Article by Kirsten Guenther, Image by Evan Hahn

One of the most nerve-wracking parts of the medical school application process is choosing and contacting recommenders. Unless you’re Gordon Gekko or Cersei Lannister, you don’t really go through life thinking about how best to spend emotional capital you’ve built up with your profs. But remember that every single doctor working today had to go through what you’re going through now. If they can do it, so can you.

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So assuming you’re popular enough to have several academic recommenders to choose from, who should you approach first? While the go-to formula here is two science professors and one humanities, your first concern, always, has to be the strength of the friendship. In other words, your best ally is, very literally, your best ally in this process.  If you are superhuman and rocked all of your sciences and all your profs love you, then go with one physical science, one life science and one humanities prof.

If you’re not buddy-buddy with a professor yet—start creating that relationship, now. Sit in front, ask questions, show up for office hours. Make it easy on yourself by choosing a subject that already interests you.  Keep an eye out for profs you know when you’re walking around campus—don’t be all millennial and bury your face in your Angry Birds. That’s not how you get a job, or get ahead, even in 2016.

But let’s say you can’t do any of this. Let’s say your teacher is the invisible man. You can still be fine. Just pick the subjects you did best in, and the teachers you had twice instead of once, or saw for office hours a couple more times. Do the best job you can do. That includes listening to your instincts. If someone feels wrong, they are wrong.

THINGS THAT CAN HAPPEN, AND WHAT TO DO ABOUT THEM

If it’s getting close to your target date and your professor hasn’t submitted her letter, don’t be shy. Send a polite reminder. Remember, she has about one million priorities that rank above you, so you need to be persistent. You are the driver of your application process. Don’t give up the wheel to a bystander.

Sometimes your teacher will have a TA write the letter and then sign it. DO NOT have a panic attack. While this is not ideal, if it’s your only choice—go with it. Med schools are clear that they do not want TAs writing recs—BUT it’s a poorly kept secret that this often happens. But we will deny that we ever gave you this advice—just between us.

Once in awhile, a professor will ask you to partly or even completely write your own recommendation. This is extremely uncool, and if you have backup options this may be a good time to approach them. But if you have no choice in the matter, try to do a comprehensive, limited job of it. What the heck does that mean? It means you should send details and evocative stories drawn from your memory of the professor’s class, assignments and office hours. You should describe your best qualities and give detailed examples. You should not, unless explicitly requested, draft a letter. You want as much of your recommender’s voice in there as possible.

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The recommendation process is a funky blend of academic excellence and social engineering. It’s plenty nerve-wracking, but think of it this way–you’re doing wonders for your bedside manner. If you’re running into trouble with a recommender or you need more detailed advice, reach out to us and we’ll be happy to help.