From time to time, we encounter impressive medical school applicants with good GPAs, strong MCAT scores and solid clinical experiences. But when they are ready to submit their medical school application, there is one catch: They don’t know who to get letters of recommendation from.
We discuss potential letter writers, but these students worry about approaching them because they have no relationship with them. A student got an A-plus in physiology, but took the course three semesters ago and never interacted with the professor. Or a student did research for a year, but worked with a graduate student in the lab and rarely talked to the faculty member who runs the lab.
When these students reach out for a letter of recommendation, the professors do not remember them. The result is that either their request for a letter is declined or they receive a superficial letter that cannot attest much to their unique qualities or personal attributes.
How can premed students avoid falling into this situation when they are getting ready to apply to med school? The best strategy is to think ahead and get to know your potential letter writers well in advance of your med school application. Even if you are a freshman or sophomore in college, four tips may help you to ensure that you have the support you need from professors when it’s time to apply.
— Regularly attend office hours.
— Ask intelligent questions.
— Support other students.
— Volunteer to be a teaching assistant.
Regularly Attend Office Hours
If you plan to get a letter from a professor with whom you have a class, you should get to know that professor. One way to do this is to attend office hours. Use this opportunity to get clarification on topics that you don’t understand. But don’t go in without knowledge of the course’s concepts. Read first, try to develop as much of a grasp as possible, identify gaps in your knowledge and attend office hours to fill those gaps.
Similarly, if you are involved in a research project where you are working with a graduate student, find out if the professor running the lab has office hours or is willing to meet with you. Arrange brief meetings, being respectful of that person’s time. Use these meetings to express enthusiasm about the research topic, update him or her on your progress in the project and ask questions.
If time permits, you can use these interactions to share your academic plans and get advice. While it’s important to show your face so that your future letter writers can get to know you, you should avoid coming across as overtly enthusiastic in a way that seems artificial. You don’t need to go to every office hour or pretend to have questions just to get face time with the professor. Show up when you really need help and use this time to build rapport.
Ask Intelligent Questions
One of the hallmarks of strong intellectual acumen is the ability to ask intelligent questions. When you are in a lecture or a research seminar, don’t be shy to pose a question if there are opportunities. An intelligent question often goes beyond the basic facts and asks why or how.
If you can find the answer to a question in your lecture notes or in the textbook, chances are, it is not a very thoughtful question. On the other hand, if certain explanations are missing from facts presented and you inquire about the underlying reasons or causes for a phenomenon, it will likely come across as an intelligent question.
Again, the key is to strike the right balance. You don’t want to be that annoying student who is interrupting lectures every five minutes. Neither the professor nor the students in the class would appreciate it. But when the opportunity presents itself to ask something insightful, don’t be afraid to raise your hand.
Support Other Students
One way to take initiative and impress a professor is to help other students in your class who may be struggling with the topic. This requires having a good grasp of the material. In teaching others, you may find yourself having to think about the concepts in different ways to convey ideas to individuals with diverse learning styles. This process will likely enhance your own learning.
You may also find that other students can help you with topics that you are having a hard time understanding. Demonstrating your ability to learn in groups and support others will not go unnoticed by the professor. Similarly, if you are part of a research project, you can take incoming undergraduate students under your wings and help them learn the ropes as they first join the research lab.
Volunteer to Be a Teaching Assistant
If you a complete a course with a good grade, ask the professor if there are opportunities for you to serve as a student teaching assistant. This is a way to establish more sustained rapport with your professors so that they can write stronger letters about you. Specifically, if you do a good job as a teaching assistant to help other students learn difficult concepts using innovative approaches, those accomplishments will be mentioned in your letter of recommendation.
One may think that in the era of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, much of this advice is no longer applicable. However, these tips can be achieved in virtual learning settings as well. In fact, being able to do all of this in a virtual learning format shows flexibility on your part and an ability to adapt to changing circumstances.
Whether you are meeting with professors on Zoom or leading a study group online with your peers, taking on the challenge of working virtually to enhance the collective learning experience is sure to impress those who are writing med school recommendation letters for you.
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