How many letters of recommendation should I have for my medical school application?
There is no specific number but in general students should have at least two letters from science professors and another two or three letters from other sources (other courses, research mentors, supervisors of major extracurricular activities, etc). In general, 4-5 letters is enough.
Who should I choose to write my letters of recommendation?
The most important thing is to get letters from individuals who know you well. This way your letter writer can note more than just your academic performance in his/her class, but also talk about personal qualities that make you a great applicant.
What if I'm not sure if my letter writer will write me a good letter?
I feel it's perfectly acceptable to ask your letter writers if they feel that they know you well enough to write you a strong letter of support. Most faculty, when asked this question, will respectfully decline if they feel they cannot do so.
How soon should I ask for my letter of recommendation?
You should give your letter writer at least 6-8 weeks to write your letter of recommendation. Remember, your professors or lab mentors are busy and likely have multiple responsibilities. Asking them a week or two before the letter is due not only shows poor planning on your part, but a lack of awareness of basic rules of etiquette. It can also result in a hastily written, poor letter.
Does it make sense to ask for a letter of recommendation immediately after I take a course, even though I won't be applying to medical school for a year or two?
Yes. In fact, in larger classes where it's more difficult in getting to know your professor it's probably a wise idea to do so. You could simply explain your concern about asking for a letter in two years and ask if he/she could instead write the letter now and keep it on file for the future.
I've heard that some professors can be slow in sending in their letter of recommendation. How can I prevent this?
The first thing is to make sure you give your professor 6-8 weeks notice with a clear deadline of when it needs to be received. Approximately 2-3 weeks before the deadline, you may send a brief, gentle reminder that the deadline is approaching. Most faculty will actually appreciate this reminder, as long as you gave them an appropriate amount of time to get the letter written in the first place.
I understand that, eventually, I will need letters of recommendation from at least two science professors when I apply to medical school. I have been in mostly large lecture classes and feel that no professors really know me. What am I to do about getting strong letters?
Students should make a point to get to know their science professors by going to their office hours, going to help sessions, etc. Typically, upper level science classes will be smaller and will afford better opportunity for you to get to know your professors better in class. Professors are often eager to discuss the research they are doing out of class, etc.
Should I waive my right to see my letters of recommendation?
Yes. Not doing so simply raises questions in the eyes of the admissions committee that the student is worried about something their letter writer is going to say. Admissions committees know that a letter writer's comments will be more accurate and honest if the right to review the letter has been waived by the student.
I want to get a letter from my lab director but I mainly work with his PhD student. Is it ok to get a letter from him instead of my lab director?
The most important thing about a letter of recommendation is that it should come from someone who knows you well. If you spend a large amount of time with a graduate student in the lab and he/she knows you and can assess your performance well then by all means get a letter from such an individual. This is likely going to be a much better letter than one from the director who barely knows you. What you can often do is ask that the lab director add an attestation to the bottom of the graduate student's letter. This is usually a comment where the lab director states that he endorses what his graduate student states in your letter of recommendation.