Navigating the Recommendation Letter Process: A Guide for Medical and Dental School Applicants
Letters of Recommendation
As part of your application to medical or dental school you will be required to submit recommendation letters written by your professors. One of the challenges for many students is developing relationships with professors who could write recommendations to support their applications. This guide provides you some advice on how to go about requesting letters from your recommenders and provides information on the letters typically required for applications to medical and dental school.
The HPPLC/Interfolio Recommendation Service Partnership
HPPLC has discontinued our recommendation service and has partnered with Interfolio to provide recommendation services for Indiana University students. If you plan to apply to medical or dental school, we recommend that you establish an account with Interfolio.
What is Interfolio? Interfolio is the premier web-based letter of recommendation management service used by many other major universities around the country. With an Interfolio account, you can begin to accumulate recommendations years before you plan to apply. Interfolio acts as a repository for your letters of recommendation, and when requested by you will send them to centralized application services (AMCAS/AADSDAS), to individual allopathic/osteopathic medical/dental/health profession/graduate schools, or to whichever institutional recipient you choose (such as employers, scholarship agencies, internships, graduate schools, etc. Note: they will not send letters of recommendation to individuals).
To open an account with Interfolio that will be affiliated with IU/HPPLC click here. Follow the prompts to create an account. (Please note: If you previously had a HPPLC recommendation file, do not sign up at the above link but instead contact HPPLC for instructions by sending email to firstname.lastname@example.org).
What are the requirements for recommendations when you apply to medical or dental school?
All professional schools require academic evaluations from instructors, and some may also require personal letters of recommendation from someone who has observed you in a professional setting outside the classroom. Evaluations should be from those who can comment in detail about such attributes as reasoning abilities, research skill, originality and creativity, communication skills, class performance, motivation, judgment, leadership and maturity.
Dental school requirements for letters of recommendation vary, but most common is a minimum of three faculty recommendations, two of which must be from science instructors. Check the Supplemental Information listing on the AADSAS application or the individual dental school websites to find out each school’s requirements.
Specific requirements for Indiana University School of Dentistry: three faculty recommendations are required, two of which must be from the sciences. Personal recommendations are optional.
Requirements for recommendations vary from school to school. Make sure to check the guidelines for the individual schools where you plan to apply early. You should plan ahead to try to obtain a set of letters that will allow you to meet the varying requirements of different medical schools.
In order to be ready to be a competitive applicant, we recommend that you set the goal of obtaining the following recommendations by the beginning of the summer when you plan to apply:
1) Two science faculty recommendations. At the very least one of these should be from an instructor in a biology, chemistry, or physics course.
2) One nonscience faculty recommendation. Ideally this will be a letter from a professor in an “A&H” or “S&H” course who knows you well and how you think because the professor has observed you discussing readings in class and reading the papers you have written.
3) One personal recommendation. This could be a letter from a supervisor at a volunteer agency, physician you have shadowed, or an employer. A personal recommendation should not be from someone who taught you in a course. If the person taught you in a course it would be considered a faculty recommendation. Some osteopathic medical schools require a recommendation from a physician you have shadowed.
Personal Evaluator: A personal evaluator is anyone other than an instructor with whom you have earned college credit.
Faculty Evaluator: A faculty evaluator should be an instructor with whom you have taken a college course and has given you a grade that appears on your transcript. If you took a course with your recommender, it would be considered a faculty evaluation, even if the faculty member knows you well and will comment on your personal characteristics (typically faculty recommenders will comment on personal characteristics of the applicant).
Specific requirements for Indiana University School of Medicine:
1) one letter from an instructor who taught you in a biology, chemistry, or physics course
2) one letter from an instructor who taught you in a nonscience course (ideally an “A&H” or “S&H” course)
3) one personal recommendation (possibly from a supervisor at a volunteer agency, a physician you have worked with or shadowed, etc.) (The personal recommendation should be from someone who has not taught you in a course)
Please note: In addition, IU School of Medicine requires that you submit one Dean of Student’s Evaluation form. You will receive this form from IU School of Medicine after you apply. You will need to submit this form to the Office of Student Ethics and they will return it to IU School of Medicine.
Remember, requirements for recommendations vary from school to school so you should check the guidelines provided by the schools where you seek to apply and plan ahead!
Can I get a letter from an associate instructor?
For most schools, to fulfill requirements for faculty evaluations you can obtain letters from professors or associate instructors (although some medical schools will prefer that letters be submitted from professors).
How should you select faculty evaluators?
A faculty recommendation is a recommendation written by someone who taught you in a course. You should select the faculty members who you feel know you the best and will be able to comment in the greatest detail about your abilities. Make an effort to get to know your professors and request a letter soon after the conclusion of the class. If you later take additional courses, do lab research, or serve as a UTA with the recommender you may wish to ask him/her to update and resubmit the letter to your Interfolio account. An evaluation from a junior professor who makes perceptive personal comments about your abilities and achievements provides the admissions committee with much more valuable information than a general letter from a famous professor who barely knows you. Do not ask for a recommendation from a particular person just because he or she is prominent. For many programs, it is helpful to have a mix of science and non-science faculty members, who can comment on different aspects of your abilities.
How should you select personal recommenders?
Although academic evaluations are the most important evaluations for professional school, some health professions schools require a personal recommendation. When schools indicate that they would like a personal recommendation, this generally means someone who has NOT taught you in a course, but has observed you in a professional setting outside of the classroom. Personal recommendations should be from people who have observed your performance in a non-classroom setting and can comment on personal characteristics relevant to the professional program you are pursuing: a supervisor at an agency where you have volunteered; an advisor who has mentored you; a professor in whose research lab you worked for pay rather than as part of your college coursework; an employer under whom you gained experience and developed skills that are relevant for the type of professional program for which you are applying; a healthcare provider you have shadowed. Choose evaluators who know you well and who can write in detail. “Character references” from family friends are generally not beneficial. Personal recommendations from people who know you well carry more weight than those from people in prominent positions who do not know you.
I saw that a medical school mentioned a Prehealth Committee Letter or Prehealth Advisor's Letter. What is that and do I need to get one?
Indiana University does not have a prehealth faculty committee, so medical schools will not expect you to submit a prehealth committee or advisor’s letter. We do not issue Prehealth Committee Letters; instead, we feel it is most appropriate that you select the recommenders you believe know you the best and can speak most knowledgably on your behalf. Check the medical school websites for the alternate requirements for letters of recommendations expected for applicants at undergraduate institutions that do not have a prehealth committee and submit recommendations that would fulfill those requirements.
Developing Professional Relationships with Professors
Before you can ask a professor to write a recommendation, you have to get to know him or her. Evaluations are usually requested from professors in the sophomore and junior years and at the conclusion of the class, rather than a year later. If you have had particularly noteworthy achievements in a freshman class, these too may provide a valuable evaluation. In addition to science evaluations, academically challenging courses in a non-science subject of interest will be one excellent means to demonstrate your intellectual versatility.
We strongly urge enrollment in some small size or seminar-type courses in which you work closely with your professors. Make yourself known to instructors if they have time to talk during office hours – even if you think you understand all the material. Taking more than one course from the same instructor may be helpful. Getting an evaluation from an instructor in a small upper-level course in which you have demonstrated exemplary work is ideal. Ask questions about the topics that really interest you and engage fully in each class. Undergraduate research provides another wonderful opportunity for interested students to develop relationships with faculty.
Do not underestimate the importance of these letters, and do not leave this task until late in your junior year.
Suggestions on How to Request Recommendations
We recommend that you schedule an appointment with your professor in order to discuss your request for a letter in person (it is neither polite nor wise to drop off a form without making a formal request). It is often helpful to explain to the professor your reasons for asking him or her for a recommendation (you learned a lot in the course; you excelled in the course; you enjoyed writing the paper that he/she really liked, etc.). If you are not sure about whether to rely on the professor for a letter, you may wish to ask, “Do you feel you could write a letter to support my application?” Provide an opening for your professor to give you feedback or politely decline. It is often a good idea to speak to the professors you have gotten to know and are considering for recommendations before the end of the class. If by midterms you have excelled in a class and you are considering asking a professor you have gotten to know for a recommendation, you may wish to go to him/her and say, “I may be interested in asking you to write a letter of recommendation at the end of the class, if you would be willing.” That way the professor will know that you may be asking for a letter at the end of the class and he/she can make more effort to get to know you further. You could also ask a professor at any time, “Professor, what would be your expectations before you would write a letter of recommendation for a student?” This is a good way to open up the topic and find out the professor’s general expectations and policy on writing recommendations for students.
Once a professor has agreed to write a letter of recommendation, you should provide a packet of information about yourself, along with the HPPLC evaluation form (see below). You may wish to include a draft of your personal statement, a resume, and exemplary examples of your papers or project reports. HPPLC provides a "Recommendation Request Letter" document that provides guidelines on what kind of information to provide for your recommenders.
Your recommenders should compose a generic letter that can be sent to all schools where you are applying. They should use a generic salutation in the letter such as “To Whom It May Concern” and avoid reference to any specific school (for instance, they should not address the letter to the “IU School of Medicine” so that the letter can be sent to other medical schools where you are applying).
Finally, make sure to send your professor a thank you note (hardcopy or e-mail) for taking the time to support your professional endeavors.
Avoid Problems: Give Your Evaluators Sufficient Time to Write
Do not wait until the summer that you are applying to begin to ask professors for recommendations. Begin accumulating recommendations long before you actually need them. Many recommenders have heavy course and workloads and will not be able to write your recommendation immediately. Allow one to six months or more for the recommendation to arrive in your file. Double-check your file to make sure all letters have arrived. If not, a tactful reminder to the recommender can be quite helpful; however, do not pressure your professors in a manner that may seem unprofessional. If an evaluator cannot fulfill your request in a timely manner you may need to consider a different evaluator.
Choosing Whether or Not to Waive Your Right to Read Your Letters
The form HPPLC provides to you, like the forms that health professions schools typically provide, allows you to indicate whether or not you waive your right to access your own recommendation letters. Interfolio will also require you to indicate whether or not you are waiving access to the recommendation. You should make your decision before the recommender writes the recommendation.
The Family Education Rights and Privacy Act of 1974 gives you the right of access to an evaluation written about you; it also allows you to give up that right. You alone must make the decision.
The advisors at HPPLC generally recommend that you consider waiving your right of access to your recommendations. Two factors support this suggestion. First, some admission committee members believe that a recommendation from an open file may not be candidly written and therefore give less credence to such recommendations. Second, some recommenders also prefer that their letters remain confidential, even when they are filled with glowing praise. However, the decision is entirely yours. If you would like to retain your right to read your letters, we suggest that you speak with a HPPLC advisor.
Choosing not to waive your right: If you do not waive your right, you have chosen to exercise your legal right to see your recommendation. You would be able to view the letter from your Interfolio account.
Waiving your right: If you waive your legal right to see your recommendations, you are declining the right to see your recommendation. Interfolio would not allow you to view the letter.
Can HPPLC advise me on which letters to send from my Interfolio account?
We must preserve the confidentiality of letters if you've waived your right of access. Therefore, if you have waived your right the advisors at the Center cannot tell you if any recommendation, in whole or in part, is positive or negative, “good” or “bad.” They may tell you, however, which recommendations contain information appropriate to your application; i.e., the recommender has commented on relevant characteristics and is an appropriate recommender. They may advise you on whether your file contains the appropriate number and type of recommendations for the schools to which you are applying. In light of the confidentiality requirement, you should select your recommenders carefully and only choose those who you think will write strong letters of support. Therefore, when asking for a letter, consider asking your recommenders something on the order of: “Do you feel you could write a letter to support my application?” or “Do you think my performance in class warrants a strong letter of recommendation?”
I'm having trouble getting started on obtaining recommendations. All my science classes are so big and I still don't have any recommendations. Do you have any suggestions?
Yes. Start with the easiest one first. If you have even one person in mind, ask that person first. This will give you a chance to learn how to go about asking for a recommendation letter and learn more about all the steps involved in the process of submitting letters to your Interfolio account. Hopefully, once you've asked for the first recommendation letter, the process will begin to seem less overwhelming and you'll know how you may ask another person when the time comes. Working toward excelling academically, engaging with your instructors, and developing professionalism will all help support you in obtaining additional recommendations in the future.
What should I do if I asked a professor for a recommendation but it still has not been submitted?
You must use your own discretion in how to communicate with your professors. A polite follow-up email to a professor who has not submitted a recommendation yet is acceptable but then it is best to wait for a response. It is not wise to repeatedly email a professor who has agreed to submit a letter for you.
Please remember that it is solely your responsibility to obtain letters of recommendation. HPPLC advisors can provide guidance on the process, but it is completely your responsibility to develop relationships with your professors and request recommendation letters to support your application. On occasion at HPPLC we receive emails and phone calls from students who are experiencing difficulty obtaining recommendations, but please understand that we cannot intervene in your relationships with your professors. If you are experiencing difficulty obtaining recommendations, ask yourself if your academic performance and conduct as a student truly merit a strong recommendation. Consider ways in which you can further improve your academic performance and develop professionalism.