • Freshman and sophomores should think about how to establish relationships with people who may be able to write you letters of recommendation in the future. Commonly, doing an academic or volunteer project with a professor (see Research) can result in them getting to know the quality of your work very well.

How to ask, and how NOT to ask

  • DO ask sooner rather than later, before the person forgets the little details about you. You can consider asking along the way of your academic career, as courses and projects conclude.
  • Do NOT be afraid to ask them honestly and directly whether they would "feel comfortable" writing a "thorough and thoughtful" letter of recommendation. Most people will tell you the truth; you would rather they say no than write you a hasty and lukewarm recommendation. If they answer yes, then you can be more confident that the letter will be supportive.
  • Do NOT ask for a letter without first meeting and talking to your recommender, especially if they only have interacted with you in group settings such as in a classroom. During this meeting, you can talk more about why you want to go to medical school and answer any questions they may have so that they may write a more thorough letter. Lukewarm recommendations from people who do not know students very well could be quite damaging to an application.
  • DO provide your recommenders with your CV, highlighting relevant achievements, awards, and experiences. If you have your personal statement or even a reasonable draft of it ready, you can provide that to your recommenders as well.
  • DO provide recommenders with any relevant information needed to write their recommendation. For example,
    • Deadlines
    • All letters must be written and signed on appropriate letterhead
    • Letters written by teaching assistants need to be co-signed by the professor of the course.
  • DO give recommenders plenty of time to write their letter. A good rule of thumb is that there should be no less than one month allotted for writing. This means that if you have to meet with your recommender, you should do so at least one month before any deadline. Of course, if you are asking for recommendations along the way as courses and projects are concluded rather than right before your application deadline, this will not be an issue.
  • DO politely remind busy recommenders of upcoming deadlines. Many will forget again and again. They will appreciate you being on top of your application.

Guidelines you may wish to provide to recommenders

Not everyone you ask may be experienced in how to write a letter of recommendation for a medical school. The following is a list of prompts and guides for recommenders adapted from Harvard's Office of Career Services which may be helpful for you to give to recommenders.
  • Describe your relationship to the student: In what capacity you have known her or him and for how long?
  • Comment on the student's intellectual ability and rank as compared with CSUMB and non-CSUMB students, this year and/or previous years. Are there extenuating circumstances that might account for any atypical grades?
  • Academic tasks: Does the student follow through on assignments and pursue suggestions for additional work? How rigorous was her academic program? With what degree of independence has she worked?
  • Work/lab/volunteer/extracurricular activities: Does he come to work/lab prepared? Would you trust him to work unsupervised? Describe his depth of involvement and achievement in these activities.
  • Communication skills: Assess the student's ability to communicate both in person and in writing.
  • Personal characteristics: How would you describe this student as a person? Comment on the student's maturity, emotional stability, concern for people, problem-solving skills, tenacity in reaching goals, curiosity, creativity, capacity for leadership, self-discipline, integrity.
  • Interpersonal skills: How does she respond to criticism? How does she relate to others? Describe her capacity for collaborative work with others and attitudes toward supervision.
  • Potential in field of medicine: How has he demonstrated his motivation for medicine? Describe his commitment to a medical career. Do you believe he would make a good medical student/colleague/professional?