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How to secure a reference letter?

The various medical school application components students need to keep track of can get quite overwhelming. For example, in addition to academic requirements, University of Toronto’s medical program requires students to provide a collection of brief personal essays, autobiographical sketches and reference letters to highlight their most unique characteristics.

It remains unclear how much weight reference letters carry when evaluating student applications. However, what is known for certain is that weak reference letters can negatively skew a committee’s impression of a candidate whereas strong ones positively skew it.

Given that teachers know their students on a deep level matched by few others, their opinion matters immensely to admission committees striving to accept only the best applicants.

There are four key points to keep in mind when choosing/ securing a reference letter:

(1) Aim for a teacher that knows you well

During your degree, you will come in contact with a variety of professors. Some you’ll like more than others. It’s only natural when brainstorming which teacher to approach, that you gravitate towards a teacher you enjoyed and developed a genuine connection with. The teacher you choose should be able to attest to your academic abilities with ease. Committees can tell when a teacher’s letter sounds generic and impersonal.

(2) Aim a class that you excelled in

When choosing a referee, it’s important to pick a class you excelled in. This provides strong academic content the teacher can include in the letter. Given that schools can ask teachers to touch on a student’s character, it’s always a good idea to choose a class in which you left a strong impression. Teachers rarely forget students who aced their class!

(3) Don’t wait until the last minute

This applies to most academically related things. Teachers are busy people. From grading papers to preparing for lectures and correcting assignments, one way to ensure you get a strong and well-structured reference letter is by approaching your teacher weeks (ideally months) in advance. This allows the teacher to come up with good content that will highlight your unique qualities.

Reach out to your teacher in person, when possible. If that’s not available to you, email is the next best option but always add a short introductory paragraph instead of diving right into it.

(4) Say please and thank you!

Good reference letters take time to write. When your teacher agrees to write one, you can always send them a thank you note or email. This small token of appreciation goes a long way. Also, don’t forget to let them know when you get that well-deserved interview/acceptance letter. By asking them to write your reference letter they become invested in your success and as a result will want to celebrate your wins with you!

Now, that you have an idea of how to secure a strong reference letter, go ahead and get to work!

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