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Strategies To Obtain Strong Letters of Recommendations

Applicants for medical, dental, and other professional programs often agonize over their personal statements, test scores, and resume, all the while giving minimal thought to letters of recommendation. It’s easy to overlook LORs because after all, once you’ve asked for a letter, it’s out of your hands, right?

In reality, letters of recommendation comprise a significant component of an application, as it provides honest third-person commentary on an applicant’s personal qualities and academic potential. A lackluster or generic letter will at best do you no favors, at worst raise red flags about your application. A meaningful, personalized letter exuding genuine enthusiasm will help you stand out and lend credibility to the rest of the application.

Contrary to popular belief, the contents of a letter of recommendation are not out of your control. This article will present strategies to help you plan to obtain strong, effective LORs for the upcoming application cycle.

Focus on quality, not quantity. 

Aim to have three or four, people with whom you’ve had substantial interactions. The letters do not all have to be from professors whose classes you’ve aced, nor do they all have to be from academic professors at all. They certainly don’t have to be from someone famous or influential. The key is that your letter writers should be able to convincingly comment on your wonderful attributes, such as intellectual curiosity, empathy, work ethic, potential, or communication skills.

Curate a panel of letter writers who know you in diverse ways. 

A common mistake is choosing letter writers who all know you in the same manner, commonly only science professors and research advisers. Their letters end up rehashing repetitive themes—what a missed opportunity. Aim to include people who have observed and can comment on your various strengths, whether it’s your leadership in the orchestra, dependability at your job, teamwork on a sports team, or tireless service in a religious organization.

Be intentional when choosing and building relationships with your mentors.

Choose mentors early on in your education, and be intentional about your interactions with them. The most positive impressions don’t develop overnight. Aim for at least one of your letter writers to be someone who’s known you for a few years or more. Schedule time to meet your intended letter writers every once in a while, visit their office hours to ask questions, or volunteer to be their teaching assistants. Show up on their radar, and make each interaction count.

Keep your mentors in the loop about your professional aspirations.

One thing I always tell my pre-dental mentees is that people who you ask for a letter of recommendation should not be surprised by the request! That is, your letter writers should be aware of what you are working towards and fully supportive of your endeavor to apply for medical or dental school. It’s a great idea to find a time, months before the application cycle, to informally chat with your letter writers about why you wish to pursue medicine/dentistry/pharmacy/podiatry, etc. Not only will this conversation help your mentors appreciate your thought process and ambitions, it also signals them of a future LOR request.

Ask for that letter in person

If possible, in-person requests are better than those made over email or the phone. Specifically, ask if they can write you an enthusiastic recommendation. You want to gauge their reaction. If there is hesitancy on their part, you may be better off asking someone else.

Ask early. 

A good rule of thumb is to provide minimum six weeks turnaround time. It’s a good idea to ask by late-spring. This way your letter writers hopefully won’t have already committed to writing other peoples’ letters and be too busy to write yours. If you’ve known your letter writer for a long time and are on friendly terms, it may be a good idea to ask over the winter, which is typically a slow time when they won’t have many other letter requests.

Help your letter writer out. 

This is a tip that I, over my long career of applying for things, figured out works superbly. As we all know, our mentors lead busy lives. They very well may not remember your interactions and conversations and scratch their heads for materials to fill the page. That’s why the second half of so many LORs I’ve read end up copied and pasted directly from a resume. The secret is to simply tell them what to write.

Jot down notes about your past interactions with each mentor, what you learned from them, and brief thoughts about your personal strengths and what you are proud of. I share this information in bullet point format, in a follow up email after my mentors agreed to write my letters. I also include my updated resume and draft personal statement. This simple act help you stand out above everyone else clamoring for a letter of recommendation. You’d be surprised at how often an anecdotes and quote you provide can end up in your final letter!

Keep in touch. 

Don’t forget to send thank you notes to all your mentors. Depending on how close you are, you can keep them in the loop as you progress through the application cycle. Having devoted time and efforts to vouch for you, your mentors will find it refreshing to hear from you and learn of your successes. Let them know that they played an instrumental role in your journey. You never know when you may need to ask them for help again.

I hope you find these tips valuable. Best of luck on your upcoming applications!

H
Dr. Helen Yang received her DMD degree from Harvard School of Dental Medicine and is currently an endodontics resident at University of Illinois at Ch...
All my letter writers told me to write my own letters lol
Most letter writers don't take the time to write anything meaningful and when they check "Exceeds expectations" in all boxes, I know they are just being nice, but they ain't helping me.
This article has some great advice.
Another point is squeaky wheel gets the oil. Most of my faculty are "senior" and have flip phones. I have had to sit with them and type what they say and fill in my own evals because they either have never had to write letters for specialty programs or they literally can just turn a PC on.
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