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Getting Solid Rec Letters: Part I

Ah, one of the most dreaded moments of the undergraduate career: emailing a former professor who never quite learned your name and asking for a letter of recommendation.  It’s hard to tell which is scarier – pretending you knew the prof well enough to write you a letter, or worrying about whether the letter will actually talk about you in any manner of specificity beyond “Shana was a great student and I highly recommend her.”

Therein lies the first blunder, and for many premeds, by the time you bother to read this, it’s already too late to remedy the situation.  So we’re going to talk about two things here: how to manage your relationships assuming you have time before your rec letters are due (at least a year before you apply for med school) and how to do damage control if it’s too late to make friends with a rockstar prof.

But first, we have to ask ourselves, what’s the point of a rec letter in the first place?  Is it due diligence for the adcom to see if you’re lying about your qualities?  That’s certainly one way to look at it, except that even if you’re an a-hole, that rarely shows up in the rec letter.  It’s rare that rec letters actively hurt applicants; what’s far more common is that rec letters fail to be a golden seal to give applicants an edge.  The harm in having a generic rec letter is that since very few candidates actually have good ones, if yours is unremarkable, you’re just like everybody else and your application doesn’t stand out the way it could.

So we’re not going to talk about how to avoid getting a bad rec letter; we’re going to talk about how to get that golden seal on your application that makes the adcom member think “wow… someone important is actually willing to stick their neck out for this individual – this candidate must be awesome.”

Find a mentor.

Not a peer mentor, but someone with a position of authority.  Most pre-meds make the mistake of going to one of their freshman/sophomore lecturers for rec letters and attempt to build good rapport.  At the end of organic chemistry lecture, just count how many people come down to ask questions and try to introduce themselves to the instructor.  Now, this may not be a terrible idea, it just likely has little benefit.  Orgo (and other pre-med instructors) teach hundreds of students per semester, run their own lab, and have multiple other obligations.  They rarely have time to form a meaningful relationship with a premed; unless they really take you under their wing, you’re not likely to get a good letter in the long run.  Pick professors from some of your smaller classes or individuals who will actually have the time to mentor you.  Someone who shares your sense of humor and can relate to you.

If you’re too late to foster meaningful relationships with a mentor, find a mentor-worthy person who knows you well.  This always outweighs a recommendation written by somebody whose title is fancy but who has to use your student number to look up your grade in their class when they write your letter.

If you’re looking for multiple mentors and recommenders, pick a diverse group.  Don’t pick people who all do the same thing; pick people who know you from different contexts.  Maybe one knows your brilliance in research while another knows how great you are as a leader, etc.  Diversity is key because you don’t want to be a one-trick pony.

Building the Relationship

It should come as no surprise that you actually have to talk to this person.  Tell them your story.  Tell them your motivations.  Tell them jokes (if the person hates your sense of humor, reconsider your choice of mentor).  Answer important questions without being asked, e.g. why you want to go to medical school.  Run ideas past them and get their feedback.  Ask them more about their career path and choices.  The best mentors are those who see you as a future peer; be comfortable around them and chat but keep the relationship professional, not casual.

Talk to this person on a regular basis (every other week at least).  Ask them for advice.  Be someone who is worth talking to… that means take the advice (assuming it’s not awful advice).  Then, follow through by reminding them of the advice they gave you, telling them what specific actions you took in line with that advice, and showing them what great results you now have.  If you don’t follow through, you’re just like everybody else.  This is about how to make you stand out.  When this person writes about you later, you will be a mentee and they will be seriously invested in making you a star because if you fail, then they fail.  They will write about you in a completely different way than profs who don’t care about you.

Check out Part II here!

Permanent link to this article: http://portal.mcatquestion.com/getting-solid-rec-letters-part-i/

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