Language professors are favorites for this because the class size is usually small and it’s an environment in which the professor often gets to know students by name. But just because the professor knew your name, don’t assume you remain a standout student two or three or four semesters later–especially if you haven’t kept in touch after the course. Remember, most professors teach more than 100 individual students every academic year.
Here’s what to do to get ready for that non-science letter of recommendation:
If you are still in college, think about how you can merge your interest in pursuing a career in medicine with work in those non-science courses on campus. If you can do a project on public health in your sociology or global studies course, that will allow the professor to get to know you in a way that is related to your career goals. Literature is full of references to historical ailments and their treatments–focus on that for your essays in literature classes. Taking an economics course? Do a project on the economics of health care systems.
If you’re too far through your college career when this need for a non-science professor recommendation comes up, that is okay too.
Regardless of the work you have done in your non-science courses, here is what you have to do when soliciting a letter of recommendation for medical school:
1) Include key demographic information: your full name, the name of the course you took with the professor, and the semester or quarter in which you took the course.
That can save the professor mountains of time researching those details–time that will likely be used to get going on letter writing!
2) Refresh the professor’s memory about the specific assignments and projects you completed in his/her course. Provide a clear, concise, detailed summary of the work you did. Do a good job on this. Proofread it. The professor will likely quote it directly, as in:
“In my course, X did a project on [paste your content here]”.
You don’t want to be responsible for poor quality in the letter of recommendation! And again, if you can provide this information the professor can more quickly and easily crank out a high quality letter of recommendation for you.
3) Make the connections between the course and your career goals. You must do this for the professor. That person might not have a clue that you even wanted to go to medical school when you were in that non-science course. Don’t leave the work of figuring out those connections to someone who’s in the dark. Look for keywords from the medical school application or the prompt for professors writing letters of recommendation. If it asks about leadership skills, make the connection for the professor between that skill and your performance in the course–perhaps ways in which you took a leadership role on a team project or as a role model in the classroom (by sitting up front, speaking in the target language all the time, volunteering to answer questions). Likewise for responsibility, team work, independent work, ability to function in diverse environments (more on this below). Write up a clear, concise, detailed summary that includes the important keywords.
In addition to making the letter of recommendation easy for the professor to write and warding off procrastination on that person’s part, you will also trigger the memories of all the ways in which you were a standout student. Then the professor can add content and expound upon the information you provide to write a top-notch letter that is specific to you and only you.
If you don’t follow these three steps, you’re likely to get a generic letter that could apply to almost any student the professor ever taught. It goes like this:
Student X was in my course Y in the Z semester. In that course, students were required to…. [description about the work everyone did in the course]. X did do that work with enthusiasm and earned a grade of… I recommend X. Please let me know if you have questions or concerns.
You do not want one of these letters. Take control to avoid getting one by providing great content to get your professor started!
Medical school applications almost always ask for documentation of your ability to thrive in multicultural teams and understand diverse perspectives. That is a good match for your language courses, where presumably you learned a lot about other cultures and developed transcultural perspectives that allow you to see your own culture as an outsider while appreciating the perspectives of others. If you can highlight your own development of those skills during a language course, the professor can provide an excellent letter that will help you get into the medical school of your dreams.
Darcy Lear is a career coach specializing in job search documents, professional school applications, and interview preparation. For one-on-one support in preparing for your job search or to set up a campus workshop, contact Darcy: firstname.lastname@example.org