When and How to Ask for a Letter of Recommendation

As you progress through your medical career, more and more emphasis is placed on your skills as a leader and your ability to work with a team. After all, a physician is the leader of the healthcare team made up of physician’s assistants, nurse practitioners, RN’s, LPN’s, social workers, nutritionists, physical/occupational therapists, and everyone else involved in delivering patient care. For that reason, a great deal of consideration is put into your letters of recommendation (LoRs).

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If you have a glittering LoR from a physician who cannot say enough about how easy you are to work with and how you will be a hardworking individual that complements any residency program, your chances of being viewed favorably will increase. A strong LoR can even help to eclipse a weaker part of your application, because at the end of the day your residency will last anywhere from 3-7 years.  Given the length of time you will be in training, being easy to work with is absolutely essential.

Specialty Selection

So how should you go about asking for that strong LoR? There are three things to consider. First, you should seek letters from specialties that highlight your applicability to the specialty you are trying to match. Most specialties prefer to read LoR authored by members of their specialty.  If you are applying for a general surgery residency, perhaps it’s better to rethink that LoR from psychiatry, unless you are absolutely certain that it highlights some aspect of your personality that shows your aptitude for surgery. For programs like emergency medicine, consider seeking letters from EM doctors, IM doctors, and general surgeons.

Ask Early

Second, it is important that you ask EARLY. Attending physicians are busy, and writing LoR takes time. Be sure to ask physicians that you have rotated with previously well in advance of the due date for LoR.  One month is typically reasonable, however two months with intermittent reminders is preferable.  When you ask, you should have a copy of your CV and a well-polished draft of your personal statement to give to the physician. These pieces of information assist the writer and allow him or her to include more personal details about you which makes for a stronger LoR.

If you are on a rotation and plan on getting a LoR from that rotation, take a few days at the start of a rotation to get a feel for your preceptors. Try to get a sense for who would write a good letter, or even better, ask an older student who has already rotated at that hospital. The people who have come before you were in your same shoes not too long ago, and they can often offer some of the best advice that is the most applicable to you.

“Would you be willing to write me a strong letter of recommendation?”

Donald Hathaway III, Contributor, Med Student Edge

After you have scouted out who you believe will write the best letter, you should ask them early on in the rotation if they would be willing to write you a letter. This shows that you take the initiative and it also allows them to watch you throughout the rotation so that they will have better information to add to your letter. They will be actively thinking about it during your entire rotation, rather than trying to retrospectively piece together who you were after the rotation ends.


The way you ask for the letter can make all of the difference. The line I used when asking for my letters was, “Would you be willing to write me a strong letter of recommendation?” This is helpful because it forces them to make a snap decision. It forces them to think, “Do I intend to write a  strong letter of recommendation for this student?”

Then and there you can be sure that the letter you receive from them will either be a great letter, or not worth your time. If someone is not going to write you a strong LoR, then you should not get a letter from that person.  This is crucial to differentiate yourself from your peers during the match. Keep in mind that these doctors will likely be asked to write LoRs for several students each match cycle year in and year out. Ensuring that your letter will carry weight and highlight your strengths and aptitude for the field you are applying into is of the utmost importance to you at this stage.

Related: Who to Ask for a Letter of Recommendation

What questions do you have about asking for letters of recommendation? Comment below.

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