With the ERAS process fast approaching, medical students across the country have started putting together applications. When not battling procrastination on the part of the application that students do have control over (i.e., the personal letter and CV), many students stress about the other part of the application that they feel they have less control over: the mysterious and all-important reference letter (1).
As a student in EM, you will work with a variety of physicians during your weeks on rotation. Med students often ask how they can maximize their chances of getting the “strong” reference letter from a physician that they have only had the opportunity to work with once, twice, or a handful of times. It’s important to know that EM attendings expect that you’ll ask them for a letter of recommendation despite having only worked with them a few times (Editor’s note: Some of us have even successfully procured letters of recommendation after only a single shift!) Most staff are used to writing reference letters after only working a few shifts with a student. As a helpful hint, it is often useful to check the schedule to see who you are working with, and if you are with a staff for more than 3 shifts, you may want to approach that staff after a couple a shifts and enquire into whether they would be willing to write you a letter.
Lest you think this process is entirely out of your control once you’ve asked for a letter, take heart! There are details you can attend to as an applicant to ensure that you provide your referees with the tools they need to write you a great letter of recommendation.
The Reference Letter Toolkit:
Many students will provide a CV to their referee. While this may be sufficient for mentors who know you well, it is inadequate for attendings you meet on away electives or over a few ED shifts. Providing your referee with a package of information ensures that you give your writer all the tools necessary to write you the best letter that they can provide. It also demonstrates organization and professionalism, key traits to show someone who is about to write such an important letter for you!
Reference letter Toolkit:
A few other things to note:
Let them put a face to the name!
If possible, ask your attending for a letter in person. ED physicians work with many students within the same week, and it is helpful to ask for a reference letter at a key moment, like after a great shift together, when you feel you’ve developed a good rapport. Check out the “reference letter triple crown” for an outline of potential reference letter writing candidates.
Timing is EVERYTHING
Just like writing that paper the night before it’s due won’t turn out your best work, giving your referee minimal time won’t result in a strong letter of recommendation.
GIVE LOTS OF TIME! Remember that references often write reference letters for many students and are living busy personal and professional lives. Try to give at least 1-2 months notice before the deadline. If your letter has not been submitted a couple of weeks before the deadline, you can send a friendly email reminder!
What happens if you meet an attending that you just had an amazing shift with, but your elective happens to fall within the month deadline before reference letters are due? Don’t worry! Everyone understands that the ERAS deadlines don’t always match up well with ongoing electives. For a discussion and opinions on the “Late Letter” situation, check out this MedIC case on ALiEM (1).
Best of luck with your ERAS applications!