David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA
How To Request A Letter of Recommendation
  REV DATE: 04/2004
The letters of recommendation that you have to send to residency programs are a reflection of you in the eyes of other people. They are a very important part of your application materials and probably rank second only to the interview and clerkship evaluation in order of importance. Therefore it is to your advantage to get the best letters possible and get them out in a timely fashion. The keys to maximizing this phase of the application process are advanced planning, a little initiative, and organization.

Who should I ask?

Answer: You will probably be surprised at how willing faculty members are to write letters of recommendation. They have been at this game for quite a while and it really is part of their job to perform this important function. It also makes the school look good when students get into good residencies and do well in the match.

The Ideal Reference: The ideal letter of recommendation (a.k.a. Impact Letter) is from an individual who:

  1. is a nationally recognized figure in your specialty of choice and is well known to other program directors in the field;
  2. has personally worked with you clinically;
  3. thinks you are a star; and
  4. came from the institution to which you are applying.

All of this may be difficult to achieve in one letter, but you should think of such a reference as the "gold standard."

Ideally, you would like to have at least one impact or semi-impact letter in your application package. However, a well-written (strong) letter from a faculty member that knows you well is better that a polite letter from a nationally known figure.

Sources: Residency programs usually expect letters from the faculty of your core clerkships such as Medicine, Pediatrics, Surgery, etc. It varies from student to student as to whether you have the opportunity to know clerkship faculty members well. It is not an easy thing to do in the midst of rotations in which faculty members may spend little time with you. It is important while doing rotations to remember that the little time you do spend with the faculty is important. You would like to, if nothing else, be remembered for being interested in the subject matter and well prepared. It is also valuable to have a letter from someone in your specialty of choice with whom you have worked.

Frequently, programs will request a letter from the chairman of the department in the field which you have chosen. Getting to know the chairman is often very difficult and
what is usually done is that the faculty member in charge of the clerkship writes the letter and then the chairman co-signs it.

Other good sources of letters are faculty advisors, research preceptors, ICM instructors, faculty advisor of a student organization of which you are a member, and private physicians. Counterproductive references (don't get) include residents, fellows, friends, relatives, clergymen, politicians, and patients. Don't laugh: it has happened.

How Do I Ask?

Answer: Do not send form letters or coded messages. Ask for a letter of recommendation directly, in person. The key is to phrase it in such a way that neither you nor the faculty member will be saddled with either a negative or neutral (read as negative) letter. One way of doing this is to simply ask if the faculty member would "feel comfortable writing me a strong letter of support?" If the answer is anything other than a strong affirmative, you should probably look elsewhere.

After a faculty member has agreed to write a letter on your behalf you need to provide him/her with a packet containing:

  • Your curriculum vitae
  • Personal statement
  • Transcripts
  • Stamped envelope addressed to the Student Affairs Office
  • Stamped envelopes addressed to the residency programs
    (If you are applying to any programs that require paper documents)

The easier you make their lives and the lives of their assistants, the happier they will be. Since you need to present all of these materials to your letter writers and do so early (because they often put off writing them), you need to get on the ball early. Do not let one thing hold up the whole process (which writing the personal statement is infamous for). The latest the letters of recommendation should arrive at the programs is November 1st which is when the school releases the Dean's Letter.

Can I See My Letter?

Answer: Whether or not you get to see your letters is a commonly asked question. The answer is: it depends. Most people sign a confidentiality form that comes with the NRMP application. Our recommendation is that if they did not offer to show you the letter then don't ask. Use your judgment.