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The Art of Obtaining a Stellar Letter of Recommendation

Created March 14, 2010 by Dr. Lisabetta Divita
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Letters of recommendations are a key component of any health professional application process. In order to enter college, graduate school, professional school or obtain employment, someone else’s words can be required to help you reach your intended goals.

Sometimes, this can seem unfair. How can a professor or previous employer really know who you are and display that on paper? Is he even a good writer? Does she even remember me? These are common thoughts that run through the average applicants mind.

The letter of recommendation is a part of the health professional school application process that is not entirely within your control. As such, it is a source of significant anxiety among students. Your admission to your desired program will be based, at least in part, on the words of others.

This article attempts to quell your fears and arm you with tactics on approaching that unsuspecting potential letter of recommendation writer!

Of those who write letters of recommendation on your behalf, often the most important is your premedical or pre-health advisor. Even at large universities, this responsibility usually falls on a single person. You should get to know this person fairly well, and more importantly, you should allow this person to get to know you. Everyone applying to medical, dental, veterinary or other health professional school should have a formal meeting with their college pre-health advisor at least once, but the best motivated students will meet with them on several occasions.

You should treat each meeting with your pre-health advisor as a mini-interview for health professional school—they are forming an opinion of you at each meeting. You do not want to make a bad impression, but you also must make them aware of your intentions. Go over your statistics and your extracurricular activities with this advisor. Oftentimes, they will have a list of former pre-health students (now health professional students) who share your qualifications. They can then show you what schools they successfully entered and give you a rough idea on your chances of successful professional school admissions.

In most cases, it is appropriate to meet your pre-health advisor once during freshman year or soon after you have decided to apply to health professional school. After the first meeting, you should see them at least twice per school year. These “meetings” do not necessarily need to be during formal meetings at all—you may just stop over and say hello at pre-health functions or social gatherings. You want to make your face familiar, but not give yourself a chance to commit a faux pas.

While your pre-health advisor can be an excellent source of information, you should have most of the information you want them to know about you already in hand at your first formal meeting. This time should be an information sharing experience. You share the things you have accomplished and are planning to do and then ask them what they would recommend to improve your preparation for medical school. Incidentally, it is best to frame your questions as “What can I do to prepare for health professional school?” even if you really mean “What do I need to do to get into health professional school?”

For schools that use a pre-health committee, when you apply to a health professional school, your application will include a packet of information from the committee that is constructed in large part, by your pre-health advisor. By the time that this document is prepared, you should have developed a reasonable, professional relationship with your advisor. You should have accomplished all of the tasks that were laid out for you in previous meetings. The words of your pre-health committee are weighted fairly heavily in the selection process, at least for medical school.

It is important to note that many but not all universities offer a premedical or pre-health committee. Sometimes, you will be collecting letters of recommendation independently. It depends on your undergraduate institution.

In addition to the letter from your pre-health advisor, letters of recommendation from faculty and other professionals are very important. In most cases, you will only be able to include three letters of recommendation, but you should ask for a letter from anyone that you feel is appropriate.

The problem is, who do you know who to ask? The ideal person to ask is a faculty member who is respected at your university or in his field. This person should be able to write good and specific things about you, about your character, and about your potential. It makes little sense to ask your general chemistry professor if you were in a freshman class of 400. What can that person possibly say about you? Now if you performed research with that professor, then by all means, ask for a letter.

In fact, the best rule of thumb is to ask people that can reasonably say good things about you. As you plan your college experience, you should pursue interests that will allow you to develop close working relationships with faculty members. Small group lectures, special seminars, laboratory work, organizations outside of class frequented by faculty, brown bags, and journal clubs…all of these venues should put you in a good position to interact personally with a few faculty members

Your volunteer sites are also fertile ground for letters of recommendation. The person that writes your letter does not need to sign as “professor” or “Ph.D.” Other professionals can be excellent resources—especially if you were highly visible, active and your time was well spent.  If their job title is regional director of the Red Cross, director of a free dental clinic in inner city Detroit, or lead veterinarian at a major zoo, these letters will carry weight with admissions committees.

How do you avoid common pitfalls when asking for letters of reference?  Here are some do’s and don’ts:

  • DO NOT be afraid to ask. For some reason, students are often afraid to ask for a letter of reference. You don’t want to be pushy, but you should show authority in your voice – don’t be timid when asking. Writing these letters should be fairly easy for these faculty members. Faculty members know it is part of their job and should treat it as such. When you do ask, you must state “Hi, Dr. ABC, are you willing to write a STRONG letter of recommendation for me? The keyword here is “strong”. Of course, a professor can agree to write a letter for you but it may be very weak and actually hurt your chances of professional school admissions. So, remember to use that key phrase “strong letter of recommendation”.
  • DO ask for letters early, DO NOT wait until your application is due. Make sure that the person you ask has a fresh idea of you in mind. When you are finishing a research fellowship, ask for a letter within a few weeks after it is complete. If you are ending a volunteer experience at the end of a semester, ask for a letter before finals week. Follow up with the professor or professional you asked if you don’t receive anything two to three weeks prior to the deadline to submit recommendations.
  • DO NOT become a stalker. Do not send multiple emails, leave messages or notes on their desk if your letter of recommendation was not yet submitted. I know this is tempting because I myself almost fell into the type A tendency trap. But hold back! Send one email and maybe follow it up with a phone call at least three to four weeks prior to the deadline. If you do not hear anything, assume they are not writing a letter for you. Instead, make sure to ask for recommendations from more than three letter writers because if one faculty member flakes out, you still have a fall-back plan and are not short of recommendations. This can become a student’s application nightmare since everything HAS to be complete in order for professional schools to even take a look at you and your credentials.
  • DO ask for letters when the writer knows you best – right after you have finished working with them.  Sure, the letter may not be specifically for the program you are applying to and dated two years in advance but here is the thing: the work of writing a letter only has to be done once. The mentor will have a much easier time writing a letter at this point than two years down the road when you are a distant memory. Faculty save these letters in case the student comes back for another one.Do you think you are imposing on a faculty member by asking for two letters? Think again. The second one only takes a change of date and a few words here and there to make it specific to medical, dental, pharmacy, or other health professional school. Trying to remember a particular student from two years ago is the hard task!Asking early also helps you in case you change courses in life. Many dentists did not decide to go to dental school during freshman year of college. In fact, many successful medical school students entered after a post-baccalaureate program. If you ask for letters immediately after a program, and then you need to go back years later to ask for a new one, it is less awkward for both you and the writer.
  • DO ask for a letter from the “boss.” You will not likely work directly with the highest ranking member of an organization, but that is the best author of the letter. Much more likely, you will work with a graduate student, staff member, technician, assistant, etc. Many students would feel more comfortable asking the person who knows them best. This is a mistake. The “boss” will ask the assistant for information about your performance in order to write the letter.
  • DO provide the writer with information about you. People are busy. Make the process as easy as possible for the writer. Give them ample information about you like a resume, a transcript (if it is good), and other background info. Give them a copy of your personal statement so they have an understanding about your intention to enter the health professional field. But DO NOT give them a novel—make it easy to scan and pull out salient parts. A cover letter may be useful. Remind them how they know you and what interactions you had with them and when. You cannot write the letter of recommendation for yourself, but you can provide all of the information that is needed to write the letter.
  • DO ask for sealed envelopes. Part of the trouble with letters of recommendation is that you never know what goes in them. As long as you ask people that think highly of you and know your work, you will be fine. Faculty are not about to slam their students to outside observers.Be prepared for an honest assessment, though. If you are worried that you might not get a good letter, perhaps you should trust that feeling and ask someone else. It is unrealistic to expect that someone that you do not get along with will write a glowing letter on your behalf.

The following are brief examples of poor vs. stellar letters of recommendation:

Poor Letter of Recommendation

Jared Smith is a very diligent student who will make a great pharmacist. He studies well and is involved with the track team. I recommend him for pharmacy school because he knows how to be a good student.

I was Jared’s freshman chemistry professor and he always sat in the front row. He was very attentive and taking notes well. He performed well on my exams— achieving a B+ on the first general chemistry exam and an A on my final exam. I would want him to be my pharmacist in the future……

This is considered a poor letter because it is obviously a professor who does not know Jared as an individual. He only knows Jared in the classroom.

Stellar Letter of Recommendation

Anna Kline is a delight to have in my class. I have taught her organic chemistry, molecular cell biology and served as her mentor with various biology research projects involving the human immunodeficiency virus since her freshman year at State University. We have co-authored papers jointly and she is a very diligent premedical student who puts her all into her work. She spent her weekends working in the lab, devising techniques and developing ideas that I, myself, never thought possible. I see Anna as being an individual at the forefront of medicine, never backing down when challenges arise.

Anna also volunteers at the local free clinic. She frequently tells me and the other lab staff about her various touching patient stories. For instance, a man presented with trouble breathing, chest pain and sweating and Anna tells the story of entering the scene calmly, giving this man aspirin and seeking the help of those around her. Anna is intelligent but is also very humanistic. I highly recommend her for admission into medical school. She will become the ideal physician who takes care of people just like she takes care of her family members……

This is a strong letter because this professor knows Anna inside and outside the classroom. He knows of her specific characteristics and can describe them concretely.

In summary, here are the things you will need to obtain a stellar letter of recommendation:

1) Confidence: Don’t be afraid to ask!

2) Information about yourself: Resume, Curriculum Vitae, and ideally your Personal Statement

3) Logistics: Self-addressed stamped envelopes.

4) A good attitude and a smile!

Dr. Lisabetta Divita is a physician, medical writer/editor and premedical student mentor.

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