Letters of Recommendation and Evaluation

As promised earlier, here is my guide to soliciting letters of recommendation or evaluation. One of the most stressful parts of applying to a health career program is the requirement to obtain letters from professors, mentors, and supervisors. Programs may have basic requirements (for example, at least two letters) or very specific demands (two letters from professors of science, one letter from a medical doctor, and one letter from a volunteering supervisor). Often, the stress results from inadequate preparation and waiting too late to ask potential writers. Knowledge is power, so we’ll begin (as usual) with research.

Go to the websites of your preferred programs. Find out if they require letters and if there are any guidelines for the type of letters required. Schools don’t like to answer the same questions over and over, so nine times out of ten, all of the crucial info will be easy to find and understand. If there is any ambiguity or you can’t find information about these requirements, fell free to contact the program admissions office. As you research the requirements, consider your timeline. Generally, busy people like professors should be given at least 6 weeks to write your letter to ensure that they don’t feel that they are up against a deadline (this will also help keep your blood pressure low as you wait for their submission). Developing a simple understanding of when you will need to ask for letters is at least half of the work required here, yet it is a step that many people skip (with stressful consequences). If you don’t need to ask for letters for a long time (even several years) but have just finished a course, clinical experience, or job and want to ask for a letter, feel free! Writers should understand that you want their impressions of you to be as fresh and specific as possible, and shouldn’t have a problem saving a draft letter to their desktop until you request it when you apply. Your other option here is to ensure that you maintain your relationships with these writers, but I would imagine that they would much prefer the first option. Of course I still recommend that you keep in touch with them (networking!).

Selecting writers is more of an art, and it primarily involves balancing the type of letters that a program requires, how well a writer knows you, and what they are able to say about you as a student, employee, or mentee. Obviously you need to submit the letters that are required, but when you have options, it can be hard to know who to ask. Firstly, you should only ask people with whom you have had a good experience; don’t ask a professor for a letter if he or she gave you a C in a class! In general, I think that it’s beneficial to prioritize writers who know you best; a letter written by a teaching assistant and co-signed by a professor will often be better than a letter written by the professor himself or herself if the TA can talk specifically about your contributions in small-group discussions or presentations. As I noted in an earlier post about applying to medical school, avoiding redundancy in letters is important. Letters from three biology professors probably won’t differ significantly and won’t show your complete range of academic and professional interests. I submitted a letter from an English professor when applying to medical school – doctors have to be good communicators and writers! As with the rest of your application, you want your LORs/LOEs to paint a complete picture of who you are. Your application will be better for it.

Actually asking for a letter of recommendation may seem scary, but in my experience people in mentorship or teaching positions are eager to help you on your way to success. Whether or not you ask for a letter in person, you should always formally request one via email (busy people can be forgetful!). In your email, begin by thanking them for the opportunity to learn from them. You should also say why you want them to write for you; this will give them an idea of what to focus on when writing. Also, make the process for submitting letters clear. Will your writers have to create an account in an online application system, or will they mail letters directly to a program? End by thanking them for their time and consideration.

The rest of this process should be clear – you should thank the writer after they’ve submitted the letter and again when you learn whether or not you’ve gotten into the program. One question that may come up if you are using an application system is whether or not to waive access to your letters of recommendation. I highly recommend that you waive this access, as it shows confidence in your writers’ assessments of you. If a writer offers to send you their letter separately, though, in case you need to submit it somewhere else, there’s nothing wrong with accepting it. It feels great to read good things about yourself written by someone who you respect and admire!

If you have any other questions about soliciting letters of recommendation or evaluation, please feel free to email me at dkellyhosa@gmail.com. My advice, though, will always be the same – research extensively, ask early, and avoid the drama that comes with working up against a tight deadline!