Strong letters of recommendation can be a significant asset to an application, yet this is an aspect of the admissions process that too frequently gets treated as an afterthought by applicants who are in the midst of writing the personal statement and taking practice tests. In order to put together a set of letters that will help to convince the committee that you will be an asset to the program, you first need to familiarize yourself with the requirements for letters and determine whom you will ask to write them.
Start by finding out if your undergraduate institution offers a committee letter. If your school offers a committee letter, make sure that you know the process and time table for obtaining one. As part of the letter process, you may be asked to fill out a questionnaire, submit a draft of your personal statement and/or to attend an interview with the committee or your advisor.
If your school does not offer a committee option, do not worry, many schools do not and submitting individual letters is very acceptable. If you are obtaining individual letters, you will need to determine the requirements for letters set forth by the schools you are applying to. These vary from school to school, so make sure that you obtain letters that will meet the requirements for all of the schools you plan to apply to.
Although schools usually specify the minimum number of letters that they require, they frequently accept additional letters. For example, if a school asks for two letters from science faculty and one from a non-science faculty member, you may also be able to submit a letter or two from health professionals, researchers or others with whom you have worked. If the school sets a ceiling on the number of letters that you may submit, do not exceed it.
Once you have decided on your letter writers, keep the following in mind as you prepare to obtain the letters:
- Ask early. Professors, researchers and clinicians are extremely busy and delaying until the last minute could mean that you are awaiting a letter in order for your application packet to be considered complete by the schools.
- Arrange to meet with potential letter writers to ask if they would be willing to write a strong letter on your behalf. If the writer indicates any hesitation about writing you a letter, look elsewhere. A less than enthusiastic letter can be detrimental to your application.
- Provide your recommenders with information to help them write a strong letter. A CV or list of activities, rough draft of your personal statement and list of achievements in the class, lab or clinical setting in which you worked with the recommender will help him or her to craft an effective letter.
- Give the writer clear, written instructions about when and how to submit the letters.
Although obtaining letters may take some time and persistence, having a complete, strong set of letters submitted early in the cycle is worth the work since it will help to give you the best chance of admission to medical, dental or veterinary school.